One of the saddest stories of the year has gone largely unreported: the slowdown of political and economic progress in sub-Saharan Africa. There is no longer a clear path to be seen, or a simple story to be told, about how the world’s poorest continent might claw its way up to middle-income status. Africa has amazing human talent and brilliant cultural heritages, but its major political centers are, to put it bluntly, falling apart.
Three countries are more geopolitically central than the others. Ethiopia, with a population of 118 million, is sub-Saharan Africa’s second-most populous nation and the most significant node in East Africa. Nigeria has the most people (212 million) and the largest gross domestic product on the continent. South Africa, population 60 million, is the region’s wealthiest nation.
Within the last two years, all three of these nations have fallen into very serious trouble.
The most obvious disaster is Ethiopia, where a civil war is worsening by the day. Recently Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called for all eligible citizens to enter the armed forces. That is a sign of desperation, not imminent resolution of the conflict.
Abiy had promised a rapid victory, but in June the Tigrayan forces won some battles against the national Ethiopian army, taking over significant parts of the country. The Tigrayan rebels now control even the famed city of Lalibela, a major tourist center and home of Ethiopia’s UNESCO-designated stone Christian churches.
Keep in mind that until the recent conflict, Ethiopia was enjoying years of double-digit economic growth, unprecedented in modern African history. The country’s industrial policy and economic reforms were considered marvels for other developing nations to emulate. Those views may still be valid, but the good news has been overwhelmed by long-standing ethnic conflicts.
It was just two years ago that Abiy was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
The situation in Nigeria is perhaps less dire, but the country’s politics clearly are moving backwards. There is a long-standing rebellion in the Northeast, a business shutdown in the Southeast, and a notable increase in kidnappings for ransom. A Council for Foreign Relations publication describes a “growing separatism” in the country.
The rise in kidnappings is alarming in its own right, but it is also a broader sign of the weakness of the national government. The country is undergoing what some call a “kidnap epidemic,” with the true number of abductions remaining unreported.
On the economic front, Nigeria just exited its second recession in four years, and growth has not exceeded 3 percent since 2015.
As for South Africa, a recent New Yorker feature article noted that “Mandela’s dream” is “in ruins” and spoke of the “mob violence” that is “threatening the country’s constitutional order.” Some 40,000 businesses have been looted, vandalized or burned amid mass riots and unrest. The country has seen its worst violence since the end of apartheid. South Africa also has been experiencing major COVID-19 waves and lockdowns. The measured unemployment rate is 33 percent, and that does not count those who have stopped looking for work.
These three countries were supposed to be the economic engines of an entire continent -- a continent that, according to the United Nations, will be home to some 2.5 billion people by 2050, or a quarter of the world’s population. But now their economies are ailing. And while South Africa is making some strides in holding former President Jacob Zuma accountable, it’s hard to say these countries are political models for stable democratization.
Based on size and historical and cultural import, the Democratic Republic of the Congo ought to be another contender as an influential African nation. But the country has been wracked by conflict for decades. It is not in a position to fill the void created by the failings of Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa.
The last few decades have been a relatively propitious time for Africa. There have been a minimum of major wars in the world, and a dearth of major new pandemics (until recently). China was interested in building up African infrastructure, and across the continent countries made great advances in public health.
Could it be that this window has shut, and the time for major gains has passed? And that is not even reckoning with the likelihood of additional damage from COVID-19 on a continent with a very low level of vaccination.
These sub-Saharan political regressions might just be a coincidence in their timing. But another disturbing possibility is that the technologies and ideologies of our time are not favorable for underdeveloped nation-states with weak governments and many inharmonious ethnic groups. In that case, all this bad luck could be a precursor of even worse times ahead.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.