Having early on highlighted different areas, Africa remains a vast and abundant continent. Roughly ten times the size of India and three times the size of China, it is home to nearly 18 percent of the world’s population and roughly 30 percent of its mineral resources. initially looking at why poverty, Africa remains the poorest continent, with an average per capita GDP of just over $2,000. Of the 46 countries the United Nations has rated as the least developed, 35 are African. More than three-quarters of the continent’s population lives in countries where life expectancy, income, and education are well below the global mean. Africa, as the Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan once said, “is a rich continent with many, many poor people.” 

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The scars of the first Cold War, which claimed millions of African lives and undermined both regional integration and economic development, with conflicts reducing economic growth in affected countries by about 2.5 percent on average—are still fresh, and the region cannot possibly afford to fall prey to a second.

Africans are poor for various reasons—some of the others’ making and some of their own. But Slavery and colonialism, and the new Cold War caused severe damage to African societies and economies, much of which endures as it is difficult to make choices. Exclusion from Western-dominated institutions of global governance still does more harm today. But the blame for Africa’s failures cannot be pinned on external forces alone. The continent’s colonial history has another enduring insidious legacy: it gives some African leaders and too many of Africa’s people an excuse for not getting their own houses in order and for continuing to blame the West. Misrule, coups, and corruption have hindered progress and wasted many years since independence some 60 years ago. Yet we continue to point the finger at others. 

Almost every nation suffered some form of colonialism or exploitation at some point. Unfortunately, that is our history as a human race. But most countries have picked themselves up and moved on. Africans need to look forward, not backward, and take responsibility for and ownership of our destiny. That means fighting for better governance, the rule of law, and decent leadership. But friends in the West must also display more integrity and less hypocrisy. They must give  Africa a more prominent voice in institutions of global governance, improve the governance of these institutions and multinational corporations, and close the regulatory loopholes that enable massive illicit financial flows out of the continent. Africa needs allies in its development, not accomplices to its plunder. 

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The Ghosts Of Colonialism

Undoubtedly, the colonial rule did lasting damage to Africa. European powers drew casual and haphazard borders, mostly disregarding ethnic, geographic, and historical realities. Some countries, such as the Gambia and Lesotho, came to exist mostly or entirely within other countries. Many others ended up landlocked and, therefore, dependent on their neighbors for access to the sea. Most of the fragile countries of the Sahel and Burkina Faso early on. 

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This also included Algerian cooperation in Mali at the time. 

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The Continent Today

Moving on to the continent’s agricultural sector today. The colonial powers built economies to serve their own needs, focusing on the export of resources—whether wood, cotton, cocoa, tea, or coffee. These priorities explain the difficulties many African countries still face in ensuring food security. For example, Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal still grow crops for export on more than half of their cultivable land while importing food to feed their people. The war in Ukraine has suddenly highlighted that most African countries are net importers of wheat, with Russia and Ukraine being the most prominent providers. 

The infrastructure Africa inherited at independence was similarly tailored to an extractive economy. Most roads and railways that colonial powers built were designed to take raw commodities to ports. Partly as a result, African countries remain poorly connected. It is easier to move goods from Nigeria to Kenya by sea than by road or rail and cheaper to move goods from West Africa to China than from West Africa to East Africa.

Governance was another area that colonial powers neglected. Rather than building inclusive democratic institutions, they fostered brittle, hierarchical ones. Independence brought colorful new flags, proud national anthems, and rewarding jobs for presidents and those in their inner circles, but not much else. The weak institutions of the newly independent African nations were no match for the wave of military coups in the wake of independence. During the 1960s and 1970s, Africa weathered 82 coup attempts—one every 89 days, on average. Roughly half of them succeeded. 

The constitutional and civilian rule remains tenuous in much of the continent today. West Africa, in particular, has seen a resurgence of military coups over the last five years and an erosion of the rule of law. In other parts of Africa, an overreliance on military cooperation with foreign powers such as France, Russia, and the United States seems to have encouraged national security forces to turn their guns on their fellow citizens to grab power instead of protecting their populations and borders and fighting terrorists. 

The malign influence of foreign powers waned but did not cease with the end of colonialism. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union treated Africa as an arena for competition over resources, military outposts, and votes at the United Nations. Both often made common causes with dictators and kleptocrats, downplaying the importance of good governance and ignoring human rights abuses. Although the World Bank channeled funds toward the United States’ allies on the continent, few of these countries achieved much in development. Conditional foreign aid became a driving force in African economic policy, fostering economic dependence on the West rather than the much-needed continental integration. 

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It was not a coincidence, then, that Africa’s governance began to improve after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Many countries transitioned to multiparty elections, adopting new constitutions that included presidential term limits. According to the latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance, published in 2021 by the foundation I run, more than 60 percent of Africa’s population now lives in a country where overall governance has improved over the last decade. 

The Lost Decades

As destructive and painful as it was, Africa’s troubled history of colonialism and Cold War meddling cannot explain all its current woes. Missed opportunities, bad governance, corruption, and even crimes committed by African leaders have also held the continent back. Among the costliest errors was the mismanagement of vast natural resource endowments. Oil and diamond producers, in particular, have provided a powerful example of what not to do with natural resources— looting national wealth, growing overly reliant on mineral “rents” while allowing other sectors of the economy to waste away. 

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Before oil was discovered and developed in Nigeria, the country had a thriving agricultural sector, producing enough food to feed its population until the outbreak of civil war in 1967. Now, Nigeria is a significant importer of food. With its vast copper, cobalt, and oil endowments, the Democratic Republic of Congo should be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Instead, it is poor, fragile, and home to one of the UN’s most significant peacekeeping forces, now a permanent feature on the landscape there. 

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By contrast, Botswana stands out as a role model for the continent, with its healthy democracy and strong governance. Botswana was blessed with natural resources—diamonds, mainly—but it also had great leaders: President Ketumile Masire, who led the country from 1980 to 1998, and President Festus Mogae, who succeeded Masire and stepped down after his second five-year term in 2008. Both served their people instead of themselves. Thanks partly to their good governance, Botswana has gone from one of the poorest countries in continental sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1960s to the region’s highest rank on the Human Development Index, which measures overall social and economic development. 


Good governance and decent leadership have unfortunately been in short supply. Africa had its fair share of strongmen and dictators in the second half of the twentieth century. They looted their countries, enriched their families and friends, and curtailed the rights of their citizens. The most notorious leaders fueled the perception that the whole continent was corrupt, prompting serious investors to shun Africa and a swarm of corrupt businesspeople to descend on the continent. The harm inflicted was grievous and is still being felt today. 

Across all continents, Africa now has the largest number of foreign countries carrying out military operations on its soil—no fewer than 13, of which most have several military bases spread throughout the region. Per the most recent official estimates, Africa is home to at least 47 foreign outposts, with the U.S. controlling the largest share, followed by former colonial power France. Both China and Japan elected to establish their first overseas military bases since the Second World War in Djibouti, which happens to be the only country in the world to host both American and Chinese outposts.

The end of the  Cold War was a boon to Africa, as dictators lost much of their value to the victorious West. In most cases, the United States and Europe started to pay more attention to corruption, human rights, and democracy, making aid contingent on improvements in these areas. But by then, the continent had already lost half a century to corruption and misrule. 

United States president John F Kennedy met Major General Joseph Mobutu in 1963.

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Still Frozen Out

Today, Africa still exists at the margins of the global order, largely excluded from international institutions and treated as a basket case to be fixed. The current multilateral system, created at the end of World War II, does not effectively represent or serve the present world. Almost everyone agrees with this assessment, but the international community keeps kicking the can down the road. A fresh look at the mission and the governance of institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund is overdue. 

A U.S. oil tanker in Rostock, Germany, August 2022

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Take the UN Security Council, which has been rendered impotent by the veto powers of its five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. None of these countries is keen to give up its unfair privileges, even if that means crippling a vital institution. All can act with impunity and offer protection to their client states, allowing atrocities to go unpunished and shielding dictators in Africa and elsewhere from scrutiny. This state of global governance is unacceptable. 

The G-7 and G-20 groups of major economies are also failing Africa. Understandably, no African countries are members of the former, and just one, South Africa, is included in the latter. But unlike the European Union, the African Union does not get a seat at either table. It is occasionally invited to dinner but never into the meeting room. This treatment has enormous consequences for Africa, which has little say in setting international standards that affect everything from fighting corruption to financing development to mitigating the effects of climate change. Debates and decisions on these and other issues would be fairer and more efficient if the G-7 and G-20 didn’t simply dictate to Africa but treated it as an equal partner. 

Africans have been asking for more cooperation from the West to battle corruption. After all, funds stolen from the continent nearly always end up in Western banks. North American and European countries must establish public registries identifying those who own or benefit from secretive, anonymous companies. Yet they have resisted doing so, despite regularly haranguing Africans about corruption. Now, Western countries are getting a small taste of their own medicine as they struggle to trace the assets of Russian oligarchs. 


Across all continents, Africa has the largest number of foreign countries carrying out military operations on its soil, no fewer than 13. Most have several military bases spread throughout the region. Per the most recent official estimates, Africa is home to at least 47 foreign outposts, with the U.S. controlling the largest share, followed by former colonial power France. Both China and Japan elected to establish their first overseas military bases since the Second World War in Djibouti, which happens to be the only country in the world to host both American and Chinese outposts.

Mining gold in Haut-Uélé Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 2021

Illicit financial flows out of Africa, mispricing of exports and imports, and shifting profits within multinational companies cost African countries more than $88 billion every year between 2008 and 2017, according to one estimate by the United Nations. That exceeds the $52 billion in annual international aid the continent received during those years, raising the question of who was funding whom. Western countries must act swiftly to close the tax and banking loopholes that dry the African continent. 

The West should also take Africa’s financing needs more seriously. African countries struggle to borrow from international financial markets to fund their development needs or deal with crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and food insecurity. Countries that manage to borrow must pay punitive interest rates, reaching as high as ten percent. Little wonder the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer, even as Western officials lecture Africans about inequality. 

Poor Infrastructure

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The Chief of Industrialization and Infrastructure at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Soteri Gatera, has urged African countries to sign the Luxembourg Protocol because railways are the key to open and free trade across Africa, and their development is critical to the continent’s sustainable development agenda. On 22 March 2022, the Republic of South Africa signed the Luxembourg Rail Protocol. In addition to the recent signatories, other nations, including Kenya, Ethiopia, and Mauritius, have expressed interest in signing the Protocol.

International credit-rating agencies should ask themselves whether their assessments are driven by prejudice or reality. Often, when they rate African economies as a subinvestment grade, depriving them of much-needed financing or forcing them to borrow at ruinous rates, they engineer the failures they predict. As the economist, Jeffrey Sachs recently pointed out, Ghana’s debt-to-GDP ratio of 83.5 percent is lower than Greece’s (206.7 percent) and Portugal’s (130.8 percent). Yet Moody’s rated Ghana several notches below both European countries in 2021, leading creditors to overestimate the risk of lending to Ghana’s government and to charge an interest rate of nine percent on ten-year bonds. Greece and Portugal, meanwhile, paid just 1.3 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively. The result was predictable: in its 2021 review of Ghana’s debt sustainability, the IMF warned that the country was at high risk of debt distress and vulnerable to shocks, and in August 2022, Fitch downgraded the country’s credit rating to CCC, indicating “substantial risks.” 

Finally, Western countries should take full responsibility for contributing to the climate crisis and stop asking African nations to sacrifice their development goals to fix a problem they didn’t create. On average, North Americans still generate 14 tons of carbon emissions per person yearly, while Europeans and Chinese generate seven tons. Africans, by contrast, emits just 1.1 tons. And yet Western countries still resist the obvious solution: putting a price on emissions and letting the market forces they worship play their role. Instead, they focus on reaching carbon neutrality through “energy sobriety” or encouraging people to change their lifestyles and behaviors to reduce emissions. This is a reasonable approach for developed countries with high emitters, but it makes no sense for low emitters whose populations still lack basic access to energy. 

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One Africa

For Africa to live up to its potential, its leaders and citizens must address their challenges and shortcomings. First and foremost, Africa must speed up its economic integration. Yes, the continent’s arbitrary division into 54 countries is unhelpful. But it is irreversible, so the best and only way forward is to deepen their economic and political links. The African Union has done much to knit the continent closer together. For one thing, the continental free trade agreement the union brokered in 2018 promises to reduce barriers to trade and perhaps one day create the largest free trade area in the world. But this monumental commitment has yet to be fully and effectively implemented. 

Suppose China, whose population is slightly larger than that of Africa, had been divided into 54 countries with different regulations and currencies. Could it have developed into the superpower it is today? For markets, size matters, so Africans must buy from and sell to each other. That is the only way to develop the continent’s economy and attract foreign capital. African countries should unite to establish a pan-African stock exchange, encouraging investment and improving African companies’ access to finance. 

Greater integration and market size will spur the development of African industries, including those producing pharmaceuticals and vaccines. The lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic are clear. In emergencies, countries rediscover nationalism, erect trade barriers, and seek to put their people first. African countries still import almost 95 percent of the medicinal and pharmaceutical goods they consume—and 99 percent of the routine vaccines. In times of global crisis, they cannot depend on the kindness of others to ensure that their people will remain healthy and secure. 

In that sense, the pandemic has been helpful. In April 2021, the African Union and the African Center for Disease Control set a goal of producing 60 percent of the vaccines the continent will need by 2040. With the help of the European Union, Africa is now working to establish or strengthen six manufacturing hubs on the continent—in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa. Assuming African governments are willing to make the necessary investments, including in public health, these initiatives will improve the continent’s health security and potentially create jobs.                                         

The Missing Peace

African countries have a unique vantage point toward Russia’s war in Ukraine. Rather than inviting more of them to join in the war, Western countries could use this opportunity to allow Africans to practice the lessons they have learned from generations of war on their soil. The African Union has declared that one of its aims is “silencing the guns by 2030,” African countries have some of the most complex mechanisms for peace and security in the world, partly because they are so frequently called into use.

Similar efforts to become more self-reliant are needed in food security, as evidenced by the disruptions to crucial grain and fertilizer exports to Africa caused by the war in Ukraine. For too long, Africa has disregarded its agricultural sector, allowing its crop yields to fall far below the global average. This, in some ways, is good news because it means enormous potential for improvement. Africa still has more arable land than the rest of the world combined, which is also good news. But the continent must reexamine its agricultural model, still mostly based on subsistence farming. African governments should prioritize production systems that benefit their people first. Exports should continue, of course, but in a way that does not jeopardize food security. 

African states must move up the value chain in agriculture and other industries, such as mining. Otherwise, they will continue to earn relatively low fees for raw materials. At the same time, other countries reap much larger rewards from exporting final products sold at prices many Africans cannot afford. It is unacceptable that an African farmer receives a few cents for the cocoa used to make a chocolate bar that sells for $4 in the West. 

Then there is the need for power. Some 600 million people in Africa continue to live without access to electricity. Without power, forget about development, education, and health. It has not helped that some well-meaning countries and development finance institutions have pushed to end funding for oil and gas projects in Africa and elsewhere. None seem to have thought of the millions of African women and children who have gotten sick or died from breathing fumes from unclean cooking fuels. Western countries are now scrambling for access to African gas to offset the loss of access to Russian gas, but many still don’t want Africans to develop such resources for their use. 

African Pipelines

Africa is already doing well when it comes to green energy. Twenty-two African countries currently rely on renewables such as hydropower and geothermal as their primary source of electricity. But renewables alone cannot meet Africa’s enormous and growing need for energy. To bridge that gap while of course, speeding up the development of renewable energy, Africa must be able to tap its natural gas endowments. This will require African governments and their partners to commit resources to upgrade and scale up gas storage, transportation, and distribution. Without such investment, Africa will not be able to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals or the African Union’s Agenda 2063 development goals. 

Last but not least, demographics. Africans love to brag about their youthful population and its many advantages, including a strong labor force, a growing market, dynamism, and an innovative spirit. But the so-called demographic dividend is a double-edged sword, paying off only if young people are educated and trained to succeed in the twenty-first-century economy. Unemployment among African youth is high and rising, which poses a risk to the stability of African countries and other countries as well. Unemployed youth who have lost hope often opt to migrate illegally and sometimes join criminal or terrorist groups. African governments must create an environment for them to succeed on their continent, expanding access to power, building needed infrastructure, and strengthening governance and the rule of law. But they must also improve access to family planning and make it less taboo. If population growth outpaces economic growth, as it does in many African countries, our people will continue to move backward instead of forward. 

A Way Up?

To meet all these challenges, Africa needs better governance and better-elected leaders. We Africans need to stop complaining about a past we can do nothing to change and start focusing on the future we can own. We must look forward, work on our development, and rely on ourselves. Only we are responsible for our future and that of our children. 

Cameroon’s President Paul Biya (right) with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron at the presidential palace in Yaounde, Cameroon:

We hope that Western countries will also improve their governance, be more honest and inclusive in their dealings with Africa, and appreciate the depth of mistrust their past misbehavior and current hypocrisy have created. There are promising signs that both sides are starting to talk to each other rather than past each other. In February, Senegalese President Macky Sall, chair of the African Union; French President Emmanuel Macron, chair of the European Union; and European Council President Charles Michel hosted the sixth European Union–African Union summit in Brussels. Instead of the endless speeches by heads of state that so often eat up all the available time at international summits, this meeting featured a series of substantive and interactive roundtables focused on vital, often contentious issues such as security, health, finance, migration, and agriculture. The African and European leaders committed to equal partnership and better governance. Let us hope both sides implement these commitments so we can one day look back on this sixth summit as a new beginning.

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