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date: 28 September 2022

Reimagining Africa: A Continent in Transition and Its Implications for World Orderfree

Reimagining Africa: A Continent in Transition and Its Implications for World Orderfree

  • Clement AdibeClement AdibeCollege of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, DePaul University


Africa has made significant progress at home and on the world stage that belies its image as the backwater of the global system. Far from being marginalized, African states have exercised their agency in the international system through an extensive mechanism of institutionalized diplomacy—anchored on the African Union (AU)—that they have forged over several decades of collective action. Changes are taking place in 21st-century Africa as a result of these collective efforts. Socioeconomic data from the African Development Bank, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the United Nations, and the World Bank, indicate the economic, political, and demographic forces that are remaking Africa. Finally, the changes in Africa have implications for the evolving world order. Objective conditions warrant a reimagining of Africa as an agent in the international system, rather than as a passive victim of a predatory, anarchical order. Current challenges facing the post-war liberal international order make such reimagination imperative.


  • Development
  • Diplomacy
  • Foreign Policy
  • International Relations Theory
  • Political Economy

Contrary to widespread perception, sub-Saharan Africa has made substantial progress in governance and human development in the six decades since its constituent states re-entered the world stage as sovereign state actors. The failure to capture this progress in the academic literature and in the media has contributed to the largely medieval international image of Africa that has proven difficult to shake off. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to reimagine Africa in light of changes on the continent and to examine the implications of such a reimagination of Africa for the emerging world order. To this end, the article poses three questions: What is the nature of the changes in Africa? What factors are driving the changes? What are the implications of the changes for the world order? The article argues that economic, political, and demographic forces are producing measurable progress in Africa that warrants a reimagination of Africa’s place in international affairs. Given the current uncertainty surrounding the fate of the post-war liberal international order, as illiberal tendencies multiply in Africa and elsewhere in the world, the success of Africa provides further evidence in support of the proposition that freedom leads to human progress. Neoliberalism may be fading elsewhere in the world, but it is only just starting to bloom in Africa.

Weak States in a Fragile World Order

Africa entered the 21st century with an ambitious agenda, enshrined in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), aiming for political stability through democratic governance, economic development through economic liberalization, and security through the development of national capacity and multilateral mechanisms for the “prevention, management and resolution of conflict” (African Union, 2001, p. 16). In contrast to efforts in the late 20th century, NEPAD is explicitly neoliberal in its goals, methods, and processes, which rely heavily on codification, institutionalization, and multilateralism. Given Africa’s poor record of execution of lofty programs in the past, there was, of course, understandable skepticism in the scholarly and policy community about the capacity of African governments to deliver on the laudable goals of NEPAD (Amin, 2002; Loxley, 2003; Taylor, 2005). Bates (2008) conveyed this skepticism and frustration when he declared: “Humanitarians, policymakers, and scholars: Each demands to know why political order gave way to political conflict in late-century Africa” (p. 3). Much of the skepticism and frustration with the African elite stemmed from the violent conflicts that engulfed many African societies during the first three decades of the post-colonial era, from the 1960s through the 1990s. Jackson and Rosberg (1982) theorized the juridical appearance of African states without the requisite capacity for delivering political and economic goods for their citizens upon which empirical statehood is based. Herbst (2000) honed in on authority—an important legal marker of statehood since its birth via the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648—which is problematic in Africa. Added to that was the issue of territoriality, as African states proved unable to control their weak borders. The picture these analyses painted was that African states lacked, at least empirically, two key attributes of the Weberian state: a government that is both legitimate and authoritative, and a fixed territory (i.e., borders) that is effectively secured by a capable government. If these two attributes of statehood are absent, then the third, sovereignty, is effectively meaningless, and so the breakdown of the state is complete.

Bates (2008) was especially critical of the ideologically driven economic policies of post-colonial African states, “control regimes,” which promoted monopsonies at the expense of private enterprise. He reasoned that these policies “served political rather than economic interests,” and that “by transforming industries and markets into political organizations,” control regimes “enabled governments to spin webs of political obligation and thus forge the political machines that kept them in power” (p. 63). This was unsustainable, so the bubble popped, and things fell apart in Africa. For Bates (2008), therefore, the breakdown of the state in Africa in the late 20th century was the result of an irresponsible governing elite and citizenry alike: “political order cannot be treated as a given. Rather, . . . it results when [African] rulers—whom I characterize as ‘specialists in violence’—choose to employ the means of coercion to protect the creation of wealth rather than to prey upon it and when private citizens choose to set weapons aside and to devote their time instead to the production of wealth and to the enjoyment of leisure” (p. 5; emphasis in the original). For Bates, the disintegration of the African state is caused by endogenous factors rather than external factors, as the popular left has argued (Amin, 1972, 2002). Bates’s argument appropriately problematized the notion of political order, which is the essence of the Weberian state that many scholars have promoted in Africa (Huntington, 1957; Hyden, 1983). Bates was right in his assertion that political order is not a given—in Africa or anywhere else. Politics is a contest, and, as Clausewitz posited, even war is simply “a continuation of political activity by other means” (excerpted in Freedman, 1994, p. 207). Empirical states are not impermeable silos endowed with a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion. That is the “ideal” state as it was originally imagined by Weber (1964). Bates was right also in drawing attention to predation as a feature of the African state, although he weakened his analysis by presenting predation as a characteristic that is uniquely African. Predation is universal; what varies in the contemporary world is the degree of predation within and between states. Predation not only is morally offensive, but also can be strategically counterproductive. When states prey upon their citizens, they limit the ability of citizens to reach their fullest economic potential, and they sap citizens’ loyalty to the state. Above all, predatory states incentivize rebellion, which can take many forms, ranging from tax evasion, disrespect for laws, and corruption, all the way to outright violence.

But predation is not limited to domestic politics. According to realist theories of international relations, predation abounds in international politics as the ultimate self-help system, where the strong, driven by the quest for power and emboldened by the absence of overarching authority to hold them accountable, prey on the weak (Morgenthau, 1968; Waltz, 1959). Much scholarship on Africa, on both the left and the right, captures the international dimensions of predation quite well, perhaps too well, in the analysis of Africa’s “incorporation” into the world capitalist system or its regular relations with the outside world (Amin, 2002; Clapham, 1996; Loxley, 2003). As Amin (2002) put it rather bluntly, Africa has been “super-exploited in a brutal manner” and has been shoved to “the margin of the [global capitalist] system” (p. 42). Neoliberal scholarship on Africa has not been that different, either, as it also presents African states as incapable or incompetent actors in their dealings with Western powers, multinational corporations, global institutions, and even celebrity humanitarians (Ghazvinian, 2007; Yrjölä, 2009). None of this is necessarily intentional. However, as an increasing number of critical studies have shown, the efforts to describe the power asymmetry between African states and myriad external state and nonstate actors in the international system very often tend to deny African states any sense of agency (Brown, 2012; Odoom & Andrews, 2017; Soulé, 2020). Viewed theoretically, what this image of African international relations misses is that, even in this “self-help” system of international relations—and constructivists contest that notion of anarchy—“the possibility of predation does not in itself force states to anticipate it a priori with competitive power politics of their own” (Wendt, 1992, p. 408). African states can, and do, make choices—and these choices may or may not be good, as all choices tend to be—within the limits of the structural constraints under which they and other actors operate in the international system. As a growing number of critical studies have shown, the point here is the agential power of African states in international politics, which, as some scholars have noted, has been long neglected in scholarship (Dunn & Shaw, 2001; Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004). The result of the effort to reintroduce agency into the analysis has been the debate about “decolonizing” African studies, and international relations in general. It is an “uncomfortable debate,” as Clapham (2020) demonstrated in his sharp critique, only because it is about recognizing and mitigating the Eurocentricity of the dominant scholarship in international relations by introducing agency to the study of African and other non-Western states and their interactions in the global system (Capan, 2017; Clapham, 2020; Hobson, 2012; Kayaoglu, 2010; Odoom & Andrews, 2017; Soulé, 2020). That important effort requires, at the very least, a commitment to examine and analyze the areas where Africa has done well and the areas where it has not. The focus of this article is on what Africa has done right in the 21st century. The section that follows demonstrates the factor of agency in analyzing the significant changes that have occurred in Africa in the 21st century. It emphasizes three areas where the changes have been more pronounced and consequential: the economy, governance, and demography of African states.

Economic, Political, and Demographic Transformation

Africa’s Economic Transformation

For so long, sub-Saharan Africa has been painted with broad strokes as economically backward and extremely poor that it is easy to ignore the economic differentiation, progress, and growing prosperity that are observable across the continent. That Africa is poor is hardly a contestable proposition. However, according to the World Bank (2018), “the regional distribution of poverty has changed” over time (p. 2). A closer examination of the Bank’s 2018 data shows measurable economic progress, as revealed by some of the economic indicators that the Bank and its sister institutions have traditionally used to gauge economic performance, such as the gross national income per capita (GNI), the gross domestic product (GDP), and life expectancy at birth. While a majority of African states still fall in the low-income category, with a GNI of less than US$1,000, a sizable number of African countries have moved up the economic ladder to the lower middle-income category, with GNI in the range of US$1,006 to US$3,955 (World Bank, 2018). Countries in this group include not just the major oil-exporting states, such as Nigeria and Angola, but non-major commodity-exporting countries, such as Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Cape Verde, Kenya, Lesotho, Comoros, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), and Zimbabwe. Even better, Gabon, Mauritius, Namibia, and South Africa have joined the upper middle-income group of states, such as Malaysia and Thailand, with a GNI between US$3,956 and US$12,235 (World Bank, 2018). Despite the global economic shocks that followed the 2008 financial crisis, this progress appears to be holding up. Data from the African Statistical Yearbook 2020 show that, in 2019, 57% of African states had a GDP per capita exceeding $1,000, which is one percentage point higher than in the preceding year (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa [UNECA], 2021, p. 79).

So, what accounts for the increasing GNI? UNECA attributes the progress to a noticeable expansion of aggregate economic activities in Africa since the beginning of the 21st century and to the emergence of new sectors. In 2009, according to the World Bank (2019a), the total value of Africa’s GDP was $1.6 trillion. In 2011, Africa’s GDP hit the $2 trillion mark, and it rose to $2.5 trillion in 2014. It fell briefly to $2.2 trillion in 2016 and 2017, but it increased modestly to $2.3 trillion in 2018, and to $2.4 trillion in 2019 (UNECA, 2021, p. 77). Because of the increased economic activity, power generation went up during the same period, from 782,751 GWh in 2015 to 798,423 GWh in 2016 (UNECA, 2018, p. 77). Since then, electricity generation has risen steadily, to 836,353 GWh in 2017, 853,594 GWh in 2018, and 875,322 GWh in 2019 (UNECA, 2021, p. 85). That is an impressive amount of electricity generation in such a short time. To put it in a comparative context, China, the world’s second-largest economy, generated 640,490 GWh of electricity in 2018 (CEICdata, 2022). Despite its achievement, however, Africa needs to generate more electricity to power its productivity. Presently, the demand for electricity in Africa remains much higher than available production and distribution capacity, as evidenced by incessant power blackouts, even in the most developed economies, such as South Africa. As investments in the power sector increase and more power is generated over time, the current upward trajectory of Africa’s GDP is likely to continue in the medium term.

In the telecommunications sector, progress has been even more pronounced and transformative. Mahajan (2009), who was an early observer of the immense power of technological “leapfrogging” in Africa, demonstrated how, in the early 2000s, small-scale telecommunications investments by young African entrepreneurs quickly became big businesses and, in the process, began to transform lives and reshape economies and societies in Rwanda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana, Nigeria, and elsewhere in Africa. For example, consider the Internet: “Africa’s online connections are growing faster than anywhere in the world, except the Middle East. From 2000 to 2007, Internet usage grew by more than 880% across Africa, compared to 347% for Asia and 120% for North America” (Mahajan, 2009, p. 115). A decade later, in 2018, data suggested that the upward trajectory continued, as the proportion of Africa’s population using the Internet tripled, from just 7.7% in 2009 to 23.9% in 2016 (UNECA, 2018, p. 89). While that is an impressive rate of growth, it also means that 75% of Africans have yet to be connected to the Internet. This suggests that there is plenty of room for growth and, therefore, a significant opportunity for investment in the African Internet market at a time when other regions of the world have matured or are nearing the saturation point.

Africa’s technological leapfrogging is most evident in the area of mobile cellular communications. For a long time, Africa lagged the rest of the world in fixed-line telephones. In 1999, for example, there were less than 500,000 active telephone lines in Nigeria, which had a population of 120 million at the time, and only a fraction of the lines worked. This situation mirrored what obtained in other countries across the continent. In 2009, according to International Telecommunications Union (ITU) data, only 3.3% of Africans had access to a fixed telephone line. The arrival of cellular technology soon gave more Africans access to the telephone. The mobile cellular subscriber base in Africa nearly doubled, from 45.2% in 2009 to 81.5% in 2016 (UNECA, 2018, p. 89). In some African countries, the growth was even more spectacular. In Tanzania, the subscription base rose sharply from 4% in 2009 to 74.4% in 2016; in Ethiopia, it rose from 4.8% in 2009 to 51% in 2016. In Ghana, Gabon, Botswana, and South Africa, the cellular subscriber base had exceeded 100% of the population by 2016.

The effect of this revolution in telecommunications across Africa has been transformative for ordinary citizens in their everyday lives. An example of this transformation is M-Pesa.1 According to Monks (2017), M-Pesa was launched in Kenya in 2007 by Safaricom, the local subsidiary of British cellular operator Vodafone, “as a simple method of texting small payments between users.” It was an instant hit among urban dwellers, students, traders, and rural farmers. Then it scaled up. Within a few years of launching in Kenya, M-Pesa grew its user base to well over 30 million people, spread across several countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, the DRC, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Ghana. According to Monks (2017), several million daily users of M-Pesa rely on the platform for a growing “range of services, including international transfers, loans, and health provision.”

The success of M-Pesa, which received its start-up funding from Britain’s Department of International Development (DfID), is just one example of the degree to which African actors have demonstrated agency in international affairs. The story of M-Pesa would be incomplete without mentioning the genius of Bernard Satia, the unassuming young Kenyan undergraduate at Moi University who wrote the computer software that launched the platform. Satia is representative of the educated and talented African youth who are emerging to seek and seize opportunities to empower themselves and their society. According to Bright and Hruby (2015), M-Pesa has totally redefined finance in East Africa “by making mobile phones all-in-one ATMs, debit cards, and money-transfer devices, effectively placing the services of a retail banking branch in one’s hand” (p. 151).

M-Pesa spurred another significant innovation in East Africa, Ushahidi, the hugely popular and “highly effective tool for digitally mapping demographic events,” such as rallies, large sporting events, demonstrations, elections, or violent conflicts (Bright & Hruby, 2015, p. 160). Ushahidi has been particularly useful during elections, civil demonstrations, and large gatherings that amplify issues of law and order. Civil society groups have used Ushahidi to mobilize citizens for various causes, such as campaigning for fair elections, monitoring demonstrators and potentially overzealous security officials who shadow them, reporting on climate change, or reporting on developments in farming communities in the countryside. Due to the success of M-Pesa, Ushahidi, and other innovations, the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, has been dubbed “Silicon Savannah” because of the size and depth of its hi-tech entrepreneurial community (Toesland, 2019). The innovations have enabled millions of Africans to buy goods and services, such as bus, train, and airline tickets, via their telephone, and to transfer money to relatives in the countryside simply by pushing a button on their cell phone. According to Toesland (2019), Africa’s large cities are becoming a “magnet” for enterprising youths as well as investors from within and outside Africa who seek to harness their energy and creativity. The growing telecommunications user base has brought in more businesses interested in building the backbone for Internet communications. According to a report, in March 2021, Liquid Intelligent Solutions—“an Africa-focused cloud computing, data center and Internet wholesale” company—“launched a 5,000 km (3,100 mile) digital fiber link in the DRC, [and] is also building a big data center in Nigeria” (Karombo, 2021). Some of the world’s largest technology companies, such as Facebook and Google, have opened offices in Africa where they train and recruit workers, just as Microsoft had done in India in the early years of the Internet revolution in the 1990s. Toesland (2019) estimated that, as of 2019, there were “31 tech hubs in Lagos [Nigeria], 29 in Cape Town [South Africa], and 25 in Nairobi [Kenya].”

In many African countries, large Internet-based retail businesses, such as Jumia, have emerged to take advantage of the explosive growth in the number of cellphone and Internet users on the continent. So extensive is the emerging African IT sector that, in 2014 when Nigeria “rebased” its economy to reflect the new IT services, the boost to the country’s GDP was significant enough to rank it among the large economies of the world. According to Oh (2017), a telecommunications expert with the US International Trade Commission, Nigeria’s telecommunications sector grew eightfold, from a meager 1% of the country’s GDP in 2003 to 8.5% in 2014: “Over the past decade, Nigeria has become the largest telecom market in Africa, with 140.8 million active telecom subscribers at the end of 2015 (up from 95.8 million at the end of 2011). . . . The telecom industry also accounts for a considerable amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows. Between 2001 and 2011, cumulative FDI into Nigeria’s telecom sector was about $15.8 billion, representing 35% of total inward private FDI during that period.” Such is the range of positive economic changes occurring in Africa that the continent has finally began to attract a sizable slice of global FDI inflows. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) data show that in 2002, total FDI inflow to Africa was just $11 billion (UNCTAD, 2003). By 2010, the amount had increased fourfold, to $43 billion, and nearly sixfold, to $58 billion, by 2014 (UNCTAD, 2016).

To be clear, the measurable economic progress Africa has made in the first two decades of the 21st century has had its downside. One such downside is the expansion of Africa’s external debt. As African economies have boomed, they have become susceptible to what Stiglitz (2002) termed “the reverse logic of capitalism:” they became attractive candidates for big loans from the international capital market at a time when they have the least need for them. Going by the numbers, African countries are leveraging up to finance an assortment of developmental programs and infrastructural needs, from heavy industries to railways, airports, seaports, highways, and power plants. However, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s when African states relied overwhelmingly on bilateral and multilateral sources for credit, the market reforms of the 21st century have produced a newfound love for “sovereign bonds” as the principal mechanism for accessing credit from the global market (Moyo, 2009). According to a 2021 report by the African Development Bank (AfDB, 2021), in 2001 only three African countries went to the commercial market for their credit needs. By mid-2020, the number had risen to 21, and “they had issued eurobond [sic] instruments valued at more than $155 billion” (p. 49). In 2018 alone, according to the World Bank (2019c), “countries in the [African] region issued more than US$17 billion in international bonds” (p. 12). The result is that Africa’s debt has been growing. The external debt has more than doubled in less than one decade, from $263 billion in 2009 to $524 billion in 2017 (World Bank, 2019b). An even more troubling statistic is what the World Bank calls “net transfers on debt”—interests, principal, and other charges. The net transfers on debt have risen more than sevenfold in less than a decade, from $6 billion in 2009 to $44 billion in 2017. That figure is $2 billion more than the $42 billion of total FDI inflow to Africa in 2017 (UNCTAD, 2020).

A further disaggregation of Africa’s debt data reveals another troubling trend. External debt as a percentage of GDP is growing across Africa. As recently as 2012, Africa’s external debt obligation amounted to less than a quarter of GDP, at 22%. Then it rose sharply to 33% of GDP by 2017. At that rate, Africa’s debt obligation will soon exceed 50% of its GDP and is projected to exceed 100% of GDP by 2040. In short, the data portend another debt crisis, reminiscent of the 1980s, hitting sub-Saharan Africa in the medium term. According to the World Bank (2019c):

Public and publicly guaranteed external debt has remained elevated. . . . Most significantly, its composition has changed considerably, shifting from mainly concessional debt from bilateral and multilateral lenders toward much greater reliance on non-Paris Club bilateral lenders and commercial creditors. . . .This shift in the composition of government debt toward more expensive nonconcessional financing has increased vulnerabilities across the region. (pp. 16–17)

The strategic shift by African economic managers from Paris Club to commercial lenders reflects some important lessons learned from the debt crisis of the 1980s. The first is the development of national and regional capital markets by strengthening local banks through improved regulatory frameworks. Other measures included setting up stock markets where they did not exist previously and boosting the capacity of existing ones (Moyo, 2009, pp. 4–5). These efforts have yielded positive results. According to a study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF): “Prior to 1989 there were just five stock markets in sub-Saharan Africa and three in North Africa,” for a total of eight stock exchanges. That number more than doubled to 19 in 2007 (Yartey & Adjasi, 2007, p. 3). By 2012, the number had risen to 23 (Tafirenyika, 2012). The African Securities Exchanges Association (ASEA)—a capital market trade association established in Nairobi in 1993—reports that there are now 27 fully fledged stock exchanges operating in 37 African countries. The oldest of these, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), had a market capitalization in excess of $1 trillion in 2021 (ASEA, 2022). These stock exchanges are fast becoming important sources of capital formation for African companies and businesses. In an important study done by the IMF, Yartey and Adjasi (2007) found that “the stock markets have contributed to the financing of the growth of large corporations in certain African countries. . . . In Ghana, the stock market financed about 12% of total asset growth of listed companies between 1995 [and] 2002,” and about 25% in Zimbabwe (p. 11).

The second lesson learned by African states from the debt crisis of the 1980s was the imperative need to reduce their exposure to bilateral lenders of the Paris Club. For context, the Paris Club began in 1956 as “an informal group of official creditors, industrial countries in most cases, that seeks coordinated and sustainable solutions for debtor nations facing payment difficulties. Paris Club creditors provide debt treatments to debtor countries in the form of rescheduling or reduction in debt service during a defined period or as of a set date” (IMF, 2022).2 Basically, the Paris Club comprises nation-state bilateral lenders. Because the bulk of Africa’s debts from the 1960s through the 1980s came from bilateral creditors—that is, members of the Paris Club—the risk of default by African states triggered a coordinated effort by the nation-state lenders. Paris Club loans are concessionary, meaning that interest on loans is typically well below market rates, which makes them attractive for borrowers. For the lenders, this system provides a higher level of security for their capital, since states, unlike private companies, cannot discharge their debt through bankruptcy. In the event of default, state-borrowers would instead face stringent and coordinated debt-collection regimes established and enforced by the collective might of the most powerful states in the world. Between 1956, when this system began with Argentina as the debtor nation, and the 1980s, the Paris Club system of debt collection evolved into one of the most coercive nonmilitary actions exerted on states in the international system in the modern era. During the African debt crisis of the 1980s, the Paris Club’s much-loathed “conditionalities” for debt relief hamstrung African policymakers, encouraged repression, and led to political destabilization and the outbreak of violent conflicts.3

Figure 1. Distribution of African debt stock by creditors (%).

So, how well has the new African economic strategy of shifting away from the Paris Club worked, and what are its attendant risks? There is growing evidence that the strategy is working, as the sources and structure of Africa’s debt have changed markedly between 2000-2020. The AfDB’s 2021 report, African Economic Outlook 2021 (AfDB), found that “the creditor base for Africa’s debt continues to shift away from traditional multilateral and Paris Club lenders toward commercial creditors and official lenders who are not Paris Club members”4 (AfDB, 2021, p. 49). As a proportion of Africa’s total debt stock, multilateral debt remained unchanged, at about 30%, between 2000 and 2019. However, bilateral debt fell sharply as a proportion of Africa’s debt, from 52% of total debt in 2000 to 27% in 2019. By contrast, the proportion of Africa’s debt that is held by commercial creditors, mostly bondholders and private commercial banks, rose from a modest 17% in 2000to 40% in 2019 (AfDB, 2021, pp. 49–50). As Figure 1 shows, since 2015, two thirds (66%) of African debt stock has been held by non-Paris Club members. They are bondholders (27%), China (13%), World Bank-International Development Association (12%), AfDB (7%), and other multilateral lenders (7%). In essence, private bondholders are now the single largest source of credit for African states. African states appear to have discovered the power of the market and have embraced it warmly. In 2001, only three African states borrowed from the capital market. By mid-2020, that number had jumped to 21 states (AfDB, 2021, p. 49). While this policy strategy has the advantage of reducing Africa’s dependence on Paris Club creditors, the AfDB has cautioned that African states risk becoming “highly susceptible to shifts in market sentiment,” which could “elevate [their] debt vulnerabilities” (p. 52). African policymakers appear to have embraced this risk in exchange for a more diverse source of credit that reduces their dependence on the Paris Club.

In 2018, African states took a major step toward boosting the continent’s economic momentum with an agreement signed in Kigali, Rwanda, to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The following year, in May 2019, after its ratification by 22 countries, the agreement went into force. The goal of AfCFTA is to link up the continent’s disparate economies into a single market by eliminating nearly all existing tariffs and thereby to boost intra-African trade. As businesses seek to take advantage of the resulting economies of scale, the single market is expected to generate greater economic activity and to increase production, employment, sales, and income for workers as well as revenue for governments. In The African Continental Free Trade Area: Economic and Distributional Effects, the World Bank (2020) observed that AfCFTA will create “the largest free trade area in the world” and connect “1.3 billion people across 55 countries with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) valued at US$3.4 trillion” (p. 1). Those are astonishing numbers. Among the benefits of AfCFTA, according to the World Bank, are that it will boost manufacturing across Africa, increase exports by 29%, and boost real income by $450 billion by 2035. The World Bank study concluded that:

Implementation of AfCFTA would increase employment opportunities and wages for unskilled workers and help to close the gender wage gap. The continent would see a net increase in the proportion of workers in energy-intensive manufacturing. Agricultural employment would increase in 60% of countries, and wages for unskilled labor would grow faster where there is an expansion in agricultural employment. (p. 6)

This is happening at a time when some mature capitalist countries, such as the United States, are building tariff walls and walking away from capitalism. Kapstein (2009) captured the irony of this development a decade earlier when he predicted that: “In one of the great ironies of history, Africa may well emerge from the current global recession as the only region in the world that remains committed to global capitalism. While the tired industrialized nations of the West are nationalizing their banks and engaging in various forms of protectionism, Africa remains open for business—promoting trade, foreign direct investment, and domestic entrepreneurship” (p. 119).

Political Transformation

It is hard to overstate the political transformation that has taken place in Africa in the early 21st century. The century began with a convergence of norms around democracy as the preferred method of governance in Africa. During the previous century, one-party systems and military authoritarianism ran rampant throughout Africa. Beginning with the “third wave” of democracy that swept the non-Western world in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall (Ihonvbere, 1996), the early 1990s saw the emergence of democratic regimes characterized by multiparty electoral competition and the rule of law in states that had been under prolonged military rule or one-party political monopoly, such as Ghana, Benin Republic, and Zambia. In a stunning reversal, the number of African states under democratic rule surpassed the number of those under authoritarian rule by the beginning of the 21st century. Even more importantly, this transformation in the mode of governance had, for the most part, occurred peacefully through the vehicle of sovereign national conferences—especially in francophone Africa. In some of the more divided societies, such as South Africa and Nigeria, staring down the precipice appears to have jolted the political elites to a warm democratic embrace.

Africa’s democratic journey in the 21st century has been aided domestically by an active civil society and externally by what Diamond (2015) referred to as “the global democracy-promotion community” (p. 148). The African Union (AU), in a remarkable departure from its predecessor organization, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), codified the new norm of democracy in Article 2(4) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which prohibits any form of “unconstitutional change of government in any Member State” (African Union, 2007). The international community—the United Nations, the European Union, and countless NGOs—sent election observers to African states both to help monitor elections to ensure fairness and as a symbolic sign of democratic solidarity. The result has been spectacular. Multiparty democratic elections have been normalized in the majority of African states, a sea change from just a quarter-century ago. Today, in 2022, millions of 20-year-old Africans, living in lands stretching from Ghana to South Africa, are part of a unique generation of Africans who have never lived under military rule or apartheid. Such is the scale of the political transformation that has occurred in Africa. In Dead Aid, Moyo (2009) drew attention to a Polity IV report produced by the Center for Systemic Peace that categorized 11 African states as “fully autocratic regimes” to emphasize the lack of democratic progress in Africa at the beginning of this century (p. 6). That same group, the Center for Systemic Peace, published its last major report on conflict, governance, and state fragility in 2017. In it, the group did not find a single “fully autocratic” regime anywhere in Africa. What the study found, however, was evidence of the link between security, governance, and economic growth that has been the foundation of the AU approach to governance. According to the report, “Some African countries are notable for having reduced their fragility ratings substantially. . . . Liberia [has] reduced its fragility score by eleven points and Sierra Leone [has] reduced its score by ten points since ending their brutal civil wars in the early years of the new millennium” (Marshall & Elzinga-Marshall, 2017, pp. 41–42).

African civil society groups have grown and, along with an ever-increasing number of media outlets and social media (Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok), they are expanding the civic space and impacting the quality of policy decision-making and governance in Africa. Despite the many challenges they face, these actors are demanding greater transparency and accountability from governments. For example, a study by Van Belle (2018) found that a growing number of African countries have embraced “open data” for public policy decision-making to enhance “efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, and accountability” (p. 29). According to the study report, open data

[served as] a key enabler [in] the fight against corruption in Botswana; played an important role in planning, mitigation, and preparation for natural disasters in Malawi; advanced transparency in the mining sector and the exploitation of other natural resources in Congo; [formed] . . . an effective tool in tracking mining revenues in Ghana; improved reliability and accessibility of health services in Kenya; and responded to the public demand [for] greater accountability [in] the school system in Tanzania. (p. 29)

There is little doubt that governance has long been Africa’s Achilles heel. In the past two decades, however, a concerted effort has been made by local and external actors, through a combination of carrots and sticks, to induce positive change in governance. One of the most prominent and promising of these efforts has been spearheaded by Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born telecommunications magnate, who is based in the United Kingdom, through his Mo Ibrahim Foundation. To discourage corruption and to elevate the quality of public service in Africa, Mo Ibrahim initiated and sponsors a $5 million prize for achievement in African leadership to the best-performing African president. Aside from the award, the Foundation developed a governance index, the Ibrahim Index for African Governance (IIAG), which measures and tracks governance in Africa using a broad spectrum of social and political indicators, including rule of law, political participation, and human development. This is the only such example in the world, and it shows the attention Africans have devoted to the thorny problem of governance on the continent. The 2020 IIAG survey showed that while 36 states improved on their performance, 17 had deteriorated between 2019 and 2020 (Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2020). Of the five broad IIAG indicators measured between 2010 and 2019—governance; security and rule of law; participation, rights, and inclusion; foundations for economic opportunity; and human development—African states improved in all but two areas: security and rule of law and participation, rights, and inclusions (Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2020). As Figure 2 shows, two measures of economic performance, human development and foundations for economic opportunity, rose from 48.9 and 43.1 in 2010 to 51.8 and 46.9 in 2019, respectively. By contrast, two measures of democratic governance, security and rule of law and participation, rights, and inclusion, fell from 51 and 48.7 in 2010 to 49.7 and 46.8 in 2019, respectively. Tellingly, participation, rights, and inclusion fell the most, by two points, during the decade.

Figure 2. Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), 2010–2019.

The IIAG data support the argument made by many studies that democracy is stalling in Africa (Diamond, 2015; Freedom House, 2021; Okeke, 2018). According to Diamond (2015), the “democratic recession” has been marked by the “significant erosion in electoral fairness, political pluralism, and civic space for opposition and dissent, typically as a result of abusive executives intent upon concentrating their personal power and entrenching ruling-party hegemony” (p. 147). There is a sizable body of work to support this characterization. Freedom House (2019) reported: “Several of the continent’s aging authoritarian leaders continued to cling to power. In Cameroon, President Paul Biya, . . . in office for 36 years, presided over deeply flawed elections in which he secured a seventh term, while in Uganda, Museveni—in office for 32 years—oversaw the removal of a presidential age cap from the constitution, allowing him to run for a sixth term in 2021” (p. 13). In many other countries where regular democratic elections have occurred between 2015 and 2021—Kenya, the DRC, Benin Republic, Malawi, Senegal, Nigeria—voter suppression efforts by incumbent presidents have shaken the faith of the electorate in their democracy. As Godwin Murunga of the University of Nairobi put it, “We have countries conducting elections that are legal but are illegitimate” (quoted in Olewe, 2019). To this list should be added Senegal and Botswana, two African countries with long-standing reputations as “stable democracies.” During the 2019 elections in Senegal, incumbent President Macky Sall barred two popular opposition candidates from contesting the elections (BBC News, 2019), while Ian Khama flagrantly exhibited “an intolerance of opposition and distaste for civil society beyond anything seen previously from the long-ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP)” (Diamond, 2015, p. 146).

As distasteful as these political practices are, however, they pale in comparison to the growing incidence of outright overthrow of elected African governments by military coup d’état (Okeke, 2018). The Central African Republic (CAR), Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Niger, Chad, Mali, and Guinea all experienced military coups between 2017 and 2019 (Keane, 2019; Mackintosh, 2017). In fact, four coups—in Niger, Chad, Mali, and Guinea—occurred in one year, 2021 (Mwai, 2021). On January 24, 2022, the government of Burkina Faso was toppled in a coup. One week later, on February 1, 2022, an attempt to overthrow the government of Guinea Bissau through a coup occurred (Walsh, 2022). In many of these cases, the AU has stepped in to condemn the coup. It has leveraged its institutional power, prestige, and network to deny these unconstitutional regimes legitimacy in Africa and the international community. It has also threatened to wield the big stick of economic sanctions and suspension from the prestigious continental organization if democracy was not restored quickly. This worked in all the cases of military coups except those in Sudan and Guinea, where the juntas have shown no interest in restoring democratic rule in the near term. Some scholars believe the AU’s consistent and public opposition to unconstitutional regime change in Africa may have deterred many more coups, especially considering the groundswell of public disaffection with many African democratic regimes’ propensity to rig elections, intimidate the media, and circumvent constitutional provisions for term limits (Okeke, 2018, p. 236). Clearly, these developments demonstrate the fragility of democracy in Africa; however, Africa is not alone in this regard in the contemporary world. Freedom House (2021) reported that the “proportion of Not Free countries is now the highest it has been in the past 15 years” (p. 3). Democracy Under Siege—the subtitle of its 2021 report, Freedom in the World—captured the global scale of democratic recession, with the dispirited conclusion that “the international balance [had shifted] in favor of tyranny” (p. 1). There is no more powerful evidence to support this conclusion than Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022—after several months of denying that it intended to do so—ostensibly to prevent Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but, in reality, according to (Kirby, 2022), a brazen attempt to destroy Ukraine’s “vibrant democracy” and impose a pro-Moscow regime in Kyiv.

In the face of these democratic challenges and growing illiberal tendencies regionally and globally, it is impressive that African institutions, such as national courts, the media, regional organizations, and civil society, have demonstrated extraordinary resilience in defending their young democracy. For instance, between 2016 and 2021, in some of the most contentious elections in Africa, such as in Nigeria, Kenya, and Malawi, the judiciary weighed in and the candidates and their supporters accepted their verdict, even if grudgingly. (They did not storm their parliament, as occurred in the United States on January 6, 2021.) That in itself was victory for democracy and the rule of law in Africa. President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi, Chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), whose own victory in the 2021 Malawi elections was restored by the intervention of the constitutional court, captured this sentiment in an essay published in Newsweek magazine in 2021: “Freedom House might have declared ‘democracy [is] under siege’ globally. But here in Africa, democratic backsliding is being reversed when votes for change in Zambia are respected and elections found fraudulent are rejected by the courts and re-run—as they were in Kenya in 2017 and my own Malawi last year” (Chakwera, 2021). Complaints about aging leaders who cling on to power are rife. As Banégas and Popineau (2021) found in Côte d’Ivoire, where the decades-long running “triangular rivalry” between President Ouattara (78 years old), Bédié (86 years old), and Gbagbo (75 years old), turned violent, locals have coined the term Korocracy to describe, deride, and challenge “the reproduction of a gerontocratic order” (p. 462). The solution to this and other challenges of governance may be found in the demographic transformation that is underway in Africa.

Demographic Transformation

The third development in Africa that will affect the emerging global order is the demographic transformation that is currently underway. Analysis of UN demographic data confirms what some studies have highlighted: a demographic sea change is occurring in Africa (Mills et al., 2017). So, what is the nature of the demographic transition in sub-Saharan Africa and why does it matter? According to the United Nations (2019b): “Sub-Saharan Africa will account for most of the growth of the world’s population over the coming decades, while several other regions will begin to experience decreasing population numbers” (p. 6). As Figure 3 shows, the population of sub-Saharan Africa, which stood at 1.1 billion in 2020, is projected to rise to 1.4 billion in 2030, and it should surpass the 2 billion mark by midcentury in 2050. At that pace, it is projected that sub-Saharan Africa will become “the most populous” global region by 2062, “surpassing both Eastern and Southeastern Asia and Central and Southern Asia in size” (p. 6). By 2100, the population of sub-Saharan Africa will reach 3.7 billion people, out of the world’s projected total population of 10.9 billion people. In terms of percentage, Africa’s share of the world population will rise from 14% in 2020 to 25% in 2060. By 2100, sub-Saharan Africa will account for more than one third of the world’s population. That is a huge jump from 1960, when sub-Saharan Africa accounted for just 7% of the world’s population (United Nations, 2017).

Figure 3. Comparison of population projections for the world and Africa.

Source: Adapted from the United Nations (2019a).

Another important feature of Africa’s changing demographic is the relative youthfulness of its population: “In sub-Saharan Africa, . . . 62% of the population [was] below age 25 in 2019,” and the percentage is projected to decline “only slightly, to 59% in 2030 and to . . . around 52% in 2050” (United Nations, 2019b, p. 14). Africa’s working-age population (i.e., those between 25 and 64 years old) accounted for 35% of the total population as of 2019, and it is projected to rise to 43% by 2050 and 50% by 2100. This means that nearly 9 out of every 10 Africans today is under 64 years old. According to the United Nations (2019b), “These conditions can yield an opportunity for accelerated economic growth known as the ‘demographic dividend’” (p. 14). These conditions have political implications as well, as they present an opportunity for African youth to change the gerontocratic narrative in Africa, just as they are doing in the economic arena.

What are the drivers of Africa’s population growth? Three factors explain Africa’s rising population: high fertility rates, declining infant mortality rates, and increasing life expectancy. All three demographic factors reinforce the argument of this article that Africa has made important and measurable progress in the 21st century, especially in the area of human development.

Sub-Saharan Africa has high fertility rates. Of the 22 countries with the highest fertility rates in the world in 2017, 20 were in Africa, including Nigeria, the DRC, Tanzania, and Uganda (United Nations, 2017, p. xxiv). This trend continued two years later: “Of the 36 countries or areas with fertility levels above four births per woman in 2019, 33 are found in sub-Saharan Africa” (United Nations, 2019b, p. 24). The trend is hardly surprising. As Hans Rosling, the renowned Scandinavian statistician, has noted, poor societies tend to have high birth rates, and the rates tend to fall as societies become more prosperous (BBC News, 2015). UN data show that sub-Saharan Africa is following that historical trend. The African fertility rate fell from 6.3 children per woman in 1990 to 4.6 children per woman in 2019. It is expected to drop even further, to 3.1, by 2050, and by 2100 the difference between the projected world birth rate (2.1) and the African birth rate (1.9) would become statistically insignificant (United Nations, 2019b, p. 24).

The second explanation for Africa’s rising population is the sharp decline in infant mortality rates since 1960. To be sure, infant mortality rates in Africa are still quite high. UN data show that “a child born in sub-Saharan Africa is 20 times as likely to die before his or her fifth birthday as a child born in Australia/New Zealand” (United Nations, 2019b, p. 30). Even so, progress in this area has been astonishing. Between 1960 and 1965, 23.1 children out of every 1,000 live births died before their fifth birthday. By 2010 to 2015, that number had been cut by more than half, and the rate of decline is projected to continue well past the midcentury. Improvements in education, pre- and postnatal care, and nutrition have combined to bring down infant mortality rates in Africa.

The third factor contributing factor to Africa’s rising population is increasing life expectancy. Slowly but steadily, life expectancy has risen in Africa. Data show that Africans are living longer. According to the United Nations (2019b), “With a projected gain of 7.4 years between 2019 and 2050, when it could reach 68.5 years, sub-Saharan Africa has the largest expected improvement to life expectancy at birth among the eight SDG regions” (p. 30; emphasis added). UN data show that life expectancy rose from 49.4 years in 1990 to 61.1 years in 2019 and, as stated, is projected to reach 68.5 years in 2050. There are sex differences in life expectancy: African women are living longer than African men, and the gap between them is widening. Although the life expectancy of an African at birth is still much lower than that for newborns in other regions, the gap has narrowed, and the UN projects that sustained improvements in governance and human development will narrow the gap even further by 2100.

Improvements in governance and human development in Africa since the beginning of the 21st century also help explain Africa’s successes in combating HIV/AIDS and other pandemic diseases. HIV/AIDS ravaged sub-Saharan Africa for the two decades between 1990 and 2010. According to an analysis by the World Bank (2018), “In 1997, 16% of Zambians ages 15 [to] 49 were infected with HIV, and life expectancy was 43 years” (p. 10). In 2000, according to Booker and Colgan (2004), fewer than 2% of HIV/AIDS patients in Africa had “access to life-saving treatments that . . . [had] cut death rates so dramatically in the United States and other wealthy countries” (p. 233). That began to change during the George W. Bush Administration with the introduction of the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other international efforts to mitigate the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. Launched in 2003, PEPFAR committed $30 billion between 2003 and 2008 to fighting HIV/AIDS and worked with pharmaceutical companies and public health professionals to provide access to hitherto unaffordable medications to patients throughout sub-Saharan Africa. By 2007, no less than 1.3 million HIV/AIDS patients in Africa were receiving life-saving antiretroviral medications through PEPFAR (Adibe, 2014, p. 43). The result was spectacular. By 2017, in countries like Zambia and Uganda, where the HIV/AIDS crisis was most pronounced, infections, transmission rates, and fatality rates had dropped sharply, and life expectancy had shot up. According to a study by the World Bank (2018), in Zambia, for example, “better treatments . . . allowed life expectancy to recover to 62 years” by 2015 (p. 10). African states have applied some of the lessons learned from this tragedy, such as early detection, community education and mobilization, and interagency coordination, to their responses to other pandemics, such as the Ebola outbreak and Covid-19 pandemic.

To universal surprise, the Covid-19 pandemic has not wreaked the kind of havoc on Africa that many public health experts had feared and predicted because of two prevailing factors in Africa. The first factor was best captured by Nuwagira and Muzoora (2020), who attributed the fear of the deadly impact of Covid-19 on Africa to the spread of Covid-19 from Wuhan, China, “since there were . . . frequent and large travel volumes between Asia and Africa due to the good commercial relationships between the two continents” (p. 1). In just one decade, from 2010 to 2020, “air transport between China and Africa [had] risen to about 630% as a result of the rapid expansion of Chinese investments in Africa” (Nuwagira & Muzoora, 2020, p. 1). In the absence of any concerted effort initially to impose a travel ban, the increased air traffic flow rendered Africa vulnerable to Covid-19 transmission from the Chinese mainland. The second factor was the well-documented lack of adequate health and other socioeconomic infrastructure across much of Africa. For example, according to El-Sadr and Justman (2020), Kenya had “only 200 intensive care beds for its entire population of 50 million” (compared to “the United States, which has 34 beds for every 100,000 people”), and extremely few ventilators were available in Africa to serve its over 1 billion citizens (p. e11.1). Worse still, in many communities across Africa, “people live together in close quarters, which makes social distancing, a critical prevention strategy, more difficult. Millions of people live without access to clean running water, which makes frequent handwashing all but impossible” (p. e11.1). Given these conditions, a team of researchers wrote in the highly respected British medical journal The Lancet that African countries would be “unable to quickly scale up an epidemic response” to Covid-19 (Martinez-Alvarez et al., 2020, p. e631). Not surprisingly, a study by Maeda and Nkengasong (2021) showed that many experts predicted that “up to 70 million Africans” could contract Covid-19 by June 2020, “with more than 3 million deaths” (p. 27).

Three years into the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2022, it appeared that Africa had defied these ominous predictions: Africa placed at the bottom of confirmed global cases of Covid-19 and deaths from the pandemic as of February 25, 2022. Of the major regions of the world, Africa has the lowest cases of infection and death from Covid-19. The Coronavirus (Covid-19) Dashboard of the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that Africa has recorded 8.3 million confirmed Covid-19 cases out of 430 million cases worldwide since the pandemic began. Africa’s share of the nearly 6 million lives that the world has lost due to Covid-19 was just under 170,000 as of February 25, 2022 (WHO, 2022a). By comparison, during the same period, Europe recorded 176 million Covid-19 confirmed cases and 1.86 million deaths. In the Americas, the United States alone accounts for 78 million of the region’s 146 million Covid-19 cases, and nearly 1 million out of the region’s 2.6 million deaths as of February 25, 2022 (WHO, 2022a). Africa’s relative success in this area cannot be attributed to luck or even to geography—that is, its warm climate (Martinez-Alvarez et al., 2020). Instead, a growing body of research shows that a combination of Africa’s youthful population, prior experiences with pandemics, openness to international cooperation, humility, and, most significantly for the Covid-19 pandemic, swift and strong mitigation efforts by governments helped stave off the worst-case scenario that had been feared by experts (El-Sadr & Justman, 2020; Maeda & Nkengasong, 2021; Martinez-Alvarez et al., 2020; Rosenthal et al., 2020). Africa’s long tradition of intergovernmental coordination and, to the surprise of many, timely leadership had a significant impact on the outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic on the continent. According to Maeda and Nkengasong (2021), “The continent reacted in a timely and collective manner once the first cases of SARS-Cov-2 were reported in Egypt on 14 February 2020. Following that, on 22 February 2020, the Africa CDC [Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention] convened an emergency meeting of all ministers of health . . . in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,” where they adopted a “joint continental strategy that had three goals: limit transmission, limit deaths, and limit social and economic harms” (p. 28). They also established the Africa Taskforce on Coronavirus (AFTCOR) to speed up coordination, cooperation, collaboration, and communication among national decision makers and stakeholders in regional and global institutions, such as the AfDB, UNECA, and WHO. In March 2020, AfDB “launched a $3 billion social bond to address the pandemic, the largest bond ever issued by the bank,” and more financial resources “were freed from funds for control of Ebola virus disease” in order to fight Covid-19 (Rosenthal et al., 2020, p. 1145). Put simply, according to Rosenthal et al. (2020), African states “reacted quickly to Covid-19” and AFTCOR “worked diligently to deliver on six work streams: laboratory diagnosis and subtyping; surveillance, including screening at points of entry and cross-border activities; infection prevention and control in healthcare facilities; clinical management of severe Covid-19; risk communication; and supply chain management and stockpiles” (p. 1145). Africa’s quick and coordinated response to Covid-19 stands in contrast to the responses of the United States and China, which, according to Fidler (2020), treated the pandemic “as another front in their [geopolitical] rivalry for power and influence” (p. 749). They were hardly alone. The world’s richest states, in general, cast aside ethical and epidemiological considerations in their quest to corner the market for personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits, and other life-saving equipment during the early stages of the pandemic. In what became known as “vaccine nationalism,” rich states hoarded Covid-19 vaccines when they became available in early 2021. According to Fidler (2020), “this scramble to secure vaccine supplies is one of the many decisions by [rich] governments that have failed to control spread of the virus, destroyed economic activity, and damaged international cooperation. Ineffective nationalistic policies appear to create a gap between science and politics that makes the pandemic worse” (p. 749). (WHO, 2022b) Covid-19 vaccination data capture the resulting inequality in vaccination rates. As of February 25, 2022, the Western Pacific region had the highest rate of fully vaccinated people, at 81%, followed by the Americas (65.41%), Europe (61.21%), and Southeast Asia (53%). Africa had the lowest rate of fully vaccinated people, at only 10.7%, which made its low Covid-19 infection and death rates even more remarkable.

In sum, the combination of a youthful population, declining infant mortality, rising life expectancy (due to improvements in education, nutrition, and healthcare), and coordinated government responses to pandemics has altered Africa’s trajectory in the 21st century. Longevity and youthfulness are elements of the demography that bode well for Africa’s future. The sheer size of the youth population will have an enormous impact on Africa’s future across all elements of society. According to Mahajan (2009), African youth are “fast and connected.” They differ from their parents’ generation, “the group that is still in power but very much mired in the past.” African youth “are demanding democracy, transparency, and an end to corruption.” Not only are they “a force that is changing politics and driving economics, [but] also [they are] redefining the future of the African consumer market” (p. 130).

Implications for World Order

One of the greatest strategic failures of the American-led liberal international order in the post-Cold War era was the deliberate marginalization of Africa: the treatment of African peoples and their issues as an afterthought. This was underscored in 2005 in a report by the US National Intelligence Council, which concluded that “sub-Saharan Africa [would] become less important to the international economy” over the next 15 years (United States National Intelligence Council, 2018). How could an entire continent be so coldly characterized and easily dismissed by the world’s hegemonic power? A world order cannot exist if any part of the world is out of its purview, for, as Kagan (2018) put it, “the world is not a collection of distinct regions nearly walled off from one another. We may call one region ‘Europe,’ one ‘Asia,’ and one ‘the Middle East,’. . . [but this] is an artificial construct. . . . Regions abut one another and bleed into one another; their histories, cultures, and religions as well as their economies are tightly entangled” (pp. 157–158). The ongoing strategic contest between the United States and China for global preeminence is shaped, in part, by their differing views of the world.

Far from being a marginal player in the world, Africa has been part of the equation in the geopolitical realignment that has been taking shape since the beginning of the 21st century. Perhaps the biggest factor in this area is the global war on terror, which necessitated the creation of the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the Pentagon by the Bush administration in 2007 (McFate, 2008). Since then, AFRICOM has deployed several missions across Africa to combat Islamic terrorists and their local offshoots, while also supporting local and regional forces to better secure their countries against domestic and international terrorist threats. An exposé by Turse and Naylor (2019) put the number of such missions currently underway across Africa at about three dozen. Despite that, security problems have persisted.

Strong Western military influence in Africa contrasts sharply with its increasingly weak economic influence on the continent. In the area of economic diplomacy, China’s savvy and depth have been unmatched. As many studies have demonstrated, although China has had a long relationship with Africa that predates the independence era, its influence on the continent is a late 20th-century phenomenon that was driven largely by Western countries’ rebuke of China’s human rights record in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 (Brautigam, 2010; Taylor & Williams, 2004; Youde, 2007). At the time, the majority of African states resisted Western political pressure against China and instead supported Beijing in major international forums, such as the United Nations. That political solidarity soon developed into a close economic relationship, which Africans view as a partnership, devoid of the paternalism to which they had painfully become accustomed in their dealings with Western powers. More importantly for African leaders, the Chinese do not lecture African governments on human rights or attach political conditionalities to their “gifts” and investments (Brautigam, 2010).

Figure 4. Africa’s top bilateral creditors (%).

Early in this century, China overtook the United States and Africa’s former European colonial powers as the single largest bilateral source of credit and FDI inflow in Africa. As Figure 4 shows, China accounted for 13% of Africa’s debt in 2019. The United States was a distant second, at 4%, followed by France (2.9%) and Saudi Arabia (2.5%). As the 20th century taught us, that level of financial prominence has geopolitical implications, and political alliance tends to track economic alliance.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of China for African leaders is that Chinese leaders understand Africa’s need for infrastructure and industries. In the words of a Chinese investor in Africa, “The train of development—which station first and then which station you need to go through—we Chinese know exactly what the path is. . . . For Africa, the Western path is unwalkable” (quoted in Sun, 2017, p. 19). Sun (2017) further elaborated on this sentiment:

Over the past century, Africa has been the premier testing ground for multiple waves of Western ideas about poverty alleviation. To be sure, Western development programs that help with things like educating children are important for other reasons, but they will not create 100 million jobs and lift half a billion people out of poverty. If we are serious about raising living standards across this vast region of the world, it is time to try something new. That something new has already started moving to Africa: factories. (p. 6; emphasis added)

Sun’s confidence that “factories are the bridge that connects China, the current Factory of the world, to Africa, the next Factory of the world” is backed up by the dismal performance of the manufacturing sector in Africa (Sun, 2017, p. 6). An analysis of the structure of the African economy shows that Africa’s agricultural sector contributed just 18.1% to GDP in 2009, and 17.3% in 2016. The manufacturing sector fared even worse, contributing a meager 10.7% to Africa’s GDP in 2009, and 11% in 2016. By contrast, the service sector accounted for nearly half (47.2%) of Africa’s GDP in 2009, and that figure rose to 54.4% of GDP in 2016 (UNECA, 2018). Two years later, in 2018, data from UNECA showed that very little had changed: the service sector accounted for more than half of Africa’s GDP (52.5%), while manufacturing continued to hover around 10% of GDP (UNECA, 2021, p. 80). As Piketty (2014) demonstrated in his landmark study of the crisis of capitalism, this economic structure is a recipe for disaster because it cannot create real wealth, offer employment to the teeming population that needs it, or build and sustain a middle class. China understands this because the Chinese had experienced it as recently as the 1970s, and they overcame this problem by building a robust agricultural sector and a sizable manufacturing sector through industrialization. So, the Chinese have come to Africa to build factories—lots of them—and the infrastructure that supports the factories. Sun (2017) recalled that Chinese firms made just two investments in Africa in 2000. By 2015, she and her team counted “more than fifteen hundred Chinese firms engaged in manufacturing” in just eight African countries out of many where they have established presence (p. 6). From Ethiopia and Kenya to Lesotho and Nigeria, Chinese factories are churning out industrial products that African consumers need: ceramic tiles for homes and offices, fabrics and apparel that people wear, steel rods and steel sheets for the construction and fabrication industry, and the like (Bright & Hruby, 2015; Sun, 2017). The goal of China’s latest project, the Belt and Road Initiative, is to connect Africa (through the port of Mombasa in Kenya) to Europe, the Middle East, and its economic hub in Asia (Nantulya, 2019). With its focus on job creation through industrialization and economic integration, China has quickly established itself as a formidable competitor for the heart and soul of Africans in the struggle for primacy in the 21st century. That is the very essence of the “soft power” strategy that some theorists of international relations have long advocated for the United States and the West to better reflect the new power dynamic of the 21st century (Haass, 2017; Nye, 2011).

Figure 5. African GDP by sector (%).

A study published in 2020 showed that other countries are following China’s example in their African diplomacy. Soulé (2020) found that 320 new embassies were opened in Africa between 2010 and 2016. Of these, “Turkey alone opened 26, and now has more of a presence in Africa than on any [other] continent” (p. 635). Summit Diplomacy or “Africa+1” has also increased in number and importance since China made it the focus of its Africa diplomacy at the beginning of the 21st century. There have been a Middle East–Africa summit, Turkey–Africa summit, Russia–Africa summit, Africa–France summit, and “the first” UK–Africa investment summit, which was held in 2020 (Soulé, 2020, p. 636). In fact, African states now prioritize these specialized summits over traditional multilateral diplomacy, such as UN summits. As evidence, Soulé (2020), pointed to the 48 African heads of state who attended the 2018 FOCAC summit in Beijing, compared to only 27 who showed up for the 2017 UN General Assembly summit in New York (pp. 636–637). The summits are not photo-ops either, as African states use them to “express and exert agency in both symbolic and substantial ways” (Soulé, 2020, p. 636). Their goals in the summits are to attract investments, to reduce their external dependency by diversifying their economic partners, to reclaim and enlarge their economic policy space, to promote their countries’ visibility, and to expand their networks (Soulé, 2020, p. 638). Because of the significant diffusion of power in the international system in the 21st century, this method of diplomacy is scalable to include not just more nation-state actors but also heads of corporations and foundations, whose influence and resources have grown substantially in the 21st century. As Slaughter and LaForge (2021) noted: “Five giant technology companies—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft—have a combined market capitalization of roughly $7 trillion, greater than the GDP of every country except China and the United States” (p. 158). In Nigeria, a state government—the government of Rivers State—partnered with a top European Football club, Real Madrid, in establishing a football academy in Port Harcourt to develop and market young footballers in this football-obsessed nation. Such is the potential that exists for harnessing the power of nonstate actors in the new age of power diffusion.


In conclusion, image matters, and it matters even more in the highly decentralized and networked world of the 21st century. In international relations, the problem of imagination has been laid bare by “constructivist” theorists who seek to demonstrate and interrogate the power relations embedded in the process of knowledge production by emphasizing the “social construction of subjectivity” (Wendt, 1992, p. 393). For so long, Africa has been imagined and reproduced in international relations as lacking in agency, as a periphery of the global periphery, and as a recipient, rather than producer, of value. Africa should be reimagined to better our understanding of its agential role in international politics, which has long been hidden in plain sight. Africa’s web of crosscutting bilateral and multilateral intergovernmental institutions is unequaled in the modern world. Economic, political, and demographic forces are transforming Africa in this century. Africans are turning problems into opportunities. African youth are driving economic change with their technological savvy. New economic sectors are opening up, capital and labor are moving more freely, GDP is expanding, people are living longer, and governments are being challenged internally and externally to do more and to be better at what they do. As this article demonstrates, Africa’s measurable progress is significant, but also tenuous, as human progress tends to be. Reimagining Africa requires acknowledging and highlighting Africa’s progress where it exists, just as readily as Africa’s failures have been emphasized in the literature and popular imagination. As President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi put it so elegantly, we “should steadily challenge perceptions that Africa and Africans are merely recipients of aid, lacking in agency” (Chakwera, 2021). The fact of Africa’s agency was on full display on February 21, 2022, at the United Nations headquarters in New York when Kenya’s UN ambassador, Martin Kimani, addressed an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He condemned Russia’s invasion of its less-powerful neighbor as a legacy of colonialism and emergent forms of dominion and oppression (United Nations Security Council, 2022; Woodyatt, 2022). The African experience, Ambassador Kimani opined, teaches the world to avoid looking “ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia” but instead to look forward to a productive and fulfilling future through greater “political, economic, and legal integration” and respect for multilateralism.

Further Reading



  • 1. M stands for Mobile, while Pesa means money in Swahili, a language spoken widely throughout East Africa. So, M-Pesa means “mobile money.”

  • 2. Members of the Paris Club are: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and India (as an observer since 2019).

  • 3. Bilateral and multilateral loans come with myriad conditionalities. By contrast, private commercial bond issuances do not; they rely instead on credit-rating agencies for their risk assessment. For that reason, commercial bond issuances have become “an increasingly popular source of funding” among African states (AfDB, 2021, p. 52).

  • 4. China, Africa’s top bilateral lender, is not a member of the Paris Club.