Africa: Change can only come from the inside

Prof. Chibuike Uche is the chairholder of the Stephen Ellis Chair for the Governance of Finance and Integrity in Africa.


A few days before his sack was announced, Rex Tillerson, the outgoing American Secretary of State, warned African countries not to give up their sovereignty by accepting loans from China. This is sound advice, even though it is coming from a man who represents a country that has arguably contributed the most - at least from the outside of Africa - to the perpetration of poor governance and political instability in the continent.

CIA’s implications
It is for instance public knowledge that both during and after the Cold War, the CIA has been implicated in both the overthrow and sustenance in power of some African leaders mainly with the objective of protecting America’s economic and political interests. In 1966, for instance, after the CIA helped to facilitate the overthrow of President Nkrumah of Ghana, a US Government official declared that Nkrumah did “more to undermine our interests than any other black African”. By far the most glaring evidence of the negative consequences of US self-interest determined interventions in Africa is the 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The security consequences of this act on Africa, which continues to reverberate far beyond Libya’s borders, is yet to be fully comprehended.

The interest of the big powers
Many international organizations have also been constructed to protect mainly the interests of the big powers. In the United Nations, for example, few countries have been awarded the privilege to veto decisions of the majority. It is also not surprising that the IMF and the World Bank, which are dominated by Western powers, are the principal apostles of free markets. Poor African countries with very shallow money and capital markets have been forced to liberalize their capital accounts and economies. These have turned these economies into speculative fields for foreign capital. Capital account liberalization serves the interest of Western powers whose currencies are convertible and thus widely used in international trade and as reserve currencies globally.

However, not all free market dynamics are respected by Western countries. International financial institutions turn a blind eye when Europe and the US subsidize their agriculture. More recently, President Trump has announced the imposition of tariffs to protect the US steel industry.

China’s engagement in Africa
The above concerns do not impact on the soundness of Rex Tillerson’s advice. This is because China’s strategy and objective for engaging in Africa is not materially different from that of USA. Like the USA, the main purpose of China’s engagement in Africa is to advance its economic and political interests. Loans and development grants are all tools China is at liberty to use to achieve its objectives. These tools played a key role in helping China to displace the USA as Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009.

Change from the inside
Given the self-interest pursuit of external actors in Africa, I am convinced that positive change in the continent can only come from the inside. Aliko Dangote, Africa’s biggest entrepreneur and richest man, has practicalised this point with the rapid expansion of his cement business across Africa. Within a very short time, Dangote Cement has become Africa’s largest cement producer and the dominant cement producer in almost a dozen countries in Africa. This is an industry where major cement multinationals like Lafarge, Heidelberg and Holcim have long operated in the continent. The tragedy of Africa is laid bare by the fact that until the emergence of Dangote, the continent - which is awash with limestone - remained a major importer of cement, a high bulk and low cost product. Despite the fact that over half of the cost of imported cement relates to freight, making it cheaper to produce cement in Africa than import it, Africa remained a major importer of cement until the emergence of Dangote Cement.

Net exporter of capital
The current state of the financial flows in Africa also supports the assertion that change in Africa can only come from the inside. Although Africa is widely portrayed as being in need of capital, the fact remains that Africa has consistently been a net exporter of capital. In 2015, for instance, African countries received $162bn, mainly in loans, aid and personal remittances, while $203bn was taken from the continent. About a third of this ($68bn) was taken out in capital flight “(…) mainly by multinational companies deliberately misreporting the value of their imports or exports to reduce tax.” This is more than the combined amount Africa received as remittances ($31.2bn) and loans to its various governments ($32,8bn). It was also more than 4 times the net Foreign Direct Investment Equity that entered the continent in the said year ($15.8bn).

Africa a ‘risky place’
It is also public knowledge that most foreign businesses in Africa perceive the continent as a very risky (but also very profitable) place to do business. It is as a consequence of the above that most of such businesses are generally reluctant to undertake capital intensive investments with long gestation periods in the continent. Such companies usually focus on integrating their African operations with their global value chains rather than developing local value chains that are based on the specificities of their host environment. In the eyes of such companies, Africa is seen more as a market than a place for production and value addition.

Another consequence of the above dynamics is that most foreign businesses operating in the continent adopt active dividend policies. This explains why profits legally repatriated by multinational companies in 2015 ($32.4bn) were more than twice the amount of Net Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Africa in the said year. It was also more than the official aid received from all OECD countries in the said year ($19.1bn).   

For the above dynamics to change, the governance and business environment in Africa must change. Assistance and/ or interventions from China or USA, even if well intentioned, cannot change this fact. Only Africans can get themselves out of what President Donald Trump has described as its “shithole”.

Top photo: Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf of Djibouti greets (former) US Secretary Rex Tillerson, on his arrival in Djibouti, 9 March 2018 (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Allyson L. Manners). Source

This post has been written for the ASCL Africanist Blog. Would you like to stay updated on new blog posts? Subscribe here! Would you like to comment? Please do! The ASCL reserves the right to edit, shorten or reject submitted comments.


Rex Tillerson
Donald Trump
financial institutions
capital flight
foreign businesses


Organization/ affiliation: 
University of Lagos, Nigeria

Yes, Africa has to dig itself out of a big hole. There are institutional and systemic challenges, which need to be tackled internally by individual African states. Internal reforms and heavy investment in education, health and infrastructure (railways, in particular) are critical. We need external support, but not at the expense of our sovereignty. Leadership failure is a big issue here - the Mo Ibrahim Prize is a clear indicator of mass failure among African leaders.
My "original" contribution is that Africans should tackle the challenges on two platforms: the RECs and sub-regional hubs. As for the latter, Nigeria, Cameroun, DRC, Angola, Namibia, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and South Africa must emerge as key hubs to drive development in their sub-regions. We need democratic developmental states for a start. Rwanda, Botswana and Namibia, and to some extent, Ethiopia, are showing signs of exemplary development in this direction. Nigeria, Angola and DRC must wake up! We need more of such lodestars in Africa.

Organization/ affiliation: 
University of Nigeria, Nsukka (& Enugu Campus)

This new point of departure, in my view, is quite commendable, and amounts to 'speaking truth to power'. Professor Izak J. van der Merwe in confirming the marginalisation of Africa and Africans in his ground-breaking article titled, 'The Global Cities of Sub-Saharan Africa: Fact or Fictions?' (Urban Forum, 2004, p. 40), recounted that "...the hierarchical nature of globalisation has tended to give millions of Africans a raw deal as the most likely groups to be excluded anywhere in the world, if they attempt to cross the boundaries of poverty and powerlessness." How can this 'raw deal' whose ramifications are unfolding daily be confronted and perhaps reversed? Is it possible to adopt a 'live and let's live' ideology in this age and time? These, to me, are the basic questions facing African and Africanist researchers. I do sincerely agree with the blogger, Prof Uche, that real change for African countries and cities can only come from within - albeit with help from genuine development partners!

Organization/ affiliation: 
University of Nigeria

The way forward envisions transition from infrastructure paradigm to spatial integration paradigm for production economy in Africa. The critical question is: to what extent is the transition envisioned possible in the context of global neoliberal development ideology and its planning instrument? The highest possible prospect for change suggests activities at three levels: meta-theoretical, theoretical and practical.
Activities at the meta-theoretical level should leverage alternative ideology as thinking instrument for development planning in Africa. The alternative ideology must discontinue with the general ethical precepts of conformity with market force and anti-protectionist stance of neoliberalism. This ideology will serve as meta-theory for planning that will redirect attention from infrastructure build to the space economy (that is to say the integrated use of space for production economy) paradigm in the region. Thus theoretically the spatial context of planning is emphasized for production economy. In practical terms planning will tilt significantly towards creative land use planning for reworking the existing space economy that is held in Okeke (2016) to be extroverted (in other words redundant in favour of consumer economy).