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Thought Thursdays
Africa at a tipping point


“Africa at a tipping point” was the theme of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s annual leadership and corporate governance forum in Marrakesh, Morocco, in April. As on previous occasions, this forum brought together a large number of influential leaders from all sectors across Africa and the world for an insightful discussion about Africa, based on facts and data provided by, among others, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
Three sub-themes were dealt with, namely the lure of violent extremism and migration; the risk of a democratic recession; and the need for inclusive economic growth and job creation for the youth of Africa. The forum was presented in a refreshing way. The strictly rational discussions were supported by substantive documents (The Forum Report and  Africa at Data Explosion), which contain a range of data and facts. The sub-themes were interspersed with related interviews conducted by Mo Ibrahim with social activist and rockstar Bono, CEO of Unilever Paul Polman, and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, and lively musical performances by Hugh Masekele and Angelique Kidjo, which kept the energy levels high. 

Violent extremism and migration

Since 2006, terrorism has increased by more than 1 000% on the continent, with a sharp rise between 2013 and 2014. Although terror groups have varied targets, it is the citizenry which is most often (35% ) the target of attacks. Terror groups are becoming sophisticated and work according to business models that include good financial management, human resources (recruiting), marketing (via all media), etc.

Kofi Annan made an important point, namely that in lands where basic services are poor or are even ignored, bitter frustrations are aroused, which lead to all sorts of groupings around these frustrations. Over the past ten years, protest action has increased about tenfold. External extremists find such conditions to be fertile ground for their ideas and as soon as the internal groups are influenced by them, their way is clear through, among others, corrupt officials and porous land and sea boundaries. Jean-Marie Guéhenno, president of the International Crisis Group, placed strong emphasis on how terrorism flourishes amid chaos. When leaders apply good corporate governance and provide good basic services to workers, the viability of extremist groups is lessened.

The democratic recession

Kofi Annan made an important point: democracy is not restricted to one day every four or five years when people vote. It is a system of governmnent that upholds the seperation of powers, and that respects and allows various freedoms such as the freedom of speech, thought, religion and expression. Any government that naïvely disregards these freedoms loses its legitimacy, regardless of the election it has won. Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, therefore appealed to the youth to become involved. 

In 2016, the average age of presidents in Africa was 66, while the median age of the populations was 20! In the same year, there were 16 countries where the presidents had governed their countries for periods between 10 and 37 years, and their ages ranged between 45 and 93. For more than a quarter of Africa’s population the leader has not changed over the past ten years. The question is rightfully asked whether these leaders are in touch with the needs of their people, given their age differences. 

There is a decline in voter participation (64,9% to 62,8%) in more than half of African countries (20 out of 38) which have had two or more presidential elections in the past decade. Rwanda, however, is the country with the highest participation (97,5%). On the positive side, there is a growing sense of ownership, especially where the African Union and other regional bodies monitor the elections. The Afrobarometer reports that the inhabitants of 36 African countries have a positive view of the quality of their respective elections.

The need for inclusive economic growth and job creation for African youth

The youth of Africa are expected to almost double between 2015 and 2050, from 230 million to 452 million. The reality is that even the rapidly growing economies on the continent do not succeed in creating enough work for the youth. This is a sobering experience for the youth. Between 35% and about 50% of the youth with tertiary training in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Mozambique and Ghana leave their countries in search of opportunities elsewhere in the world. Achieving rapid and strong economic growth is one way of addressing the problem, but to be sustainable and to combat poverty the growth must occur across all sectors and must engage as many of the countries’ workers as possible. We have the necessary human material and the natural resources; we just need responsible leadership to realise the goals. 

It was refreshing to see how much Aliko Dangote, executive head of the Dangote Group, invests in the economy and how many work opportunities he creates by doing so. His request was however clear: as a businessman, he wants a stable environment, otherwise he and others cannot risk making investments. Along with this, there is the issue of the empowering of and mediation on behalf of women on the continent. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, used the metaphor of a bird which needs two wings to fly, saying that at present Africa is attempting to fly with just one, namely men.

Is Africa’s development an illusion? This was the question posed during the Africa Report debate and it elicited exceptional responses. The underlying question that was debated was whether the  development which we are able to observe does indeed advantage the people of the continent. Opinions differed starkly and it was pointed out that, in spite of years of outstanding commodity prices, no substantive infrastructure has been built and that the continent has merely experienced an increase in joblessness. Unemployment is largely the result of a feverish participation in the commodity market without really going about this in a way that adds value and creates work. Nevertheless, there is evidence that poverty is decreasing.

The  session of the B Team​ addressed the issue of the ending of nameless companies in the context of the Panama Papers. Nameless companies are the escape vehicle for corruption in the business world and, as such, they reduce the good value and purpose that a company can hold for society. The question on the table is why regulators are so slow in this regard. What is the advantage for society of these layers upon layers of forms of secrecy? In its place, the world needs transparency around ownership, which has the conspicuous advantage of encouraging competition, reducing risk (since one knows with whom one is doing business), and improving the management of financial exposure, thus diminishing the chances that ‘tricksters’ in business can escape intact. 

There is, however, another firmly held perspective, that is the matter of the social contract between a government and a company. This contract is founded on five pillars, namely the government provides security, health services, infrastructure, commercial justice and education. In exchange the business undertakes to create employment and, among others, to employ youth; to create wealth; and to make a contribution to state coffers. This social contract is however not respected. Security is privatised, health services are poor and force people to go overseas, commercial justice is often suspect, and educational institutions are poor and compel children to study abroad or to make use of private providers. The result is an unreliable balance sheet. Money is hidden in case the situation becomes even more intolerable. So, before the matter of transparency can be addressed, the busnessman’s economic predicament must be resolved.

In conclusion, the work of Mo Ibrahim and his contribution to the development of leadership and corporate governance is largely underestimated, and even undervalued, by the South. The discussions are far from a mere philosophical or emotional string of tirades. Arguments are based on facts and data that are generated by, among others, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Mo Ibrahim has the ability to bring together former African presidents who are recipients of the Mo Ibrahim prize, foreign leaders like Horst Kohler, former president of Germany, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, Bono, Kofi Annan, and present and former presidents of the African Development Bank, and then to facilitate – almost in an incidental manner – dialogue based on facts that are extremely insightful and educational. The whole event is highly professional, but also informal, without unnecessary consciousness about titles and positions. This is truly an exceptional and proud African event.

Frik Landman is the CEO of USB Executive Development (Pty) Ltd (USB-ED), the arm of the University of Stellenbosch Business School that provides executive education.

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