Bob Collymore, the chief executive officer at Kenya's telecommunication giant Safaricom and former African Development Bank (AfDB) President Donald Kaberuka were at the 2017 Mo Ibrahim Foundation annual Governance Weekend conference on April 7.
Their business was to convince a huge audience that Africa’s development was real and not an illusion as held in some quarters.
On the opposite side were Vera Songwe, the head of International Finance Corporation (IFC) in West and Central Africa, and Mohammed Ould Bouamatou, the founder of Foundation Pour l’Egalite de Chances en Afrique. The 63-year-old self-made Mauritanian is also a leading businessman.
Mr Patrick Smith, the Editor, Africa Report, was the umpire.
By a show of hands, the audience voted for or against the notion that Africa’s development was an illusion. The vote would be conducted again at the end of the debate to determine those swayed by the respective arguments to change their positions.
The Afro-Optimists, the believers that Africa’s development was real, easily won the first vote. The victory was probably because the voters were genuine or were merely being ‘patriotic’ by not being seen to have lost faith in sweet mother Africa.
To Dr Kaberuka, things were looking up for Africa, but a lot of people tended to focus more and erroneously on the continent’s two giants, Nigeria and South Africa, whose economies were currently headed south. Outside of the two and in a few conflict zones, the rest of Africa was doing great, Dr Kaberuka asserted.
In particular, Dr Kaberuka pointed out, there was phenomenal growth in the service industry, even if manufacturing and agriculture were not as vibrant.
Fewer businesses, Dr Kabeuka went on, had closed shop in Africa in the recent past, compared to Russia and Mongolia. Even Africa’s bludgeoning population was a positive as there could be no development without the requisite human resource.
To Ms Songwe, even agriculture, the mainstay of the African economy, was limping. Though the sector employed 70 per cent of the population, they only worked for three months a year, as their activities were dependent on human labour and the forces of nature.
How could Africa’s development be real when it was home to half of the total 746 million people who lived in extreme poverty globally? She posed.
That some 600 million Africans lived in darkness, having no access to electricity, which is the main driver of modern economies, was a further confirmation that Africa’s development was an illusion, Ms Songwe went on.
The glitzy airports and shopping malls that Africa’s elite were directing immense resources to, made no meaning to the majority, she reckoned.
“Africa’s development is an illusion because the majority were excluded from the economy,” Ms Songwe emphasised.
“We are not growing with equity and for as long as there is no equity, Africa’s development remains an illusion, she said pointing out that China had demonstrated that the magic wand lay in equity development, and Mauritius and Namibia were following suit.
Mr Collymore pointed out that Africa has the fastest rate of urbanisation and boasts a consumer trend valued at $4 trillion, hence it was on the right development trajectory.
Good governance was taking root in the continent and beginning to pay dividend according to the telecom boss.
He also reckoned that Africa was increasingly adopting policies promoting diversification of the economies, many of which were no longer defined by commodities alone.
A new whole range of economic powers had emerged in Africa, according to Mr Collymore, who went on to give the example of new light manufacturing relocating from China to Ethiopia.
Impunity and insecurity
Then Mr Bouamatou jumped in to explain why to him, Africa’s development was an illusion. That the continent watched almost helplessly as the Ebola epidemic threatened to decimate its populations in West Africa recently, was enough proof that real development was yet to be realised.
Run away impunity defined the continent, a real impediment to any meaningful development, Mr Bouamatou said.
He capped his arguments with the detailed account of how terrorists and militant groups were laying waste vast swathes of Africa. From the Boko Haram in the West to the Al-Shabaab in the East, how could anyone talk of any meaningful development in Africa? he posed.
Mr Smith then conducted his vote again. The Afro-Pessimists had increased their tally by four more votes, but they still lost!
So, Is Africa’s development real or an illusion?