Sunday, July 24, 2011

The African Spring

Across North Africa protesters have toppled some of the most ruthless and well-resourced political strongmen on the planet. In sub-Saharan Africa, many are asking: will the Arab Spring spread south? Many insist that African societies are so fragmented along ethnic, sectarian and regional lines that it would be impossible today for a Tahrir Square ; instead, they believe, an outcome like Libya’s civil war or the messy departure of Yemen’s president is more likely.

Yet many of the underlying realities are the same. As food and fuel prices rise, inflation is driving millions of Africans below the poverty line just when the world’s economists and politicians have been preaching that growth will benefit all. Across the world, as growth has spread and accelerated, so has inequality. It is clear that growth is often not enough to guarantee stable, cohesive societies. Rather than create a rising tide that lifts all boats, it can actually increase inequality in a society. Steady economic growth and urbanization, combined with high levels of youth unemployment and conspicuous consumption on the part of the corrupt ruling elite, create a situation in which growth exacerbates political volatility instead of quelling it. Growth is taking place in a continent where the capacity to create jobs in the formal sector has been woefully inadequate; and elites have mastered the manipulation of ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional differences to maintain their grip on power. Their rule has turned systemic inequalities and, more important, perceptions of inequality, into potent triggers for violence. Growing economic inequality animated much of what was at stake in the various Arab uprisings, and it will play a major role in shaping African politics.

The "middle class" remains a tiny sliver of the population in most African countries largely dependent on state patronage for its survival. Africa’s middle class has grown in recent years, but its members are politically and economically vulnerable and their lives can be overturned by the whims of elites.

The poor are assaulted daily by the symbols of rising inequality: glitzy malls filled with status enhancing designer goods that cost 10 times the monthly minimum wage. Globalization has changed the aspirations of the poor, and their expectations will follow. The Arab Spring occurred at a moment when economic development had outpaced political development in much of the region; ossified political systems no longer satisfied a population yearning for modern freedoms.

By 2025, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to a quarter of the world’s people under the age of 24, and their anger is growing. For Africa’s youth, many of them educated and unemployed, the future seemingly holds no hope under the current arrangement. The idea of revolution has arrived, among the minority of youth with access to social media but also among the masses.

Adapted from here

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