In the scramble for Africa, we need to start picking friends


In the scramble for Africa, we need to start picking friends

Say China, India and Africa were an economic bloc. You’re talking about over 50% of the world population

Mark Barnes

It seems to be election season in many places, and it’s hard to find a democracy without challenges.
Nigeria has just gone through the election of the governors of its 36 states, which essentially determines who will run the separate economies of the different states. Most of them are not in good shape, with debt exceeding revenue, while wealth is amassed by the leaders in the two terms before they groom successors. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the frail 82-year-old president of Algeria, has finally been forced to pull out of the election, not seeking a fifth term. But after two decades in charge it seems he still wants a say in who his successor will be.
About 900 million Indian voters will go to the polls in April in what is likely to result in a second term for Narendra Modi, with the opposition still fragmented.
China, the one-party-rule economy challenging the US as the leading economic power, as ever makes the case for state capitalism, in what leader Xi Jinping describes as a “consultant democracy”, a mix between control and participation that seems to work.
The election poster of the week goes to North Korea, its leader pictured on the front page of the Financial Times casting his vote in the Supreme People’s Assembly elections. There it is compulsory to vote and Kim Jong-un is the only candidate.
Get in, stay in still seems to be the political mantra, though some countries are electing leaders below the age of 40, about 30% of populations are below voting age and 10% are over 65. So where does the real power reside?
Whatever the model, the common thread, purpose and test remains what happens in the economy while you, the elected leader, are in charge. Whether the imperative is to address poverty, inequality and unemployment or to just grow fast enough to compete in the global economy, it’s the sovereign balance sheet and income statement that matter.
However, in the new world of borderless, universally accessible technology, sovereign political control may not matter that much.
The cover story of last week’s Economist read “The New Scramble for Africa”. The reason for the heightened international interest in Africa is obvious – population growth. One UN estimate puts Africa’s population ahead of China by 2025. China is leading the pack in establishing businesses and partnerships and growing trade with Africa. India is in second place, and the West is losing ground.
Say China, India and Africa started behaving like an economic bloc. You’d be talking about over 50% of the world population, dwarfing the US and Europe, combined.
It is time to start considering the notion of global economic democracies. Never mind how many people voted you into power or how long you stay there, it is more important how many people buy your products, how many people you count as your clients, and your friends.
The new measure of influence isn’t voters, it’s users, subscribers, followers, it’s data. It is indeed the republics of Facebook (2.3 billion users), Netflix (150 million users), Apple (600 million users) and Tencent (more than 700 million users and 120 million subscribers) that are the new centres of power and influence. The “population” of Facebook exceeds that of either China, India or Africa.
These populations, self-governing, hardly regulated youngsters are where it’s at.
The power of these technological republics is ubiquitous. No borders (geographical or otherwise), no limited funding or visas or permits or licences or essential social agendas. They can afford to be reckless, they take risks. There is no term of office, there are no elected leaders, no manifestos or campaigns, but there is trending and there are followers and the incremental client acquisition cost has been practically reduced to zero.
Africa is, of course, not the United States of Africa, far from it. SA is one of 54 countries in Africa. The debates on creating an African economic union are complex, economically and politically, but our resource-rich continent should be careful not to be exploited by the overwhelming power imbalance of our suitors as they negotiate with us individually, divided. We should count our purchasing power properly. We should stand together more often, build more shared, continental assets, like perhaps a huge airport at the equator.
That would require unity of purpose and perpetual trust among Africa’s many elected leaders, whose terms in office don’t coincide. It would be worth it. We would occupy very different spaces in the global debate.

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