Decades into the independent era, ruling parties in Africa that have typically focused their energy on remaining in power at whatever cost, are now faced with mounting economic needs which require their immediate attention. Finding themselves in charge of persistently underdeveloped countries and accountable to increasingly demanding citizens, the pressure is mounting on incumbent national executives to be more active in improving the incomes and opportunities of their people. The continents leaders are responding to this challenge in different ways, with some choosing to ignore it, focusing more on enriching themselves, regardless of future consequences. Others deny the challenge, submitting their states to the stagnation-inducing trade and investment requirements of the global economic order; and the rare few boldly face it, often choosing the path of state-directed development.


The scale and pace of the necessary change requires great unity of purpose. The challenge facing African countries is not just one of improving their economic growth statistics, but of completely reshaping and rebuilding their economies and societies to make up for a century of underdevelopment and exploitation, which was due to a myriad of challenges including colonization. The changes required to the domestic laws and international agreements that determine the quality of African lives, call for concerted action within and across countries. The painful process of transition to better circumstances requires a common sense of purpose and shared vision between the visionaries and the executors of the vision – the lawmakers and the citizens.


African developers are trying to follow recent Asian examples. Many of the East and South Asian countries that have achieved much change in recent years – China, South Korea, and Taiwan among others – did so through changing the nature of their trade relationships with more prosperous countries, and by building local industries to increase the value of their exports and the skills of their workers. These changes increased both the incomes and independence of the newly-developed countries. African countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania have taken note of these successes, and are rapidly and deliberately industrializing.


Due to their firm leadership style, Africa’s more active developmental states are being labelled less democratic. East Asian single-party and military leadership systems could implement reforms quickly and consistently thanks to firm leadership and an intolerance for dissent. Rwanda and Ethiopia have recently been viewed as having heavy-handed governments imposing their will upon the country by suppressing opposition parties. Tanzania is increasingly described as closing the civic space under the otherwise admirable ambition and impatience of its current administration. These three countries are arguably Africa’s best hope and example of rapid industrialization, given their focus on agro-processing and manufacturing, their efforts to protect their infant industries, and their resistance to foreign control of their policy space. The strong economic policy seems to have been paired with an intolerance of civic discussion or political dissent that might negatively impact execution of their growth plans.


The unfortunate coincidence of industrial policy and narrow political space in East Africa can give positive development a bad name. It becomes very easy for some western media and academia to portray African ambition as misguided and harmful, considering that neither of them seem particularly excited about the prospect of Africans taking more deliberate measures to protect their own interests. It contributes to the perception of a false choice between democracy and development – one in where donors will always prioritize democratization, and Africans must always postpone development to pursue integration into the ‘international community’ on their terms. But before they are criticized for how they choose to develop, it is important that the historical context and their background is understood, as it usually shapes and informs the direction the nation chooses to take.


African leaders need to be able to see beyond the apparent trade-off. They do not have to choose between progress and public discussion of the measures taken to achieve that progress. They cannot give up the developmental push given the economic and social need to escape poverty. The rising demands of a growing population will not tolerate governments that lack effective responses to real problems. They also do not have to give up democratic principles to push through solutions to these problems. They can embrace both a vocal civil society and competitive local space, while pursuing agreement on transformative policy.


We need to rethink how people participate in progressive policy. The successful developmental state of the 21st century will be one that is able to secure consensus and commitment to national policy directions from a majority of the population, rather than coercively imposing the will of the ‘enlightened few’ on the ‘helpless masses’. We need to move beyond dictates and directives from higher powers to discussion and dialogue that builds agreement from the ground up. The new way of developmental should be one that is based on public participation and representation, rather than minority rule. It will be one of grassroots mobilization, community organizing and civic education on a national scale. Of course, inclusive and transparent policy making takes time, something African governments often feel short of, but the long-term effects of taking policy shortcuts may be worse. Protests, riots and instability are never far from the government that fails to listen to its people.


African governments should seek to honour the principle of participation, and not a particular governance system or electoral process. Africans should consider their own history for means of balancing power and protecting rights that have evolved out of tradition and context, rather than blindly importing foreign principles and processes. Most African countries inherited national governance structures and processes from their former colonial masters in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and underwent a wave of donor-driven democratization towards the end of the century. Democracies across the continent are therefore not very reflective of African values, but there is still room to correct this. Devolution of power to local governments can help to improve citizen participation and representation, and indigenous governance practices can provide useful principles to follow in doing so. Southern African Indabas (communal discussions) provide a template for joint problem solving and consensus-based decisions, while Rwanda’s Umushyikirano is one of Rwanda’s Home Grown Solutions that brings together the President of the Republic and citizens’ representatives to debate issues relating to the state of the Nation and national unity. Africa can make much progress by taking the bold, independent steps to economic transformation that some countries in East Africa are taking, but this requires buy in at grassroots level within communities, rather than for it to be dictated by a powerful minority.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Future Africa Forum.