It's time for Africa

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

There’s more to Africa than alarming headlines. And there’s more to Europe-Africa relations than the EU’s obsessive focus on African migration.

New members of the European Parliament and the women and men eyeing top jobs at the European Commission and the EU Council have an opportunity to reset Europe’s out-dated views on Africa. They must seize the moment.

Urgent action to reshape policies which have weighed down EU-Africa relations for far too long must be a top priority in the EU’s new ‘strategic agenda’.

That means more than a mere re-tweaking of current EU-Africa trade and aid programmes. It requires a real effort to walk the talk on making Africa a strategic partner. Above all, it demands revisiting the perception of Africa as a continent of mass exodus and migration.

True, Africa has problems. At the moment, there is political turmoil in Sudan, an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has spread to neighbouring Uganda and warnings of rising food insecurity in the Lake Chad Basin, Central African Republic, Congo, Somalia, and South Sudan.

These and other crises must be dealt with. But European policymakers must be wise enough – and bold enough – to look beyond the emergencies and headlines.

Almost 60% of Africa’s youth population is under the age of 25, making Africa the world’s youngest continent

Here’s a quick primer for those seeking to replace current European group think of Africa as a continent of violence and despair by a more positive vision of a continent in transformation.

– Stop kowtowing to the Far Right fanatics – including those now sitting in the European Parliament – about the dangers of African migration. Ditch references to the need to “protect, defend and safeguard” Europeans in the new EU ‘strategic agenda’. Instead focus on crafting an intelligent policy which focuses on managing migration, including from Africa.

– Don’t look at Africa only as a land of current and future ‘migration crisis’. Africans represent about 14% (36.3mn) of the world’s migrant population (compared to 41% from Asia and 23.7% from Europe), according to a recent study by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. And while about a quarter travel to Europe, many more move within Africa. Also, about a half of African migrants are women, belying the perception that African migrations are male-dominated.

– Keep your eyes and ears open for trade and investment opportunities in Africa – and urge European businesses to do so as well. GDP growth for the continent is forecast to accelerate to 4% this year, up from an estimated 3.5% in 2018, making it the fastest-growing region in the world after Asia, according to the African Development Bank. And that’s despite Nigeria and South Africa, which make up almost half of the continent’s GDP, “pulling down Africa’s average growth,” according to the AfDB’s latest economic outlook report.

– Pay attention to Africa’s ambitious plans for a continent-wide tariff-free area. Having come into force in May this year, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA) is expected to boost intra-African trade by 52% in a few years. Already, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows into Africa are on the rise as investors rush to put their money in what could become the world’s largest free trade area. European business leaders are eager to become part of Africa’s new economic adventure. Policymakers should encourage them, not throw cold water on their plans.

– Move beyond the traditional EU interaction with governments to a wider conversation with a variety of stakeholders including local and regional authorities, business leaders, civil society, female groups, young professionals and students. Broadening the EU-Africa conversation will ensure that both sides get a better understanding of each other. Europeans need to comprehend the different ways in which Africa is changing and transforming in order to fashion new policies which are based on Africa’s reality, not an untrue nightmare vision.

It’s now time to put egos aside so that there is less damaging competition

– Work together to provide Africa’s young people with skills and education suited to the 21st century. Almost 60% of Africa’s youth population is under the age of 25, making Africa the world’s youngest continent. The African Union’s ‘Youth Charter’ claims that youth is Africa’s biggest resource. But making full use of that resource means upping investments in traditional education but also zeroing in on skills needed to run digitalised economies, gearing up for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and tackling challenges posed by artificial intelligence. Entrepreneurship skills must be given priority.

– Meet and listen to the many young (and old) Africans who are engaged in a range of low and high-tech schemes and start-ups which are changing Africa. The silent tech revolution underway in Africa is already reshaping the continent by generating new market opportunities, improving labour productivity and enhancing Africa’s comparative advantage in global production networks. Digital connectivity is also transforming access to health and education and shifting relations between citizens and the state.

– Say no to competition and be prepared to work more closely with other countries and organisations working in Africa. Europeans have so far shied away from engaging in a constructive dialogue with China, Japan and others on connectivity and other projects in Africa. It’s now time to put egos aside so that there is less damaging competition and more constructive cooperation to help Africa meet its own development goals.

– Work with Africans to promote gender equality and encourage women’s empowerment. Women hold close to one-third of parliamentary seats in eleven African countries, with Rwanda often spotlighted as the poster child for gender equality. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has won acclaim for setting up a gender and politically balanced national government of 14 men and 14 women. But women are currently greatly underrepresented in peace and security efforts although research shows that involvement of women in peace processes makes them 64% less likely to fail and that peace negotiations that involve women are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.

It’s not going to be easy for EU policymakers to ditch the perception of Africa as a junior partner. But one-dimensional views of the continent do no justice to either Europe or Africa.

Europe can only play a role in Africa’s fascinating transformation if it changes gear, stops playing tutor and starts behaving like a true partner. It really is time for Africa.

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