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People walking past the gate of a Chinese factory in Ethiopia. People walk past the gate of the Eastern Industrial Zone where Chinese company Huajian opened its first factory in Ethiopia in the town of Dukem near the capital, Addis Ababa, March 21, 2018 (AP photo by Elias Meseret).

From Development to Democracy, Africa Is a Continent of Contradictions

Monday, Sept. 14, 2020

It makes sense that a continent home to 54 countries and 1.2 billion people would also house a mass of contradictory developments. Africa features several of the world’s fastest-growing economies and a burgeoning middle class. But much of the continent remains mired in debt, ravaged by conflict, disease or terrorism, and plagued by elites clinging to power. Now, although the human cost of the coronavirus pandemic has so far been less catastrophic than many feared, its economic impact could undo much of the continent’s growth over the past two decades.

Even during the years when economies across Africa expanded, many people were driven to migrate—either within Africa or to Europe and even South America—because of humanitarian catastrophes or because economic opportunities were not coming fast enough for everyone. Those who remained behind at times succeeded in disrupting the status quo. Civilian-led reform movements toppled regimes in Algeria and Sudan last year. And while the phenomenon of long-ruling authoritarian leaders—known as “presidents for life”—is still common, recent examples of independent courts overturning fraudulent elections and other signs of democratic institutions taking hold in previously corrupt or authoritarian states offer hope for the future of democracy in Africa.

From a geopolitical perspective, European nations and the United States are looking to shore up bilateral trade across the continent. These moves are driven both by an interest in spurring individual economies to help stem migration flows, but also to counter China’s growing presence in Africa. On the back of its Belt and Road Initiative, China has been leveraging infrastructure financing deals for access to resources and increasing influence.

Some African leaders say these activities smack of neocolonialism, as they seek to promote greater continental autonomy. They have taken steps to bolster internal trade opportunities and ease freedom of movement. They are positioning the African Union to play a more prominent role in resolving continental disputes, but also to contribute to fields like disease surveillance. And they are increasingly outspoken in criticizing international institutions that appear to punish Africa, to the benefit of others.

WPR covers Africa in detail, including a weekly Africa Watch newsletter highlighting the latest developments on the continent. And WPR will continue to offer insights into some of the key questions surrounding Africa’s future: Is a new Arab Spring sweeping across North Africa? As China’s footprint on the continent grows, how will leaders in Africa and other parts of the world respond? And will the coronavirus pandemic spell the end of the African economic boom that has swept up countries including Ethiopia, Rwanda and Ghana?


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Our Most Recent Coverage:

South Sudan’s Unity Government Struggles to Silence the Guns

It’s been two years since South Sudan’s leaders signed an agreement to end a five-year civil war that killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions, yet peace remains elusive. Amid a political stalemate, the country is reeling from escalating communal violence and a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Governance and Politics

One of the through lines on the continent has been the persistence of presidents for life and the havoc they wreak on their respective countries. Even as long-standing regimes in Algeria and Sudan finally topple, leaders in countries from Rwanda to Cameroon are shoring up their power. Meanwhile, corruption remains a scourge across Africa.

Security

Resolving persistent conflicts continues to be a top priority for African security, whether in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere. But over the past decade, countering Islamist terrorism has begun to dominate Africa’s security agenda, from persistent networks like al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa and Boko Haram in West Africa, to new threats, like the emergence of the Islamic State in the DRC. Meanwhile, long-standing violence between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers in West Africa and the Sahel continues to be largely overlooked, despite taking a huge toll in lives lost.


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The U.S.-China Competition for Influence

International observers warn that China, in its upfront financing of major infrastructural projects, is overburdening African countries with debts they will struggle to repay. And with U.S.-China relations becoming increasingly acrimonious, Africa has become a new arena for their strategic rivalry. Meanwhile, other countries are looking to expand their influence in Africa as well, notably Russia.

Migrant Crisis

The flow of migrants from Africa is nothing new. But since the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015, African migration has fueled the rise of populist parties in Europe and sparked greater engagement between the two continents in efforts to stem out-migration. Displacement is also a regional problem, as sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than a quarter of global refugees. Meanwhile, African migrants are increasingly turning to new destinations as Europe closes its doors.

Explore all of WPR’s Africa coverage.


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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.