Africa Rising

The continent is the world's next great growth engine--but hundreds of millions are at risk of being left behind

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As Africa marks half a century since it began to free itself from colonialism, its future lies in the hands of hundreds of millions of young Africans who, like Mwangi, must choose between Africa rising and Africa uprising. It is not, as the cynics have it, that Africa will never move beyond dictators and disasters, that it cannot and will not develop. Africa's progress is real, dramatic and, by now, well established. The International Monetary Fund says that since 2003, GDP across sub-Saharan Africa's 48 countries has risen an average of 5% to 7% per year. In the past decade, six of the 10 fastest-growing countries in the world were African, and this year five African countries will outgrow China and 21 will beat India. The result of all this growth? Africa is in the midst of a historic transition, and during the next few decades hundreds of millions of Africans will likely be lifted out of poverty, just as hundreds of millions of Asians were in the past few decades. Bob Geldof's evolution from Live Aid organizer to, this February, the founder of a $200 million Africa-focused private-equity fund is emblematic of the transformation. "This could be the African century," he says.

Old Habits

But if Afro-pessimism is outdated, undiluted Afro-optimism is premature. Historically the continent labored under predatory inequality and clownish tyranny. President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zare (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) would charter a Concorde airplane for European shopping trips while his people starved. Today, while Africa's economies are modernizing, its rulers too often are still not. "With a very few notable exceptions, our leaders are not part of accountable governments," says Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, chairman of the international mediation body and rights watchdog the Elders. "It's still, If they perform abominably, so what?" The continent's leaders are, by one important measure, less accountable than they were in the past. Since it was set up in 2007 by a Sudanese telecom billionaire, the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance has recorded a striking divergence: material improvement along with political deterioration. This year, for the third time, Mo Ibrahim's foundation declined to award its $5 million prize for African leaders who leave office peacefully and democratically. "We are not completely out of the past and into the future," says Ibrahim.

More than anyone else, it will be young Africans who shape that future. The Arab Spring showed what can happen when corrupt regimes that oversee strong overall growth fail to share the gains or greater political freedom with a connected and well-educated youth. All those ingredients exist in potentially even more explosive proportions in Africa. The average African is 19, while the average Middle Easterner is in his or her 20s. Thanks to foreign aid, hundreds of millions of Africans are better educated than ever--and they expect more-rewarding jobs. And by 2016, there will be over a billion cell phones in use on the continent, according to industry analyst Informa Telecoms & Media, giving nearly every African access to that most essential tool of 21st century rebellion. It is a recipe for, simultaneously, entrepreneurialism and revolution.


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