Over the past decade, Africa has witnessed significant changes, from advancements and retractions in democracy and elections to the struggles faced by its youth. From the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to improvements and regressions in the health and education sectors, Africa’s progress deserves both recognition and critical analysis.
This article provides a high-level performance appraisal in these key areas over the last 10 years.
Democracy and elections
Several African countries have made commendable strides in strengthening democracy and conducting credible elections.
According to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, the overall score for governance across the continent improved by an average of +1.7 points between 2010 and 2020.
Several countries witnessed peaceful transitions of power, such as Ghana in 2016 and Nigeria in 2015 and 2019, demonstrating the continent’s commitment to democratic processes.
However, there were notable reports of violent voter intimidation and suppression during the 2023 elections in Nigeria, in which opposition parties contested the election results and called for a rerun.
In Zambia, the 2011 and 2016 elections demonstrated the country’s commitment to democratic principles. The 2011 elections marked the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another since the country’s independence in 1964.
This transition demonstrated Zambia’s dedication to democratic norms and set a positive precedent for other nations in the region. Following a decade of misrule by the Patriotic Front, however, the 2021 general elections tested the resilience of the country’s democratic institutions.
The campaign period was marred by incidents of violence by police and restrictions on freedom of expression, raising concerns about the overall credibility of the electoral process.
These challenges highlight the need for continued efforts to strengthen democratic institutions, ensure a level playing field for all candidates and foster inclusive political dialogue to address grievances.
Despite these challenges, however, Hakainde Hichilema won power and Zambia is steering towards democratic consolidation and broad-based development. Recent Afrobarometer survey data indicates citizens have a positive perception of the country’s level of democracy.
Zimbabwe’s ruling party (since 1980), to the contrary, committed significant human rights violations during the 2018 elections, and there are ominous signs that it is doing so again ahead of this year’s elections.
Given the extent to which the ruling party has infiltrated and co-opted the opposition, and tightened the noose on voluntary private organisations and the media, it is questionable whether the country should be considering holding elections in 2023.
Challenges such as corruption, unequal access to resources and political polarisation persist across much of the African continent.
The graph below indicates the relationship between two governance variables — government effectiveness and citizens’ ability to hold their governments to account — and income per capita.
On average, better governance drives increased wealth. The scores on both axes are measured from -2.5 to 2.5. Note that few countries in sub-Saharan Africa score above 1 on either.
The African Union’s African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which has been ratified by several countries since 2012, has comprehensive provisions for the promotion of the rule of law, the respect for human rights and the holding of democratic elections “to institutionalise legitimate authority of representative government as well as democratic changes of government”.
In addition, it binds signatories to best practices in the management of elections, and crucially acknowledges that unconstitutional changes of government (coups) are “a threat to stability, peace, security and development”.
The charter similarly emphasises the importance of enforcing presidential term limits for strengthening democracy.
Plight of the youth
The African youth, comprising a significant portion of the continent’s population, faces multifaceted challenges. While some progress has been made in increasing access to education and reducing extreme poverty, unemployment rates among the youth remain alarmingly high.
Survey data from Afrobarometer indicates that unemployment tops the list of the most important problems that young Africans want their governments to address.
According to the World Bank, the weighted average youth (ages 15 to 24) unemployment as a percentage of the total labour force averaged 12.5% between 2010 and 2020. Insufficient job opportunities, inadequate skills development and limited access to finance hinder their full participation in economic growth. Premature deindustrialisation is also crowding out opportunities for unskilled labour to be absorbed into the economy.
The launch of the AfCFTA in 2021 marked a historic milestone for Africa’s economic integration. By creating a single market and enabling the free movement of goods, services and people, the AfCFTA has the potential to drive economic growth by fostering intra-African trade and attracting foreign investment.
The AfCFTA covers 1.3 billion people with a combined GDP of$3.4 trillion and has a projected income boost of $450 million by 2025, which would make it the largest free trade area globally.
However, the successful implementation of the AfCFTA requires addressing infrastructure gaps and reducing tariff and non-tariff trade barriers.
For example, inadequate transport infrastructure and border delays continue to hinder trade flows. African governments must commit to comprehensive reforms, including harmonising regulations and developing efficient transport networks, to unlock the full benefits of this ambitious initiative.
Africa’s healthcare sector has improved significantly over the past decade, yet substantial challenges persist.
Some countries’ responses to Covid-19 demonstrated resilience, cooperation, and progress in health infrastructure. Afrobarometer findings indicate that in countries such as Sierra Leone, an overwhelming majority of citizens strongly believe that their government did a good job of responding to the pandemic and that the country’s experience with an Ebola outbreak made it better prepared to handle Covid-19.
According to the World Health Organization, between 2010 and 2020, the average life expectancy in Africa increased by 3.9 years.
However, inadequate funding, limited access to quality healthcare, and the burden of communicable diseases, such as malaria, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, continue to hinder progress.
For example, in 2020, approximately 90% of the world’s malaria cases were reported in Africa. African governments, with support from international partners, must prioritise healthcare investments, strengthen primary healthcare systems and increase access to essential medicines and vaccines, ensuring no one is left behind.
Education is crucial for sustainable development and empowering citizens. Progress has been made in increasing primary school enrolment rates, improving gender parity and expanding access to higher education.
According to Unesco, the net enrolment rate in primary education in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 78.8% in 2010 to 83.8% in 2019.
However, challenges such as poor-quality education, high dropout rates and limited access to vocational and technical training persist.
To build a knowledgeable and skilled workforce, African governments must prioritise investment in education, enhance teacher training programmes and adapt curricula to meet the demands of the changing job market. Bridging the digital divide is also crucial, as access to technology and digital literacy are becoming increasingly essential for education.
Educational strategies need to cohere with sensible industrialisation strategies that provide connections between education and employment opportunities.
While progress has been made, it is crucial to acknowledge that more needs to be done to ensure inclusive and sustainable development across the continent.
African governments, international partners, civil society and the private sector must collaborate and augment their efforts to address the prevailing obstacles.
By investing in strong institutions driven by good governance, empowering the youth, supporting economic integration, improving healthcare and prioritising education, Africa can pave the way for a brighter future, unlocking its full potential and transforming the lives of its people.
Africa’s projected population growth — 2.5 billion by 2050 according to UN estimates — driven by falling mortality and high fertility, presents a critical opportunity for the global economy.
The dynamism and potential of Africa’s youth will be central to driving future economic growth and productivity, on which the global economy’s future increasingly depends. The next decade holds immense promise for Africa, and with the right policies and collective action in place, the continent can realise this potential.
This article first appeared in Mail & Guardian on 26 May 2023.