Collective investment in trade and digital infrastructure: A new pathway to silencing the guns in Africa

In this guest contribution for ECDPM, Dr Jide Martyns Okeke argues that collective African leadership and deliberate investments in boosting intra-African trade and digital transformation could accelerate the quest for silencing the guns on the continent.

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      During the African Union (AU) Summit on 6 and 7 February 2021, African heads of state and government were reminded of the long road to achieve a conflict-free continent, as expressed in the AU’s 2020 theme of ‘Silencing the guns: creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development’. This aspiration has been significantly complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to millions of infections and a loss of lives, left tens of millions of people out of jobs and livelihoods, and stretched national security forces and state budgets.

      The multifaceted crises facing Africa are further compounded by COVID-19. However, increased collective leadership amongst African leaders, especially in the inclusive implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the cross-sectoral acceleration of digital transformation, could promote growth and create a renewed pathway for reducing conflict and instability. Collective leadership refers to the role of governments as champions in overcoming national and cross-border barriers, and creating an enabling environment for a whole-of-society participation and engagement in the implementation of the AfCFTA.

      Most rebellion in Africa has been unarmed and peaceful. In fact, since the 1970s, the continent has accounted for one in three non-violent campaigns. According to the 2020 Global Peace Index, 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa recorded an improvement in the state of peacefulness. Such improvements, however, remain clouded by persistent instability in at least 24 countries, each with regional implications. Political instability and violent protests in countries in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa remain a source of grave concern.

      The economic impact of insecurity is dire and equivalent to up to 60% of GDP in some countries. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that Africa will experience a contraction of between 3 and 5.4% in GDP. The combined effects of COVID-19 and pre-existing patterns of conflict and instability could impose further setbacks to, or even reverse, Africa’s path to silencing the guns.

      Inequality and climate change as drivers of conflict and instability


      Inequality has been emphasised as a primary source of conflict and instability. It is not a coincidence that 23% of the world’s population live in fragile contexts and exhibit 76% of world poverty. Grievances between cultural identities also drive inequality and breed conflict. In Africa, these forms of inequality have been compounded by the limited inclusion of women and youth in economic, social and political participation. In a continent where 65% of its 1.2 billion population are younger than 35 and where women make up 85% of informal workers, the absence of an effective social contract between the state and its largest demographic component remains a missed opportunity for growth, prosperity and sustainable peace.

      As humanity continues to put more and more pressure on the planet, scientists warn that we are entering a new geologic era, which they refer to as Anthropocene – the dominance of humans in shaping the future of the planet. In Africa, climate change and extreme weather events, such as increased flooding and variability in rainfall, could intensify competition over resources, forced displacement, migration and exclusion from economic participation. This will leave many Africans further behind, with untold consequences for the future of stability of the continent.

      What is at stake?


      Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, African countries’ progress towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals was mixed. They are making progress on goals 12 (responsible consumption and production) and 13 (climate action), but on the other hand, significant challenges persist in meeting goals 3 (good health and well-being), 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) and 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions)

      The continent is not without promising examples. The 2020 SDG Index and Dashboard Report, for example, rank Algeria, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco and Cabo Verde as the top five African countries in the ‘Leave No One Behind’ index. Nonetheless, the continued challenge of silencing the guns remains a primary threat to sustainable development in Africa.

      Alternative pathways?


      What choices are African governments left with? For too long, African governments, with the support of the international community, have responded to insecurity and conflicts from a reductionist and hard security perspective. Volatile military spending, especially from countries in conflict, have characterised such a response.

      According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), regions such as the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin region are currently experiencing disproportionate military spending, rising to 22% of GDP in some instances. In parallel, Africa continues to account for the largest number of peacekeeping missions globally, with African peacekeepers constituting 75% of peacekeeping personnel. The necessity for such security responses has been the subject of much debate. However, what is clear is that these initiatives alone will not lead to sustainable peace on the continent.

      The AfCFTA for growth and peace


      Despite the human and economic cost, the ongoing pandemic and efforts to rebuild in its aftermath also provide opportunities that Africa can harness for its growth, prosperity and peace. The first is the pursuit of regional economic integration through the implementation of the AfCFTA. With the launch of continental trading from 1 January 2021, the effective implementation of the AfCFTA will make intra-African trade easier for micro, small and medium-sized businesses, increase access to markets, and create new opportunities for enhanced livelihoods for Africans.

      Even though there is no causation between trade and peace, African countries that ranked low in the 2020 Fragile States Index tend to have higher volumes of trade within and beyond Africa. Conflict in borderland areas in particular also constrains the opportunities for boosting cross-border trade. The AfCFTA therefore creates opportunities for Africa’s population, especially for women and youth, which could increase prosperity and peace on the continent.

      Realising digital transformation


      The second, but perhaps even more significant, opportunity is the acceleration of the responsible use of new digital technologies. The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired most sectors to increase their online presence. In a continent where the average adult education is a mere 6.5 years – comparatively the lowest in the world – online education will increase the prospect of greater access to high-quality educational materials. Other sectors, such as health, finance and trade, have the potential to scale up significantly through the deployment and responsible use of digital technologies. The innovation displayed by Africans in digital transformation should be harnessed and supported by governments and the private sector, in cooperation with the international community.

      With a median age of 19.7, Africa has one of the youngest populations. It also has a mobile phone penetration of almost 100% in key economies such as Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. This potential demographic dividend created by digital natives could catalyse the continent’s transformation and growth, with the right investments. If Africa is to benefit from the digital economy, investments must be made in the area of reliable energy and internet, data, skills and governance. These critical infrastructures require deliberate actions that would allow Africa to own its technologies and intellectual property rights, and to trade on equal footing with other continents in this age of digital interdependence.

      A more deliberate and collective leadership


      Africa remains a socially resilient continent. The innovations and home-grown solutions that have emerged even before the COVID-19 pandemic remain a source of hope, inspiration and optimism. The strength and dynamism of Africa’s demography must be matched by a more deliberate and collective leadership to provide an enabling environment in which Africans can thrive.

      An opportunity for such renewed leadership is possible with the successful election of a new African Union Commission to drive the continental 2063 Agenda. The new Commission has been established within the framework of a commendable institutional reform process, providing an opportunity for rethinking growth and development in Africa. The new leadership can support governments to forge a reinvigorated social contract between the state and citizens through the power of development. A new social contract is about the provision of basic services for communities and inclusive politics, which could be strengthened through investments in boosting trade and enhancing digitalisation across sectors.

      While these two variables alone will not address Africa’s development challenges, they provide a foundation for accelerating inclusive growth, peace and prosperity. Collective leadership in trade and digital infrastructure by regional institutions, governments, civil society and the private sector will unlock Africa’s pathway to sustainable development and peace.

      Jide Martyns Okeke is coordinator of the UNDP Regional Programme for Africa. He holds a PhD in Development Politics from Leeds University, an MA in Conflict Resolution (Bradford) and an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM or any institutional affiliation.

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