A month after withholding a $5m African leadership prize because there was no suitable recipient, the wealthy philanthropist Mo Ibrahim has caused another stir by saying that some countries on the continent are too small to survive.
While most African leaders shy away from criticising each other, the telecoms billionaire, born in Sudan, has used his fortune to puncture this cosy consensus. "Something is drastically wrong. I think we have the right to ask our leaders: are they really serious?" he told a conference on good governance in Tanzania. "Who are we to think that we can have 53 tiny little countries and be ready to compete with China, India, Europe, the Americans? It is a fallacy."
Addressing an audience that included the Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and the Senegalese singer Youssou N'dour, he added: "Some of our countries, and I'm really sorry to say this, are just not viable."
Africa's borders with their terrifying straight lines running for thousands of miles across territories can often look as if they were drawn at random. In many cases this is because they were. What was done in a hurry and with scant regard for viability at the end of the colonial period is now cemented by principles of sovereignty and the self-interest of ruling elites.
The majority of the so-called "bottom billion" who live on a dollar or less a day live in Africa, which has lagged hugely behind the economic growth rates seen first in Asia and more recently in Latin America.
Mr Ibrahim blamed the poor performance both on bad leadership and on the fragmentation of Africa into numerous, small and economically isolated countries. "We need scale and we need that now – not tomorrow, the next year or the year after," he said.
Rather than arguing for the dissolution of smaller states, the tycoon appeared to be calling for faster and deeper integration. Sub-Saharan Africa boasts an impressive array of acronyms, from Ecowas in western Africa, Comesa and SADC in central and southern Africa to the EAC in east Africa. However, the reality is that trade between African countries amounts to between 4 and 5 per cent of the continent's international trade, Mr Ibrahim pointed out, a situation which is "not viable".
The former telecoms engineer stopped short of endorsing calls for a single African federation, championed in recent years by the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Colonel Gaddafi, who has been in power in Tripoli for 40 years, has used his sponsorship of traditional leaders to have himself crowned Africa's king of kings and has called for a United States of Africa, with a single currency, the afro.
The minnows of Africa
1 Western Sahara
Population: 260,000 (estimate)
Land mass: 97,344 sq miles
GNI per capita: £200 (estimate)
Established: Territory contested by Morocco and Algerian-backed Polisario front (1975, Spain relinquished control) Not the smallest but among the poorest. Now in 32nd year of tussle between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Even settlement won’t change the fact that – phosphate deposits aside – it’s a desert with few people and fewer resources.
2 The Gambia
Land mass: 4,361 sq miles
GNI per capita: £244
Established: 1965 (independence from Britain) This tiny nation is a basketcase whose ruler is an embarrassment to his neighbours. Heavily reliant on peanuts, Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh wants to rule a petro-state. Trouble is he can't find any crude oil.
Land mass: 43,484 sq miles
GNI per capita: £431
Established: 1960 (independence from France) Political stability can’t solve economic isolation as former slave exporter has few resources to cash in on. Cotton and palm oil won’t eradicate poverty and Benin heavily reliant on regional giant Nigeria.
Land mass: 10,169 sq miles
GNI per capita: £256
Established: 1962 (Independence from Belgium) Darling of Western donors, Rwanda’s average income ranks below West African minnows. Strong leadership can’t change the fact that small landlocked country in corrupt region can’t thrive. Hype about becoming IT hub sounds good. Raw economic data does not.
Land mass: 11,720 sq miles
GNI per capita: £675
Established: 1966 (Independence from Britain) Well off compared to some in Africa but ultra-poor compared with country surrounding it. Crippled by Aids and lack of natural resources, Lesotho’s independence is an indictment of Britain's withdrawal from the colonies.
...AND THE EXCEPTION TO THE RULES
Land mass: 8,950 sq miles
GNI per capita: £706
Established: 1977 (Independence from France) Former French Somaliland is an anomaly in a region where remaining Somalis live in appalling conditions in former British and Italian dominions and Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. Completely reliant on US and French military bases.
7 Equatorial Guinea
Land mass: 10,830 sq miles
GNI per capita: £9,362
Established: 1968 (Independence from Spain) Combination of scant population and abundant oil made it memorably irresistible to coup plotters. World’s fastest growing economy gives little benefit to the people. Instead vast fortune flows to Nguema family who have ruled brutally since independence.