Sean O'Grady: They think Africa's dark age is all over... but is it?

China and India have escaped from their history with spectacular results and Africa could do the same
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The Independent Online

Africa has seen many false dawns, so we should be cautious about predicting an imminent economic revolution there on the scale that China, say, has enjoyed. However, the IMF and the World Bank are predicting startlingly high growth rates: next year, says the IMF, Botswana will grow by 5.1 per cent, Ethiopia by 7.7 per cent, Kenya by 5.8 per cent and Cote d'Ivoire by 4 per cent.

Apart from South Africa, the continent has highly insulated banking systems and limited international capital flows, and has been immune from the worst of the global recession. Steady aid flows and remittances from emigrants also helped. The decline in oil and other commodity prices is being reversed, and oil-rich states such as Nigeria, Angola and Gabon as well as traditional commodity producers such as Zambia are being pulled along by China's insatiable demand.

Outside Kenya and South Africa, tourism is badly neglected. And there are new possibilities: in a decade or two Congo could conceivably become an energy superpower, just as Brazil is becoming, because of biofuels. Food is also a factor; South Korea recently tried to buy a third of the agricultural land in Madagascar before a local revolt stopped the plan. The Chinese are busily exploiting resources in Sudan and other places where indifference to human rights is an aid to trade. Quietly, East Asia is engaged in a new "scramble for Africa".

Africa also has some formidable human strengths – a vast, rapidly growing and youthful population, the workers and consumers that drive dynamic growth.

Yet Africa remains let down by a lack of capital from abroad, a product both of investors' prejudiced ideas and African governments' hostility to foreign economic influence. That, in turn, is the baleful legacy of the economic nationalism pursued by the first generation post-independence leaders such as Nkrumah in Ghana and Nyerere in Tanzania, and experiments in "African socialism". That was a reaction against white exploitation in the colonial era, and the shameful episode of slavery. But India and China have abandoned such isolationism and escaped from their history with spectacular results, and Africa could do the same.

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Be that as it may, poor governance remains an obstacle to progress. Grotesqueries such as Bokassa in his "Central African Empire", Idi Amin in Uganda and now Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe also leave investors queasy, but routinely impossible bureaucracies can be just as much a problem. Civil unrest, corruption and coups complete the long list of risks, while Aids leaves much of the continent vulnerable to family and wider social breakdown.

Generalisations about such a huge land mass are also dangerous – no one would dream of lumping, say, Finns and Greeks together in a discussion of "Europe", so why Moroccans and Mozambicans? But the prizes, across the continent, are starting to glint in the African sun, and they may soon prove too hard to resist. The economic balance of power in the world may yet tip Africa's way.