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Column: Promise and Peril in Africa’s Coming Transformation

Washington

OK, I get it. Africa isn’t a country. It’s an impossibly huge, complicated and turbulent region of the world. There is no one “Africa.” There are 54 nations with distinct histories and possibly divergent prospects.

So sue me: I want to write about the continent’s future.

I’ve just returned from a visit to Mali, a former French colony that’s twice the size of Texas (though home to only 15 million people), and the trip has given me a lot of food for thought. Yes, Mali isn’t typical of Africa — no more than any African country is. But the trip did prompt me to think about what lies ahead. Most importantly, it gave me a vivid snapshot of the opportunities that many Africans now see before them — as well as some of the dangers that lie along the way.

Mali is poor. It’s one of the poorest countries in Africa, in fact. In 2012, it recorded per capita gross domestic product of around $1,100, which puts it at 214 (out of 229) in the global rankings. It has little in the way of natural resources (except for a bit of gold, which accounts for the lion’s share of its exports).

And yet it can also be seen as a place of considerable promise. From 1996 to 2010 Mali experienced economic growth of about 5 percent per year, buoyed by domestic political stability and strong prices for the commodities it exports. Unfortunately, the years that followed were marred by a full-fledged rebellion that temporarily split off the north from the rest of Mali, followed by a military coup in the capital that suspended the country’s hard-won democratic institutions for a while. (Mali has been an electoral democracy, with several peaceful transfers of power to new governments, since 1991.)

Last year, the French army intervened to suppress the revolt in the north, smashing the nascent state that Tuareg separatists and their jihadi allies were trying to build there. A few months later Malians elected a new civilian government, hopefully putting the nation back on course. If they can make it stick, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to start achieving growth again. (That presupposes, of course, that they can figure out a way to placate the Tuaregs who still nurse grievances against the central government.)

If Mali can return to relative economic health, that will put it in line with a continent that is increasingly leaving behind its old image as a place condemned to eternal poverty.

Growth rates in a number of African countries are reaching impressive levels, potentially setting the stage for a race to the top that could transform the fates of billions.

Much of that growth will come from rural Africans moving to the cities, a historic shift, already under way, that will boost productivity, spur the growth of a middle class, and fuel the creation of modern economies.

That will repeat a pattern already experienced in many other parts of the world, but in Africa, judging by current trends, the process is going to be even more dramatic (and, judging by megacities like Lagos, potentially more chaotic, too.)

This is something that you can witness first hand in Mali. The capital city of Bamako, population 2.1 million, barely existed a quarter of century ago; since then it has been described by some as the fastest growing city in Africa. The positive side of the change is embodied by the well-dressed, upwardly mobile Bamakoites who clog rush hour with their Chinese-made motor scooters. The less appetizing side is that many of these new city dwellers (even from the budding middle class) inhabit homes that have limited access to running water, proper sewage or other aspects of modern infrastructure.

Turbocharged urbanization isn’t the only demographic trend that will change the face of Mali and Africa. The United Nations estimates that, by 2050, Africa’s population as a whole will more than double, bringing the continent’s total to 2.4 billion. Mali’s is likely to triple by the same year, bringing it to 45 million. Even as things stand currently, the bulk of Africa’s population consists of young people — a trend that will intensify as even more Africans are born in the decades to come.

Needless to say, this astonishing population boom — which is set to take place during a period when most of the other countries in the world, including China, will see declines in population growth — also has its pluses and minuses.

All these new Africans will obviously ratchet up pressure on resources. In Mali, you can already see enormous swaths of once densely forested countryside that have been ravaged by villagers who count on firewood as their only source of energy. The growing youth bulge will challenge African economies that already have trouble finding enough jobs for their young people. But there’s also the chance that the newcomers can create a demographic dividend, boosting entrepreneurship and creativity.

Mali shows you just what a complicated mixture all this makes. Cities, as Bamako exemplifies, are engines of economic growth — but they’re also dizzying, confusing, potentially alienating places, especially for kids torn from the placid, predictable routines of the countryside. For this reason, cities have long played a role as crucibles of political radicalization — especially when there aren’t enough jobs to go around.

In pre-revolutionary Iran, urbanization also contributed to a renewed embrace of religion, often with a radical twist. Mali, a country with a tradition of tolerant, Sufi-infused Islam, has recently registered notable growth in more rigorous, imported versions of the faith. One Islamic notable I visited in Bamako complained to me that ultraconservative salafis, generously financed by Saudi Arabia, now control three radio stations and other media outlets in the capital, while the traditionalists have none.

Politicians I spoke with attributed the appeal of salafi teachings to young people’s discontent with corruption and inequality. It’s striking that the one place where I saw large numbers of young women wearing hijab was at the University of Bamako.

To some younger Malians, it would seem, conservative Islam offers just the kind of discipline, certainty and stability that they can’t find in their roiling surroundings. The fact that it also smacks of rebellion against the older generation probably doesn’t hurt, either.

And yes, I know that most Africans aren’t Muslims. But that’s not the point. The point is that young idealists will seek political and religious alternatives, sometimes radical ones, when life in the cities falls short of expectations. The explosive growth of Pentecostalism in other parts of Africa probably draws on similar sources, though in its case the effects are, thankfully, mostly benign.

Growth and urbanization can also aggravate regional divides. Most of Mali’s economic activity is concentrated in Bamako and other cities in the country’s south-central region, so it comes as little surprise that they also claim most of the benefits. Drive a few hundred miles to the north, though, and the paved roads and the power lines soon evaporate. By all means, let’s hope that the country finds its way back to a healthier economy — but only if the politicians in the capital can figure out how to share the wealth more equitably with all of its regions. Otherwise the spirit of rebellion that nearly destroyed the country in the last two years will flare up again.

These examples are worth keeping in mind for the rest of Africa, too. While the promise of growth is to be welcomed, politicians should start today with policies — especially in education — to ensure that everyone gets a piece of the pie. The approaching demographic and economic revolution on the continent will shake things up in a big way. One thing is for sure: It’s going to be a wild ride. Fasten your seat belts.

Christian Caryl, the editor of Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab, is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute. He is the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.