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Reason Africa is missing from the gripping global middle class story

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A view of the 35th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa, on February 5, 2022. 

Photo credit: File | AFP

In less than six years, around 2030, five billion people out of the world’s 8.5 billion inhabitant by 2030 will have joined the middle class, the largest in human history. In his new book, The Rise of the Global Middle Class (2024), Homi Kharas, hails the middle class as “the most successful group in world history” whose search for the happier life has fuelled unprecedented global transformation.

The phenomenal rise of the Asian middle-class — led by China, India and the Middle East has propelled this social group between the upper and working classes.

Sadly, although Africa will bost having the world’s largest and youngest population, estimated to surpass the 1.7 billion mark by 2030, it is not part of this blissful story.

While Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Botswana have large middle class societies, “most countries on the continent have less than 10% of their population.” Africa will miss the train of the rising global middle class because of two inter-connected forces.

First is the declining momentum of the African Renaissance. Simply defined, African Renaissance is a gospel of hope that the continent shall prevail over all its challenges, achieve cultural, scientific, and economic renewal and claim the 21st century as ‘the African century.’

At the height of Africa’s anti-colonial liberation, Senegalese scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop defined the concept in a series of essays later collected in the book: Towards the African renaissance : essays in African culture & development, 1946-1960 (London : Karnak House, 1996).

In a prologue to the book, African Renaissance: The New Struggle (1999) in the twilight of apartheid regimes in South Africa in the 1990s, former South African President Thabo Mbeki popularised the concept to redefine Africa’s intellectual agenda to transform Africa into a significant player in geopolitical affairs.

The concept helped galvanise an intellectual and policy processes that transformed Africa from the “hopeless continent” to a hopeful ‘Africa rising’. Africa adopted ‘Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want’ as its development blueprint to transform the continent into the global powerhouse of the future. In 2018, it adopted the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, the world’s largest free trade area poised to create a single market and jobs for the continent.

The second force impeding Africa rise from poverty and into the global middle class is declining international solidarity as an invaluable counterforce to terrorism. Despite unending disputes over the distinction between a ‘terrorist’ and a ‘freedom fighter,’ terrorism is widely recognised as a common enemy of humanity and a real threat to international peace and security.

With its massive natural resources, growing markets and cheap, youthful labour, Africa is in the vortex of a fierce geopolitical competition between the American-led G7-Group and the BRICS — to shape the future of the international order in the 21st century.

Global counter-terrorism has been weaponised in the context of an all-out geopolitical competition, putting African Renaissance and global counter-terrorism on a collision course.

Terrorist groups in Africa such as Boko Haram in West Africa, Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and ISIS have attacked foreign investments and personnel on the ground as soft targets hampering Africa’s development.

Recently, Al-Shabaab escalated its attacks on workers, assets and military personnel on the crucial Lapsset project, slowing its operations. The Allied Democratic Forces, the Islamist rebels in Uganda and the DR Congo, has also increased its attacks on foreign personnel working in mines in eastern Congo.

While China and the US have a shared interest to stem rising terrorism in Africa, competition, not cooperation, is the hallmark of their approaches. In the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7 last year, both powers issued security alerts cautioning their citizens against travelling to areas prone to terrorism.

They feared that Al-Shabaab could attack in “solidarity” with Hamas in the escalating war between Israel and Gaza, and Kenya’s conflicting policy that oscillated from “solidarity with Israel” to calls for ‘peaceful’ end to the war.

At the kernel of America’s counter-terrorism approach in Africa is its 2022 National Security Strategy, which prioritises “out-competing China and constraining Russia.” Counter-terrorism is not one of the core areas of working together with China “for the good of our people and for the good of the world.”

Americans fear enhancing Chinese security influence in Africa through counter-terrorism. Instead, America is keen to “hold Beijing accountable” for “abuses” arising from its counter-insurgency measures against the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which is linked to religious extremism and Uighur separatism.

On its part, China is increasingly concerned with terrorism as a rising security threat to its investments and the safety of Chinese in Africa considering it is a leading investors in the continent with more than 2,000 companies and a million nationals engaged in operations.

Escalating terrorist threats will reduce the flow of valuable but most vulnerable investments in Africa.

- Prof Peter Kagwanja is CEO at the Africa Policy Institute, Adjunct Professor University of Nairobi & Visiting Scholar at the National Defence University-Kenya.