AFRICA'S THREE FUTURES: WHICH BECKONS FOR NIGERIA?

By NBF News
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By Eloho OTOBO
SEVERAL recent reports, especially by some prominent foreign consultancy firms, have called attention to the good economic news about Africa. In particular, those reports underline that the region has significant business opportunities.

The sense of business opportunities reflected in those reports is based on the belief that Africa with a population size at the brink of a billion people constitutes a major consumers' market. But Africans would have to have sustainable sources of growing income levels for them to be robust consumers of foreign goods and services. In other words, they would also have to be producers and exporters of a diversified range of products.

The failure to take this factor into account has enabled many of those recent analyses to gloss over the structural constraints that have impeded Africa's development in the past and still cast long shadows over its long term prospects. I refer to these obstacles as deficits in Africa's development.

Individual African countries suffer in varying degrees from three main deficits:  stability deficit, organisational deficit and scientific and technological deficit. To paint a more accurate portrait, several African countries suffer from stability deficit; many suffer from organisational deficit and most from scientific and technological deficit.

Africa's stability deficit manifests itself in several ways, most notably in conflicts, serial coups, and weak rule of law and weak democratic governance practices. Organisational deficit encapsulates both institutional weakness and serious capacity deficiencies.

Africa's scientific and technological deficits are manifested in such indicators as low share of gross national product devoted to scientific and technological research, the low share of manufacturing and of high technology products in exports and poor quality of tertiary education. Many African countries have pronounced deficits in each of these areas.

Conventional analyses of progress or lack of it in Africa have focussed either on the political situation or economic trends. Seldom are the two brought together and even much rarer is the case when the political, organisational and the scientific and technological dimensions combined to offer a comprehensive view.

Yet, the link between mastery of science and technology and economic development is enduring and strong. Economic power is directly correlated with scientific power. No nation can emerge as an economic power or even a military power without first being a leading nation in science and technology.

By integrating the stability, organisational and scientific and technological perspectives, it is possible to gain considerable insights into the factors that will shape the futures of African countries. The picture that emerges from that composite portrait is clear: all African countries do not face the same futures. Instead, Africa countries face three distinct futures.

To understand how those futures will evolve is to understand the points of intersections among political stability, organisational competence and scientific and technological capacity. The group of countries that combine political stability, organisational competence and scientific and technological prowess will emerge as the most competitive.

This combination of attributes means that the governments of these countries will exert significant regional or even extra-regional influence, their companies will extend their presence beyond national and continental boundaries into other continents driven by growing organisational competence and mastery of science and technology.

More than these, the countries need political stability to buttress their economic growth; they need strong scientific and technological skills to climb up the product value chain at competitive cost structure. This group of countries will be few indeed. To draw on the metaphor of lions, that now suffuses a growing number of reports on the region, I refer to this category of countries as the 'roaring lions'.

The next category of countries will be those that have a modicum of political stability and organisational competence but low mastery of scientific and technological know how.  To the extent that their firms will compete, it will mainly be in a sub-regional context and in very limited sectors.

One of the reasons for this is that the labour force of these countries will not offer better technical skills relative to the cost of labour (wages) found elsewhere in the continent or around the world. Similarly, their governments might hold some sway only in a sub-regional and to some extent in the continental context.  These countries will be in a mode of regional cooperation not global competitiveness. I refer to this group as the 'shackled lions'.

The third  category of countries are those plagued by continuing political instability or the ever present danger of lapsing or relapsing into conflict in the context of weak institutions and very limited managerial capacity. Countries in this category will manifest the traits of what I refer to as 'recovering' or 'wounded lions'. These countries have high political risk with limited upside potentials with regard to investment opportunities, given their weak infrastructure and negligible scientific and technological know how.

Whether individual African countries are able to overcome the three deficits will determine what the future holds for each of them. The countries that make most progress in addressing or overcoming the three deficits will emerge politically stable, socially cohesive and economically vibrant.

In those country contexts, the good news about the region will endure and that will comprehensively undermine the uniformly bleak portrayal frequently dominate in some foreign commentaries about  the continent .


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