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The first 50 years of freedom have been marked by constant development setbacks, yet the continent’s huge natural wealth brings hope for the next 50, says Alnoor Amlani

This article was first published in the January 2014 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

As 2013 came to a close I found myself reflecting on the ‘fruits of independence’ and considering where the continent will be in the next 50 years. Most African countries have now experienced 50 years or more of freedom from colonisation. What achievements can they point to and what failures, and what is the future?

The African Development Bank’s 2012 report Political Fragility in Africa: Are Military Coups d’État a Never-Ending Phenomenon? points out that since independence there have been 203 military coups in Africa (counting both successful as well as unsuccessful attempts).

West Africa experienced the majority – indeed, Mali’s democratically elected government was overthrown only last year by a small group of military insurgents who held the country for a short while in the face of international condemnation, but finally stepped down after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) negotiated a deal.

The coups are driven by political factors, with the election manipulation, poor education levels, high corruption and impunity prevailing in many countries also playing a part.

With so many coups interrupting development (80% of African countries have experienced one or more coups since independence) it is not surprising that the continent has fared poorly since independence and that poverty, disease, poor education and nutrition, underdevelopment and weak political, legal and other institutions continue to prevail.

However, as long as the principles of democracy are active, economic growth continues to be sustained and prosperity shared with the people, the trend can be slowly changed. The uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are examples of the end of the coup trend and the advent of more democratic African societies, but these situations must be managed better to reduce the loss of lives and property.

The future depends on how African countries apply their abundant natural resources. The problem of youth unemployment (the driver behind the uprisings) must be addressed by offering jobs and therefore sharing the wealth locked up in Africa’s resources. If this is not done, then there will continue to be political instability that holds back growth.

Africa in 50 Years’ Time: The Road Towards Inclusive Growth, a report also published by the African Development Bank in 2012, predicted that Africa’s GDP could increase to over US$15 trillion in 2060 from US$1.7 trillion in 2010. The effect of this would be to raise income per capita from US$1,667 in 2010 to US$5,600 by 2060 – in today’s dollar terms.

While this would represent a major jump in living standards it is still a fraction of the current per capita income of South Korea at US$17,000. The report also predicts a growth in the African middle class (this has risen significantly in the last 20 years) from 355 million people to 1.1 billion in 2060, as well as a drop in child mortality from 127 per 1,000 live births to 45 per 1,000.

The report cautions that it all depends on individual countries responding properly to the opportunities and challenges of accelerated urbanisation and migration, declining agriculture and more intense global competition, as well as making proper use of natural resources and diminishing conflict situations.

To tap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of these expected changes, countries must invest in cities, manage migration, transform agriculture, manage natural resources better and engage more actively in global trade.

Alnoor Amlani FCCA is an independent financial management consultant in East Africa who writes regularly on social and business issues

Last updated: 10 Jan 2014