Zainab Usman: The need for ownership of African problems and solutions (Y! Policy Hub)

by Zainab Usman

zainab usman

 “Africa’s story has been written by others; we need to own our problems and solutions and write our story.” Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda

With these words, Paul Kagame did two things simultaneously: he earned a spot in the top-10 memorable quotes from the recently concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) Summit 2013 at Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. More importantly, his remark implied that Sub-Saharan Africa today is underscored by a profound failure of African ownership of lingering problems and potential solutions – a failure of an African conceptualisation of these problems and their solutions and consequently a failure of taking responsibility for successes and failures.

Recently, Africa has come under the spotlight as the rising continent of “opportunity” far from its hey days of being the melting pot of “darkness” and “hopelessness”, in the paraphrased words of Joseph Conrad and The Economist. The pockets of high economic growth fuelled by a boom in global commodity prices of which many African countries are merely exporters, and the purchasing power of an elitist “middle class” and of diaspora Africans going-back-home has led to a wave of justified Afro-optimism. More recently, this bubble of optimism has been punctured by those toeing the line of caution, myself inclusive, on the need for more sustainable economic growth, equitable distribution of resources, and institutionalisation of effective governance. The evident polarisation in the discourse on Africa’s fortunes between the optimists and the skeptics is arguably due to the lack of ownership of the African situation today and of the discourse as well.

This variation in this discourse on 21st century Africa was discernible at the WEF where the movers and shakers in global politics, global economy, the academia, entertainment and the International NGO circuit exchanged ideas, visions… and contact details. On the one hand were African leaders such as Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan marketing Nigeria’s Agricultural Transformation program to investors; South Africa’s Jacob Zuma with a presently expanding leadership role on the continent speaking about ambitious infrastructural projects and efforts towards greater regional integration to boost intra-continental trade and several CEOs of global firms like Renault and Coca-Cola stressing the vast opportunities for profit-making in Africa.

A more cautious position was adopted by Louise Arbour, President of International Crisis Group while highlighting significant challenges of governance, weak institutions and political and economic exclusion which foster inequitable distribution of resources, create grievances and eventually culminate in conflict, a serious threat to economic prosperity. While Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi adopted a middle ground tone in emphasising that despite significant successes in governance, infrastructure and resource-based industrialisation is needed for Africa to move up the value-chain.

Where does ownership come in within the discourse on Africa’s fortunes? It is precisely due to the lack of ownership that Africa’s story today is varied and that a divergence is apparent between the optimists and the cautious skeptics. This (lack of) ownership means that economic successes across much of the continent are driven by external factors: the boom in global commodity prices on which the economies of many African countries – Nigeria, Botswana and Zambia among others – depend on and the global financial crisis prompting many diaspora Africans to make the strategic move back home and global firms to look for new frontiers of massive profits in modernising African cities and of course, the role of foreign development aid. Africa’s current economic successes can hardly be credited to conscious and deliberate policy by African policy makers, thereby questioning the sustainability of this “success”.

The concept of ownership as identified in this context by President Kagame means African policy makers should take responsibility for problems: poverty, unemployment, inequality, infrastructural deficits, weak institutions and corruption. It means African leaders should take the lead in formulating transformational policies to address these problems: inclusive policies which will close the poverty and inequality gap and address hard infrastructure (such as roads, electricity and security) and soft infrastructure (such as governance, rule of law and regulatory environment) deficits to enable local businesses thrive whilst encouraging foreign investments.

Overall, ownership of problems and solutions should mean that there is a strong link between the actions taken by African governments and resultant successes in addressing these problems, and that such successes are not merely the coincidence of external factors – the boom in oil prices, aid donors or the pinch of the global financial crisis. Effective ownership of problems and solutions means that in a few years, we should be able to quantify the jobs and agri-businesses that sprout from Jonathan’s Agricultural Transformation program or a significant bridging of the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots in South Africa. This will be the real test of African success in owning the problems and solutions, and for more sustainable prosperity across the continent.


Zainab Usman is a research student (PhD) in International Development whose research focus is on governance and political economy in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her broad interests are in international political economy, development within the African context and women and youth empowerment. Zainab regularly blogs at She tweets from @MssZeeUsman


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

One comment

  1. hey there, if i may highlight just 2 problems for in Nigeria is that we are stuck in paradox which is the 'poverty trap' we find ourselves in and our week institutions. First of all Nigeria is caught up in a poverty trap because our main source of foreign reserve which u know is what every country uses for international trade which is in dollars. Now to further make u understand my point is that there is no diversification in the economy making our oil reserves our only source of our foreign reserves, in doing so, we've neglected our other sources of foreign reserve such minning, fisheries and like u said farming which funny enough used to be our main source of foreign reserve followed by textiles(Kano used be called the manchester of Africa because of our cotton production and the quality of our textile products), the list goes on. So what happens is that those other sectors of our economy which are neglected only get patronised by so little that even our basic amenities such as food become over priced as the funding and subsequent sudsidising of those products are now diverted solely to the oil sector, going back to my previous point, oil is our main source of foreign reserve, simply stating in lehman terms, our lack of diversification leads to a higher level of poverty due to unemployment and these also have their trickle down effects as lack of 'even distribution of wealth' wouldn't provide for a middle class and so level of education keeps reducing as a result of this. And due to this alot of average citizens get displaced! Now going back to the later, u made a crucial point earlier namely, 'ELITISM', which i'm to use to descride why our institutions are corroding at an alarming rate. These so called elites are so few that the average man wouldn't understand how these few people can twist our institutions by making our constitutional rights favour them in such a manner that is so appalling, that one begins to question the so called religious belief's as a farce, and i say this because its the same people stealing and depriving us that u see in our mosques and churches raising their hands higher than everyone, very sad. The most important constitution that needs to addressed is the 'LAND USE ACT', which has been manipulated to on favour a handful, and i say this because a peoples with no idea of land ownership wouldn't even attempt to invest anywhere as the land can be unjustfully taken away. Now lets look at another scenario, lets say our fellow brothers and sisters all had equal right to land, the economic of the area no matter how little will benefit through investinting in any area where they're entitled to land, now this alone will enhance growth and even a better co-existance between one another as the benefit of the trickle down effect will only enhance our standard of living due to job creation and education just to highlight progress as the list wil go on. And through this diversification women will be empowered again, and i say again because without our strong and talented women we wouldn't have been recognised, going back to my earlier point, Kano as the 'Manchester of Africa'. Lastely i concur with Jacob Zuma simply because of David Ricardo's theory of 'COMPARATIVE ADVANTAGE', as African's are being cheated international trade as the GATT(General Agreement on Trade and Tariff) doesn't favour us i.e our farmers will sell raw products, lets say 5mangoes for $1, those same mangoes will come back refined into a juice carton for lets say $3. So retrospect we can't move forward without addressing all the issue's i highlighted and your's respectfully. By the way it was a very good read, hopefully I will be expecting more from you. keep it coming, one day your plea for a better Nigeria and Africa as a whole will be addressed with u in the forefront Insha'Allah.

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