Business, Finance & Economics

Richer countries, poorer people in Africa


LAGOS, NIGERIA: Make-shift homes are erected by the poor under a Lagos fly-over overlooking the skyscrapers that dot central Lagos 02 April, 2004.


Pius Utomi Ekpei

NAIROBI, Kenya — Nigeria is booming yet new, official figures from the country's National Bureau of Statistics show that its people are getting poorer: poverty and inequality are on the rise.

More from GlobalPost: Poverty rises in Nigeria

This is a surprise if you have fallen in with the recent spasm of Afro-optimism. This December, The Economist published its 'Hopeful Continent' issue about Africa, praising GDP growth forecasts and highlighting examples of innovation and legitimately-won wealth. Meanwhile, the African Development Bank (AfDB) tells us that the continent now boasts 310 million middle class people, a tripling over the last 30 years.

But wait — according to the AfDB you're "middle class" if you earn more than $2 a day. This can't pass for a definition of middle class anywhere except in the AfDB's ivory towers. To be fair, the researchers add a note about the stratospheric inequality in Africa acknowledging that, "about 100,000 Africans had a net worth of $800 billion," equivalent to 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's entire GDP.

More from GlobalPost: A third of all Africans are "middle class," report finds

This is the real story of economic growth in Africa: inequality. The Nigerian statistics highlight this, and they come as no surprise at all if you've taken the short walk from a filthy slum, across a potholed road jammed with shiny SUVs, into a fortified neighborhood of villas and high-rise apartments; an experience all too many Africans have on a daily basis. The proximity of the destitute to the appallingly rich creates jealousy and stokes anger.

Amid all the talk of macro-growth, of GDP projections (more than 5 percent says the IMF), and rising per capita income, what is lost is the self-evident truth that a nation's wealth is not distributed equally, per capita. Far from it.

Right here, Kenya is an indicative example. Uhuru Kenyatta is a member of the country's self-serving political elite, and reportedly the richest man in the country and one of the wealthiest in Africa, largely thanks to landholdings taken for the family by his father Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first leader (Kenyatta Jr has also been charged with politically-motivated crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court).

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Meanwhile, millions of Kenyans — some of whom have voted for him — carve their homes out of the ever-expanding slums that encircle the capital like a squalid necklace.

The "trickle down effect" of rising GDP is just that — a trickle –  for most the drudgery of earning enough for food, school fees and housing is unchanging. The narrative of 'Africa Rising,' of world-leading economic growth and an expanding 'middle class,' does not ring true.