It is no longer a secret—Africa is finally on the rise. For many decades, we have been used to associating the continent with the Six D’s of horror: decay, disaster, drought, disease, despotism, and despair. They have not disappeared over night, but they are now being complemented by the Three E’s: emergence, evolution, and emancipation.

Robust growth rates were hardly disturbed by the global crisis of 2008; armed conflict has declined; the middle class is growing; elections are improving and becoming more frequent; regional political integration is increasing; more girls are attending school; malaria and HIV/AIDS are being treated more effectively; and the old dinosaurs who used to fill their coffers while ruining their countries are beginning to disappear—could the worst finally be over for Africa? Will it follow most other regions of the southern hemisphere, and eventually emerge from poverty?

The continent is not there yet, but we can see some interesting new trends. Africans have started to find answers to their burning questions. Consequently, some deeply rooted perceptions may need adjustment: both the West and Africa’s Asian partners will at last have to accept Africa as an equal partner. This will require new thinking in a number of capitals, but old attitudes die hard.

Africans are raising their voices in the global concert without obsolete liberation ideology, underdog rhetoric, or cries for more help. Instead, they are stating Africa’s case persuasively, arguing at an Ivy League level, looking China in the eye, and reminding the rest of us that theirs is not an earth apart, but part of our One World. They come from all walks of life into Africa’s emerging middle class. They should be listened to by all the global social engineers who still think that poverty can be reduced from outside, that Africa needs help and pity, and that foreigners should do all the thinking. Many of us haven’t realized yet how fast foreign aid is losing its importance as a major factor in Africa’s development.

Why Africa Failed Previously

Since the beginning of decolonization, sub-Saharan Africa has tried at least twice to find its way out of the doldrums—first, right after the independence of tropical Africa, around 1960; and again following the end of the Cold War when a number of “Big Men” were successfully challenged by democratic movements. Both times, hope was crushed—in the 1970s when military regimes took over, suffocating political emancipation and giving way to mismanagement and corruption, and in the 1990s, when the number of wars in Africa reached its post-independence peak, and foreign debt was at its highest.

Between 1989 and 2004, UN peacekeeping missions had to intervene in 15 African countries. Commodity prices were down, and foreign debt was not yet forgiven. While Asia’s small tigers first, and China later, stunned the world with impressive progress, Africa appeared to be trailing behind hopelessly. Optimists about Africa had a hard time.

Africa’s twice repeated failure to emerge confirmed its international reputation as a basket case. Seemingly unable to manage its affairs, it constantly required international intervention, which came in different shapes. While the United States and many European countries increased their aid, conceived the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and wrote off most of Africa’s foreign debt, China began to develop infrastructure and take out unprocessed commodities. Western countries with strong Protestant traditions continued to see Africa through the distorting lens of their bad conscience, stemming from the distant past of colonialism and the slave trade. Africa’s leaders did subscribe to the MDGs, but had they really participated in conceiving them? As late as 2004, the Brookings Institute published a study, “Ending Africa’s Poverty Trap,” which drew a grand picture of everything that needed to be done in and for Africa. Not a single one of the eminent authors was African.

Why Africa Could Succeed Now

In eight of the past 10 years, sub-Saharan growth has been faster than East Asia’s. The IMF expects Africa’s economies to expand by 5.75 percent in 2012. Several countries will hit growth rates of 10 percent. The World Bank believes that Africa could be on the brink of an economic take-off, much like China 30 and India 20 years ago. Labor productivity is growing by an average of 2.7 percent a year. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200 percent since 2000. Inflation dropped from 22 percent in the 1990s to 8 percent in the past decade. Foreign debt declined by a quarter, and budget deficits by two-thirds.

Foreign investment has steadily increased since 2000. International investors are seeing the long-term horizon. Capital investment in Africa is forecast to stand at US$150 billion in 2015. Africans themselves are investing in other African countries, something almost unheard of before. Investors from emerging economies are seizing opportunities in Africa faster than those from the developed world. However, Western players will have no choice but to join the party if they want to maintain access to African commodities. Meanwhile, China is busy securing long-term supplies of natural resources.

Africa is well-positioned to succeed in the coming years mainly for the four reasons discussed in the following sections.

Cell Phones and the Internet

Despite frequent power cuts in Africa, phone usage and telecommunications infrastructure on the continent is growing dramatically. Many of Africa’s new billionaires are network operators. The cell phone has empowered the new African middle class. It has greatly improved trade efficiency in urban centers and on innumerable markets. It is about to revolutionize banking operations. It has helped to enhance the quality of elections, as results can be transmitted safely from remote polling stations to central electoral commissions. It has assisted civil rights groups and opposition movements. Together with the Internet, it has enabled Africans all over the world to stay connected at a fraction of previous communication costs.

In 1998, just 4 million Africans were using cell phones. Ten years later they were 260 million, with more to come.

Internet coverage is still facing multiple challenges. Frequent power cuts are a permanent nuisance, and some governments try to keep communications costs artificially high. But prices are bound to fall as broadband is being installed in many places. A submarine fiber optic network system was launched in July 2009 off the East African coast. It provides direct connections with Europe and Southern Asia. As a result, full bandwidth solutions are now available in most countries of the region. E-government is not a utopia anymore—some East African countries are leading the way.

Better Governance

Africa is still far from being properly governed. Only a handful of countries are well run. These are mostly small and enjoy exceptional conditions.

However, improvements can be seen in many places. Western support for civil society groups and institution building is important, but change now mostly comes from within. Nevertheless, dialogue on democracy, justice, and the rule of law remains a field of constant, often fruitful debate between Africans and Westerners.

Africans have become more assertive in insisting on their choices. The democratic path has become their preferred option of governance. In his 2012 Oppenheimer Lecture, Nana Akufo-Addo, a distinguished Ghanaian lawyer, considered “the spread of democracy in the last twenty years in Africa [to have] been dramatic, with 2011 a year of reaffirmation, with elections in some 27 nations in Africa. It marked the beginning of the end of 50 years of post-independence struggle for democracy.”

Better governance requires better leaders. The change of generations is promising in this respect. According to Akufo-Addo, “the period of passive citizenship in Africa has hopefully come to an end. Africa’s young and enthusiastic Facebook generation has no time for non-performing leaders.”

However, this generation’s rise is frequently blocked by one of Africa’s greatest cultural burdens: the traditional pattern of respect for elders, and its abuse by Africa’s old leaders who enjoy its benefits. Most simply don’t want to leave office; few resist the temptation of having constitutions changed to grant them life tenure. Many are terrified by the prospect of retirement because there are no pension funds, a greedy clan, scores of clients around them expecting to be fed, and skeletons in the cupboard from too many years of too much power. The fear of prosecution by a successor government, or in extreme cases, of having to go to The Hague, can prompt old leaders to hang onto power endlessly, supported by those who are afraid of going down with them or being prosecuted afterwards. Dysfunctional coalitions as in Kenya, with over 100 government ministers, and Zimbabwe, where fire and water are trying to govern together, are setting questionable precedents, and should remain only transitional in character.

The good news is that these cases are now considered scandalous by Africa’s new middle class. Through the ballot, the Senegalese recently removed their 85-year-old president from office. He had tried to fiddle with the constitution and overstayed his welcome. In Benin in 2006, some courageous young people garnered popular support for urging the veteran president not to run for another term after 24 years in office. Sensing the wave of popular discontent, he retired. Polls show that a vast majority of Africans now believe that leaders should be chosen through regular, open, and honest elections. Ghana is a good example of the trend towards better governance. Its last president was elected by only a tiny margin, and his opponent accepted the result nevertheless. Not a single shot was fired. Skeptics who still believe that democracy is not for Africans unless “we do it for them” were proven wrong. Africans are perfectly able to do it themselves, though not everywhere yet. However, the continent-wide trend towards more democracy and better governance is now beyond the risk of being reversed.

Will modern leadership, improved management of public affairs, and economic progress lead to a decrease in corruption? With more freedom for the media, it might. Corruption is not an African issue, but a feature of dysfunctional political systems worldwide. It is up to Africa’s emerging middle class to make efforts to contain and reduce its scope.

Governance will gain in quality, inasmuch as Africans request this to happen. It will take time, but the chances for substantial progress are now more real than at any time since decolonization.

The New Middle Class

The middle class is widely acknowledged to be Africa’s new backbone. Driving economic and political development, it is roughly comparable in size to middle classes in India or China. By 2010, the middle class as defined by the African Development Bank had risen to 34.3 percent of Africa’s population or nearly 313 million people. Sixty million African households have annual incomes exceeding US$3,000 at market exchange rates. By 2015, that number should reach 100 million.

However, income inequality in Africa remains high. The most affluent 100,000 Africans had a net worth of US$800 billion in 2008 or about 60 percent of Africa’s GDP, or 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s. Most of the poor still have little chance to leave behind poverty, and the continent’s dramatic demographics will produce hundreds of millions more poor Africans before birth rates are likely to go down.

The key challenge now is to ensure that public services, a growing economy, and democratic freedom can deliver opportunities to those below the age of 20, and those to be born within the next 30 years. Education is the only way to defuse the demographic time bomb. Africa needs a well skilled workforce in order to compete in the global economy.

China, India, Brazil and the Others

A generation ago the BRIC countries accounted for just 1 percent of African trade. Today, Africa’s top five emerging trade partners are China (38 percent), India (14 percent), the Republic of Korea (7.2 percent), Brazil (7.1 percent), and Turkey (6.5 percent). China’s and India’s growth has become Africa’s growth.

China in particular is everywhere with its cheap consumer goods. Africa’s rising middle class is buying Chinese today while dreaming of buying German later.

Trade between Africa and China has surpassed US$120 billion in 2010. China now gives more loans to African countries than the World Bank. About one-fourth of China’s total crude oil imports originate in sub-Saharan Africa, and more than two-thirds of Africa’s exports to China consist of crude oil.

Between 2005 and 2010 about 14 percent of China’s investment abroad went to sub-Saharan Africa. This has brought more employment and prosperity to the region, but also allegations of damage to local businesses, corruption, and the hoarding of natural resources.

Africans view China’s dominance with mixed feelings. Beyond affordable consumer goods, China offers something unique to Africa: immediate advice on how to overcome poverty. An African minister of finance once told me: “Europe has become rich long ago. You cannot explain to us how your ancestors managed to overcome poverty. The Chinese can they have only just done it themselves, and not everywhere yet.” Indeed, Western social engineers should consider this simple truth before proposing yet another grand design for Africa.

However, there is a downside. Since the 1990s, China has been flooding African markets with cheap textiles, destroying local production. China’s takeover of large chunks of the mining sector, while neglecting issues of transparency and compliance, is raising eyebrows. There are more complaints about China in Africa today than 10 years ago, even after discounting some self-indulgence of African economic players who are nostalgic about the old times of protectionism.

Up to one million Chinese are living and working in Africa at any given time. They do not exactly represent the country’s elite, and often lack cultural sensitivity. Confrontation is in the air, as conflict in Zambia’s copper mines have shown. Chinese leaders will have to pay more attention to the risks of atmospheric deterioration of what has become a strategically important relationship for them.

While China has a strategy on Africa, the converse is not true. Africans will have to make sure that they benefit from an equal partnership. Given traditional Chinese perceptions of Africa, this will not be easy.

Brazil, Russia, and India are mostly investing in extractive industries, while South Korea and Turkey are engaging in many places and sectors. However, China’s dominance in Africa is unlikely to be challenged by others any time soon.

The Risks of New Failure

Africa’s emancipation could be retarded or spoiled by several cultural, demographic, and economic obstacles.

Cultural patterns change slower than growth rates. Signs of better governance are today not much more than the upside of a long history of failure of the ruling elites to modernize African societies. Too much went wrong for too long. The contradictions are manifold – young vs. old; educated urban vs. “backward” rural people; daylight rationalism vs. nightly atavism based on superstition; and modern society and statehood vs. clan and tribe. The new middle classes want to remove these burdens. They are seeking orientation from global practices, enabling them to put to rest the old demons. How fast they will succeed, I cannot tell.

Current demographic trends may create a considerable dividend for Africa, or more likely, become its new curse. UN predictions indicate that populations throughout sub-Saharan Africa will double, and in some cases triple or quadruple, by 2050 or before. Two, three, or four times more Africans, mostly young, will need more food, health care, and education. They will also need some new leaders two, three, or four times better than many in power today. This may seem like a utopia, but it must be addressed.

Food security will not be the biggest challenge. Africa possesses 60 percent of the world’s reserves of arable land. But health care, only just improving, could face breakdowns with the demographic explosion. Metropolitan life will become more difficult, and water scarcity will grow in more regions. Worst of all, Africa’s emerging education system may collapse under the huge numbers of children. There is no bigger risk for Africa, as education—especially of girls—is the only road towards sustained birth control that may, later in our century, lead to a flattening of the demographic curve.

In view of these risks, Africa needs to concentrate on steady economic growth and education at all levels. Stagnation would bring back the Six Ds, destroying the recent emancipation. Extraction of minerals should be complemented by industries generating added value before export. Africa needs cotton mills for its high quality cotton; industrial investment in the textile sector in order to employ young women; and refineries for its crude oil, reducing its present dependence on fluctuating commodity prices. Serious policy adjustments are needed to manage and accommodate the coming youth bulge.

All these challenges require action simultaneously. Failure to address them now would jeopardize Africa’s newly acquired place in the global economy and revive its calamitous former status as a burden to the world.

Aid & The West: A Farewell to Old Thinking

While the MDGs reflect a global consensus on objectives of development from 2000, the method by which they can best be achieved should be reviewed and partly changed. “We appreciate support from the outside,” says Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s relentless modernizer, “but it should be support for what we intend to achieve ourselves. No one should assume that they know what is good for us better than we do ourselves.”

Africa’s emerging middle class would agree, and probably not object to having aid reduced so long as other means of development gain in importance. It seems wise to me to subscribe to this gradual approach.

Western aid has deep moral roots. They are honorable, understandable, but at least partly wrong. For generations, Africa has been the continent for countless well-meaning foreigners. They often did, and continue to do, extraordinary things. But they have become part of a self-perpetuating system based on the assumption that the seemingly helpless and hopeless “Third World” will continue to justify its existence.

As Africa is now changing faster than Western ideas about it, agents of foreign aid should not expect lifetime job security any longer in public development organizations.

Official aid should be shifted to a few areas that cannot otherwise be covered: education at all levels, institution building, a stronger rule of law, and election support where appropriate. Incidentally, these are sectors in which China shows little interest. But they are essential for Africa’s further emancipation and stabilization, and thus of long-term political interest to the West. The world simply cannot afford Africa to once again deviate from the promising path it has taken.

Africa will take what it deems useful from whatever direction—consumer goods, roads, railways, and football stadiums from China; high technology, support for institution building, and other “soft” goods from the West. Trade and investment will drive development, similar to what we have seen in Asia over the past two decades. Those of us who keep advocating for “the big push” of large-scale social engineering from outside should listen to the echoes of these transformations. All of us would be well advised to acknowledge that Africans are now masters of their fate and equal global partners. They are better prepared today than ever before to meet the challenges they face. In driving the change, they need partners willing to meet them at eye level. If we stand ready to brush up our attitudes, we can be these partners. Africans today know how to make their own choices. The lion cubs will quickly grow, and we shall soon hear them proudly roar.

DR. ALBRECHT CONZE is Germany’s ambassador to Bangladesh. Before, he was ambassador to Benin and Zimbabwe. He served in China, Poland, Russia, Tunisia, Kosovo, and the DRC. Educated at Freiburg, Heidelberg, Geneva, and Cambridge, he has written on Central Europe, Africa, and International Law. At the time of writing, the author was a Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. He is on leave from the German Foreign Office. He is expressing his personal views. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Dr. David Hatendi (1953 – 2012), Zimbabwe’s first black Rhodes Scholar, a distinguished representative of modern Africa, a fine gentleman, and a friend.