The Dangers of Exclusion: Lessons for Africa from Brexit and the US Elections

By 'Dapo Oyewole

As we step into a new year and a new world order unfolds, Africa must learn urgent lessons from the UK and US who, last year, both experienced the most paradigm-shifting political earthquakes witnessed in recent political history.

The United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump's unexpected victory in the recent U.S. presidential elections have shown, in the starkest terms, how political and economic exclusion can stoke social divisions and spark tensions that can lead to major political upheavals.

As both countries writhe from the political whiplash of the 'blue-collar revolution' and struggle to come to terms with its implications, the political ripples are already spreading across the world. The geo-political power balance has shifted and global politics, as we knew it, has been turned on its head. The future of global governance is now on a precarious path.

The political fallout will not be limited to domestic policy changes in London and Washington. It will also affect their continued global leadership roles, partnerships and alliances, the weight of their influence on the international stage and their moral authority, for example, in advocating for the adoption of western liberal democracy globally.

Already, some governments are beginning to lean towards being less liberal, more authoritarian and less tolerant of diversity, while others are questioning more vocally the efficacy and legitimacy of Western liberal democracy as the only internationally acceptable model of political governance. Now, if resentment built from decades of political and economic exclusion of the largely rural working class in the UK and the US led to some of their polarised voter choices, then nowhere can we hear the warning bells of the potential impact of the same issues ringing louder than in a 'rising Africa'.

Africa is a continent where, after decades of colonisation and kleptocratic authoritarian self-rule, democracy has begun to flourish and economic growth is advancing. However, according to the World Bank's 'Poverty in a Rising Africa Report', the gap between rich and poor remains alarmingly wide with close to half of the continent still living in poverty, while the political and economic elite - less than five percent of the population- live in astounding opulence.

Also, according to the UN, about 70 per cent of Africa's population is under the age of 25 and 60 per cent of the continent's population is comprised of women. However, it is no secret that the majority of the political and economic decision-makers are men over the age of 60. Minorities are often oppressed or disenfranchised; gender equality and tolerance of non-heterosexual orientation are deemed antithetical to cultural norms in many regions and people with disabilities live largely on the margins of mainstream society. Needless to say, inequality and inequity still abound on the continent and remain a highly inflammable powder keg.

Therefore, an urgent lesson that Africa's current leadership must learn from the British and American experience is that the 'marginalised' in society will not always stay pliant, complacent or silent. It is only a matter of time before 'Africa's excluded' push back and demand to be seen, heard and included in shaping their own destinies and in sharing in the wealth of their nations. With the current restlessness and frustration of large numbers of poor, unemployed and disempowered African youth, nothing tells us that an 'African Spiral' will not follow the 'Arab Spring.'

Hopefully, this will be expressed through peaceful and democratic means. But if it is fuelled by the political toxicity we have just observed in Britain and the United States, it could well inflame social tensions and political violence that will be hard to contain. Although the continent has made remarkable progress in developing and deploying internal political conflict resolution mechanisms such as the African Standby Force and other means of back channel diplomacy, we must not forget the hard lessons from apartheid in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda.

Therefore, in the shadow of 'Brexit', the rise of Trump and based on lessons from its own history, Africa has a chance to avert the dangers that come with economic and political exclusion. It can do so by opening up more political space to marginalised groups and spreading the dividends of economic growth more evenly across the different genders, sectors and sections of its hugely diverse societies.

Africa's leaders must urgently increase political will to design and implement effective regional and national policies, while strengthening institutional capacities to create a more enabling policy environment for political participation and economic inclusion across society. Government policies and programmes must actively ensure that they cater not only to the interests of the rich and powerful, but also to those of the poor and disempowered.

In 2017, African governments that aim to increase economic growth, maintain stable policies, sustain peaceful societies and offer a dignified life for their citizens, will have to take inclusive governance and shared prosperity as a priority. Yes, 'Africa is rising' and that is a great thing. But as it does so, it must learn vital lessons about the dangers of political and economic exclusion from Britain and the United States. Africa's leaders must learn that for Africa's rise to be sustainable, peaceful and progressive, it cannot be a rise for some. It must be a rise for all.

'Dapo Oyewole is a public policy & international development specialist who advises governments, corporations and international institutions on development policy and strategy. He is an Aspen New Voices Fellow, a Yale World Fellow and a doctoral researcher at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.