The offer by the president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos, to help Angola’s former colonial master and nemesis Portugal out of its tight financial spot encapsulated, for me, the turbulence and dramatic reversals of fortunes that characterise 2011.
It was a piquant moment on many levels - not least for those Africans who recall the "lost decade" of the 1980s, when the International Monetary Fund's "structural-adjustment policies" were associated with stagnation, hardship, and (in places) civil strife in the continent, and led to the reversals of Africa's modest post-independence gains. It also exemplifies in a particularly vivid way the fate of swathes of citizens of Europe and the United States - outraged Greek students, alarmed Spanish civil servants, despondent Irish teachers, worried American factory workers - whose living standards and horizons are being reduced by a spreading austerity that threatens to throttle the life out of their sputtering economies.
The other side of this coin is that states with long experience of poverty and colonialism are now regarded as the tigers and saviours of the world economy. Yet a after former colonial subjects enjoy a dose of Schadenfreude at the expense of once self-assured Europeans, a closer look at Angola clouds the picture. Angola ranks 148th out of 187 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. President dos Santos, one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers (and there are way too many of them), is reputed to be among one of Angola’s wealthiest people; his eldest daughter, Isabel, is the country’s leading businesswoman, owner of Portuguese media assets, and (like her dad) on Angola’s rich list.
This country-as-family-firm is in turn all too reminiscent of the Arab world, where - in another of 2011's great motifs - three dynastic strongmen (so far) were unceremoniously overthrown by mostly youth-led popular uprisings. It is not yet clear whether these reversals of fortune (not least for the Ben Alis, the Mubaraks, and the Gaddafis) will be followed by successful people-led regime change elsewhere. But these events in north Africa illuminated an alarming reality that still holds in much, if not most, of the world: the vast gulf between so many of the world’s ruled and their rulers.
In advanced democracies, this disconnect between rulers and ruled manifests itself in various ways: declining turnout at elections, a loss of trust in institutions, or protests and riots. But these generally have limited effects. Elsewhere, in Africa especially, the disconnect reflects deep-seated problems of weak institutions and bad governance, which have not been resolved by the continent’s recent impressive (but all too often jobless) growth rates and overall improvements in economic performance.
So far, these realities may have cushioned sub-Saharan Africa from the expressions of youthful angst seen across the Arab world. There have been incidents such as the brutal and disgraceful beatings of Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye (film of which went viral on YouTube), but nothing like a storm that threatens to topple a leader.
But that absence is not a sign that the gulf between rulers and ruled is any less wide than to the north. After all, the robustness of Africa's economies is owed in large part to the strong demand for its natural and mineral resources, a model full of risks and challenges that needs careful management if it is to contribute to long-term development. In this respect, the persistence of weak systems of governance could yet prove a great missed opportunity.
This combination of circumstances leads me to look back at 2011 and forward to 2012 with a mix of trepidation and hope. Trepidation, because a globally interconnected world means that we cannot afford to be indifferent to the economic woes of any one region, even if this is but a falling from greater heights. A double-dip US and European recession, for example, could reduce demand for Chinese-produced exports, in turn limiting the demand for African commodities and tipping the balance in a negative direction. On the other side, a reduction of the twin scourges of long-term unemployment and inequality in the US and Europe would help rebalance their economies and create opportunities for other regions, including Africa. The leadership and concerted action to tackle these issues is much needed in 2012.
With or without such leadership, the imperative that Africa takes major steps to improve governance remains. Here perhaps there is a slither of hope. In Sierra Leone, a country once notorious for excesses that turned abundant mineral and natural resources into a curse, a government-supported but citizen-led effort at transformation is underway
Success is not assured but at least this time the country is making an effort to avoid past mistakes (at a time when demand for iron ore is at an all-time high) and reverse its own fortunes in a positive direction. If it works it could show that the need for social and political change can be met in Africa in an orderly way that makes institutions stronger and governance better. That would be as momentous a process as the Arab spring, and would be worthy of far more enduring satisfaction than any Angolan investment in Portugal.