A second dynamic is harder to measure or prove, but is also likely positive: greater national unity. It is a longstanding concern that the colonial powers drew African national borders that did not sufficiently correspond to the underlying ethnic and linguistic groups. That in turn boosted the probability of conflict and instability by making many nation-states prone to bickering over the nature of the regime. Furthermore, the colonial powers made this problem worse by instituting “divide and conquer” strategies in their territories. The Belgian rulers drew people’s attention to the underlying ethnic divisions — such as Tutsis and Hutus — in what is now Rwanda, for example, and the British did something comparable in Nigeria.
One source of gain is simply that the colonial era is receding ever further into the past. In the meantime, a wide array of media outlets have helped to further African notions of national unity and cultural coherence. Soccer and other athletic teams compete on the world stage, and African players competing in Europe are portrayed as representatives of their nations, not particular ethnic groups. Commercial brands and celebrities help define national identities. Exposure to international media, most of all through smart phones and the internet, cements the notion that these regions are indeed perceived as nations by the outside world and that such designations are likely to stick. Mobile phones have knit together different African regions, and ethnic groups, in closer economic ties.
The notion of a nation as an “imagined community,” to use a term from political scientist Benedict Anderson, is under accelerating construction in many parts of Africa. Cultures and cultural expectations are adapting to current borders, even given earlier injustices, thereby contributing to falling rates of violence and conflict.
Unfortunately, Africa is exposed to a lot of “fake news,” perhaps more than Americans are. The good news, if you would call it that, is that Africans seem to be relatively skeptical of social media as a news source, and they put a relatively high degree of trust in international media.
Better yet is that most Africans say that the internet has improved their politics and economics. For instance, 64 percent of Nigerians reported in 2017 that the increasing reach of the internet was good for Nigerian politics. That number compares to just 43 percent in 2014, and positive impressions of a similar nature are common throughout Africa. For all the talk about social media creating divisions (such as in Myanmar), the net effect of modern technology seems to be greater unity, including with respect to national borders.
Many serious problems remain with respect to national identity — in places such as the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Cameroon — so a celebration would be premature. But, to pose a simple question, if you were asked to trade the Africa of the 1970s or ’90s for the Africa of today, the right answer would be pretty obvious. There has been so much net progress on the ground. The simple truth is that today’s Africa is still underrated.
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Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”