Page through any Africa section in the global press and you’re likely to be introduced to tech-savvy graduates in hip offices, stock traders checking commodity prices on mobile phones, or African “lions” picking up where Asia’s “tigers” left off. By now everyone has heard that six of the world’s fastest growing economies are African.

Welcome to the new Africa, we’re told, ready for take off. Indeed, Africa on the whole is emerging impressively from its “lost decades” of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Whereas just three countries had multiparty systems in 1990, today most do. Africa’s strongmen are fewer. There are armed conflicts in only a handful of nations. Gender equality is growing.

The long-term trend in foreign direct investment is upward, hitting $32 billion in 2010. Ernst & Young estimates that Africa will grow five per cent over the next decade — more than any other continent.

“New Africa” is an attractive sell. New Africa is about a miraculous triumph over a tragic past on the world’s last economic frontier, and that makes for vital reading. New Africa is also politically correct and safe: It comes across as sensitive and uncondescending.

Backward slide

But just as the global media tended to hype China’s and India’s prospects a few years ago only to discover that neither is about to take over the world, so the media are overselling Africa. In fact, this hopeful, marketable portrait represents a fraction of the real Africa, and melds the two worlds to obscure the backward slide taking place across much of the continent.

The number of African democracies has declined from 24 to 19 since 2005, and many of those are democracies more in form than substance, with outright theft of state capital, intimidation, compromised judiciaries, and patronage making it near impossible for opposition parties to compete —what Babacar Gueye, a Senegalese professor, calls “democracy without democrats.”

IOANNIS Gatsiounis is a freelance journalist from New York

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