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Can the new middle class in the Horn counter autocracy?

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The September-October 2019 issue of the Foreign Affairs Journal, provocatively titled “Autocracy Now”, bemoans the return of dictators as the defining trait of our epoch. “Historical eras tend to have characteristic leadership types”, writes the editor, Gideon Rose, concluding that the world is back to dictators. The autocracy moment in the Horn of Africa is a mix of sit-tight dictatorships, transitional regimes and one or two fledgling democracies.

The big question is how will autocracy be rolled back? Perhaps the burgeoning middle class in Africa and the Global South is the antidote to resurgent autocracy and right wing populist regimes. The 21st century is envisaged as “a century of the middle class”.

The middle class is like the proverbial giraffe, hard to define by usual yardsticks but easy to recognise when you meet one. For the ancient Greek thinker, Aristotle, “a government which is composed of the middle class more nearly approximates to democracy than to oligarchy, and is the safest of the imperfect forms of government”.

The consumer class is visualised as the future of nations and civilisations, an alternative to the upper class and the working class. In a world in which the relevance of the working class and of socialism has been declared obsolete, writes Göran Therborn, the Cambridge University professor, the middle class society emerges as the symbol of alternative future.

It is the economists, however, not political thinkers, who have popularised the middle class as the future. Africa has the world’s fastest growing middle class, aptly described by the investor and philanthropists, George Soros, as “one of the few bright spots on the gloomy economic horizon.” The “Africa Rising” narrative is hinged on Africa’s emergent middle class.



The 2013 Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2013) pushed the imagination of the middle class as the future to a whole new level. It defined the middle class on the basis of a daily income or expenditure of between $10 and $100 rather than its potential for transformation.

The Africa Development Bank lowered the threshold, defining the middle class as persons with yearly incomes exceeding $3,900 (or a daily per capital expenditure of $2 to $20). Earlier in 2009, World Bank Chief Economist Martin Ravallion proposed an even more flexible definition, a house consumption of $2 to $13. Based on the $2 threshold, ADB declare sanguinely that between 300 million and 500 million Africans had entered the middle class.

While this definition has helped to roll back afro-pessimism that kept away foreign investors and given wings to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative, it is doubtful that $2 a day can support a lifestyle or social status that qualify as middle class in any society! The middle class becomes nothing but category between the poor and the rich, to which everyone not starving belongs.


In view of this, the numbers of the middle class population in Africa remain elusive with some settling for 330 million people. Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria and Morocco are the “power five” markets with 219 million people or two-thirds of the continent’s consumer class.

Below the “power five” is the “frontier fifteen” markets with a middle class population ranging from two to 10 million people. Ethiopia (10.5), Kenya (8.7) and Tanzania (8.3) fall under this rung. In Ethiopia, the middle class is set to grow by 1,200 percent over the next decade. Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea are also poised to increase the ranks of their middle class.

But the middle class is not new. Over half a century ago, two of Africa’s leading theoreticians, Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral, identified and discussed the African petty bourgeoisie of their days (kind of today’s middle class).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries race loomed larger than class in the struggles of the small middle class that emerged in the diasporas in America and Europe and colonial Africa.


However, the watershed Fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945, attended by Jomo Kenyatta and Haile Selassie, highlighted pan-Africanism, nationalism and socialism as the ideological trinity that was to propel Africa’s struggles in the 20th century.

As the main architects of African Socialism, Africa’s founding fathers subordinated the small middle class under the working class. They, however, failed to produce a clear definition or a unified vision of African socialism.

In Guinea Bissau, Amilcar Cabral, wary of the pitfalls of the divided consciousness of petty-bourgeoisie and the risk of pursuing its immediate material interests, came up with the theory of “class suicide” calling on the middle class to sacrifice its class position, privileges, and power through identification with the working masses.


In the 21st century, the African middle class must “commit class suicide” and identify with the toiling masses in order to reduce the widening inequality gap.

Today, we cannot run a democracy without a strong middle class. The middle class is the agent of sociopolitical transition towards democracy and a cornerstone of democratic rule.

But the political agenda of the middle class is as confused and as chaotic as the anarchic Digital Age and the Fourth Industrial Revolution that has given rise to it.

Africa’s globalised middle class, unlike the middle classes or working class leadership before it, lacks character and pan-African consciousness. Aristotle defined character as “that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids”.


In the Horn, sibling rivalry and competition for markets and status by the new middle class leadership is undermining existing security regime, putting the region at peril.

The protracted Jubaland state election revealed the paradox of the middle class in the Horn: its immense potential for war and peace. A strongman ideology lingers on, amid an avid quest for democracy. Only a strong middle class with character can counter the surge of autocracy in the Horn.

Professor Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute