Sub-Saharan Africa has long been thought of — usually unfairly — as the most chronically unstable section of the planet. But this week offered crucial evidence that both perception and reality are undergoing a much-needed change.
President Obama hosted leaders from over 50 African countries in Washington, the first American attempt of the sort of continent-wide trade and investment conference that China, Brazil, and India have been holding in recent decades.
In Obama’s view, the summit signaled an important shift in the U.S.’s relationship with Africa. He assured leaders that U.S. policy in the continent would be based on partnership and mutual opportunity, rather than on aid, charity, and security crisis management.
This is an ideal time for a change in both policy and perception: South Sudan and the Central African Republic aside, Africa is no longer wracked with civil war, at least not to nearly the degree that it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Ethiopia, South Africa and Ghana boast three of the world’s fastest-growing economies. China has been investing extensively in infrastructure and natural resource extraction in Africa, and more of the continent’s countries are democracies than ever before.
Africa’s security issues are far from solved. But as conference attendee Ivor Ichikowitz, the executive chairman of South African defence contractor Paramount explained to Business Insider, the continent has never been better equipped to solve them on its own. And this means that global powers like the U.S. will have to change their approach to how they aid African governments in countering emerging security threats like Boko Haram in Nigeria, or Al Shabaab in Kenya.
“I do not think the dialogue should be about how America can come and stop conflicts in Africa today,” says Ichikowitz. “It’s about how the U.S. can play a role in helping to create capacity in Africa so that African governments themselves can engage in the prevention of future conflict.
“The days when Africa was a charity case — when it needed assistance and handholding — are over,” Ichikowitz adds.
Paramount has a potentially important role to play in an Africa that takes on more of its own security burden. It is the continent’s largest privately-owned defence company. It has a ship-building and aerospace operation, and is a leader in developing landmine and IED-resistant vehicles. The company sells to 35 state clients around the world, and does around 20% of its business within Africa.
As Ichikowitz explains it, the South African defence industry’s story is a reflection of the country’s post-apartheid experience.
After the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994, President Nelson Mandela had the difficult task of overhauling the country’s exclusionary political system while preserving its economic vitality — and without triggering racial tensions, reprisal violence, or mass emigration.
The defence industry presented a microcosm of this balancing act, especially in light of the apartheid government’s dependence on its security apparatus in its enforcement of minority rule.
“When the African National Congress came into power it was confronted with an interesting challenge,” says Ichikowitz. “It inherited an industry that had been designed to destroy it.” Some wanted the defence industry disbanded, but as Izickowitz explains, “Mandela realised that this industry was a very valuable organ for foreign policy and more importantly a driver for economic growth and development and innovation.”
South Africa’s global isolation during the apartheid years might actually have positioned the defence industry for success during the country’s transition to democracy. “Paramount grew because we had this can-do mentality that came from a group of engineers and technicians who worked in an embargo environment,” says Ichikowitz.
Ichikowitz explains Paramount produces defence products attuned to African security needs: equipment that can survive battlefield conditions more intense than those of western or Asian militaries’ typical areas of operation. So Paramount emerged from a specifically South African set of circumstances — and caters to the African security environment in a way that Ichikowitz says that few other companies can.
“I think the capability Paramount has is a function of the African continent,” says Ichikowitz.
Ichikowitz’s ideal of an Africa that can stand on its own security-wise undoubtedly benefits companies like his. But it’s undeniable that there are security situations in Africa that can’t simply be solved by outside intervention. For instance, when the jihadist group Boko Haram kidnapped over 200 girls from a primary school in northeast Nigeria, the U.S. sent surveillance aircraft and military advisors in response — an indication that the U.S. didn’t have the operational capacity or intelligence resources needed to mount a rescue operation of its own.
And a few recent security successes have come from within Africa. Peacekeeping mission consisting entirely of African militaries have helped prevent the government of Somalia from falling to jihadists, and defeated rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Africa is going through a period of economic growth, increasing capacity, and general calm. There’s always a chance that jihadists groups like Boko Haram, or renewed famine in South Sudan or Somalia — or even general complacency during a time of relative optimism — could bring about a new period of chaos and state collapse. But for locally-developed companies that cater to African governments and needs, the outlook might be better than ever.
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