The outbreak of civil war in Sudan has been a disaster. The world is gazing with horror at the mounting civilian death toll and the flight of refugees. However, the conflict has also punched an ugly hole into Africa’s already tattered image.

For many, it is the latest proof of the central Afro-pessimist claim: that Africa is “too riddled with problems for good governance and economic development.” The pessimist pundits argue that Africa will be perennially destitute because of its political instability, constant war, social chaos, corruption, poor governance and other seemingly insurmountable impediments.

This isn’t exactly a fringe claim. Variants of it have been current for decades, articulated by thinkers and policymakers both within and outside the continent. It animates the very assumption, expressed by most concerned parties, that the present crisis in Sudan will turn into a long-term conflict.

It even found expression in a recent article here on MercatorNet, in which the author, Louis T. March, concludes that due to “a rapidly increasing population, fast falling fertility, lightning-fast urbanization and accelerating out-migration, there is scant hope that Sub-Saharan Africa will ever attain Global North-level prosperity.”

Faced with Africa’s seeming inability to surmount its challenges, it is tempting to write off the continent entirely, as the Afro-pessimists do. However, it isn’t obvious that this is the most accurate lens with which to view this continent. In fact, a balanced review of the same facts recruited by this school is just as likely to reveal that the Afro-pessimists are misled, if not entirely wrong.

For one thing, it is quite difficult to generalise about Africa, for not only is it the most diverse continent in most relevant measures, it also has the largest number of countries. This doesn’t meant that that we shouldn’t attempt generalisations, but rather that we should be careful not to attach too much confidence to them.

Furthermore, to the reality of African countries’ systemic problems, we must oppose the fact that most of Africa’s countries and societies are quite new to the concepts and practicalities of centralised statehood. Almost all of them inherited the structures of modern governance only a few decades ago from European colonial governments, many of which hadn’t spent much effort in building up sufficient local expertise.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that African countries with the feeblest government institutions, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have had the roughest go of it. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s taking many African countries time to build up state structures. It took European countries centuries to develop similar structures – and they had a massive head start.

We must also keep in mind that, unlike the largely mono-ethnic states of Europe, most African countries are also insanely multi-ethnic. Additionally, with a few famous exceptions, African ethnic groups, unlike those in places like Asia, don’t have a long history of living under common governments.

For this reason, along with navigating the complex effort of building the institutions of statehood and growing their economies after independence, Africans have also had to learn the very basics of living with each other.

This process hasn’t been easy, as the continent’s history of war, genocide and ethno-nationalism attest. However, the slow emergence of super-ethnic national identities, driven by gathering urbanisation and the dispersion of technology, promises to eventually dispatch this issue.

Finally, and most importantly, a lot of the problems that animate the Afro-pessimistic narrative have been solved in multiple parts of the continent. Countries like Rwanda have cracked the secret to rapid and sustained economic growth.

Countries like Ghana have found a way to hold credible elections and transfer power peacefully from one government to the next over an extended period. Countries like Kenya have figured out how to connect widely-distributed rural populations to the electrical grid.

These achievements, and many more positive ones like them, are much more likely to spread across the continent than they are to be put out by the next crisis. Despite all the handwringing, regressions to chaos are rare on the continent where once constructive patterns have been entrenched.

Sure, Africa’s past is chequered, and the challenges faced by African countries are massive. A reading of some of my own articles furnishes a litany of the same problems often recruited by Afro-pessimists into support of their cause.

But these facts don’t necessarily condemn Africa to a bleak future. Even the most accurate data can only tell us about the past. Opinion journalism, moreover, doesn’t consist in merely stating the facts. That is the province of news journalism. To write an opinion is to articulate one’s worldview, to make an argument for it.

Sure, one must consider all the available relevant facts; they are the ladder with which we climb to our final conclusions. However, even the facts one selects are necessarily informed by their worldview. For this reason, conclusions made from facts are only as good as the experience, intuition and worldview of their maker.

Therefore, to promote an optimistic view of Africa’s future, as I hope I often do, isn’t to be mindlessly unrealistic or propagandistic. Rather, it is to take a vision of the continent which accounts for human ingenuity, the cumulative nature of wealth and experience, and the context of global problems.

It isn’t that Africa doesn’t face massive challenges, but rather that it is premature, in the grand scheme, to despair of its ability to surmount them. Neither the facts nor their balanced analysis preclude a balanced optimism.

On the other hand, if we were to despair for the future of any part of the world, we would do well to focus on the countries of the ageing and sclerotic First World (as it used to be called). Unlike Africa, they may not have a future at all if they fail to reproduce themselves.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near...