Emerging Africa: The Cheetah & Hippo Generations


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If you go back in African history, you can see a divide of two classes of people. There’s the “hippo generation” and the “cheetah generation.”

In Chapter 7 of Emerging Africa – How 17 Countries are Leading the Way, Steve Radelet talks about a new generation of leaders. Ghanaian scholar George Ayittey has begun to refer to this as “the Cheetah generation.” Cheetahs seek to redefine Africa through transparency, democracy and a dynamic private sector. They also hope to redefine Africa by building strong relationships with other countries.

According to Radelet, cheetahs aren’t defined by gender, age, location or education. Most cheetahs live in urban areas, but some live in small towns and run small businesses or local NGOs. What makes cheetahs “cheetahs” is their devotion and determination to move their countries in a new direction. The cheetah generation is much different from “the hippo generation,” accounts for the people stuck in the past.

In Chapter 3, Radelet talks about the era of the African “big man.” In the mid-1980s, almost every sub-Saharan African country was ruled by a dictator. Democracy was rare at this time; “Of the 48 countries in SSA, only three met basic standards of democracy captured by both of these indices in  the mid-1980s: Botswana, The Gambia, and Mauritius.” Strong-man presidents governed, and they had few constraints on their power. The “big man” was the authoritative figure that did whatever it took to get in power — whether it benefited the country and its people or not. This sort of “hippo generation” blames everyone but themselves for problems and thinks problem solving in Africa will be accomplished through more power given to the state and more foreign aid.

The above TED talk is from Ghanaian economist George Ayittey. I really like the way he describes the cheetah and hippo generations.

These newfound generations of people view democracy and civil society differently.

Cheetahs understand what democracy and accountability is. They don’t rely on the government to make the first step toward progress. They are entrepreneurs, so they take the initiative to help solve Africa’s problems. Cheetahs are the ones leading the NGOs, which have played a huge role in developing SSA.

The hippo generation are the ruling elites that are stuck in their ways, complaining about colonialism and imperialism. They are okay with benefitting from the status quo.

Women are slowly beginning to gain more roles in democracy and have become part of parliament in many SSA countries. Just like the leaders of NGOs, these women who pursue positions of power in SSA are generally considered cheetahs because they are the ones striving to make a difference, aiming to change the past and move forward with a new perspective.


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