The trouble with the new African moneyed class is that it looks very much like old wealth dressed in new clothes. A Nigerian business magazine, Ventures, triumphantly reports this week that Africa has 55 billionaires and hints heavily that there may be many more business tycoons skulking under the radar in a continent that has been widely touted as the New Latin America or even the new Asia, if you believe the investor relations puffery.
The roll call is longer than a previous assessment by Forbes last year, which put the numbers of Africans with net worth greater than $1-billion (U.S.) at 16. Sadly, the Ventures list contains few surprises and quite a lot of disappointment. Nigerians account for 20 of the 55 billionaires, including Africa's richest man, Aliko Dangote. Perhaps one of the few genuine black African entrepreneurs in the list, Mr. Dangote made his fortune trading cement and food commodities, such as sugar and flour, before moving into manufacturing. However, the old guard and the politically well-connected still make up a large proportion of Africa's super-rich. Of the top ten tycoons, six are white Southern Africans: the list includes Nicky Oppenheimer of the De Beers diamond family; Johann Rupert, chairman of Richemont, the luxury products group; and Nathan Kirsh, the Swaziland property investor.
Nigeria figures large in this list. It is probably the most dynamic African economy, but in large part because of geology, as well as the opportunity it affords – for those with access to both capital and people in power, at least – to get control of an oily rent. Consider Africa's richest woman, Folorunsho Alakija. Born into a wealthy Nigerian family, says Ventures, she studied fashion in London and then returned to Nigeria, establishing Supreme Stitches, a clothing brand targeted at wealthy Nigerian women, whose clients included Maryam Babangida, wife of the former military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida. She then applied for an oil prospecting licence and a 617,000 acre block was granted to her company, Famfa, the basis of a fortune which Venture reckons is worth $7.3-billion.
Ms. Alakija is one of three women in the Venture billionaires club. The other two are Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the president of Angola – another state with happy geology – and Ngina Kenyatta, wife of the former Kenyan president.
The sad truth that lies behind this list is what we know already: capital has accumulated very rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa over the past "supercycle" decade of inflation in oil and metal prices. However, little capital has been reinvested in developing a manufacturing and services economy that might lead to the development of an African entrepreneurial, technical and professional middle class. In other words, a cadre of people with a self-interest in developing stable institutions that might protect Africa from rampant corruption, tribalism, feudalism and militarism.
There are exceptions, such as Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese cellphone entrepreneur who set up a foundation to promote better government in Africa, awarding an annual prize to an African leader who democratically hands over power to a successor. However, despite examples of philanthropy, Chi-chi Okonjo, the founder of Ventures indicates that the behaviour of Africa's monied elite is not dissimilar to their Russian counterparts. "Parked wing tip to wing tip at airports and airfields around Lagos, Johannesburg and Nairobi are the private jets that shuttle the wealthy from business deals to vacation spots, avoiding Africa's impassable roads," he wrote in the Financial Times.
Russian oil and mineral rentiers became known as oligarchs – those few with access to capital and quick wits who acquired huge mineral resources in the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were allowed to keep their wealth on condition they paid tribute to the political leader, an unholy pact that continues to poison politics and society in Russia. This is a poor model for Africa, which needs an alternative to both crony capitalism and military rule. In its absence we will see nothing more than fleets of Lear jets in Lagos and flotillas of leaky boats heading for the southern shores of Europe.