BY J.J. MESSNER
“Mauritius was made first and then heaven … and heaven was copied after Mauritius.” So said Mark Twain in 1896 at a time when the small Indian Ocean island nation was under British rule (after having previously changed hands from the Portuguese, to the Dutch, and then to the French). At a time when Mauritius was largely a remote agrarian backwater, Twain’s observation of course referred its spectacular natural beauty, that to this day continues to attract tourists in their hundreds of thousands. But no longer is Mauritius defined by its beaches and climate — the country has become the first African nation to break through to the Very Stable category of the Fragile States Index (FSI), a reflection of its political stability, economic development, and social cohesion between its myriad cultures.
For many years, there has been a wide perception of a strong association between African nations and fragility. To be fair, this perception is not unfounded — indeed, in the 2019 Fragile States Index (FSI), 21 of the 30 most fragile countries are to be found on the African continent. However, Mauritius is a clear example that Africa is also home to some of the world’s more stable countries — indeed, in the 2019 FSI, Mauritius scored within less than one point of the United States. And by no means is Mauritius alone — regional neighbors Seychelles and Botswana have also ranked in the Stable category.
Mauritius has frequently been referred to as the ‘Singapore of Africa’ for its relative stability and ability to attract international capital. (Quite a compliment really, since this year Singapore became the first Asian nation to move into the Sustainable category of the FSI.) In the 2019 World Bank Ease of Doing Business assessment, Mauritius ranked 20th out of 190 countries, making it the best-ranked African country ahead of the next-closest country, Rwanda, ranked 29th; Kenya was the next-best, at 61st. Mauritius’ GDP per capita (based on purchasing power parity) is US$22,279, making it the third-wealthiest African country. Although it may be easy to deride Mauritius’ economic model as perhaps being little different to Caribbean tax havens by virtue of its low taxes and flexible regulatory regimes, it is worth recognizing that this economic success is buttressed by a critical element often in short supply in much of the rest of its neighborhood that transcends simple economics — namely, stable democratic governance and rule of law.
The Seychelles (120th) and Botswana (126th) — which moved into the Stable category for the first time this year — both share some similar characteristics with Mauritius. In particular, both countries have demonstrated strong political stability. Both countries have also seen strong improvement over the past decade in the FSI: Botswana has improved by 9.3 points and meanwhile the Seychelles has improved by 12.5 points.
Africa’s leading countries in the FSI – Mauritius, Botswana and the Seychelles – are joined only by Ghana (110th), Namibia (107th), Cape Verde (106th), Tunisia (95th) and Gabon (92nd). For long-term trends, of the 100 most improved countries over the past decade of the FSI, only 12 are to be found in Africa.
But even at the most serious end of the FSI, there are pockets of resilience. Even though Zimbabwe continues to rank in the top 10 most fragile countries (a distinction it has held for 10 of the 14 most recent iterations of the FSI), its positive rate of change actually belies its current ranking. Despite years of undemocratic rule under Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has managed to recover from its crises of the early 2000s to the point of being the sixth-most improved country on the FSI over the past decade. Of course, some caution should be taken in assessing that progress given Zimbabwe’s comparatively weak starting point. But it also reinforces the maxim that progress and development is inexorably a slow process.
Take Sierra Leone, a country wracked by civil war only two decades ago. In the first FSI in 2005, Sierra Leone ranked in the top 10. Fast forward 15 years, and the country now ranks 39th and is now well-removed from the ‘Alert’ category. Similarly, Cote d’Ivoire, which ranked as the most fragile country in the first FSI in 2005 by virtue of civil conflict — the country now ranks 29th and, if current trends continue, could follow Sierra Leone out of the ‘Alert’ category in the next year or two. Even for those countries that are fortunate enough to begin their escape from the vicious cycle of fragility, progress can be remarkably slow and non-linear.
Certainly, significant fragility exists throughout many parts of Africa, as it does in many other parts of the world. Conflict and endemic poverty will ensure that fragility in the region remains a reality for many populations in the years to come. However, Mauritius — as well as the Seychelles and Botswana — demonstrates that, as concepts, ‘Africa’ and ‘unstable’ are far from synonymous. And although progress might be slow, the importance of these regional ‘beachheads’ of relative stability throughout the region cannot be understated. Even as countries at the more fragile end of the FSI slowly move along a path of development, the example and leadership of Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Botswana will provide critical leadership for the continent and will demonstrate the bright future for which Africa is capable.