By Toyin Akinosho
Why an uprising in Tunis, of all places?
Tunisia, under the ousted president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was the most competitive economy on the African continent. In the World Economic Forum 200812009 Global Cornpetitiveness -Report, the country ranked first in Africa and 36th globally for economic competitiveness, well ahead of Portugal (43), Italy (49) and Greece (67).
Ben Ali’s country had been one of the three which had jostled for that Number 1 position for the past 10 years, The others are Botswana and Mauritius.
The irony is that Africa’s high achieving states are some of its least populated. Which means that however prosperous the country is, the wealth doesn’t translate into huge economic engines as noticeable as South Africa, Egypt or Nigeria. Botswana hosts two million people. Mauritians are fewer; they are 1.2Million. Tunisia’s population is much larger than these two, combined, but even with 10 million people, it is still les populated than many countries in Africa.
It is however, the one country where significant value is added to raw materials and turned to competitive exports.
By 2000, Tunisia had averaged 6% growth rate for eight years and become, perhaps, the most rapidly industrializing nation in Africa. As the 21st century arrived, Tunisia was boasting of mechanical and electrical industries expanding at 7% per annum, textiles at 6%. “There is one scientific technician per 2,000 inhabitants of the country”, declared one government report, released in 2000, “a rate comparable more with an Asian tiger like Malaysia than any African country, with per capita income leapfrogging from $30 in 1956 to $3000 in 1998”. The report claimed that poverty levels had been crunched from 33% in 1967 to 6.2% in 1997. Life expectancy had risen from 50years in 1956 to 73years at the end of 2000. Infant mortality dropped from 60 to 30 per thousand in the same space of time, the report claimed.
The former president, who escaped to exile after angry crowds took over the capital, was working, in his own words, ‘to move Tunisia up from “emerging economy” status to “developed nation” status by 2008’.
It didn’t happen. The global economic crisis, among others, slammed the brakes on his ambition. At the end of 2009, GDP growth had slowed down to 3%. Tunisia had 13% of the work- force unemployed. Yet, in comparison with the rest of the continent, this percentage of people out of work wasn’t a dramatically high rate. Afterall, South Africa, the continent’s engine room, has 25% of its workforce unemployed.
Tunisia’s inflation was also a modest 3.5% in 2009 and the population below poverty line by 2005, the latest that the World Bank could come up with, was 3.8%, a good figure, by African standards. Despite the 3% GDP growth in 2009, Tunisia’s growth rate for the ten years between 1999 to 2009 averaged 5% per annum and its GNP/capita level was the third highest in Africa.
“Tunisia is the best organized country in the Mahgreb’ the Swedish export trade council proclaimed in 2009, using data from the IMF and the CIA fact book. “It had the region’s highest development index”.
The biggest export industry is the mechanical sector, especially automotive components, which maintained a strong and steady growth averaging 20 % between 2004 and 2009. The textile and clothing industry sector is the largest employer of the manufacturing industries employing more than 200,000 persons. Tunisia is the 5th supplier of clothing of Europe, exporting trousers, jeans, business trousers, women lingerie, and work clothing, The food industry’s share of value added remained constant over the period between 2004 and 2009, representing 27% of the production. Exports of agro-food sector increased from 1 227 million dinars in 2004 to 1, 592 million dinars in 2008. Still, it was a tidal wave of angry youths, protesting rising food prices, that forced Ali to resign and flee.
The overall media analysis of the crisis, which had left a hundred people dead, had expectedly focused, not on the economy, but on the politics, with the perception of corruption of Ben Ali’s immediate family being shown as one of the triggers of the mass riot that forced the president out of the palace.
Ben Ali came to power in 1987 after ousting Bourguiba, then president- for- life, in a coup. He installed himself as prime minister. He was elected president with 99% of the vote in the elections he conducted in 1989, two years after coming to power. Six opposition parties participate on this occasion. His party, the RCD, wins all 141 seats in the national assembly In 1994, Ben Ali again called for elections. He polled 99.9% of the vote in an election in which he was the only presidential candidate, drawing international condemnation. Five years later, in 1999, he again received 99.44% of the votes in the general election to win a third spell as the country’s most powerful person.
Three years later Ali amended Tunisia’s constitution to allow a president to stay in power until the age of 75 and be re-elected unlimited times. Two years after that he was re-elected once more, again receiving an unlikely 94.5% of the votes. Opposition party the Democratic Progressives withdrew two days before the vote) branding Tunisia’s political system “a masquerade of democracy”.
Mr Ben Ali has delivered one of Africa’s most robust economies in his twenty three year rule, but has been less than sensitive in handling the politics of his country. Tunisia has not been immune from the hardline Islamist influence threatening to sweep the Maghreb. Attacks from groups allied with Al Queda have grazed the security infrastructure in the last four years. In 2006 a dozen hardline lslamists were killed in shoot-outs with security forces in the capital, Tunis.
Yet the anger on the streets in the Tunis, with everything about the ousted president, including his economic achievements considered trash-able, allows the possibility of the emergence of a far right Islamic group which may not necessarily continue the progressive economic development.
Western Europe has been keen on trading with Tunisia, Europe’s northernmost neighbour, because of its openness to investors and, more crucially, its ability to rein in terrorist groups. As Tunisia expands the space for democracy, will its economic fortunes turn around?