Time to get things back on track in Africa


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

A decade or so ago there was a lot of optimism regarding the future of Africa. The pages of learned journals and major newspapers were full of articles praising the ability of African states to end long-running conflicts, introduce fiscal and market reforms to generate growth and prosperity, and give their democracy a much-needed boost by finally easing fossilised autocrats out of their entrenched power.

The increase in world trade was a boon for exports of Africa’s commodities and precious metals. New technologies like mobile smartphones and micro-credits as well as improvements in primary and secondary education empowered many Africans, particularly women, to take their futures in their own hands. Progress was also being made in rolling back diseases like malaria, dengue fever, Ebola and AIDS, which two decades ago were ravaging sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, the creation of the African Union, with its ambitious projects for a continent-wide free trade zone and settlement of all regional conflicts by the 2060s, seemed to give Africa the institutional structure that it was lacking. These advances induced the US Foreign Affairs magazine to proclaim that the 21st century would be “an African century”.

Yet today this once bright picture has become much more sombre. Instead of the great African leap forward, we are faced with the great African backslide. What has happened?

The obvious place to start would be the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Yet this has had a moderate effect on Africa thus far despite concerns about the overall state of health systems and shortage of intensive care beds. Africa has a young population and should be able to ride out the pandemic better than western countries with more ageing demographics. Half of the population of Kenya, for instance, is under 20. Indeed a few African countries (such as Kenya and Tanzania) are still able to post modest growth rates mainly due to agricultural exports.

The COVID-19-induced recession in the northern hemisphere is reducing demand for African commodities

Yet the pandemic has exerted an economic toll on the continent. The IMF has reported a fall of 3% in the sub-Saharan economies which translates to 5.3% in per capita incomes. At the same time, the COVID-19-induced recession in the northern hemisphere is reducing demand for African commodities. If an effective and cheap vaccine can be rapidly distributed in Africa in 2021 (and the EU-sponsored COVAX programme allows for this), the continent should be able to escape the worst of the pandemic.

Consequently, the roots of the backslide lie elsewhere, and essentially in three areas.

The first is food supply and distribution. Just a few days ago, the head of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, used his newfound international prominence as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to warn of impending famine in Africa. Two-thirds of the countries on the WFP’s crisis watchlist are in Africa. 135 million people are on the brink of famine and a further 130 million are threatened with food shortages. Beasley launched an urgent appeal for $15bn for both immediate famine relief and the WFP’s longer-term food storage and distribution programmes. As cash-strapped Western countries are unlikely to be able to stump up this money, Beasley suggested that those billionaires who have done well out of the COVID-19 crisis (for instance in online retailing, pharmaceuticals and teleconferencing) could dip into their pockets as the Bill and Melinda Gates or Mo Ibrahim foundations have done for some years now.

The impact of climate change on Africa, with prolonged droughts, soil erosion, reduced access to freshwater and extreme events such as cyclones or locust swarms will make food and water insecurity a lasting challenge for the continent’s future, especially with a population set to overtake India and China combined by the end of this century.

Across the continent, the remaining strongmen are fighting back and manipulating constitutions to help themselves to extra years in power

The next area of concern is in the resurgence of armed conflicts. Again, just a few years back the outlook was encouraging. Eritrea and Ethiopia ended their war and subsequently agreed on their border. For these achievements, the President of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Peace and power-sharing also came to South Sudan, Africa’s youngest state, and fighting wound down in Angola, Mozambique, Zaire and Uganda as rebel movements agreed to ceasefires and joined the political process. In Libya more recently, the UN brokered a permanent ceasefire, the withdrawal of foreign fighters and an agreement to hold elections at the end of 2021.

Yet today the guns are firing once again, most notably in the fighting between Ethiopia and its renegade province of Tigray. This threatens to draw in Eritrea and has already led to 30,000 refugees crossing into Sudan. Violence has flared in Cameroon between French and English-speaking communities. The situation in the Sahel is precarious as European forces and UN peacekeepers try to assist fragile governments to hold back insurgencies in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic. Just a few days ago, the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara announced that its was ending a 27-year long truce and resuming its conflict with Morocco. Moreover, there are worrying signs that jihadist movements are spreading southwards from their footholds in the Sahel and northern Nigeria. ISIS is now active in Mozambique and recently carried out a mass beheading in the Cabo Delgado province.

Armed conflicts will only add to the considerable mass of Africans who are already displaced beyond their homelands and condemned to live in crowded, miserable refugee camps dependent on international aid.

In third place comes governance and backsliding on democracy. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance has just reported the first decline in democratic standards in a decade. Again, a couple of years ago we were looking at a rosier picture. Long-standing authoritarian leaders were finally being forced to retire, such as Bouteflika in Algeria, Bashir in Sudan or Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya. Respect for the results of free and fair elections and constitutional term limits finally seemed to be taking hold. But now, across the continent, the remaining strongmen are fighting back and manipulating constitutions to help themselves to extra years in power, such as Outtara in the Ivory Coast. The resulting corruption, cronyism and economic mismanagement that go along with prolonged partisan rule are inevitably making themselves felt once more.

South Africa, the powerhouse of the continental economy, has a crucial role to play in setting a good example

Take one example: Zambia. Just a decade ago it was praised as one of Africa’s great success stories. In 2012 it was accessing the international bond markets and had a better debt rating than Spain. Yet last week it became the first African country to default on its debt since the IMF instituted a debt forgiveness programme for Africa in 2005. When the current Zambian President Edgar Lungu came to power in that same year, Zambia’s debt was 12% of GDP; today it stands at 120%. Economic growth fell to just over 1% in 2019. The government has tried to seize control of mines, fired the Central Bank Governor for refusing to print money, locked up opposition leaders, journalists and even musicians, and just recently cancelled the electoral roll and forced all Zambian voters to re-register within 30 days. This looks like a blatant attempt to rig the presidential election due to take place in June next year. Lungu may well blame Zambia’s rapid deterioration on the global economic recession, but bad governance and what political scientists call ‘state capture’ are equally if not more responsible for the country’s predicament.

Too many African countries are following Zambia’s bad example and heading towards the model of Zimbabwe rather than those of Tunisia or Morocco. Depressingly, the One Earth Future Group has reported that over the past three decades only 12% of dictators who lose elections quit voluntarily.

So, what is to be done to arrest the African backslide?

In the first place is South Africa. The powerhouse of the continental economy has a crucial role to play in setting a good example. Yet it too has been crippled by corruption and poor governance, particularly in its state-owned enterprises. No ANC politician has ever been put on trial for corruption. President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to move against corruption and state capture and to clean the Augean stables of the ANC.  This is the first step to gaining leverage over the other Africa states. Ramaphosa was elected on precisely this platform and enjoys considerable international support, so he must deliver.

The challenge for the EU will be to go beyond its focus on North Africa and the Mediterranean

Second, as they get into greater debt, many African countries will turn to the IMF for support packages. According to the IMF, 6 African countries are already struggling to pay back loans and a further 11 are in “high debt distress”. The IMF needs to insist on rigorous conditionality and particularly on anti-corruption and separation of power measures, backed up by monitoring and enforcement, before future bailouts are approved. Otherwise African countries will find it hard to access the financial markets or attract inward investment.

Third, the African Union has to step up its conflict mediation and democracy guarding roles. It needs to be forceful in intervening politically in backsliding states using its groups of elder statesmen and women, and the offers of individual African leaders to lead these mediation efforts. The AU has to be willing to apply diplomatic and economic sanctions and suspend non-cooperative member states where necessary, for instance from its free trade zone.

The AU has shown some capacity for peacekeeping and even armed intervention, recently in Somalia to push back Al Shabaab and the Islamic Courts movements. Yet as with UN peacekeeping, it can only do this robustly and successfully if African countries offer to contribute troops. A recent AU proposal to send a peacekeeping force to the Sahel has failed to get off the ground because no country has volunteered to contribute.

Fourth, the EU has made Africa a priority in its work on a Strategic Compass and in its ambitions for strategic autonomy and a greater geopolitical role. Many of the 16 current CSDP missions take place in Africa. Yet the challenge for the EU will be to go beyond its focus on North Africa and the Mediterranean, in the wake of the challenges of terrorism and migration, and figure out how it can exert influence over Africa as a whole. This needs to be a shared EU priority and not a cause to be left to EU members like France which has military ‘skin in the game’ in the Sahel, West Africa and Dijbouti.

Moreover, the EU has to translate its considerable economic, humanitarian and development aid to Africa into real geopolitical clout to reduce conflict and violence, and stop political and economic backsliding. Especially at a time when rival powers such as China, Russia and Turkey are seeking to extend their influence based on very different norms and standards.

Finally, President Trump did not visit Africa once during his time in the White House and his remarks about the continent were not exactly complimentary. We can only hope that the Biden administration will stop cutting military attachés and diplomats in US embassies and re-engage with Africa in order to counter security threats and mitigate the many humanitarian challenges; but also because it is mindful of the massive opportunities that Africa, with a little gentle nudging from its Western friends, can still hold for the future.

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