Friday, 19 December 2014

Winds of change

Big economic and political changes are emerging in Africa after a decade of strong Asian demand for its resources and the highest growth levels since the 1960s. That economic strength has allowed many governments to buy off discontent in the cities without fundamental policy changes. As revenues fall and budgets tighten, shaky governments will face the wrath of the street. The mass demonstrations that forced Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré from office could prove a powerful warning.

Slumping oil and gas prices – bad news for Algeria, Angola and Nigeria as well as East Africa’s aspiring producers – will be good for other economies on the continent. It may also force reforms, such as subsidy cuts and more accountability in state energy companies. Wider trends – including the rebalancing of China’s mammoth economy and a new buoyancy in the United States – will also push African governments to change course as mineral and crop prices continue to fall. Resource nationalism may look an increasingly attractive option but finding the investment to develop the continent's reserves will become harder still.

For the biggest economies, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, that means redoubling efforts for structural change, big investment in power and communications, and relaxing political controls on business. That is, reining in some of the most venal and short-termist crony capitalism. Smaller economies will have to speed up regional integration.

More generally, the risks and horrors of sidelining public health investment are highlighted by the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Less stark but just as significant is Africa’s deepening deficit in education and training compared to its Asian and South American counterparts.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Sound and fury

Those literary gannets and prize committees taken aback by the waves of brilliant African fiction and poetry landing on their desks should look at the raw material served up to writers every day on the continent. It takes nothing away from these writers’ creative genius to contrast the life and death importance of political struggles in Africa, as well as helter-skelter social change, with the bland canvas of much electoral politics and social discourse in the West.

Take Zimbabwe, where the struggle to succeed nonagenarian President Robert Mugabe is worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy or history. Should Mugabe be cast as King Lear? He has the years but not the beard. Nor does he show any sign of recanting or remorse, or even of weakness in his old age. He has artfully procrastinated for a decade as he pretended to consider the claims to two rivals. In common with many First Ladies in Africa, Mugabe’s wife Grace is likened to Lady Macbeth.

Mugabe’s condemnation this week of Vice-President Joice Mujuru for treachery, without producing a scintilla of evidence, suggests another parallel – Prince Hal’s casting aside of his old friend Falstaff. In Harare, the governing party’s elective congress is well underway and pundits are already forecasting the outcome: it will be no Agincourt but the King will put down the rebels. That, however, will not clean out the stench of corruption and deadly rivalries in the court. As they seek a guide to the unfolding plots in the party, some politicians may reach for a copy of Hamlet and turn eagerly to the dénouement in the final act.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Parliamentary punch-ups

Suddenly the political action has shifted to Africa's parliaments, as party alliances crack and legislators target the executive authority of presidents. The latest parliamentary fracas, in Nigeria, pitted the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) against riot police and ended in masked officers firing tear gas into the main lobby of the building on 20 November.

The clash started when the APC's latest recruit, Aminu Tambuwal, who has defected from the governing People's Democratic Party, turned up at the National Assembly. His attempt to carry on in his post as Speaker of the House of Representatives affronted his old allies and they locked him out of the building. Undaunted, opposition members of parliament scaled the walls to force a way in for Tambuwal. After hasty consultation, Senate President David Mark adjourned all sessions until 25 November.

A week earlier, riot police stormed South Africa's Parliament to remove Ngwanamakwetle Mashabela, an MP from the radical Economic Freedom Fighters. African National Congress MP and House Chairman Cedric Frolick ordered that she be forcibly evicted after she refused to withdraw her accusation that President Jacob Zuma was 'a thief'. More bizarre still, the centrist and hitherto mild Democratic Alliance MPs joined forces with more radical oppositionists and tried to shield Mashabela. Now the DA claims its MPs were injured in the ensuing altercation.

What lessons from these parliamentary punch-ups? Firstly, the use of force against political dissidents strengthens opposition morale and cooperation. Secondly, those who have seen police act arbitrarily against others may now spare some sympathy for parliamentary protestors.

Friday, 7 November 2014

A tide of anger

Last week's street protests in Burkina Faso, which toppled President Blaise Compaoré, recall the Tunisian demonstrations which launched the rebellions across north-east Africa four years ago. There are some clear parallels. Compaoré, like Tunisia's President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, were seen as political fixtures, running a crony capitalist network while servicing the security needs of Western governments. Yet they were chronically unaware of changing political realities: how tougher local and international economic conditions were driving up unemployment and hostility to the cushioned ruling elite. Mobile telephones and the internet outmanoeuvred state censors as bloggers and tweeters broadcast their criticisms of the regimes.

All three faced a tide of public anger. Brought together by old-style political campaigning combined with mobiles and social media, tens of thousands of people hit the streets, overcoming their fear of soldiers and the police. Sometimes grudgingly, sometimes with a fellow feeling for the demonstrators, soldiers stood back and lowered their guns. As in Tunisia and Egypt, in Burkina Faso it was the securocrats who struck the last blow, pushing their leader through the door.

Twenty five years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union prompted popular uprisings against one-party states in Africa. Demands for national conferences to draw up new constitutions quickly morphed into movements to overthrow autocrats such as Mathieu Kérékou, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Denis Sassou-Nguesso and Mobutu Seso Seko. Today, almost every African state runs a form of competitive elections. Yet multipartyism has failed to hold governments to account. Instead, veteran leaders have become expert at using a show of democracy to perpetuate their rule. After Compaoré's fall, their success can no longer be taken for granted.

Friday, 24 October 2014

In Memoriam

Africa has lost two strong independent voices in the past week: Efua Dorkenoo, the Ghanaian women’s rights activist, and Ali Mazrui, the Kenyan academic and author.

Dorkenoo left her home in Cape Coast and went to work as a nurse in London, where she saw the agony of a woman who had been infibulated giving birth in the mid-1970s. This prompted her to launch a campaign against Female Genital Mutilation. After she relentlessly petitioned officials, Britain passed The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act in 1985, and most Western and many other governments followed suit. Although the World Health Organisation hired Dorkenoo as a director of its Women’s Health Department, it was not until 2012 that the United Nations codified FGM as a human rights violation.

Mazrui, a polymath academician with an encyclopaedic knowledge of African politics and culture, also battled entrenched interests. A professor at Uganda’s Makerere University in the early 1970s, he was asked by the military ruler Idi Amin Dada to become his chief advisor on foreign affairs. Mazrui replied publicly with a searing condemnation of Amin’s brutal rule, then left to take up a teaching post at Ann Arbor University, Michigan, United States. His radical, groundbreaking, nine-part television documentary series, 'The Africans', co-funded by the US Public Broadcasting Service and the BBC, sparked criticism and praise for its condemnation of both colonialism and Marxism. More recently, Mazrui remarked to a friend that his life had been 'one long debate'.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Blunt warnings from the Bank

There is a strong sense of apocalypse as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund hold their annual meetings in Washington DC on 10-12 October. Part of that comes from the blunt warnings from Bank President Jim Yong Kim that the future of Africa may be at stake if there is no overwhelming, coordinated international response to the Ebola outbreak. He spoke of worst-case losses to Africa of US$32 billion as economies in West Africa are hit by restrictions on production, trade and transport.

The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that international assistance must be increased 20-fold to stop the outbreak. Tom Frieden, Director of the United States Centers for Disease Control, added more urgency: ‘We have to work now so this won’t become the next AIDS’. Western concern has accelerated as Ebola patients have arrived in the USA and Spain. Given that this outbreak began in November 2013, Kim is right to say the international system has failed miserably to tackle it.

As head of the world’s biggest development agency and a public health expert, it may be also a mea culpa from Kim as he calls on rich governments to back a $20 bn. global health fund to react immediately to such emergencies. He should listen to the doctors from West Africa at the Bank meeting who say the healthcare crisis goes far deeper there: a chronic lack of doctors and nurses (many working abroad for better pay and conditions); sporadic supplies of electricity and running water in most hospitals and none of the specialised protection and testing equipment required.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Talking resources

Both sides of the corporate coin were on parade this week. Dozens of bankers and chief executives attended the United Nations Climate Summit in New York on 23 September, which was a prelude to negotiations in Paris next year for a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (see United Nations | Africa: The fire this century). They came bearing elaborate plans for voluntary and 'market solutions' to global warming, with innovative plans for solar power and wind production that could make African energy producers into the greenest and most cost-effective on earth.

A day earlier, executives from some of the world's biggest power companies told African delegates how new technology and investment could overcome the continent's energy crisis within 15 years. The African Development Bank says Africa's oil and coal producers could raise the necessary US$300 billion if they reinvested just 5% of their export revenue in that period.

Elsewhere, the United States' biggest companies were locked in a three-way battle with anti-corruption activists and the New York Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) about how to implement the 2010 Dodd-Frank law. This demands that oil, gas and mining companies produce annual reports of all payments they make to African and other governments for the extraction of those resources.

Last year a court in Washington threw out the SEC's first attempt to set new rules for these disclosures and now Oxfam and other activists are suing it for dragging its feet. Nor are Chinese companies escaping scrutiny. On 24 September, the World Bank announced that for the first time, it was debarring a state-owned company, China International Water and Electric Corporation, from bidding for Bank contracts for three years after a lengthy probe into its technical capacity and working practices on a hydro-power project in Africa.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Ebola side-effects

If there are any positive side-effects from the Ebola outbreak that has already cost more than 2,300 lives in West Africa, it may be to highlight the short-sightedness of funding cuts to international health agencies. Margaret Chan, the Director General of the United Nations' World Health Organisation, says the ability of the agency to respond to health emergencies has been badly undermined. After its total budget was cut by US$500 million to $4 billion, the WHO reduced allocations for responding to health crises by over 50% to about $115 mn. a year.

The WHO reckons it will cost at least $600 mn. to deal with the Ebola outbreak, although the financial losses caused by the disease may run into several billion dollars. But the race to raise emergency funds is proving a great distraction from galvanising action for a regional plan to stop the outbreak.

This comes as United States officials have assessed the Ebola outbreak to be out of control in Liberia and Sierra Leone and estimate that as many as 20,000 could die before its spread is stopped. Concerned by the withdrawal of several voluntary agencies from the Ebola-hit countries, the US is sending in new teams of specialists from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. But Washington has its own economic hurdles, and President Barack Obama has had to urge Congress to fast-track an appropriation of $58 mn. to speed up production of Zmapp, a drug that could help people infected with Ebola.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The clash of anti-corruption commissions

Asked about the qualities needed by a journalist, the late, great Nicholas Tomalin replied: ‘Rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.’ The same could be said of many anti-corruption lawyers, judges and officials, such as Spain’s Baltasar Garzón and France’s Eva Joly and Renaud van Ruymbeke, and in Africa, Kenya’s John Githongo, Sierra Leone’s Abdul Tejan-Cole and Nigeria’s Nuhu Ribadu. All these African officials were put in charge of anti-corruption commissions. All three pursued major investigations into the theft of public money, clashed with the ruling party and state officials, and subsequently faced threats to their lives.

What then are the prospects for the latest anti-corruption star, South Africa’s Public Protector Thuli Madonsela? Angered by her determined efforts to investigate the state’s financing of President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead, the governing African National Congress accuses her of running a vendetta against the party and its leader and colluding with opposition politicians. Some have even questioned her patriotism.

So far she has shown herself equal to the pressure and has appealed to all sides to uphold the law. Unlike her counterparts in East and West Africa, Madonsela has an important privilege. Under the South African Constitution, the Public Protector has the status of a judge. That means that attempts to undermine the office and its holder constitute contempt of court and would amount to a criminal offence. For now at least, that would seem to shift the odds in her favour.

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Mo Ibrahim effect

Amid the gridlock and diplomatic glad-handing as over 50 high-level African delegations descended on a humid Washington for a week, it looked as if straight talking might lose out. Economics and business, it quickly emerged, was what had brought the delegations to the capital.

However, Mohamed Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecoms pioneer and philanthropist, quickly breached diplomatic politesse on 4 August by asking why it required the presence of 50 African leaders in Washington to convince big American companies that they should be searching for business on the continent, like their Chinese, Indian and Brazilian counterparts.

Looking around with a smile, Mo Ibrahim argued that African leaders spend far too much time attending summits and far too little fixing their own countries. His final demand struck a chord later in the week: that US companies should pay their taxes and royalties in Africa and not set up elaborate schemes to avoid their obligations.

On 6 August, President Barack Obama lamented that too many US companies set up structures that enable them to avoid paying taxes in the USA, let alone in Africa. With some subtle prompting from African and US activists on the growing illicit capital outflow from Africa, more than US$50 billion according to the latest reports, Obama said US officials would be working with a group of African leaders to close many of those loopholes.

And it wasn't long before Washington's political battles disrupted summit proceedings. Although most US Africa policy enjoys bipartisan backing, the Tea Party group in the Republican Party is unpicking that. It is trying to shut down the US Export-Import Bank which guarantees billions of dollars of US trade with Africa. That, some of the departing delegations might say, is a reminder of the perils of democracy.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Africa-US summit – a look ahead

Will the grand Africa-United States summit with more than 40 leaders in attendance in Washington D.C. on 4-6 August produce the results wanted by its protagonists? The expected high attendance is due both to President Barack Obama's charisma and the search for foreign capital.

Certainly, the business agenda will be full: the Corporate Council on Africa is holding investor sessions on individual countries throughout the summit week. Similarly, the State Department, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is pushing development and economic issues such as the Africa Power initiative and a new round of trade concessions in the Africa Growth & Opportunities Act. China's trade with Africa is running at over US$200 billion a year; US trade with Africa has slipped back to around $85 bn. after a cut in oil imports from the continent of almost 90% due to domestic shale oil production.

The diplomatic, security and social outcomes will be harder to gauge. Part of the point of the meeting is to show the US is getting more serious about Africa policy – whether deploying military and intelligence teams or working on innovations in education and health. There was some dismay in Africa at the rule that there would be no bilateral meetings with Obama: everything is to be discussed in open plenaries, in a more informal and inter-active setting with no set-piece speeches and position papers. Although China, Japan and France have hosted several such grand summits for the whole continent, this is new territory for the US. How will we know if it worked? We'll have another one in a couple of years' time, an official replied.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Crises stalk West African summit

A sense of crisis loomed over the regional summit on 10-11 July as West African leaders gathered in Accra, with security, migration and the Ebola virus high on the agenda. Insurgencies, organised crime and political rivalries are intruding on grand plans for economic development and cooperation.

Leaders were due to finalise details for launching a common currency by 2020, free movement of people and cutting constraints on cross-border trade but concerns about security implications have held back agreement. Pointing to growing worries about terrorist attacks and cross-border crime, the presidents of Cameroon, Chad and Mauritania were to join those from the 15 member-states of the Economic Community of West African States. Most pressing is the spread of the Boko Haram insurgency across Nigeria’s north-east to neighbouring countries.

More than 1,000 people have been killed in Islamist attacks over two months despite a new regional security coordination centre in Ndjamena. In Mali, Ibrahim Keïta’s government has failed to reach agreement with northern rebels, some nine months after coming to power. Presidents John Mahama and Macky Sall are under growing domestic pressure as Ghana and Senegal struggle with their own economic and political demons. West African commercial energy is not in doubt but economic development is hindered by political and bureaucratic blockages. The summit’s willingness to tackle these issues as well as the security threats will show where the region is heading.

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Friday, 27 June 2014

A summit about security

The theme of the African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea on 26-27 June was 'Agriculture and Food Security' but the part that really resonated among leaders was the word 'security'. Egypt was readmitted to the AU after last month’s election and on 26 June, President Abdel Fatah el Sisi denounced Islamism as the overwhelming threat of the day to thunderous applause. The day before, a bomb had exploded in Abuja killing 21 people, which prompted Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to fly home just hours after he had arrived in Malabo. Last week’s massacres in northern Kenya reinforced concern about a belt of worsening instability across the middle of Africa and the lack of effective forces to stop it.

AU Peace and Security Commissioner Smaïl Chergui insists that an African Standby Force will be ready for action by the end of next year. Yet some governments are reluctant to second troops to a continental force. Chad's President Idriss Déby is offering his capital as a base for African and Western forces to tackle Boko Haram, the Islamist militia in northern Nigeria and its border zones. In power since 1979, the summit host, President Teodoro Obiang, is also keen on regime security. His opening speech called for reform of the United Nations to stop foreign meddling in Africa. Unsurprisingly, Obiang is a great supporter of the protocol for a new African Court of Justice which would try suspects for war crimes and human rights abuses but would exempt serving heads of state and senior officials from prosecution.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Cyril to centre stage

It’s official: it started with a pain in the neck at the National Executive Committee meeting of the African National Congress. That is Jacob Zuma’s neck and the pain was severe enough for his fellow NEC members to send him to hospital. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe insists that President Zuma was merely tired and will deliver the state of the nation address on 17 June. By then, Cyril Ramaphosa will have chalked up some appearances on Zuma’s behalf. This week he chaired the cabinet lekgotla (big meeting) which is meant to map out the government’s plans.

Ramaphosa will also be leader of government business in Parliament and we hear he will chair the National Planning Commission after the departure of Trevor Manuel. With Zuma resting up before he faces renewed questioning over state spending on his Nkandla homestead and the latest probe into the US$6 billion arms deal, this looks strikingly like power seeping across to Deputy Ramaphosa. If so, it will be a tough initiation, even for this veteran union leader. Although there was meant to be consensus about the pro-market policies in the National Development Plan, companies were puzzled to hear the ANC announce last week that its election victory was a mandate for radical economic transformation. That sounds scary to business, especially when growth is slowing and the platinum mine workers are still striking. Comrade Cyril can expect more calls from his old friends in the corporate world.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Frank discourse in Kigali

To see government leaders argue publicly about politics and security at the African Development Bank meeting in Kigali last week showed how much discourse, if not governance, has changed. When he was in office, South Africa's former President Thabo Mbeki was notoriously reticent about criticising governments or leaders. At the Kigali meeting, he described the South Sudanese leadership as 'fundamentally self-centred, serving its own interest instead of the masses it is supposed to lead'. Then he concluded: 'It's not as though the Dinka and the Nuer decided to take up arms against each other. They never did: the leaders decided.'
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame warmed to the theme, referring to the purveyors of ethnic hatred who had launched the genocide in his country 20 years ago: 'Leaders made people believe that they were the majority and the others should be killed. They made people who had nothing believe that they, too, were Hutu power when in fact they had none.' All this talk of stirring ethnic sentiment for political gain seemed to unsettle fellow panellist William Ruto, Kenya's Vice-President, who faces trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity after the murder of over 1,200 people following the 2007 elections. 'We need leaders that inspire society,' he offered, trying to change the subject.
Kagame returned to the offensive with a veiled critique of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan for asking French President François Hollande to host a mini-summit on regional security. 'What image does it give about governments in Africa? It doesn't make sense.' Two seats away on the podium, another former President, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, who is no great admirer of Jonathan, broke into a broad smile.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The big political fight in South Africa's mines

On 13 February, President Jacob Zuma will take a formal break from election campaigning – to give the annual State of the Nation address. The accent will be on the word 'formal' as with national elections now set for 7 May, the State of the Nation address is likely to be a continuation of electioneering by other means. South Africans are expecting to be told that the nation's state is extremely healthy despite appearances to the contrary.

The rand currency is in freefall, driving up prices and industrial relations have reached a new low. The strike organised by the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) has brought out 100, 000 workers and stopped production at the world's three biggest platinum producers who source most of the metal from South Africa.

AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa says it will be a battle to the end. The platinum miners' strike clearly illustrates the country's political divide: AMCU and the equally radical National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) are determined opponents of the African National Congress government under President Jacob Zuma, which they accuse of selling out the workers; they are equally opposed to the ANC-supporting Congress of South African Trades Union (COSATU).

NUMSA is strongly backing AMCU and calling on its members to come out in sympathy. A month ago, NUMSA drew another line in the sand when it announced it would end its electoral support for the ANC.

So the battle lines are drawn: if AMCU, which has displaced the more moderate ANC-backing National Union of Mineworkers in the platinum industry, scores another strike victory this year, it will cause tremors both within COSATU and the ANC. Are the mineowners – Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin – willing to tough it out against the strikers? The ANC government will surely tell the mineowners to stand firm against the strikers – given the political implications of an AMCU victory. But the dispute could quite easily turn violent as the strike drags on and tempers fray.

Leading a police and army charge against striking workers and taking the side of the multinational mineowners will put President Zuma and the ANC government in an invidious position, just weeks ahead of national elections. But that is the posture they are adopting. The only possible way out, short of a humiliating defeat by one side or the other would be a messy compromise in which the faces of both sides could be saved. For now that looks extremely improbable.

For all three sides – radical trades unionists, the ANC and the mine owners – the platinum workers' strike will be a critical test of strength.

South Africa's focus on the mining industry was reinforced by the arrival of 8,000 delegates at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town (3-7 February). Deliberations took a solemn turn first because of the platinum workers strike and associated political strife, and then with the death of at least eight miners after a fire and rock fall at a Harmony Gold mine near Johannesburg on 5 February.

The deaths at Harmony Gold, the worst for five years, reinforced the divisions over wages, profits and operating conditions in the industry. Frans Baleni, Secretary General of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), called for a detailed investigation and sanctions against any company officials found negligent.

Mining houses also worry about South Africa's insistence that more ore should be processed before export, to boost employment and add more local value. And the South African demands for local beneficiation of mineral ore are spreading to other mining economies such as Congo-Kinshasa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ghana.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Economic strengths and political troubles in 2014


Stronger economies and troubled politics sum up the reports in Africa Confidential’s first two issues of the year, which focus on events and developments ahead. The International Monetary Fund still forecasts African growth at over 6% for 2014 – and mergers and acquisition deals in Africa were up a third to US$30 billion last year. Amidst the cheerleading for this economic revival, the brightest time since the immediate post-Independence era of the 1960s, bankers and politicians are less worried about the medium term or even the tough policy decisions that have to be taken in the short term. Politics and economics intersect again.

Slowly, Africa’s growth story is changing the continent’s international image; it is also prompting many people from the countryside to head for the cities to seek new economic opportunities. Outside the rush to China’s coastal provinces, this flood of migrants to Africa’s cities is probably the world’s biggest population shift.

Unlike Asia, where rural migrants find jobs in an industrialising economy, most of Africa’s migrants end up in the informal economy and frustrated by the lack of services. Although these informal jobs may provide a social safety net, they cannot substitute for a government’s lack of economic strategy, industrial policy and good infrastructure. These new migrants and their eonomic demands will change the nature of urban politics across Africa, in the same way as they did three years ago in North Africa.