94. The Three Demons of Delayed Development, Debt, and Dictatorships

Author: Prof. Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 28 January 2020
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image supplied by: 
kristi611 / 2 images via Pixabay

Sixty years after the annus mirabilis in which 17 African countries gained their independence in 1960, the three main challenges facing the continent in 2020 will be development, debt, and dictatorships. Autocratic rule will continue in several African countries in which dissent will be harshly suppressed, while military brass hats will continue to wield power behind the scenes in several states. Civil society will mobilise against government abuses, and street protests will occur in several capitals. With 60% of Africa’s population consisting of youth under 25, the failure of governments and private sectors to create sufficient jobs for these young people will remain a ticking time-bomb.

Africa will continue, in 2020, to struggle with the challenges of development, with continued conflicts stalling progress. Insecurity will need to be watched closely in Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Algeria, Burundi, northern Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mozambique. Separatist movements remain active in Angola’s Cabinda province and Senegal’s Casamance region. Tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over Addis Ababa’s building of the $4 billion Grand Renaissance Dam must also be carefully managed.

Africa’s hegemons, who should be powering regional integration, are themselves suffering anaemic growth and massive unemployment. Nigeria’s projected 33% unemployment rate mirrors South Africa’s 29%. Both economies are yet to recover from recent recessions, and continue to suffer electricity black-outs. Both are waging difficult anti-corruption campaigns, and both have fractious ruling parties. Nigeria’s five-month closure of the border with Benin to halt smuggling is scarcely compatible with its regional integration leadership goals. In Eastern Africa, Ethiopia struggles to open up its state-dominated economy, even as May 2020 polls have the potential to unleash fissiparous ethnic and regional tensions in a country that still has over 3 million internally displaced persons.

Climate change will remain another pernicious inhibitor of development. Last year’s droughts made millions of people food insecure in Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Somalia, while two cyclones hit Mozambique. The Sahel region also remains prone to drought and desertification.

Africa’s largest trading partner, China, will continue to be active in the area of trade and infrastructure across the continent. Many francophone African populations will continue to protest France’s neo-colonial role in Africa. Gallic delusions of grandeur have been embarrassingly exposed by its failures to stabilise the Sahel through African proxies – Mali, Niger, and Chad – acting as cannon fodder, and suffering hundreds of fatalities. The stability of Burkina Faso is also increasingly threatened by these jihadist attacks, and many are increasingly asking whether France’s regional presence is not exacerbating these situations. The American military presence across the continent, and use of drones in Somalia and Mali, will also continue to be questioned, as will Russia’s backing of Libyan warlord, General Khalifa Haftar.

In terms of the Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continues to use a military base in Eritrea to prosecute the war in Yemen, while Sudan and Chad provide mercenaries to prosecute this conflict. Saudi Arabia and UAE further continue to support Egypt financially, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also strongly backing Cairo’s support of General Haftar. The Gulf monarchies are providing financial backing to the government of national unity in Khartoum, and are deeply involved in Somalia.

Amidst the slump of Chinese purchases of African commodities, from 2016, and growing African indebtedness, rapid industrialisation will continue to elude the continent in 2020. Eight African countries – Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Cape Verde, Sudan, Gambia, Somalia, and Sâo Tomé and Principe – have a debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio of 80% or higher. Another seven countries – Zambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Djibouti – have a high debt distress level. African economies are predicted to grow by only 2.6% this year. With an increasingly crippling debt burden, African governments will struggle to diversify their economies by adding value to primary products, developing agri-business, and creating viable manufacturing sectors.

Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, has amassed an unsustainable debt burden of $80 billion. West Africa’s Gulliver currently uses half of its government revenues – the same amount devoted to infrastructure – to service this debt, thus preventing these funds from going to essential social sectors such as employment, education, and health. This is occurring at a time when the country has the largest number of poor people in the world at 87 million. South Africa’s external debt has reached a staggering $177 billion (with a 60% debt-to-GDP ratio), even as it struggles to continue to subsidise public utilities – which have been milked as cash cows – and to control a bloated civil service wage bill. Ethiopia has a $52 billion debt burden, while highly-indebted Kenya struggles to fund its Naivasha-Malaba railway line. Neighbouring Uganda’s public debt is currently 42% of its GDP.

Despite Africa having made progress in democratic governance over the last three decades, with multi-party political systems established, and elections of varying degrees of legitimacy conducted, autocracy and long-ruling dictators will seek to remain entrenched across the continent in 2020. Iron-fisted, long-ruling autocrats continue to reign in Equatorial Guinea (40 years), Cameroon (38), Uganda (33), Chad (29), Eritrea (26), and Rwanda (19), as well as ruling family dynasties in Togo and Gabon. There will thus be continuing reports of clampdowns on opposition, draconian media and civil society legislation, jailings, “disappearances,” and assassinations. Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will also remain intolerant of dissent, while playing the Pharaoh by overseeing grandiose projects.

Tanzania’s “Bulldozer”, John Magufuli, has delivered infrastructure projects, but will continue to crush dissent as he heads for re-election in October. Zambia’s Edgar Lungu has similarly cracked down harshly on the opposition and civil society. Côte d’Ivoire’s able technocrat, Alassane Ouattara, has damaged his democratic credentials by issuing a dubious arrest warrant for presidential candidate, Guillaume Soro, and remaining ambiguous about running for a third presidential term in October. Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa’s militarised regime will continue his repressive rule.

Africa has thus entered a new decade with the prospect of another year characterised by mixed efforts to conquer the three demons of delayed development, debt, and dictatorships.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.