Africa in 2021: What’s in store?
Posted on 15th January, 2021 in Director's Blog
2021 looks like being a turbulent year in Africa. Economic convergence will go hand-in-hand with political divergence and a continuing heavy impact from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite the high hopes that the new vaccines will help insulate us from the coronavirus, their rollout will take time and it looks as though 2021 will be another year in which its consequences will profoundly impact the world. Africa has been spared the worst medically, but not economically.
African governments responded swiftly by locking down and restricting travel, and the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) played an essential role in coordinating regional efforts to combat the virus. Whatever the reason – the preventive measures, the smaller number of vulnerable old people, the youthful demographic, greater natural immunity, or environmental advantages such as warmth, light and open air that discouraged the virus’s spread – relatively few have died of the virus, except in South Africa. Africa CDC report 3 million cases and 75,000 deaths from Covid on the continent so far, which even allowing for those unreported or misallocated, is a low mortality rate.
It is not over yet. Africa is suffering a second wave of the more infectious South African variant, and the roll-out of vaccines on the continent is likely to be far slower than elsewhere. Some fear ‘pharmaceutical imperialism’ will result in African countries getting more limited access than western countries, though others are campaigning to ensure they get a fair share.
What cannot be denied is that the economic impact of the pandemic is severe everywhere in Africa.
The World Bank’s Global Economic Outlook for 2021 notes that the pandemic cut Africa’s economic activity by nearly 1%, and anticipates sub-Saharan Africa will make only a slow recovery, with forecast growth of 2.7% in 2021 and 3.3% in 2022. For many, the pandemic has erased 5-10 years-worth of income gains, with 40% of Africans now estimated to live in extreme poverty.
Debts are rising fast, but even if spending is sustained, it will be hard to ensure food security and education for some communities, especially those afflicted by conflict. If borrowing is used for consumption or construction rather than productive investment, it could also hold back growth in the medium term. President Joe Biden may reverse US objections to African access to IMF SDRs (explained here). But China is now the largest official creditor to developing countries, and its decisions will have a disproportionate impact on Africa. This is why UNECA has called for greater sovereign debt transparency, estimating that Africa’s funding gap will be around $100 billion p.a. for the next three years.
Africa is nevertheless pressing ahead with the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). This reflects a high level of ambition and commitment, and is an issue on which the (often maligned) African Union has made a real difference. The obstacles to implementation remain huge, including protectionism, corruption at borders and poor infrastructure; but African governments have already shown greater determination to press ahead than expected. Even Nigeria has finally opened its border with Benin again. Desperate to create more jobs for young people, and without sufficient government revenue to pay for them, it’s the market or bust. And that requires a bigger market than most African countries have at home. Although in 2019 only 12% of African imports came from other African countries, a larger proportion of them were in higher-value-added manufactures. So the intra-African market holds considerable potential for growth, suggesting now is a good time to invest.
The rebound of the world economy looks likely to be slow, so oil and commodity prices will remain subdued. But this provides an opportunity to adopt more climate-friendly energy policies across Africa. The awareness of climate change’s impact on Africa is growing and becoming a political issue (see e.g. Ghanaian activists stop coal-fired power station). As we approach COP 26 in Glasgow in November, it is important that Africa’s voice on the issue is heard, and the Royal African Society will be addressing this at a major conference to be held in London in September on ‘Climate, Conflict and Demography in Africa’ (organised jointly with Africa Confidential and the International Crisis Group).
The political impact of the pandemic has been hard to disentangle from other global and local factors. But the impression in 2020 has been of democracy slipping backwards in Africa. The depressing outcome of elections in Guinea, Tanzania and Cote d’Ivoire has been only partially counteracted by the opposition’s success in overturning a fraudulent election in Malawi, a robust election result in Ghana and a continuing, if fragile, political transition in Sudan. This month Uganda’s election looks likely to produce a familiar result, given the impediments thrown in the way of the increasingly popular opposition.
Uganda highlights the growing divergence between ageing autocracies and decaying democracies on the one hand, and those countries with more vibrant and transparent political traditions on the other. The model of ‘directed development’ that has been strongly advocated by China has taken a knock in Ethiopia, where the government failed to manage regional divergences and has resorted to force to settle differences with the Tigrayans. This has gravely damaged Ethiopia’s economic development and international reputation, and put regional stability at risk. There is a risk that the elections now set for June will see both more disturbances and tougher repression in the country. A raft of elections elsewhere on the continent – from Chad, Benin and Congo-Brazzaville to Somalia, Djibouti, The Gambia and Zambia – will test where each country is on the spectrum. Niger’s Presidential elections in February should at least have a peaceful outcome, but the Sahel region as a whole is facing widespread jihadist insurgency that increasingly challenges all forms of government. Mozambique too is finding such an insurgency in Cabo Delgado very hard to manage, and much of southern Africa (Malawi apart) looks stuck in the doldrums, though President Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni continue to press forward with tough reforms in South Africa.
Nigeria does not have elections. But if the mobilisation of young people that has been seen in the ENDSARS movement there, and in the scale of support for Bobi Wine in Uganda, gathers impetus in other countries, the many millions of unemployed young people across Africa may begin to feel they no longer want to wait for things to improve, but will make them improve. In 2020, many oppositions subsided or were beaten back. They may prove less easy to subdue as time goes on.
Despite the economic problems and political strains, it is striking that some of Africa’s new partners – China, Turkey and the Gulf countries – are increasing their engagement, even if not always to Africa’s benefit. The EU remains publicly committed to a deep partnership, with the EU-Africa Summit still to be held in the first half of this year; and under Biden it is likely the US will return to Africa after ignoring it under Trump.
But in the UK, following the disruption of Brexit, the distraction of Covid and the drastic cut in overseas aid (much of which went to Africa), there is real concern that the continent will be neglected once more. Real actions, not just words, are needed to dispel such worries.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.