What’s in store for Africa in 2023?
Posted on 18th January, 2023 in Director's Blog
Africa’s prospects for the coming year hardly look rosy. Problems from climate change to debt, internal dissent, civil conflict and geopolitical rivalry, are piling up. And yet two things might surprise and encourage us: trade and politics.
The problems are easy to catalogue. In terms of the megatrends – those things that governments can do little or nothing about in the short term – climate change, demographic growth and urbanisation will continue and may even accelerate. Each poses significant challenges, as well as some opportunities, for people and governments within Africa and beyond.
The impact of climate change is erratic: last year, the Horn of Africa suffered its fourth year of drought, West Africa experienced extensive flooding, while southern Africa had excellent rains and bumper harvests. But the trend is towards more extreme weather events that risk destroying livelihoods, buildings and infrastructure, and increasing the pressure on sometimes fragile and cash-strapped governments to respond. Demands for greater international support to manage the effects of climate change will continue, especially to put money into the promised Loss and Damage Fund by COP28. Something will be found, but not nearly enough, putting the onus on African governments to take the initiative themselves to encourage faster adaptation of urban areas as well as agricultural regions to hotter and drier or wetter weather patterns.
Energy will be a crunch issue. Western institutions – banks, investors, governments, the IFIs – remain under public pressure to limit or stop their investment in fossil fuel production. But the constraint on growth that energy poverty imposes in Africa, whether through failing public grids in South Africa or the lack of rural electrification in West Africa, has to be remedied if Africa is to meet the needs of its growing population. Renewables can help, but will not provide a big enough or fast enough supply. The public debate on solutions is active and noisy, but has not yet reached a consensus.
Since 2020, African economies have been battered by external events, particularly Covid and the knock-on effect of the Ukraine war on food prices, inflation and interest rate rises. In real terms, many Africans are getting poorer again, not richer, though this is hard to measure. In 2022, GDP growth for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was only 3.3% according to the World Bank, and will struggle to exceed that in 2023 with inflation hammering both investment and consumption.
The rising cost of servicing debts – on average nearly 60% of GDP in SSA – is squeezing out other government spending, just as demand for it increases. Eight countries are already in debt distress and 14 more are at risk of it. So managing debt, and pressure for further debt forgiveness, will be key themes this year. If countries such as Ghana and Zambia are starting to default, the market for African bonds may dry up. Western nations and the IFIs may be sympathetic to a degree of leniency, but 5-16% of African countries’ debts are owed to China, whose approach to forgiveness remains opaque.
The bright spot could be trade. Africa produces what the world wants: minerals, fossil fuels, foods, and enterprising people. Though damaged by the costs of imports, those African countries with products in demand are reaping growing rewards – more so in countries with currencies declining against the dollar. Turning this to the benefit of the economy and society as a whole remains a political problem not solved everywhere. The DRC is the classic case of a rich country made poor by bad governance. This is where elections come in (see below). But Africa’s appearance in 2023 at the G20, if the AU’s seat is agreed (even if it is the Comoros sitting in it this year), will add to its clout in global economic affairs – a belated recognition that its voice counts.
Intra-African trade is the other potential growth area. Progress on the AfCFTA is slower than planned, but still progresses, and growing numbers of African entrepreneurs and governments are seeing the sense of building their local and neighbouring markets given the volatility of global ones. 2023 will be a bit of a test to see whether this approach is working.
Though subject to global forces, African governments still have agency to pursue policies that will help their people. And if they don’t, people will increasingly help themselves. Where there is no properly functioning political system, this will happen literally, and violent extraction whether by robbers, rebels or jihadis becomes the alternative to productive employment. But where the political system is robust enough to work – as we have seen in Zambia and Kenya last year – people are willing vote for presidents promising change.
The big test in 2023 will be Nigeria. One can set the bar low and say that a (more or less) peaceful transition to a new president will be a success in itself; or one can set it high, and see if the Nigerian people will eschew the corrupt politics of the traditional power-brokers and vote for a change maker who challenges the current structures. We will probably end up somewhere between the two – with a power-broker who finds his power is half-broken. Nigerian democracy (like its everyday life) is surprisingly robust – argumentative, but stopping short of war. The question is whether the resulting government will be effective, not just internally but externally. Africa desperately needs a Nigerian government that is willing to play a continental, not merely domestic, role.
The other African political elephant, South Africa, is still limping along. Ramaphosa has salvaged his role as President, but not yet salvaged his country, which remains riddled with inefficiency and corruption. He may stop it getting worse, but South Africa will continue to underperform economically and internationally. The ANC’s days as a dominant political force are numbered.
Elections are also due in 16 other African countries. Some will be perfunctory: nobody doubts who will win the Presidentials in Equatorial Guinea or Zimbabwe, or (sadly) Tunisia; others may be delayed by strife, in South Sudan, Libya or Mali; but yet others will be real tests of a government’s popularity and competence, in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Togo, Madagascar and even the DRC. African voters may surprise themselves and others by finding they have a voice that cannot be ignored.
In too many countries riven by conflict, free and fair elections remain a dream. What they need is peace and security enabling people to return home and rebuild a life. The International Crisis Group’s Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023 includes three in Africa: Ethiopia, the Sahel and the Great Lakes. All three are intractable, the latter two long-lasting. Ethiopians at least have it in their own power to make peace, and need to do so urgently before the ruination of the country gets worse. But in both the Sahel and DRC, non-state actors and external manipulation by neighbours and other outsiders need to be dealt with before peace is attainable. The international community must remain engaged.
There has been much editorial comment about geopolitical rivalry in Africa. The proactive US re-engagement, and energetic EU role in Africa (with the UK strikingly absent) undoubtedly owes something to their concern that the West is ‘losing’ Africa, that China and Russia are gaining ground, persuading Africa, for example, to sit on the fence over Ukraine. But this misunderstands the increasing determination of African countries to play their own role in global affairs. They need less lobbying and more respect. For in a rational world, they will recognise that the international rule of law and effective multilateral institutions are what will strengthen their voice and their role – so it is best to defend both.
This year will be a tough one for many in Africa. But there are grounds for optimism that many will end the year better than they started it.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.