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The four horsemen of Africa’s new stumble

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Africa risks a new stumble. The last time Africa suffered a major stumble, it conjured up the image of a “Hopeless Continent”. This became the unfortunate epitaph for Africa’s two lost decades of development. This time is different in that concerns about a new stumble are mitigated by a modicum of optimism. The reasons for optimism are well-rehearsed. Private enterprise is flourishing with fewer governmental constraints. Many African countries have taken steps to improve the ease of doing business. Technology hubs are on the rise in many African countries. Civil society and non-governmental organisations are increasingly active in holding governments to account in the conduct of public affairs. Five African countries were among the top ten fastest growing economies in the world in the past five years. Africa has launched the Africa Continental Free Trade Area. The African Union is more actively engaged in efforts to keep and build peace in the continent, reflected in its commitment to Silencing the Gun Initiative. There are concerns, however, that four horsemen are carrying the seeds of a new stumble: conflicts, terrorism and violent extremism, constitutional revisionism, and COVID-19.

Hope about peace prospects in Africa rose significantly in the aftermath of the civil conflicts in Algeria, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, Rwanda, and the independence-related conflict in Sudan that birthed South Sudan. That hope, however, faded rather quickly, as conflicts flared up in other countries; while new forms of conflicts erupted in others, as I shall explain shortly. Conflicts in Africa have not only led to increased number of refugees and internally displaced persons, but destroyed the meagre productive capacities in the affected countries and transformed them into humanitarian crisis zones rather than investment destinations.

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Meanwhile, terrorist and violent extremist groups are active in a swathe of countries in Lake Chad Basin area –with Boko Haram and its splinter Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP)—wreaking havoc in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. At the same time, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies have spread through the Sahel and Greater Sahara (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Sudan). With Somalia as its main base, Al-Shabab has periodically launched attacks in Kenya; while ISIS affiliates are on the prowl in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. Where once the Great Lakes region was the arc of insecurity in Africa; today, that description also applies to the Sahel and the Greater Sahara. At present, there are basically two types of conflicts in Africa: those that had their origins in ethnic and economic grievances or political marginalisation; and those fomented by terrorism and violent extremism. But this distinction is increasingly blurred, as terrorist and extremist groups take advantage of existing conflicts and of weak state security presence to extend their foothold in rural communities, provide security and basic social services, and exert control over local economies.

Constitutional revisionism –with the main aim of prolonging the tenure of political leaders or transforming countries into one party states –has a long and chilling history in Africa. It was the first step in the deviation from the constitutional arrangements that African countries inherited at independence, paving the path to the descent into the various forms of one man-dictatorship and single party rule.

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These trends sat comfortably with the military regimes of the era, exacerbated political tensions leading to conflicts in some countries, and produced the economic stagnation that marked much of the 1980s and 1990s. Effort at strengthening democracy in the region is codified in the AU Charter on African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance adopted 2007. However, leaders of nearly a dozen countries —with Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire as the new entrants — have used various legal devices and political manoeuvre to extend their tenures beyond the constitutional limit, since the Charter came into force in 2012. This is despite the Charter’sArticle 23(5) which threatens sanctions for ‘any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government’.

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The initial dire predictions of the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on Africa in terms of rate of infections and death have not materialised.

But this should not lull African governments into complacency, as a significant rise in COVID-19 caseload could overwhelm the region’s fragile health systems. The weaknesses in Africa’s health sector have been laid bare in the inadequate testing and tracing capacity, insufficient hospital spaces for COVID-19 patients, and in the lack of medical equipment. All this reflects the continuing inadequate public investment in that sector, contrary to the 2001 Abuja Declaration commitment to allocate at least 15 percent of annual budgets to the improvement of the health sector in African countries. COVID-19 will have both short and long-term economic impacts. COVID-19 has hit hard the sectors that employ low-income people such as tourism, hospitality, and small and medium enterprises. Many recent forecasts project recession in most African countries in 2020, and, according to the United Nations, nearly 30 million more people could fall into poverty. Other long-term impacts could include reduced foreign direct investment in the region, as multinational corporations review their global supply chains, and limited employment opportunities stemming from the adoption of automation processes.

Coups, conflicts and constitutional revisionism were among the horsemen of Africa’s previous stumble. Of the four new horsemen, terrorism and violent extremism poses an existential threat to Africa. That threat is magnified, where a combination of weak state security and political tensions offer entry points for a coalition of terrorist groups, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, to operate in African countries. Today, about half a dozen African countries risk falling into the “Afghanistan trap”. African leaders must brace for, and rise to, the challenges ahead.

Otobo is a non-resident senior fellow at Global Governance Institute, Brussels, Belgium.

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