Africa, persistent political and economic volatility in 2023

Author: Dr Alex Vines OBE.

(This article was first published in The Mail & Guardian).

Africa’s economy was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2022 when a range of internal and external shocks struck such as adverse weather conditions, a devastating locust invasion, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine – all of which worsened already rapidly-rising rates of inflation and borrowing costs.

Although the direct trade and financial linkages of Africa with Russia and Ukraine are small, the war has damaged the continent’s economies through higher commodity prices, higher food, fuel, and headline inflation.

The main impact is on the increasing likelihood of civil strife because of food and energy-fuelled inflation amid an environment of heightened political instability.

Key African economies such as South Africa and Nigeria were already stuck with low growth and many African governments have seen their debt burdens increase – some such as Ethiopia and Ghana now have dollar debt trading at distressed levels – and more countries will follow in 2023.

On average the public sector debt-to-GDP ratio of African countries stood at above 60 per cent in 2022. The era of Chinese state-backed big loans and mega-projects which started 20 years ago in Angola after the end of its civil war may be coming to an end but Chinese private sector investments on the continent will continue through its Belt and Road Initiative and dual circulation model of development.

Great and middle powers building influence

Geopolitical competition in Africa has intensified in 2022, particularly among great powers such as China, Russia, the US, and the EU but also by middle powers such as Turkey, Japan, and the Gulf states.

The sixth AU-EU summit held in Brussels in February 2022 agreed on the principles for a new partnership, although the Russian invasion of Ukraine which followed disrupted these ambitions. Japan’s pledge of $30 billion in aid for Africa at TICAD 8 in August 2022 was clearly made due to the $40 billion pledged at the China–Africa summit in November 2021.

The US also launched a new strategy to strengthen its partnership and held a second US-Africa Leaders’ summit in Washington in December, the first since 2014. Russia’s ambition has been curtailed by its invasion of Ukraine, postponing its second summit with African states to 2023.

The imposition of international sanctions complicated its trade and investments, and military support such as that provided by Russian paramilitary group Wagner focused on Mali, Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR) has been curtailed.

The strategic importance of Africa has resulted in all the UN P5 members calling on the G20 to make the African Union (AU) its 21st member in 2023 under India’s presidency.

International competition to secure Africa’s critical and strategic minerals and energy products intensified in 2022 and, in the energy sector, European countries are seeking to diversify away from Russian oil and gas with alternative supplies, such as those from Africa.

Western mining companies and commodity traders are also increasingly seeking alternative supplies from Africa. Decarbonization is becoming a driver of resource nationalism and geopolitical competition in certain African mining markets, home to large deposits of critical ‘transition minerals’ such as copper, cobalt, graphite, lithium, or nickel.

COP27 was hosted in Egypt in November and gave African leaders an opportunity to shape climate discussions by pushing priority areas such as loss and damage, stranded assets, access to climate finance, adaptation, and desertification. Climate adaptation in Africa is a key condition to preserving economic growth and maintaining social cohesion.

The Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia, is suffering from one of the worst droughts in memory. The geopolitical and geoeconomic ramifications of the war in Ukraine has directly impacted the African continent by contributing to food and cooking oil inflation and humanitarian aid delivery.

Thoughout 2022 the AU was undergoing intensive reform and it struggled to respond to the growing number of security crises across the continent. Hotspots in 2023 will be in the western Sahel and Lake Chad Basin, eastern DRC, and northern Mozambique, all of them crossing state borders.

In Mozambique, a 2019 peace deal assisted by the United Nations (UN) will see the last ex-guerrillas from Renamo demobilized in 2023 to reintegrate into civilian life – some having been recruited in 1978.

In eastern Congo, M23 – one of around 120 armed groups – resumed its conflict against the central government. After lying dormant for several years, it took up arms again in 2021 and has been leading an offensive in eastern DRC against the Congolese army.

According to the UN, Rwanda has been supporting M23, and Kenya’s parliament approved in November the deployment of about 900 soldiers to the DRC as part of a joint military force from the East African Community (EAC) bloc – DRC joined the EAC in March.

In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia saw an uneasy ceasefire agreed between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Islamist militant groups in Africa further expanded their territorial reach in 2022, particularly in the western Sahel where al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates are competing for influence and continued to make inroads.

The drawdown and exit of western forces from Mali, both the French Operation Barkane and international contributions for the UN’s MINUSMA mission there, adds new dimensions to regional security challenges.

Mali’s decision in May to withdraw from the G5 Sahel has also eroded the regional security architecture. Jihadist activity may spread further into coastal states which has resulted in international partners such as France and the UK redesigning their security assistance strategies for the region.

Coups on the increase again

Since 2020, there have been successful military coups in Burkina Faso (twice), Chad, Guinea, Mali (twice), and Sudan, and failed ones in the CAR, Djibouti, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Niger, and possibly Gambia and São Tomé and Príncipe.

Three national elections illustrate the state of African democracy in 2022. In Angola’s August elections, the ruling MPLA lost its absolute majority with the opposition UNITA winning the majority in Luanda for the first time.

In Kenya, also in August, William Ruto prevailed to become president ahead of an incumbent-backed coalition led by longstanding political challenger Raila Odinga. Meanwhile in Equatorial Guinea’s elections in November, Africa’s longest serving president Teodoro Obiang extended his 43-year mandate with 94.7 per cent of the vote on a turnout of 97 per cent.

There will be elections in 17 African states during 2023 for either head of state or government, or national legislature. Elections and their results in Madagascar, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe could prove to be flashpoints.

Although fragile, the African Development Bank forecasts an economic recovery particularly in East Africa, due to the rebound of service and industrial activities, increased public spending, reopening of travel and trade due to uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, recovery of the tourism sector, and deepening regional ties.

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