Of death, debt and democracy

11th December 2020 By: Tara O’Connor

As the first year of the plague closes out, a second year threatens a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Africa has seen fewer infections and deaths, but the virus has had other lasting consequences.

The effect on political stability has been acute in several countries, and acute and destabilising in Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria. It is a political truth in Nigeria that, when the oil price falls below $40/lb, its trickle-down economics fail and people’s distress is manifest in unrest. Unsurprising then that a video showing a member of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) executing a suspect prompted protests nationwide. What was surprising was the actions of a purportedly civilian government – which was to deploy the military to a peaceful protest. The army opened fire with no warning, killing 56 protesters, in scenes reminiscent of the worst days of military rule, which ended in 1999.

The Nigerian army has stepped in to fill the political vacuum left in the Presidency by the death in April from Covid-19 of President Muhammadu Buhari’s right-hand man, Abba Kyari. The #EndSARS campaign has gone global among Nigeria’s large, well-funded and well-connected diaspora, so the military is hunkering down and, insiders say, drawing inspiration from Tanzania’s President John Magufuli to introduce curbs on social media. Nigeria faces 2021 with an acute financial and economic crisis, while the UK is considering imposing targeted sanctions on Nigeria’s political and military elite.

Ethiopia is the continent’s most prospective investment destination, with a population of 80-million, an economy in the process of liberalisation and one which has posted double-digit growth for most of the decade pre-Covid-19. So, news that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent in the full might of the federal armed forces to quell a rebellion in the Tigray region dismayed many. Tigrayans questioned Ahmed’s legitimacy since he postponed May’s elections in response to Covid-19. While federal forces’ superior fire has quelled the rebellion, the risk for 2021 is that Tigrayan rebels will return as guerrilla fighters. Moreover, the presence of 10 000 Tigrayan refugees in Sudan tarnishes Ahmed’s apparently too hastily awarded Nobel Peace Prize.

Less in the public eye is the 20 000 refugees from election violence in Cote d’Ivoire. In a busy election year, opportunist politicians took advantage of a distracted multilateral world order – already dangerously undermined by populism since 2016. Alassane Ouattara masterminded a constitutional sleight to stand for a third term. An opposition boycott of the polls saw Ouattara join the ranks of leaders whose 94.27% of votes cast are a democratic discredit in themselves. Similarly, as Magufuli was sworn in, claiming a landslide victory, the international community condemned the systemic suppression of media, opposition activity and dissent over Magufuli’s first term, which contributed to the result. Tensions between Kenya and Tanzania – already heightened by Tanzania’s Covid-19 denialism – reached simmering point after Kenya granted political asylum to prominent opposition member Godbless Lema.

Covid-19 has acted as an accelerator to pre-existing economic trends. Zambia’s management was so poor pre-Covid-19 that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would not help. It becomes the first African country to default on foreign debt as the country’s government withheld a $42.5-million payment on its Eurobond debt. Goldman Sachs points to Gabon’s high debt ratio, which the Covid-19 pandemic and falling oil prices have exacerbated as the next likely defaulter. South Africa’s debt achieved junk status during the year and has been downgraded further.

The spend that the IMF encouraged to alleviate pressure on the poorest has seen breathtaking examples of corruption, notably in South Africa and Nigeria. Yet South Africa has led the way in prosecuting corruption and restoring the rule of law. The arrest of the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC’s) third most senior official, secretary-general Ace Magashule, is the first sign that the police and the justice system are in recovery after a decade of battering under former President Jacob Zuma.

Angola has made advances here too – the National Assembly unanimously approved the suspension of sitting Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) Member of Parliament Manuel Rabelais and has agreed to lift his immunity to prosecution over embezzlement of $56.7-million.

Meanwhile, the European Commission’s processes stop for no virus and this year saw the European Union blacklist Mauritius, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Botswana for failing to apply international anti-money laundering and terrorism financing standards. Much of this is to do with these countries offering banking services to the continent’s corrupt, politically exposed elites. Mauritius, Botswana and Ghana have scrambled to tighten up regulations.

Zimbabwe’s recidivism is perennial. It ends the year as it began it – as a criminal State. As Covid-19 saw gold prices soar to unprecedented heights, so too has the regime’s involvement in gold smuggling to South Africa and to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Harare’s courts have named President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s family gold smuggling accomplices after one of his relatives was caught at the airport with gold bars in her luggage.

Despite this, the new year does bring new hope – the promise of a vaccine and a President in the US with an interest in a rules-based world order, democracy and human rights.