By David Himbara
Africa has enjoyed relative peace and prosperity during the past three decades in sharp contrast to the 1980s known as the ‘lost decade.’ From the 1990s onwards, two complimentary narratives popularly described the emerging Africa in terms of the ‘new generation’ of African leaders and ‘Africa rising.’ The new generation of African leaders were contrasted to the autocratic rulers who dominated African politics since independence in the early 1960s. The new generation leaders were seen as drivers of economic reforms for lifting their nations out of poverty in a multiparty competitive political environment.
Similarly, the Africa rising narrative referred to improved governance, sustained economic growth, rising incomes, and an emerging middle class. This emerging Africa benefited from comparative peace which coincided with the ICT revolution that ushered in a period of increased African consumer spending alongside expanding entrepreneurship. Africa appeared to be well on its way to becoming an economic success story similar to the rise of Asian economic tigers earlier.
The year 2020 appears to mark the reversal of fortunes for Africa. A civil war in Ethiopia which is one of Africa’s top economic performers will undoubtedly affect the eastern Africa region in political and economic terms. To the south is Zambia, the leading African copper producer which accumulated an enormous debt of $12 billion from international creditors, and is on the verge of defaulting. Africa’s cycle of boom and bust is now complete, from the lost decade, to relative peace and prosperity, and now to war and unsustainable debt burden.
The civil war in Ethiopia is a disaster not only for that country but for Eastern Africa
With 114 million people, Ethiopia has Africa’s second largest population after Nigeria’s 206 million. At the GDP of $96 billion, Ethiopia is fourth largest economy in Africa. Further, Ethiopia has been one of Africa’s best economic performers, growing at a rate of 10 percent for the past two decades. Crucially, Ethiopia has abundant renewable energy resources with the potential to generate over 60,000 megawatts (MW) of electric power from hydroelectric, wind, solar and geothermal sources. Ethiopia already exports electricity to Djibouti and Sudan, and is set to begin exporting power to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Construction of the Ethiopia-Kenya transmission line was originally expected to be completed in late 2019. But now, Ethiopia is at war with itself.
On Nov. 4, 2020, fighting broke out between the Ethiopian national army and forces loyal to the leaders of the northern Tigray region. Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed since the fighting started. Thousands more have fled into neighbouring Sudan. Next door Eritrea may have been drawn into the fighting on the side of the federal government. The trigger of the war is the rivalry of the federal government leaders and those of the northern Tigray province. For example, the Tigray regional government defiantly held elections in September 2020, which the federal government had postponed nationwide because of coronavirus pandemic. This is widely considered to be the cause of the rapid deterioration of the conflict into open warfare. Three months later, the federal government embarked on a military offensive after accusing Tigrayan forces of seizing a military base in the regional capital of Mekelle.
Zambia is in danger of defaulting its $12 billion debt to international creditors
Zambia, the leading African copper producer has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But Zambia was already in bad shape. It had accumulated an enormous debt of $12 billion from international creditors. In addition to borrowing from the international bond markets, Zambia acquired more than $3 billion from Chinese lenders, including China ExIm Bank and China Development Bank. Zambia may soon default on its debts because it cannot maintain its payment obligation. Meanwhile, the talks with its creditors have reached an impasse.
Not even the International Monetary Fund is willing to bail Zambia out by lending it money to at least maintain debt servicing payments. During the IMF staff’s virtual mission to Zambia of July 15, 2020, the IMF merely promised to continue the discussions on the fiscal stance and policies in order to move forward with Zambia’s request for support.
African solutions to African problems needed now more than ever
Most African leaders have kept mum about the political situation in Ethiopia. This, notwithstanding Ethiopia’s strategic importance as host of the headquarters of the African Union (AU) and is a leading political and economic power in eastern Africa. This is surprising, given the fact that African leaders since independence from European powers 60 years ago espouse the notion of African solutions to African problems. Put another way, reducing the influence of external actors in continental affairs has long been on Africa’s wish list.
The vision of African ownership of its challenges and solutions was realized by default in the recent past. The role of Western states in African problems virtually evaporated during the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit crisis in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the Ethiopian civil war gives African leaders a unique opportunity to put into practice the notion of African solutions to African problems. The Zambian debt crisis, too, needs to be extensively discussed by African governments because most them potentially face the same risk. A shared strategy for managing the debt crisis would constitute a robust African solution to an African problem.
David Himbara, PhD, is an educator, author, and professor of international development based in Toronto, Canada. He previously headed strategy and policy for the president of Rwanda. Himbara has consulted extensively for governments including South African government and for organizations such the African Development Bank. Himbara taught political economy at universities in South Africa and the US.