Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Togo agrees to mediate in Mali, Mozambique and India strengthen defense ties, and Burkina Faso appeals for international help for workers trapped in a Canadian-owned mine.
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Hunger Crisis Looms in East Africa
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned last week that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is leading to a growing hunger crisis in African countries. There is no solution to the problem “without bringing back the agriculture production of Ukraine and the food and fertilizer production of Russia and Belarus into world markets despite the war,” Guterres said.
The United Nations has also called for Black Sea ports to be reopened to allow grains from Ukraine to reach Ethiopia and South Sudan as well as Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Currently, those ports are under a Russian blockade, which Josef Schmidhuber, an economist with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), called a “grotesque situation” because in Ukraine, there are “nearly 25 million tons of grain that could be exported but that cannot leave the country,” he said at a press briefing on Friday.
The indirect effect from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is worsening an ongoing food and security crisis in parts of East Africa—with Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan forecast to be hardest hit, said the U.N. World Food Program (WFP).
The Horn of Africa region is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years. Three consecutive rainy seasons have been dry. On occasions when rain has come, it has been extreme. October to December 2019 saw the wettest period, affecting 3.4 million people and heralding a swarm of locusts that further devoured crops.
Temperatures in parts of the region have soared to record highs, linked to climate change. Some 3 million livestock have died across southern Ethiopia and within the arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya since mid-2021. The U.N. said up to 20 million people in the Horn of Africa could go hungry this year.
African leaders are struggling to control rising inflation and tumbling currencies. Sanctions against Moscow have limited exports and raised costs for commodities such as wheat, gas, and oil. Meanwhile, fertilizer costs have risen beyond what most farmers can afford, threatening next year’s harvest as fewer crops are planted.
Ethiopia has already endured 10 major droughts since 1980. Now, amid a war in the northern Tigray region, the price of fertilizer has shot up 200 percent in the country. As the Ethiopian Reporter tells it, April’s food item inflation reached an unprecedented 43 percent.
Even before the Ukraine war, drought in Kenya had already caused a 70 percent slump in crop production, and more than 3 million people in the country faced acute hunger. (Russia provides 67 percent of Kenyan wheat imports, and Ukraine provides 22 percent.) If the rains fail to materialize by June, around 6 million people in neighboring Somalia—38 percent of the population—face extreme food insecurity, humanitarian groups warn.
As aid and attention has shifted to Ukraine, an appeal by the WFP to prevent famine in the Horn of Africa raised just 4 percent of the required amount. “We are most definitely now sitting on the brink of catastrophe,” Rein Paulsen, director of emergencies and resilience at the FAO, said in February. “Time is running out.”
Wednesday, May 11, to Thursday May 12: U.S. Undersecretary of State Jose Fernandez and African heads of state and ministers from Botswana, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone are expected to attend the African Mining Indaba conference, which started May 9 in Cape Town, South Africa.
Wednesday, May 11, to Friday May 20: The 15th session of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, which started May 9, takes place in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
Thursday, May 12: The United States, Belize, Germany, Indonesia, and Senegal co-host the second Global COVID-19 Summit.
Sunday, May 15: Lawmakers in Somalia are expected to elect the country’s new president.
Tuesday, May 17: Former South African President Jacob Zuma’s corruption trial continues.
Wednesday, May 18: The U.N. Security Council meets for a briefing and consultations on the regional G5 Sahel joint force.
Togo intervention. As tough economic and diplomatic sanctions have failed to pressure Mali’s military government to relinquish power, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé agreed to act as a mediator, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop and his Togolese counterpart, Robert Dussey, confirmed at a press briefing last week in Togo’s capital, Lomé.
After a coup in 2020 and 2021, a breakdown in relations with France, and a failure to meet the Economic Community of West African States’ demand to hold democratic elections in February, Mali has been internationally ostracized.
But many Togolese may consider Gnassingbé an odd choice to negotiate a democratic transition, given the voter irregularities in his own country, brutal crackdowns against dissent, and a long-running movement to remove Gnassingbé, whose military family has been in power for five decades since a military coup in 1967.
Nigeria elections. Godwin Emefiele, Nigeria’s central bank governor, has been told he cannot stay in office while running for president. Emefiele was seeking the nomination of the ruling All Progressives Congress party to succeed current President Muhammadu Buhari, who is serving his final term.
A new law approved by Buhari in February requires political appointees to resign from their roles before party primaries. Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission had moved to disqualify his candidacy on that basis. But the bank chief requested to remain in office until 30 days before the election in February 2023 on the grounds that he is not a political appointee. A Nigerian court on Monday turned down that request, and a final decision is due on May 12.
It is unprecedented for a serving central bank governor to join Nigeria’s presidential race, which has sparked outrage and calls for Emefiele to first resign as a civil servant. Nigeria’s political parties have until June 3 to choose their presidential candidates.
Burkina Faso mine flood. The government of Burkina Faso has called on the international community to help rescue eight miners thought to be trapped underground for more than three weeks since an April 16 flash flood struck a zinc mining site in Perkoa, Burkina Faso, (about 60 miles from the capital, Ouagadougou), which is owned by Canadian mining company Trevali. Operations have been suspended since heavy thunderstorms flooded the site and trapped the workers more than 1,500 feet below ground.
At a news conference last Thursday, Burkina Faso’s government spokesperson, Lionel Bilgo, said, “All human and material resources must be deployed on the Perkoa site to give the miners the chance to live.” That assistance did not come until a week later. On Sunday, the European Union and Morocco offered to help, according to the country’s government information service. Burkinabe Prime Minister Albert Ouédraogo said the mining company’s managers have been banned from leaving the country.
India-Mozambique ties. India and Mozambique are to step up joint efforts to counter terrorism as insurgencies in Mozambique threaten gas and coal investments by Indian companies in the country. The decision came after Indian Deputy National Security Advisor Vikram Misri met last week with Mozambican Defense Minister Cristóvão Chume in the capital, Maputo.
Since 2017, the extremist group al-Shabab has carried out attacks in the country’s most northern province, Cabo Delgado. Three state-run Indian companies own a stake of between 10 to 20 percent in a liquified nitrogen gas offshore project of the Rovuma Basin, and a consortium of five Indian companies purchased a 65 percent stake in the coal assets sold by Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto for $50 million in 2014.
Vaccine plant faces closure. South African pharmaceutical company Aspen Pharmacare has halted production at Africa’s largest COVID-19 vaccine production plant due to a lack of orders.
Last November, Aspen negotiated a licensing deal to package and sell Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine across Africa. The company had produced about 180 million doses, but a fall in demand means the plant is at risk of permanently shuttering, which would undermine efforts in around seven African countries vying to build a local vaccine industry.
African leaders are holding emergency talks to try to save the plant. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was working with counterparts in Kenya, Rwanda, Egypt, and Ghana “to make sure that vaccines that will be used on our own continent are actually bought from companies that make vaccines here.” Only 22 percent of people on the continent have received a first vaccine dose.
In South Africa, which is heading toward a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections, there is hesitancy and misinformation. At a Cape Town market, one vegetable seller told Foreign Policy he did not want to be vaccinated because “most in the country have already had the virus” and that “Africans had stronger immunity compared to the West because of having to cope with HIV without medical access.”
Aspen may now need buyers from outside Africa to remain open. Stavros Nicolaou, a senior executive at Aspen, told Foreign Policy in December 2021 that one of the company’s biggest concerns would be ensuring the “strength of health care systems to administer these vaccines.”
CAR bitcoin. The Central African Republic has adopted bitcoin as an official currency alongside the French-backed CFA franc. Lawmakers voted unanimously on April 27 to adopt bitcoin as legal tender, becoming the second country to do so after El Salvador. But the move has come under criticism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which equally criticized El Salvador’s decision because it increased the risk of financial instability.
The IMF told Bloomberg that CAR’s adoption of bitcoin raises major legal, transparency, and economic policy challenges. There are other major hurdles; internet access is needed to mine cryptocurrency—but in January 2021, internet penetration in the Central African Republic stood at 11.4 percent.
South Africa is averaging around 8,000 daily cases as it heads into winter and a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections, according to the latest figures from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. Vaccine uptake has slowed; just 35 percent of the population has had at least one dose of a vaccine. On the continent as a whole, this drops to 22 percent.
Xenophobic nationalism. In April 2020, one month into South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown, the hashtag campaign #PutSouthAfricansFirst emerged. The movement culminated in the resurgence of violent xenophobic campaigns against migrants. On April 6, Zimbabwean migrant Elvis Nyathi was burned alive by South African neighbors mere footsteps from his home. A deep dive by AmaBhungane examines the political beneficiaries behind what has been one of the most popular hashtags in South Africa for the past two years.
NFTs in Africa. Journalist Ugonna-Ora Owoh writes in Artsy on the rise of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) in the African art market, focusing on Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. In October 2021, Nigerian artist Osinachi became the first African crypto-artist to have his work sold by Christie’s Auction House in London.
The technology is appealing because it offers better global reach and representation than traditional art markets. As Owoh tells it, across several African countries, there was already an established digital art community, which propelled the industry’s growth. However, pressures remain, including transaction costs attached to creating and minting NFTs.
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