100,000 COVID DEATHS

Africa passed 100,000 confirmed Covid-19 deaths this month with signs the continent’s healthcare systems are struggling to contain the virus. “We are more vulnerable than we thought,” the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong. Lack of oxygen, ventilators and other medical equipment is proving to be a major issue. The continent’s leaders have also complained they are last on the list when it comes to the supply of Covid vaccines, even as the South African variant of virus is showing resistance to some of the vaccine varieties. 

African countries did not experience a large number of COVID-19 deaths when the pandemic began early last year. But health authorities are now reporting a jump in fatalities. African deaths from Covid jumped 40% in the past month, said the World Health Organization’s Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti. The actual numbers are almost certainly higher. South Africa, the hardest-hit country on the continent, saw over 125,000 excess deaths from natural causes between May 3 and January 23. Eight African countries have been infected with the South African mutation.

Twenty-one countries in Africa now have case fatality rates that are higher than the global average, including Sudan, Egypt, Liberia, Mali and Zimbabwe. The case fatality rate continent-wide remains higher than the global average at 2.6%. India’s case fatality rate is 1.4%.

African governments have rightly complained that they are at the end of the queue when it comes to vaccine supply, especially with vaccine manufacturing countries imposing bans on exports on a regular basis. Kenya, for example, on paper has 24 million doses allotted from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, 12 million through bilateral deals and several million through the African Union’s vaccine task force. However, the first batch of 4 million is scheduled to arrive only at the end of February and the arrival schedule of the other doses is unclear because of constant shifts in export policies. Most of Kenya’s doses will ultimately come from India. 

There is the additional problem of whether governments are ready to handle the vaccines once they arrive. The World Health Organisation’s Vaccine Readiness Assessment Tool gives African government an average of 33% readiness against the recommended 80%. The lack of even rough data on how much of the population is infected let alone where vaccines would be best deployed is another handicap for many countries. An Imperial College, UK, survey of Khartoum in Sudan determined only 2% of those infected with Covid were being caught in the government’s figures. 

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Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who had earlier declared his country free of Covid-19 and refused to take any measures against the disease, has urged his citizens to begin wearing masks. Magufuli achieved some notoriety by declaring the pandemic over after a week of prayer and the distribution of herbal cures. Tanzania had initially refused to impose lockdowns, discouraged the use of face masks and banned the release of infection data since April. Magufuli has been widely criticized abroad and is facing dissent at home from within his own government. “The government should break the silence,” ruling party lawmaker Zacharia Issay said in Parliament. “I am tired of going to burials.” Local hospitals are turning away patients as they are inundated with Covid cases the past few weeks. 

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A Human Rights Watch report has chronicled how more than 20 African governments have used the Covid pandemic as an excuse to clamp down on freedom of the media. The report, “Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse,” finds Zimbabwe’s government to be one of the worst offenders. Zimbabwe has crackieddown on journalists, political opponents, health workers and others who criticize the government’s response to the Covid crisis. “In Zimbabwe, we have documented a number of incidences over the last year. And our report references three of those," says Gerry Simpson, an associate director for crisis and conflict division at Human Rights Watch. "

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Guinea, already reeling from Covid, declared a new epidemic of the Ebola virus earlier this month after recording seven cases and three deaths. Ebola last ravaged Guinea and the region from 2014 to 2016, killed 11,300 people. Health investigators have already been rushed to the country. Ebola, one of the deadliest fibroviruses, has become easier to control thanks to the development of a vaccine. Guinea is experiencing four epidemics at the same time. It also has a yellow fever and measles outbreak.

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END OF ETHNIC FEDERALISM?

The conflict between Ethiopia’s central government and the regional authority in Tigray is entering its fourth month. Forces loyal to Addis Ababa have captured most key towns in the rebellious province but resistance continues in the mountains. The United States and other governments have demanded Eritrean military forces who intervened in the conflict, probably with Ethiopia’s tacit approval, should withdraw. The war has created almost two million refugees, largely Tigrayans who have fled into Sudan. The reported massacre of some 800 civilians in the holy Coptic city of Axum, probably by Eritrean troops, is one reason for the increased demands that Eritrea withdraw its soldiers. Ethiopia has contested reports of a massacre.

Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed faces three possible scenarios. One, Tigrayan resistance collapses, he successfully ends Tigrayan political preeminence and establishes a new order revolving around the much larger Oromo and Amhar ethnic groups. Two, seen as most likely by the International Crisis Group, a guerrilla war develops that runs on for several years. Ethiopia’s economic reforms and efforts to position itself as an investment hub would be put on hold. Third, a long drawn-out conflict that weakens the centre to the point ethnic fractures emerge in other parts of the country. 

The conflict is also about the balance of power between centre and provinces, and the Ethiopia’s experiment with “ethnic federalism.” The present 1994 constitution endows sovereignty to all of the country’s 80 plus ethnic groups. Each province even has the right of secession. The ethnic federalism model was once hailed as the ultimate solution to the “question of nations and nationalities” and how a nation-state could embrace the idea of self-determination. 

Going by the evidence of the past few years, ethnic federalism has made Ethiopia a more fragmented, polarized, and conflict-plagued country. In many of the provinces, the dominant ethnic group has treated minorities as second-class citizens and the country has been plagued by repeated outbreaks of intra-ethnic violence. Ethnic federalism has also curbed the strength of urban centres, the natural home of ethnic mixing, as a city without a clear ethnic identity is denied the right to control its own territory. Repeated cycles of violence have encouraged provinces to threaten secession, triggering a strong response from the central government. The Tigrayan conflict is merely the most extreme example of this pattern. But a complete Tigrayan defeat would probably mark the end of the ethnic federalism model as it was partly designed to exaggerate Tigrayan influence.

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SAHEL SUMMIT

The leaders of the so-called G-5 Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, and France held a two-day summit in N'Djamena, capital of Chad, on February 15-16 to discuss how to handle the Islamicist terror problem in the region. President Emmanuel Macron attended virtually. While France iterated its determination to continue to maintain a military presence in the region, the summit place took place amid surveys showing declining support among the French public for their country’s 5,100-strong troop deployment in the region and growing war-weariness among the Sahel governments. Before the summit, Paris had called for a military surge to tackle Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib and its affiliate Group to Support Islam and Muslims. The summit agreed to involve more regional African in operations. France has also persuaded other European countries to provide military personnel through the Takuba Task Force which operates in Mali. Chad has already committed to deploy 1,000 troops in the Mali-Burkina Faso area.

The main political shift is a growing willingness of the Sahel governments to consider holding negotiations with at least some of the militant groups. Macron has repeatedly said, “We do not negotiate with terrorists, we fight them” but his government is now saying that military operations would focus largely on Islamic State affiliates. Burkina Faso this month was the first government to openly call for talks. “If we want to end the security crisis, we will need to find paths and ways to talk with those responsible for terrorist attacks so that we are in peace,” Prime Minister Christophe Dabiré said in parliament before the summit. Mali has expressed support for this position. 

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AFRICA FREE TRADE AREA

Though the African Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) has come into force, converting its text into reduced barriers for goods and services is likely to take a while. African governments are prone to impose unilateral and arbitrary trade blockades against each other for short term reasons, a tendency strengthened by the economic impact of Covid. 

For example, Nigeria, the largest economy of West Africa, reopened four of its land borders to trade in December after having closed them for more than a year in an attempt to reduce smuggling, restrict illegal arms and drugs flows, and protect local manufacturers. Nigeria’s trade policies became more restrictive even as the free trade agreement was being finalised. Nigeria has a full import ban 26 goods and its central bank denied foreign exchange at official market rates for importers of 40 other goods. 

Similar restrictions, as well as poor cross-border infrastructure, means only 15% of the continent’s trade is intra-African. The barriers are often highest between neighbouring countries. Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to have poor trade relations despite resolving their border dispute. Gambia and Senegal have just begun to open up their economies to each other thanks to the construction of the 1.2 mile Senegambia Bridge. Larger African economies often practice indirect protectionism to support local industry. Treaty obligations are often violated. Ghana, for example, imposed high investment capital requirements on foreign-based businesses though it went against its commitments under the Economic Community of West African States.  “Ruling elites often pursue short-term national interests seeking political survival, rather than implementing regional commitments,” explained the researchers Carmen Torres and Jeske van Seters in a 2016 paper on West African trade barriers.

The ACFTA has five integral protocols: trade in goods, trade in services, dispute settlement, investment, and intellectual property rights and competition policy. The agreement aims to progressively eliminate 90% of the tariffs on goods. Such tariffs within Africa currently average 6.1%, more than businesses pay to export outside Africa. 

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UGANDAN POLLS

Uganda held a controversial national election in January. The incumbent President Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner in a poll widely seen as illegitimate. The final results announced by the electoral commission differed from those announced by many polling stations. The primary opposition candidate, the musician Bobi Wine, was placed under house arrest for 12 days after the results though his party was still able to win 61 seats. Another Museveni opponent, the activist Stella Nyanzi, fled to Kenya after her parliamentary bid failed. Parliamentarians claimed 44 people had been kidnapped by Ugandan security forces during the elections and 31 remain missing. The latest elections were unusually blatant in the suppression of the vote and harassment of the other candidates. Western criticism has been muted. The Ugandan president , who has been in power since 1986, is an important ally in the fight against the Somalia based Islamicist terror group, Al Shabab. The US has pledged nearly $ 500 million in aid to Uganda for 2021.

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TRIAL OF HOTEL RWANDA

The trial of Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, on charges of terrorism is set to start this month. His family says he being tried for being a long standing critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and has no chance at a fair trial. Rusesabagina, praised for saving ethnic Tutsis during the 1994 genocide, was arrested last year in Rwanda after mysteriously disappearing during a visit to Dubai. He is accused of supporting the armed wing of the opposition political platform, which has claimed responsibility for attacks inside Rwanda. The circumstances around the 66-year-old Rusesabagina’s arrest and his reported worsening health have drawn international concern for the Belgian citizen and US resident. The European Parliament last week adopted a resolution calling for Rwanda to give Rusesabagina a fair trial.

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IRANIAN TERROR CELL

Ethiopian intelligence agency foiled a major terror attack in Addis Ababa when it uncovered an armed cell of 15 people this month. The cell was reportedly casing the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, possessed a cache of weapons and explosives, and was probably a sleeper cell working for Iran. The Iranian connection arose from the arrest of a 16th person, the ringleader, Ahmed Ismail, picked up in Sweden with the cooperation of friendly “African, Asian and European intelligence services.” US and Israeli officials say the operation was the work of Iran, whose intelligence service activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa last fall with orders to gather intelligence on the embassies of the US and Israel. Rear Admiral Heidi K. Berg, director of intelligence at the Pentagon’s Africa command, said that Iran was behind the cell.

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NIGERIAN WTO HEAD

Former Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, will become the first African and first female to become the director-general of the World Trade Organisation on March 1. Being the first is almost common place in her career – she ws the first female to be Nigeria’s finance minister as well as the first to be her country’s foreign minister. She worked for many years in the World Bank, rising to the position of managing director. Relevant to the present-day is her years as chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. She has already said ensuring the free flow of vaccines and medical supplies will be a priority as well as helping the world recover from the impact of the pandemic. Because she holds Nigerian-American dual citizenship, Okonjo-Iweala is also the first US citizen to head the WTO. 

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(The views expressed are personal)
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About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhury

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.