Covid Helps Somalia Consolidate
The Somali government is using the pandemic to strengthen its legitimacy at a time when its control of the southern part of the country is challenged by Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate, and the northern areas of Somaliland and Puntland are quasi-independent.
One, the Somali authorities, arguing they needed to spend their funds on responding to the virus, persuaded European governments to pay off their outstanding $ 500 million debt to the World Bank and African Development Bank. The International Monetary Fund then qualified Somalia for its heavily-indebted poor countries initiative, leading the Paris Club to write off a further $ 1.4 billion of debt. Two, the government used Islamic schoolteachers and imams, drawing from Quranic guidelines on hygiene, to communicate anti-pandemic social messages. This helped counter Islamicist propaganda that the virus was divine punishment against non-Islamic governments. Third, the Somali government highlighted its medical responses against those of Al Shabaab which has no health infrastructure. It has received hospital aid from the United States and leveraged the rivalry between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey to get medical assistance.
There is anecdotal evidence the Somali diaspora has been unusually badly affected by Covid-19. Six of the first 15 deaths in Sweden were Somalis, in Norway and Finland Somali-origin deaths are 10 times their share of the population. The London diaspora has lost a number of high-profile members including the musician Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi. Issues of nutrition and cultural problems with social distancing are possible reasons as well as the fact many work as nurses, drivers and cleaners and are exposed to the virus.
Burundi is gearing up for a general election next week, but the mass political rallies are undermining any social distancing attempts. The first rally by the ruling party saw thousands of supporters jam-packed in the centre of Gitega. Only 27 confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been recorded, but hospitals report a spike in suspected cases. Aid organizations say the World Health Organization has been sidelined.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, on the other hand, has argued that the pandemic means presidential elections, expected in February next year, should be delayed. "To have elections when the virus is still there... It will be madness," he said in an television interview. Opposition leaders say Museveni, who has ruled the country since 1986, just wants to hold onto power longer.
In Tanzania, the opposition has accused the government of trying to hide the extent of Covid-19 infections. Case numbers have not been updated for two weeks and the US embassy has warned of “overwhelmed hospitals” in the country. President John Magufuli complained last month that the daily updates were causing panic. The last figures, 480 cases and 19 deaths, were released on April 29th.
Bleak Tourism Year
Covid-19 has wrecked what was expected to have been a bumper year for African tourism. Before the outbreak, Africa’s tourism sector was the second-fastest growing in the world and was projected to rake in billions of dollars. African tourism relies on international travellers, who have largely ceased to arrive. A dangerous combination of national lockdowns, a tiny local tourism base and a dependence on high-paying foreign visitors means the industry is struggling to adapt. “Tours along Ghana's forts and castles have ceased, the safari vehicles that normally prowl East Africa's Serengeti in the hunt for the perfect wildlife photograph are standing still, and luxury camps in Botswana's Okavango Delta are gathering dust.” Conservation tourism efforts are also suffering: the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Center draws visitors to see its 52 species, including endangered white rhinos, but is in danger of shutting down.
Lockdowns Prove Costly
The economic costs of lockdowns are forcing African government to open their economies even before they have brought the pandemic under control. Djibouti started easing lockdown measures last week despite having the highest number of Covid-19 cases in East Africa. "The stakes are high but there is no other option: people need to make their living and go to work," Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf said. Djiboutians have not taken kindly to the restrictions and elections are scheduled for next year.
Ghana is among the countries who have imposed exports bans on rice to ensure food security during the pandemic. Imported rice prices have soared resulting in higher incomes for local farmers. Ghana had launched an Eat Ghana Rice campaign last year to wean locals of their fondness for imported rice, with limited success. But the economic fallout of the pandemic has led the government to take more drastic steps.\
A hard-nosed study of the cost-benefit of a Covid-19 response of moderate social distancing and school closures on Malawi argues it does more harm than good. The policy reduces deaths by a net 7,000 but costs the economy $ 6.7 billion and extracts a further $ 5 billion in lower life quality in the future, for example because students are being forced to miss school. The study was carried out by the National Planning Commission of Malawi with support from the Copenhagen Consensus Center and the African Institute for Development Policy.
Techies & Troubadours
Senegalese engineering students have begun churning out inventions to help battle Covid-19. The inventions, which include automatic sanitiser dispensers and medical robots, are from Dakar's Ecole Superieure Polytechnique. Hospitals have taken interest in some of the inventions such as a small robot, dubbed "Dr Car", which will be able to measure patients' blood pressure and temperature.
Chad has mobilised 80 troubadours, traditional musicians and poets who roam from village to village sharing news in local languages, to spread awareness about Covid-19. Much of Chad’s far-flung population has no access to even radio and depends on word-of-mouth communications by itinerant musicians.
With normal book festivals unable to convene, Ethiopian origin novelist Maaza Mengiste curated a virtual literary festival focussed on connection between African origin writers and their global readers. Afrolit Sans Frontieres, a series of hour-long readings and question-and-answer sessions held entirely on Facebook and Instagram, kicked off on March 23 and returned for a second edition in April. A third is scheduled to begin on May 25, to coincide with Africa Day, and a fourth is already in the works.
Food Shortage Warning
A combination of the pandemic, jihadi insurgents and broader climate change issues are giving rise to a growing food security problem in West Africa, warns the World Food Programme. The agency say more than 43 million people in the region will need urgent food assistance in the coming months, doubling pre-outbreak estimates. Across the continent, food insecurity could affect 265 million people this year. With schools closed in most African countries because of the virus, the World Health Organization estimates 65 million children have lost out on at least one meal a day. The Islamicist insurgencies in the Sahel and Lake Chad area have displaced 4.5 million people in an area covering Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso.
A Stimson Centre report on the herder-farmer conflicts spreading across the Sahel region of Africa, a belt running on the Sahara’s edge from Senegal to South Sudan, notes their shockingly high casualty rates. In Nigeria, such violence has claimed six times more lives than Boko Haram while in South Sudan it has led to more civilian deaths than the country’s civil war. The violence has fed political instability and helped promote Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in the region.
Zambia’s Air Force Buys Chinese
Chinese banks and other agencies have provided $ 1.5 billion in loans to fund military equipment purchases by African countries in the decade up to 2017. The lenders include the Export-Import Bank of China and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. About 40% of these loans went to Zambia despite the country’s minimal geopolitical importance and lack of major security threats. Looking at the reasons for Zambia’s purchase of military planes from China, a study by Johns Hopkins University says a confluence of historical ties, availability of finance, domestic economic relations, low maintenance costs and “a quest for prestige” led Zambia to buy Chinese airplanes. “The question is no longer why Zambia buys military aircrafts from China at all, but why did Zambia not buy more military aircrafts from China?” says the author.
(The views expressed are personal)