Africa Digest | February 2020

US Visa Blocks Undermine Policy

The United States continues to send crossed-signals regarding its policy to Africa. On one hand, the Trump administration controversially issued visa restrictions against citizens of four African countries and is preparing to reduce US involvement in military operations in the Sahel region. On the other, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right after the Munich Security Conference, travelled to Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia - to make the case for stronger economic relations and promote the Prosper Africa programme which aims to increase trade and investment. 
Nigeria has formally protested the new visa restrictions imposed by the Trump administration. Under the new restrictions, Nigeria and Eritrea are two of four countries whose citizens will no longer be eligible for green cards. Tanzania and Sudan have been excluded from the US’s visa lottery scheme. Washington has said these are penalties for “unsatisfactory security and information sharing standards.” Anecdotal data indicates this tighter visa immigrant regime is also affecting non-immigrant visas from these countries - as well.
Africans had already been affected by last year’s tighter regulations regarding H-1B visas, something that affected Indian applicants as well. There have been negative effects on the fledgling startup and technology eco-system in countries like Nigeria which were beginning to attract Silicon Valley interest. Ghana showed that such restrictions can be reversed. After a concerted effort to address the US’s security concerns, Accra persuaded Washington to lift similar visa restrictions in late January. 
Pentagon officials briefed the US Congress on a review that aims to shrink their military presence in West Africa, where some 1,400 soldiers are stationed. Congress joined leaders from Europe and West Africa in urging the Pentagon to reconsider given the growing terrorist problems there. “I’m convinced that when our review is done, we’ll have a conversation with not just Senegal, but all the countries in the region,” Pompeo told reporters in Dakar. “We’ll talk through why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it, [and] we’ll deliver an outcome that works for all of us.”
The US trade representative’s office announced the beginning of talks between the US and Kenya on a bilateral free-trade agreement, the first for a sub-Saharan African country with the US.  Between 2014 and 2018, Chinese companies invested twice as much money in Africa as their US counterparts, spending $72.2 billion and creating more than twice as many jobs. The latest US budget proposes, however, cuts aid and development funding to African states.


EU-Africa Framework Expires

The Cotonou agreement which provides the framework for relations between the European Union and a group of 48 Sub-Saharan African states and 31 Caribbean and Pacific states expires on February 29. The agreement, signed in 2000 in Benin, defines the trade and investment, development cooperation and political relationship between the two sides. 
The European Council adopted the negotiating mandate in June 2018 for the future agreement, a month after the African-Caribbean-Pacific Council of Minister had done the same on their side. Formal negotiations have been going on since September 2018. The future agreement will encompass additional issues like climate change, democracy and human rights, migration and mobility, and peace and security. Reportedly the negotiations are already behind schedule. 
There is considerable debate about how successful the original Cotonou agreement was when it came to Africa. The African Union attempted to model itself closely to the institutions of the European Union as part of a continuing desire to create a pan-African political body. Whatever the AU has been able to accomplish has largely been independent of the EU including the African Continental Free Trade Area and plans for an AU passport. The Cotonou arrangement was unable to arrest a continuing fall in EU-Africa trade figures as a percentage of their total trade or work out a system to handle dictatorial or corrupt polities. A US critic, Brian Stout, has argued African leaders should ask “whether it’s wise to remain party to an arrangement that is not helping them achieve their development goals, undermines the African integration project, and does not respect them as equal partners.”


‘New Energy’ in India’s Africa Policy

Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla spoke of a “new energy and new electricity to the India-Africa equation in recent years” during an opening speech at a conference titled Understanding Africa: Continuity and Change at the India International Centre on 12 February. He noted that during the Narendra Modi government there have been 34 state visits to African countries by either India’s prime minister, president or vice-president and that every African country has experienced at least a ministerial visit. Over the past five years, India has hosted nearly 100 African leaders. “To enhance diplomatic engagement, India is opening 18 new embassies in Africa, to take the total number of Indian missions to 47 out of a total of 54 countries in Africa. Nine of the 18 new missions have already opened,” he noted.

The India-Africa economic relationship was “encouraging” with trade valued at $ 69 billion last year, an increase of 12 per cent. Cumulative Indian investment stands at $ 54 billion, the fifth largest foreign investor in the continent. India today offers African countries duty free access covering 98.2 per cent of its total tariff lines under the Duty Free Tariff Preference Scheme. Over two-thirds of India’s lines of credit in the past decade apply to Africa. India today has 189 projects in 42 African countries, valued at $ 11.4 billion, using these lines of credit. Under the African Continental Free Trade Area, the continent would become “one of the largest and most ambitious economic spaces in the world” and “India wants to be part of that exciting space.” 

Implicitly stressing the different approaches of India and China, Shringla said, “More than digital pathways and brick and mortar projects, India’s association with Africa is about the human touch – about facilitating the capacities of the people of Africa, particularly youth.”

World Bank Warning on China’s Lending

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund expressed concern about the impact of Chinese capital flows on African countries with few financial options due to their weak economic balance sheets. World Bank President David Malpass, speaking during a panel discussion in Washington in early February, said China offers a convenient package of infrastructure funding and execution through its state-owned enterprises. The problem, he said, is the lack of transparency in such lending. He said, “One of the practical problems we’re dealing with right now is some of the new lenders, the non-Paris Club lenders—and so I guess when we say that people should sometimes read China into that. They’ve escalated their lending, which is good in a way. We want more lending into developing countries.  But…often times their contracts have a nondisclosure clause that prohibits the World Bank or private sector from seeing what the terms of the contract are.” 

The IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva warned that debt accumulation in sub-Saharan Africa has outpaced other developing areas. Total external debt for sub-Saharan Africa jumped nearly 150 per cent to $583 billion in 2018 from $236 billion 10 years earlier. The World Bank says the debt load is becoming unsustainable as average public debt increased from 2010-2018 by 40% to 59% of GDP. Georgieva cited multiple reasons for this trend including cheap money from advanced economies as well as Chinese activity. “We are faced with a duality. Sophistication of lending instruments is going up. Multiplicity of sources is going up—and capacity to handle is falling behind,” she said. 

Malpass also attacked the Asia Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the African Development Bank for “a tendency to lend too quickly and add to the debt problem of the countries.” He said the “African Development Bank is pushing large amounts of money into Nigeria, South Africa, and others without the strongest programme to sustain it and push it forward.” The African Development Bank, whose largest shareowner is Nigeria, responded sharply to Malpass’s criticism saying its lending practices were consistent with the best international practices.

Coronavirus Response

African nations, scarred by repeated epidemics of Ebola and other diseases, have begun responding to the global novel coronavirus outbreak. Medical teams from more than a dozen African countries met in Senegal early February to learn how to diagnose the virus. Now 19 African nations are able to test for Covid-19 says World Health Organisation Africa. So far, the continent has had only one confirmed case in Egypt. 

WHO has identified 13 priority countries in Africa with strong links to China and has dispatched experts to eight of these to help coordinate preparedness efforts. The priority countries have all introduced screenings at airports, as well as some seaports. Ethiopia, Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire, and Botswana were among the first to place suspected cases under quarantine. 

In Sierra Leone, more than 30 Chinese who arrived from China in February were placed under quarantine in Freetown. "Anyone from China, whether a Chinese diplomat, a Sierra Leonean or Nigerian, as long as your passport shows you left China within past 14 days — as soon as you enter any of our border crossing points, we would detain and put you in quarantine,” said Dr. Mohamed Alex Vandy, Sierra Leone's Director of Health Security Emergency Management. 

Paul Hunter, a UK-based specialist in infectious diseases and epidemics, says the absence of Covid-19 on the continent was probably a matter of luck. "If you look at how Covid-19 has spread to non-Chinese countries, most of the spread has been pretty much due to the general intensity of travel around the world," he said.  "There is nothing special about Africa not having seen a case other than pure chance at the moment." However, some scientists note Covid-19 thrives best in cold weather and thus Africa is less hospitable to its spread.

Nature magazine has carried a detailed report on the WHO’s fight to control the Ebola epidemic that broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It shows how the issues of being able to transport medicine through the war-ravaged country and then persuading a sceptical population to accept the health workers’ bona fides was a greater challenge than simply providing a medical cure. Responders faced death threats, stones and bullets from those they tried to save. The WHO head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explains, “The outbreak of Ebola is a symptom. The root cause is political instability.” The Ebola epidemic in central Africa has so far killed more than 2,000 people.

Mozambique’s Islamic Insurgency

The New Humanitarian has a new report on the Islamic insurgency in northern Mozambique. The last two months have seen an intensification in terror attacks in Mozambique’s gas-rich coastal province of Cabo Delgado. Attacks on passenger buses, Christmas Day village burnings and ambushes against Mozambican soldiers have led to the displacement of nearly 100,000 people and disrupted farming and harvesting.
The Muslim-majority province, with an estimated $ 50 billion worth of offshore gasfields some of which are owned by Indian firms, is among the poorest in the country. India is among the main investors in a planned multi-billion dollar natural gas terminal in this region. Organised criminal syndicates and political elites capture much of the country’s wealth and are partly linked to the violence. However, the identity of the militants remains a mystery to both locals and the security services. The Mozambican government’s own crackdown on journalists and researchers in the area has only added to an information vacuum which has been filled by conspiracy theories of various kinds.

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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.