The press is filled with dire news coming from Africa: in July, riots broke out in South Africa following the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma. In Ethiopia, amidst bloody battles and thousands of deaths, fighters from the rebel region of Tigray are overwhelming the national army and threatening to take the capital Mogadishu. All over the continent, COVID-19 causes deaths amid a chronic shortage of vaccines and concern among the medical community that allowing the disease to advance unchecked could give rise to new variants of the disease. The list of bad stories from Africa could continue.
But while this news is undoubtedly concerning, some important but less headline-grabbing developments offer a much more positive vision of where the continent is heading.
Towards better governance
The riots that caused so much damage in South Africa are actually the result of an unexpected resolve by the government of Cyril Ramaposa to fight back against the corruption that pervaded the country during the Zuma years. The fact that Zuma is actually serving time in jail – limited as it might be compared to the misdeeds he is accused of committing – is remarkable. It will hopefully mark a transition in the country away from tribal-based rule to the building of a modern rule-based state.
In Ethiopia, the hope is that the current tragic civil conflict surrounding the Tigray region will not disrupt other, positive developments in the region. One such development concerns the recent launch of the first major blockchain deal in Africa, whereby 5 million Ethiopian students will be given blockchain-based digital IDs, which by improving the credibility of their credentials, will give them better access to business opportunities and financial assets.
Another country experiencing dramatic developments is Sudan, where following a popular insurrection in 2019 that deposed the Islamist despot Omar al-Bashir, an unlikely triumvirate of an urban civilian, a military leader and a warlord is ruling the country, gradually moving it towards a more liberal, business-friendly legal system. Over the past two years the government has lifted many restrictions on public speech, banned female genital mutilations, and repealed various Islam-based laws, including lifting dress obligations for women, decriminalising apostasy, ending public flogging, and partially lifting a ban on the consumption of alcohol.
Clean African energy
On the energy front, the most important development in the Nile basin is the progress in construction of the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” (GERD), which will create a gigantic new reservoir along the river Nile, close to the border with Sudan. In July this year, the second stage of the filling of the dam was successfully completed, triggering a new round of complaints from Egypt and Sudan, the down-river countries that are most impacted by the reduced water flow that the reservoir filling is causing. Egypt has issued veiled threats that it was ready to resort to military means should it feel that Ethiopia is damaging its interests with the dam.
Egypt’s rumblings have a broader geopolitical dimension, given the size of the project. With a planned installed capacity of 6.45 gigawatts, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when completed, as well as the seventh largest in the world. It would greatly expand Ethiopia’s role in the region, to the detriment of Egypt, which is currently seen as the regional superpower.
Another aspect of the issue concerns Ethiopia’s decision to finance the dam by internal fund raising through bond selling and persuading employees to contribute a portion of their incomes. This decision came because of Egypt’s efforts to undermine the project by denying it traditional sources of international funding such as through the World Bank. The result is a fully domestic funding scheme, no doubt a source of additional pride to Ethiopians. Ethiopia will be able to use the electricity generated for its domestic uses, but also to export it to nearby countries, boosting the regional economy and meeting many of the “green” goals that the international community is pursuing in the fight against climate change. There are, therefore, many reasons to hope that the current troubles in the region will be resolved soon.
Reducing dependence on imported vaccines
On the COVID-19 front, the situation in Africa remains dire, as vaccination levels remain low and developed countries are reluctant to contribute significant amounts of vaccine doses before their own populations are deemed to be sufficiently protected. Even the limited supplies promised under the UN-backed COVAX scheme have largely failed to materialise. But in the longer term, some important developments are underway, which portends to a much more positive scenario for future pandemics.
In July, the government of Senegal announced the construction of a vaccine facility in the country, with the financial and technical support of the EU and the World Bank. A former French colony, the country is host to the Institut Pasteur de Dakar, part of the international Pasteur Institute network. The plant is scheduled to begin production by the end of 2022. Further good news on the vaccine front comes from Cape Town, South Africa, where the Biovac institute announced that in 2022 it will start production of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, using large batch ingredients from Europe which it will blend and put in vials for distribution in Africa. These will be the first African locations to have vaccine production capacity, a very important step in raising living standards in the continent.
Africa to the stars
One further area of African progress comes from the aerospace sector. In July this year, Uganda became the latest African country to prepare to launch a satellite. It is one of 10 countries on the continent with such plans, while another 13 have already put satellites into orbit. For 2021, African countries are spending over half a billion dollars on their space programmes, roughly double the amount spent in 2018. Many African countries are located at latitudes that are favourable for rocket launches, with increasing interest among international investors in new and existing launch sites on the continent.
The geopolitical consequences of an African renaissance are to be carefully taken into account. China’s close involvement in many investment projects in Africa should be a warning to western countries that they need to step up their own actions there, to encourage the emergence of modern, pluralistic societies and open economies.