Posted by: Home Strange Home | February 25, 2011

Could the freedom fire spread south?

An Arab revolution, or an African revolution?

The news of late has been awash with images from the popular uprisings that have been taking place across North Africa and the Middle East, starting with the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia with the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Friday, January 14th after more than 23 years in power. The success of the grass-roots protest movement in this small North African nation (population: 10 million) inspired similar demonstrations in the much larger and more influential Egypt (population: 80 million), leading to the resignation of another long-standing president, Hosni Mubarak, on Friday, February 11th.

These inspiring democratic uprisings have spawned unrest in other countries across the Arab world, from Bahrain in the Gulf to Yemen in the south and, most recently and violently, to Libya, an autocratically ruled oil-exporter sandwiched between Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east. Could we – should we – brace ourselves for similar movements south of the Sahara, in black Africa? That’s a difficult and contentious question to answer, but I would like to at least explore it here, and solicit feedback from my readers.

Firstly, is it even a legitimate question to ask? While the recent successful revolts have occurred on the African continent, they are arguably much more an Arab phenomenon than an African phenomenon. We should not underestimate the interconnectedness of the Arab world, from the Maghreb in the west to the Gulf in the east, which is glued together through linguistic and cultural ties as well as political and economic institutions such as the Arab League. All of the countries touched by the recent revolutionary fervor have been Arab countries (save for Iran), and the furthest south the protests have strayed into Sub-Saharan territory are Sudan and Djibouti, both Arab League countries with large Muslim and Arabic-speaking populations.

But that is not to say that non-Arab Africa is (or will remain) untouched. In Harare, Zimbabwe last Saturday, a group of citizens including students, activists, and trade union members gathered for a lecture entitled, “Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?” The meeting was raided by police, who detained 46 people and seized their audiovisual equipment. The Zimbabwean government has been attempting to censor all news information from Tunisia and Egypt, but social media has enabled it to filter through.

Similarly, in Uganda, the long-standing president Yoweri Museveni – who was recently “re-elected” in questionable elections last Friday, February 18th – has said in response to his opposition’s call for Egyptian-style protests, “I’ll put in jail anyone who tries to spark an Egyptian-style protest.” The potential protest ingredients are there in Uganda.  Like its predecessors, it has significant joblessness and poverty, a large mass of Facebook-connected youth, and a 15-year-standing president who has over stayed his welcome.

But many political analysts and news correspondents view a southern spread of revolutions to Sub-Saharan Africa as unlikely. Phil Clark of the School of Oriental and African Studies cites two main reasons. Firstly, many Sub-Saharan African countries are much more ethnically divided (and to this I can add linguistically divided), making the relatively homogenous mass movements of Tunisia and Egypt less possible (although protests have also occurred in Yemen and Sudan, both ethnically divided countries, and likewise tribalism is an issue Libya). Secondly, many African dictators and autocrats can count on the loyalty of their military, which have been built up from their own personal ethnic group and whose loyalty has been bought off over years of corruption. That makes citizens genuinely and legitimately afraid of their own military – a Zimbabwean can expect to be shot at if he/she protests.

Today, Friday, protests have been re-ignited across the Arab world to express solidarity with the people of Libya, who are at this very moment marching in the tens of thousands toward Green Square. Let’s hope that the citizens of the rest of Africa are listening and following this most recent wave of freedom, and that their undemocratic rulers are watching with fear.

Posted by: Home Strange Home | February 18, 2011

Chocolate, dear?

Not so sweet

Consumers of late may be paying more attention to where their food comes from as they hear frequent news reports about the rise in global commodity prices and the agricultural shortages resulting from supply side shocks trickle through to their tables in the form of higher prices. Cocoa, a crop for which Africa accounts for 68% of global production according to the FAO, is yet another chapter in the recent story of commodity crises.

The political problems in Cote d’Ivoire are at the heart of the problem. Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s largest cocoa producer, accounting for 40-44% of world production; it is followed by its neighbour, Ghana, and then Indonesia in Asia. The Ivorian economy is highly dependent on the agricultural sector and the international community is attempting to use this as a lever to push Laurent Gbagbo out of power.

“President” Gbagbo has been in power since 2000, but lost in November elections last year to Alassane Ouattara, who garnered 54% of votes.  Although the international community (including the UN, the EU, and the African Union) recognizes Ouattara as the rightful winner, Gbagbo’s party cried fraud, asserted that Gbagbo won, and the stubborn incumbent has refused to step down. Since then, the world has been trying to find ways, political and economic, to squeeze Gbagbo out.

In late January, Ouattara called on the international community to support a month-long ban on cocoa exports, hoping to cut off the Gbagbo government from one of its main sources of income (the cocoa producers pay taxes on their exports to the government’s cocoa regulatory body) so that it can no longer pay civil servants and security forces, thereby eroding it support and power base. The EU and the US endorsed the ban, and exports from the country have slowed to a dribble.

But of course the cocoa farmers are stuck in the middle, even if they aren’t politically involved. Gbagbo is pushing them to pay taxes on their exports, even demanding advance tax payments on future shipments that may never get out of the country. And Ouattara and the rest of the world are stopping cocoa farmers from exporting by cutting off their international buyers, leaving with them huge cocoa stocks that cannot be processed domestically. And meanwhile people in Europe will see the price of their favourite treats rise, just as they are filling their Easter baskets.

Posted by: Home Strange Home | February 17, 2011

“Ni hao,” says Africa

Soft Power

In past posts, I have written about both the influence of China in Africa and the presence of Africans in China due to economic migration.  Continuing along this vein, an interesting (but perhaps unsuprising) trend is the uptake of Chinese-language studies among Africans.

Africa now has no fewer than 21 Confucius Institutes and 4 Confucius Classrooms, spread across the continent from Morocco in the north to Liberia in the west to South Africa in the wouth to Kenya in the east. These non-profit institutions are designed to teach standard Manadarin and promote Chinese language and culture.

The Chinese government has also expanded the number of scholarships it offers to African students over the past several years.  While the Chinese governmental statistics on this are notoriously unreliable, Deborah Brautigam (an expert on China in Africa) cites estimates in her China in Africa blog that possibly a total of 18,000 African students have been awarded Chinese government scholarships over the years and 12,000 to 20,000 African students are currently studying in China.

Many Africans feel incentivized to learn Chinese to increase their opportunity of landing a job with one of the many Chinese companies investing in their country, e.g. working as a local representative for Chinese infrastructure investment projects.  Other job opportunities for Chinese-speakers could present themselves in the tourist industry; last year, some 20,000 Chinese tourists visited Kenya, for example.

Posted by: Home Strange Home | January 30, 2011

Africa, the phone’s for you

Mobile phone usage is undergoing a truly extraordinary boom in Africa – north, south, east, and west.  In the past five years, the number of mobile users across the continent has grown from 130 million in 2000 to 333 million in 2005.  Put differently, whereas only 12% of Africans had a mobile phone in 2000, by 2005 it was 41% (compare this to 71% in the developed world).

Looking at the statistics for some individual countries can make your jaw drop. In Tunisia for example, the number of mobile subscribers in 2000 was 1 per 100 inhabitants; by 2009, it had risen to 95.  In Kenya, the statistics are 0/100 in 2000 to 49/100 in 2009. When travelling myself in West Africa, I was struck by the ubiquitousness of the Orange Telecom logo, even in the dustiest and remotest of towns.

But the issue remains that the cost of having a mobile phone remains exorbitantly high relative to people’s incomes in many African countries.  In Uganda, for example, the cost of mobile access represents 60% of the gross national income (GNI) per capita, making it way beyond the reach of the majority of the population.  The world average for the relative cost of  mobile access is 7.6% of GNI per capita.  In Africa, the average is nearly three times as much at 23.2%. The costs are driven up by factors related to poor infrastructure and insufficient competition.

Source: Alternatives Economiques; ITU (the UN agency for information and communications technologies).

Posted by: Home Strange Home | January 11, 2011

“It’s all good,” says China

In late December, right before Christmas, the Chinese state information office released a white-paper entitled “China-Africa Economic Trade and Cooperation.”  It is the first official policy paper on China-Africa cooperation, and it comes across as a propaganda document, praising China’s “South-South cooperation” with Africa and arguing the “mutual benefit and reciprocity” of China-Africa economic and trade relations.

While the paper is convincing at points, other assertions sound absurd.  Take for example the statement, “now China and Africa are both in the process of industrialization and urbanization.”  Firstly, this blanket statement groups together all 53 African states and treats them as one country (throughout the document, “Africa” north and south is referred to as a single entity).  Secondly, many African countries (indeed the majority) are agriculture-based economies and nowhere near the level of industrialization of China, so to put them on par is a real stretch.

The document also says that “the vast Chinese market provides wide space for African products.”  While it is true that China is now the African continent’s largest trading partner (with $115 billion of bilateral trade in 2010), and China’s growth has created an export market for Africa, the “African products” are mostly limited to oil and other resources.  On the other hand, Chinese exports to Africa are very broad, comprising not only the usual mass market consumer goods and textiles, but also equipment, machinery, and construction vehicles.

The document suggests that the China-Africa relation is balanced and equal. It cites statistics that Chinese direct investment in Africa has grown from $490 million in 2003 to $9.33 billion by the end of 2009.  While these figures are believable, the report also says that “By the end of 2009, African countries’ accumulated direct investment in China amounted to US$9.93 billion.”  It is not clear exactly what this figure is supposed to mean (“accumulated” being undefined), but it seems likely to be an overestimate.

For the full text of the report, see:

Posted by: Home Strange Home | November 3, 2010

China in Africa, but what about Africa(ns) in China?

A continual hot topic of discussion has been the role of China in Africa, which is now China’s second largest trading partner after the US.  An often-cited example of this is the presence of Chinese workers in Africa, who migrate there on a temporary basis to work on Chinese-financed infrastructure projects.  But a lesser-known phenomenon is the movement in the opposite direction, of Africans to China.  Some 20,000 Africans live in China according to the Chinese government, but this is estimated to be closer to 100,000 according to a researcher at the University of Hong Kong.

With the tightening of European borders, and the effects of the global recession which have hit Western economies harder than China, Africans are looking away from “traditional” immigration destinations and toward business opportunities in the East.  The increase in African immigrants to China began as early as 1998 and picked up pace after China’s membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001.  From 2003 to 2007, the number of African migrants to China increased a rate of 30-40% per year.

However, despite an upward trend over the past decade, in the last two years the African population has decreased somewhat because of changes to the immigration laws.  Previously, Africans were able to get unlimited, multiple-entry visas.  But in 2008, prior to the Peking Olympics, the Chinese authorities adopted a tougher stance vis-à-vis undocumented Africans and completely stopped renewing visas within the country, forcing businessmen to return to their home country to renew their business visas.  Some Africans ended up getting deported or detained in immigration centers or prisons – in the first half of 2009, 77% of foreigners detained for illegal immigration and visa expiry were African.

These African migrants are unquestionably economic – they go to China to earn money.  The vast majority of Africans arriving in China are tradesmen and small-scale entrepreneurs, a so-called “transnational commercial African bourgeoisie.”  For example, 90% of Africans in Canton province are businessmen.  Many resident Africans act as intermediaries between Chinese factories and clients on the African continent, a place where Chinese businessmen consider it dangerous to operate.

Each year, thousands of containers full of Chinese goods are shipped to ports in Africa (Dakar, Mombasa, Abidjan, Douala), increasing in volume by 294% between 2003 and 2007.  Around 90% of products on African markets are made in China, Thailand, or Indonesia – even “typically” African products such as wax cloth prints are manufactured by Chinese suppliers.  China is supplying Africa with products 4 to 5 times cheaper than European imports, which is good for the purchasing power of African people, but bad for the local economy in that nothing is manufactured locally.  Some refer to the trend as a sort of “Chinese neocolonialism.”

Many African immigrants gravitate to the industrial city of Guangzhou, located in the south of China two hours away from Hong Kong by train.  A section of the town where many of them live is referred to as “Africatown” and nicknamed “Chocolate City” by the Chinese.  As the name may imply, they are not always welcome here.  The African population is often stigmatized by the Chinese population, who regard them with fear, distaste, and even overt racism.  Integration is difficult, with Africans often resting on the fringes of Chinese society, although inter-marriages are becoming increasingly common and a growing number of Africans are learning Chinese at local universities or Confucius Institutes.

When we think about Chinese involvement in Africa, we usually think about the Chinese government cutting deals directly with African governments.  And we think more about China doing business in Africa than the other way around.  But there is a more nuanced story of a two-way exchange that is occurring at the level of individual African businessmen and businesswomen living in China.

Posted by: Home Strange Home | September 28, 2010

Child Abuse at Islamic Schools in Senegal

There are an estimated 50,000 talibés (students) that live and study the holy Qur’an in daara (Koranic schools) in Senegal, purportedly receiving an Islamic education for free.  They are taught by a marabout (a religious leader, teacher, and scholar), who acts as their de facto guardian once they have been sent away from their family.  A marabout can be responsible for 40 to 100 talibés.

Because the marabout is not paid or funded by the government, they have to be humble and ask for food.  However, this task has been delegated to their students, who are required to bring money and food back to their teachers.  If they come back empty handed, they are beaten, and sometimes severely, leaving scars.  Sometimes they don’t even make it back – weaving through the traffic with their collection tins, the young talibés often get run over and killed.

In the worst cases, critics argue that the children learn nothing of the holy Qur’an and are merely exploited as a source of child labour by the marabouts.  While the education normally runs from the age of 6 to 17 years, boys as young as 4 years old have been enlisted as forced talibés.

From the marabouts’ perspective, it is the fault of the government for not financially supporting a traditional Islamic education, so they have to send the children out to beg.  A steady supply of boys continues to the schools because of a combination of religious duty and economic pragmatism; sending a boy to the daara means one less child to support.  And Senegalese people continue to give because they practice zakat, the Third Pillar of Islam which consists of charitable or welfare giving.

In Senegal, seven teachers were sentenced guilty for forced begging earlier this month.  However, they were not required to serve a prison term, but only received a fine and probation, meaning they will go to jail if they were found to force the children to beg again within the next six months.

Going forward, the Senegalese government has now banned marabouts from using children to beg.  Whether this gesture is merely symbolic or liable to be actively enforced remains to be seen.  The measure was adopted in response to pressure from aid donors and the international community, notably Human Rights Watch, which released a comprehensive report in April 2010 on forced begging and talibé abuse in Senegal.

Posted by: Home Strange Home | August 24, 2010

Africa as Europe’s Bin

Previously in this blog I wrote about the illegal dumping of hazardous electronic and electrical appliance waste in Ghana, so-called “e-waste,” which is exported from the UK and Europe against regulations. Sadly, West Africa has also been the victim of waste dumping of a much more lethal variety, namely hazardous petrochemical waste. Earlier this month, the Cameroonian Environment Minister announced that he received intelligence that a Dutch ship was seeking to dump waste along the Cameroonian coast. If this is true, it would be shocking and ironic in light of the recent conviction of the oil trading company Trafigura for a similar crime committed in July 2006.

Trafigura’s illegal and irresponsible treatment of tonnes of highly toxic petrochemical waste in the port of Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire led to 15 deaths and made 100,000 people ill. The waste was dumped in a dozen open landfills (bordered by poor neighbourhoods) around the city, making residents vomit and choke. Trafigura still insists the waste was not toxic and could not have caused harm, even though a UN-appointed investigator and expert on toxic waste found evidence that the deaths and illness were related to the dump. Moreover, a University of Amsterdam researcher found high levels of dangerous components in analysis of a sample of the waste.

Last month, Trafigura was convicted in a Dutch court on criminal charges of a) trying to conceal the true nature of its dangerous toxic waste (claiming it was merely slops) in an effort to dispose of it cheaply in the Netherlands, and b) when this plan failed, proceeding to illegally export it out of Europe, rather than spending the money necessary for specialist disposal. (They were not charged for what actually happened in Cote d’Ivoire.)

Trafigura had initially offered a Dutch waste disposal company $15,000 to deal with the waste, but once the company realized how toxic the waste was, they quoted a fee of twenty times that: $300,000. But rather than paying the money, Trafigura tried to cut corners by pumping the waste back on the boat, leaving the Netherlands (and thereby illegally exporting toxic waste), and sailing a circuitous route via several other dumping sites (including in Estonia and Nigeria) which refused the waste. The tanker continued on to Abidjan, where Trafigura had set up a local shell company named Tommy which agreed to deal with the waste for $10,000.  It did not have the capacity to deal with it properly and dumped it illegally.

Trafigura’s actions were not only illegal and immoral, but ultimately short-sighted – while it could have forked out an extra $285,000 to deal with the waste properly, in the end it paid £32 million in compensation to the 30,000 people requiring medical treatment, £100m to the Ivorian government for the waste clean-up, and a €1 million fine in the Dutch court. But the fine Trafigura paid was half of what was expected, and small in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, the only prison sentences that were handed out were to lower level employees – the captain of the tanker Probo Koala and a London-based employee – and were merely four- and five-month suspended sentences. No charges were made against any of the senior-level executives.

While Trafigura clearly have blood on their hands in this case, they are not the only ones to blame. The officials at Abidjan port and in the Ivorian government who are responsible for monitoring the shipping and management of hazardous waste failed to do their job in the face of repeated red flags. While it is clearly not in the interest of a developing country to receive toxic waste, there may be individuals within the country who stand to benefit from it – either corrupt government officials who take bribes in exchange for accepting the toxic waste, or not-so-corrupt government officials who are simply desperate for foreign exchange to pay off their crippling debts. The international community needs not only to hold companies such as Trafigura accountable, but also to devise a solution for the underlying problems that make developing countries targets for waste dumping in the first place.

Posted by: Home Strange Home | July 1, 2010

“African Lions” According to McKinsey Global Institute

Like the Asian Tigers of yesterday, here come the African Lions of tomorrow – the African market is not to be ignored.  That is the main message of the report, “Lions on the Move: the Progress and Potential of African Economies,” recently published in June by the McKinsey Global Institute, the economic research arm of the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, available online.

The report was authored by several Directors of the McKinsey Global Institute in cooperation with several external economists and academics.  It presents a positive picture of economic growth on the African continent over the past decade and optimistic projections for the next ten years.

The seventy-page report necessarily looks at Africa in the aggregate, for example citing a collective GDP of $1.6 trillion across 53 countries in 2008 (projected to be $2.6 trillion in 2020) and noting that more than 52 African cities now have a population of 1 million or more each.  The document presents a picture of newfound growth from the late 1990s to present, following the stagnation experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, and speaks of a “growth acceleration” since 2000. 

The authors write that real GDP for Africa went up 4.9% per annum during the period 2000 to 2008, twice the rate of growth of the 1980s and 1990s.  The Institute argues that this improved growth cannot be attributed only to the rise in global commodity prices over the past decade (in particular the prices of oil and minerals); they assert the growth “goes beyond a resource boom.” 

According to the Institute’s calculations, the resource sector constituted only 24% of the change in real GDP over the period 2002 to 2007.  The resource sector was followed by the wholesale and retail sector (13%), agriculture (12%), transport and telecoms (10%), and manufacturing (9%), the latter sector widely thought to be crucial to export-oriented economic growth.   GDP growth in non-resource-rich countries was found to be comparable to GDP growth in resource-rich countries.

Africa has historically suffered from low labor productivity and has high labor unit costs relative to China and India, rendering it non-competitive in many labor-intensive exports (the notable exception being Mauritius, which has built a successful export-oriented manufacturing sector in textiles).  The MGI report finds that labor productivity, which was declining in many countries throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has increased 2.7% annually since 2000. 

The McKinsey Global Institute believe this “growth acceleration” over the past decade is sustainable, unlike the 1970s oil boom whose progress was wiped out by the collapse of oil and many other commodity prices in the 1980s.  The report segments African countries into four categories: diversified economies (e.g. South Africa, Morocco, and Egypt); oil exporters (e.g. Angola, Algeria, Gabon, and Nigeria); transition economies (e.g. Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Cameroon); and pre-transition economies (e.g. Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Mali).   

The document also highlights the “growing middle class African consumer” and says business opportunities in consumer, resources, agriculture, and infrastructure abound, particularly for the former category in FMCG, telecoms, and banking.   

Posted by: Home Strange Home | June 16, 2010

The Spread of Drugs in West Africa

In The Gambia last week, twelve foreigners (including a Venezuelan, a Dutch national, and West Africans from other countries) were put on trial for drug trafficking. It is the biggest drug case in The Gambia to date and is symptomatic of the geographic spread of the drug trade in West Africa which has traditionally had its stronghold in Guinea-Bissau, the first entry point for most drug shipments from South America.

Over the past five years, Guinea-Bissau has become a global narcotics hub, and some would call it a “narco-state,” a failed state which is run at the behest of drug lords. It is estimated that the cocaine which passes through Guinea-Bissau each month is worth more than ten times the annual GNP of the country, which officailly exports cashew nuts. The country is small (population of 1.5 million) and very poor, ranking 173rd out of 182 countries on the UNDP’s 2009 Human Development Index.

Although the involvement of local people in the drug trade has increased drug use, historically West Africa has not been a user or producer of cocaine; rather it has served mostly as a transit point. The cocaine is produced in South America, but its lucrative users are in Europe, so Guinea-Bissau acts as the intermediate point in the cocaine trafficking, referred to as the “three-cornered” or “triangular” trade. Traffickers were motivated to start re-routing their wares through West Africa when policing efforts cracked down on traditional sea and air routes from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Guinea-Bissau is geographically well suited to drug trafficking because of its Atlantic coastline and in particular its archipelago called the Bijagos, which consists of 80 islands (of which only 20 are inhabited). Thus, there are many places for the drugs to quietly land, carried by small planes like Cessnas, or by commercial fishing boats and cargo ships which travel by night and cover themselves with blue tarpaulin during the day to avoid detection. The Guinean state and navy have little capacity to monitor the country’s large maritime space.

Planes carrying drugs also arrive directly in Osvaldo Vieria, the small airport of the capital Bissau, and sometimes not so discreetly – in July 2008 a large jet allegedly carrying more than a half ton of cocaine landed in Bissau and was unloaded by the military. Indeed, the armed forces and the state are accused of being directly involved in the drug trade. The government has issued Guinea-Bissau passports to South American drug dealers, and cocaine has “gone missing” from the government treasury where it was being held for “safe keeping” after being seized by the police. Because Guinea-Bissau is economically impoverished, because the government is weak and corrupt, and because there is little rule of law, it provides a sort of “no man’s land” for the drug traffickers to take free reign.

Cocaine is transported from Guinea-Bissau to Europe through a number of routes. Some drugs are hidden in ships, some are moved overland into southern Europe (working off the same organized crime networks that help smuggle illegal immigrants into Europe), some are flow into Europe on light aircraft, and some are imported the same way cocaine enters the US from Latin America—mules swallow it and fly to European cities, leaving from international airports like Dakar and Accra.

Of course, the drug trade has made a handful of people very rich, who drive through the ramshackle capital Bissau in expensive cars and live in the swank villas that are popping up around the city. Included among these elite few are Rear Adm. José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, who is believed by the American government to be a drug lord and a major figure in the international narcotics trade. Some argue that he (and not the president) is the “real boss” in Bissau, the one with the money and the power. And no one doubts it is drug money.

Older Posts »