Peter Burdin
Sir Stewart Eldon KCMG OBE
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Peter Burdin is the BBC’s former Africa Bureau Chief.  He has thirty-five years experience as a senior editorial leader in the BBC’s International News operation and has worked extensively in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Indian sub-continent and Asia.


More than two thousand years ago the Roman writer Pliny the Elder told us “Africa always brings us something new”. Looking at events across the continent this year we are not sure the promise of a year ago has been fulfilled.  There are positive new developments in countries like Ethiopia and Zimbabwe but also some seemingly intractable challenges in DRCongo, Central African Republic, Mali and beyond where conflicts continue to dominate.  In economic and democratic terms the jury remains out in many countries.

This time last year hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans were on the streets celebrating the fall of Robert Mugabe. It was a time of great hope. Twelve months on and it’s now clear that was a perhaps a false dawn.  Under Mugabe’s successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa the ruling ZANU-PF is still firmly in control.  Hopes of massive economic investment have not so far materialised.

In contrast, this time last year almost no one had ever heard of a young security officer called Abiy Ahmed. Twelve months on and he’s the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and engaged in a massive reform programme.  This has seen a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, the release of political prisoners, the unbanning of websites, the creation of industrial parks, infrastructure projects and the appointment of Africa’s only female President.

Abiy has also appointed a gender-balanced Cabinet in which half his ministers are women because, he says, women are less corrupt than men. He still faces many challenges not least from deep ethnic divisions that continue to bedevil Ethiopia, but for the moment he’s one of the brightest hopes on the continent.

Another positive can be found in Ghana which seems to have overcome recent economic downturns and records 8.3% GDP growth, though how far this will continue remains to be seen.

In spite of deep concerns over President Kagame’s controversial treatment of dissidents, Rwanda continues to attract a lot of foreign investment and a 6.2% growth rate.

Africa’s population is due to double in size to more than two billion by 2040. By this year one in every four babies born will be African.  Africa will have the largest working population in the world, larger than China and India.

This is Africa’s biggest opportunity. It’s also Africa’s biggest risk.

The hope is that this young population will bring energy and innovation, but it also creates a youth bulge in need of schools and jobs and increased migration pressures.  Already around 70% of Africans are aged under 25 years old, and almost a third of them are neither in work nor in education. Around eleven million young people enter the labour market each year. That means Africa needs to create around 50,000 new jobs a day just to keep pace. That’s a tall order for any society.

The great risk is that those jobs won’t be found and as a result a vast army of unemployed frustrated young people is created, ripe to migrate, to be recruited into criminal activity, social unrest or worse into Africa’s terrorist groups like Al Queda in the Magreb, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram.

Meanwhile lots of countries continue to invest in Africa. We’ve all become aware of China’s intense and long-term interest in the continent which has seen Chinese venture capital into Africa treble last year alone to $250 billion. Now we have new players like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, India and Japan joining in.

Japan recently announced plans to invest $30 billion over the next three years for example, while Saudi Arabia has made a $10 billion investment into power. Turkey has massively increased its diplomatic network on the continent.  According to the African Development Bank Africa needs $130 billion a year investment to bring its infrastructure up to speed – Clearly the investment opportunities are immense.

Where are the traditional foreign investors? France remains a big player in the Francophonie in West Africa and is trying to expand outside this zone. It has big political and security interests which has seen President Macron undertake several visits to the region in the past year.  Germany has announced a Marshall Plan For Africa which underlines its own ambitions on the continent.

Brexit and other factors mean that Britain is also taking Africa more seriously. Africa could well be a beneficiary of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. The divorce from Europe will encourage the UK to seek new markets in China, India and Africa.

The UK’s stated ambition is to become the world’s number one investor into Africa. That throws down a gauntlet to the French, who post-Brexit will become a competitor rather than EU ally, and all the other countries seeking to boost their own share of the African market.  The question is whether the political and other resources the UK is willing to devote to Africa will be enough for this strategy to succeed.

East Africa continues to be the continent’s fastest growing region with Ethiopia achieving 8.5% GDP growth amid Prime Minister Abey’s breath-taking reforms. The traditional regional economic hub of Kenya continues to achieve 5% growth in spite of all its political and ethnic divides and corruption.  Tanzania is also worth watching economically.

West Africa continues to be dominated by the fortunes of Nigeria which has suffered economically in recent years from a drop in oil prices. The economy seems to have strengthened of late and managed a weak 0.8% GDP growth this year. All eyes are now on the election in February next year when President Buhari faces a stiff challenge to stay in power.

President Buhari has tried to tackle corruption and has recently arrested senior officials on tax evasion and money laundering charges. It remains to be seen if this will be sufficient to persuade Nigerians to elect him for a second term. His war on Boko Haram in the north still seems intractable, and is part of a wider “arc of terrorism” which spreads across the continent from west to east where Al Shabaab in Somalia remains a potent force capable of disrupting attempts to pacify the region.

In Southern Africa Zimbabwe seems firmly back in the grip of the ruling ZANU-PF. We need to keep a close watch on Mozambique which has presidential, legislative and provincial elections set for October 2019 and where serious financial issues have come to light. Then there’s the regional super power of South Africa which seems to be more depressed and divided than at any time since President Mandela was first elected in 1994.

South Africa, which many had hoped would become Africa’s leading nation, its sole representative on the G20 and a member of the BRICS countries, risks losing its way. President Ramaphosa is trying to clean the stables of the stink caused by the corruption and kleptocracy of the Jacob Zuma years but it remains to be seen if he has the political clout and control to turn around the damaged body politic.

In a bid to steal the clothes of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) President Ramaphosa has committed himself to a radical policy of land redistribution without compensation. A move which frightens the minority white population and is already scaring off foreign investors –FDI fell by 66% last year as South Africa teeters between feeble growth and a formal recession.

Next year President Ramaphosa’s ANC goes to the polls so expect further bitter infighting between now and August 2019 which is the likely date of the election.

We are constantly reminded that “Africa is not a country” but fifty-four complex countries each with its own challenges and issues. That’s true but the common themes of governance, poverty, jobs, investment, conflict and corruption will always be parts of the continent’s rich story ----- and remember that things change.

After all this time last year Ethiopia was facing conflict and a meltdown, now with its new Prime Minister Abey it has emerged as a model of reform which other African leaders will watch closely and learn from.

As Pliny wrote all those years ago – always something new in Africa.


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