African Spring Beckons the World


Africa is fighting back to get out of its isolation and write a new chapter in world’s growth story.  It holds great promise and sumptuous opportunities, although the journey is not going to be smooth with daunting political and security challenges glaring at the continent. It will be helpful if the world can offer choices that support this effort to bring a new Spring to the continent.

The septuagenarians and octogenarians, who have been ruling the continental states with iron hand since their independence, are challenged by a new crop of young politicians.  With average age under thirty, support for these new leaders is approaching tidal proportions.  The old guard, and the supportive bureaucracy, are still deeply entrenched and they are not going to go without a fight.

Six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies this year are in Africa, according to the World Bank.  They are Ghana (8.3%), Ethiopia (8.2%), Cote d’Ivoire (7.2%), Djibouti (7%), Senegal (6.9%), and Tanzania (6.8%).  The world’s 10 fastest growing cities will be from the continent in the next decade, indicating rapid urbanization.  “Urbanization has a strong correlation with the rate of real GDP growth,” according to a McKinsey report,  and that means these cities are going to be the engine of productivity in Africa.

East Africa takes lead

East African countries are at the lead in the march as traditional giants like Nigeria and South Africa are bogged down in their domestic vortex.  Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda have growth rates of around six per cent. Several companies are relocating their manufacturing plants there from countries such as Turkey, India and China.  The region has also acquired strategic significance with leading countries setting military bases there to protect their own economic and security interests.

Ethiopia is ahead of the pack electing the youngest head of government in Africa.  Since taking over as Prime Minister in April at the age of 41, Abiy Ahmed Ali has turned around the political and economic landscape not only in the country but also in the Horn of Africa.  He ended the enmity with Eritrea and signed a peace treaty restoring traditional relations between these `Siamese’ twins.  He offered to address the concerns of Egypt on the Grand Dam that Ethiopia is building along the headwaters of the Blue Nile.

On the domestic front, Abiy lifted all restrictions on opposition parties, paving the way for return of their exiled leadership, and released thousands of political prisoners.  Internet blackout was ended and both mobile and broadband internet services have been reinstated.  Charges against diaspora-based popular media outlets have been dismissed.    He also achieved tangible success in easing ethnic tensions in some of the most problematic provinces.  Political liberalization is accompanied by impressive economic reforms, shaking up one of the most heavily-regulated economies.

Abiy has set an example and other young leaders are trying to emulate him. They include 36-year-old Bobi Wine @ Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu in Uganda, 38-year old Diane Rwigara in Rwanda, and 41-year-old Nelson Chamisa in Zimbabwe.  Economics and Trade are harbingers of political change.

Plethora of Opportunities for Foreign Contribution – China Factor

Foreign contribution is good, but intentions are not so benign always as the African experience shows.

Ambitious schemes have been launched to link Africa’s east and west coasts and for inter-regional maritime connectivity.  The most significant project is expansion of the existing Trans-African Highway 5 (TAH5) into a true cross-continental road and rail link.  Several international players, both state and private enterprises, are rushing in to take a share of this growth story.

China has taken the earliest lead although much of its involvement is mired in serious controversies ranging from bribery, corruption, trading malpractices and violence, to neo-colonial exploitation.  China has played a crucial role in launching the railway section of the TAH 5.  It signed separate agreements with Senegal and Mali.  The Railway line between Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and Djibouti was funded and constructed by Chinese companies.

Tanzania, was, however, skeptical of Chinese largesse and stuck a deal with a Turkish contractor at a significant saving per meter of track compared to Kenya’s Chinese-built section.  Kenyan conservations were also outraged at the laying of a railway line inside Nairobi’s famed national park, which they said defied court order halting the project.

After managing to acquire a “logistical base” in Djibouti, China bought 23.5 percent of Port de Djibouti (PDSA) for $ 185 million in 2012.  Using its growing influence in Djibouti, Beijing engineered the nationalization of the Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT), so far controlled by Dubai-based DP World, with a minority stake. Djibouti proposes to hand over its control to a Chinese company.  The significance of Djibouti port is that it handles an estimated 90 per cent of landlocked Ethiopia’s maritime trade.

Though shunted out of Djibouti, DP World has other maritime interests in the region.  It is developing Berbera Port in Somaliland on the Horn of Africa to accommodate modern supertankers serving large markets of neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya.  Although it is in Somalia, Mogadishu has no control over this self-declared Republic.  Its stability and relative security are attracting private investments.

Hapag-Lloyd, one of the world’s leading shipping liner, started a dedicated weekly service to East Africa in April last.  Basing its hub in Mombasa, Kenya, it plans to serve some 900 export and import customers.  The first stage of the service covered Jeddah-Mombasa-Dar es Salaam-Jeddah, which is being expanded to reach India’s western ports of Nhava Sheva, the largest container port in India located near Mumbai, and Mundra, the largest private port of India located in a Special Economic Zone with multi-purpose terminals in the state of Gujarat.

Turkey has its own grand plans for Africa.  However, like China, its business dealings lack transparency and are mired in corruption charges.  Somalia has been the focus of its investments, serving its strategic interests.  It hosts Turkey’s largest foreign military base.  Within a year of establishing the new relationship in 2011, Turkey gave Somalia aid in excess of $ 350 million.  Mogadishu’s port management was acquired by Albayrak group while the city’s international airport was given to Favori LLC, amid allegations of millions of dollars paid in bribes. Turkey also got a 99-year lease of Sudan’s Suakin island.

Europe too is realizing the need to make up its relations with the continent as decades of its exploitation had its consequences – mass migrations and rise of China.  EC President Jean-Claude Juncker, during his visit to Africa recently, has suggested a new relationship with Africa.  It comprises of investments which help create upto 10 million jobs in the next five years and a continent-to-continent free trade agreement.  Germany’s Angela Merkel and the UK’s Theresa May made quick visits in August last to promote their own goals.

Militarization of Africa

It is inevitable that foreign economic interests bring in their own military rivalries to Africa as well.  China has set up its first military base in Djibouti, which is already hosting such bases for the US, France, Japan and Italy. Although Beijing initially played it down terming a logistical base meant to fight piracy, its true intentions became clear as it vastly expanded the base and started interfering in American military operations.

Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh is cleverly encashing foreign appetite for military bases, but this may ultimately prove counter- productive as the country gets dragged into others’ wars.  So are others like Somalia and Eritrea who need to be cautious.

China has ramped up its role in peacekeeping missions in Africa in the past decade, tailoring them to suit its strategic interests in the region.  It contributed troops to UN missions in South Sudan where it has oil interests and in Mali and Congo which supply minerals like cobalt and copper.

China has also allegedly supplied arms to Sudan and warring factions of South Sudan. Sudan is also helping Saudi Arabia and UAE to supply arms to groups fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.  Turkey is extending military training to government forces at its military base in Somalia.

Russia is a new entrant in the scramble for influence in Africa, but it is fast expanding.  Its strategy is a “mix of business, diplomatic and arms sales interests”, according to Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group.  Having been rebuffed by Djibouti for a military base, Russia has tied up with Eritrea to set up a `logistics base’ which would give access to the Red Sea. Moscow has also revived its old military cooperation with Central African Republic, providing small arms and specialists to train its soldiers.

Russia and Mozambique have signed an agreement to facilitate visits of Russian warships to Mozambiquan ports and an MOU for naval cooperation between the two countries. Moscow also signed an MOU with the Southern African Development Community for military cooperation.  Along with these military agreements, Moscow entered a series of agreements for economic zones, and mineral exploration; these deals have attracted severe criticism from western countries as they have potential of ousting their companies.

American interest in the continent has always been modest and after the 9/11 attacks, it is oriented more toward counter-terrorism operations.  US has maintained secret special operations forces in different parts of the region.  Trump administration is considering to reduce its military presence following recent mishaps.

Conclusion and Way Ahead

Notwithstanding these daunting challenges, young Africa is confident of re-writing its history.  Emerging leaders resonate popular ambitions and as Abiy proved in Ethiopia, they have the courage and conviction to succeed.  They can bring necessary changes within, but international community must act against foreign powers trying to parcel out the continent to suit their strategic interests.

Countries like India, Japan, and South Korea, who have no major strategic political and security interests in the continent, may be the kind of group that can help realize popular craving.   India does not have the required resources to compete with big powers, but has its own niche areas, where it is strong.  India enjoys strong trade relations, particularly with East Africa.  Its contribution to skill development, industrial training, women empowerment, etc., is well recognized.

India’s pharmaceutical products have been very popular but spurious drugs being dumped by corrupt Chinese companies under the banner of `Made in India’ are affecting India’s brand.  These Chinese companies have also similarly necking out Indian brands from `black hair’ market of Africa.  Despite being unpopular for being poor quality and mixing animal hair, the Chinese strategy of marketing them under `Made in India’ is creating confusion.  China has also been using its `financial’ muscle to influence opposition parties in countries like Seychelles, Mauritius, etc., to malign projects that India has taken up there for mutual benefit.

India needs to launch an aggressive campaign and expose Chinese malpractices and corrupt strategies so as to re-capture its traditional strong hold.  The forthcoming India-Africa summit can be a very effective platform to highlight these issues and present India’s strength as a `soft power’ that can be a positive factor in Africa’s growth.

Africa also faces many of similar health and other medical issues like in India which can be dealt with simple and traditional methods of treatment.  India has a special program under its Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) offering free training to African practitioners.  India also has a very popular ITEC program (Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation), offering free training in its institutions of international repute.  African students can greatly be benefitted if there is proper selection process and placing them under guidance of a `mentor’ for proper adjustment into local climate and culture.

India may team up with Japan, South Korea, Australia and even the US to participate in big ventures that have visibility and utility to the local communities.  India can offer to build railway lines at much cheaper rates than China has been charging the unsuspecting African countries.  In Sri Lanka, India built railway lines at almost half the price that of the Chinese-built tracks.  If such alternatives are available to the African countries, they escape being dragged into debt traps.