AfricaSource Strategic Insight on the New Africa

It is written in the Book of Proverbs that “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” In other words, a true friend will tell another unpleasant truths, conveying things the other may not want to hear, but doing so for the sake of the other’s own good, which is valued more than even the friendship itself. However, this wisdom is predicated on the assumption that what is communicated is itself objectively true and not based on bias, much less animus. The furor that has erupted in Morocco over its entry in the US State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015, published in April, raises the question of whether the document falls into the latter, rather than the former, category.

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On May 6, the Kenyan government announced that it would cease hosting the estimated 600,000 refugees that currently call Kenya home. Days later, the government scaled back its initial threat, focusing instead on northeastern Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest and home to 350,000 Somali refugees and their progeny. Despite providing little evidence, the Kenyan government maintains that Dadaab's existence threatens Kenya’s national security. The United Nations, United States, and international aid organizations have strenuously objected to the announcement, and warn that it may be illegal. But properly closing Dadaab may prove far more complicated and costly than the Kenyan government expects.

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Barack Obama’s historic election as President of the United States in 2008 was the first time an American of African descent had ever held the United States’ highest position. Because of the President’s Kenyan roots, many Africans were particularly excited for what they hoped would be the start of a new era in relations between the United States and Africa.

Despite a promising speech in Ghana in 2009, President Obama’s limited engagement with the continent during his first term in office left many disappointed. But, as Obama nears the end of his second term, he leaves behind a number of important legacies in the realm of US-Africa policy. Among his accomplishments, Obama’s administration launched the ambitious Power Africa plan to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, renewed the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and held the first-ever US-Africa Leaders Summit. While not a comprehensive list, these achievements have one commonality: they use “commercial diplomacy” to deepen the economic relationship between the United States and African countries, and send a clear signal to American investors that the continent is open for business.

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African economies currently face a double threat. First, commodity prices are at their lowest in decades, which has already caused a 16 percent drop in sub-Saharan Africa’s terms of trade (the ratio of export prices to import prices). Second, responding to its own slowing growth, China has scaled back its investment on the continent. As a result, African economies increasingly face budget shortfalls, weakening currencies, and constrained economic growth.

Particularly hard hit are those African economies, such as Nigeria, that are dependent on exporting commodities and importing—in the words of President Muhammadu Buhari—“everything including toothpicks.” Despite the pressure that Nigeria’s foreign earnings shortage has put on its currency, the naira, Buhari has obstinately refused to devalue it, ignoring calls from the International Monetary Fund (and many international observers) to do so. The bleak financial outlook has driven some Nigerian consumers to try to kick-start the economy through less orthodox measures, including a movement to encourage the consumption of locally produced goods. This movement, led by Nigerian Senator Ben Murray-Bruce, has spawned a popular Twitter hashtag #BuyNaijaToGrowTheNaira, as well as a catchy theme song.

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On Friday, April 15, South Sudanese raiders crossed the border into Ethiopia to attack thirteen villages in the country’s Gambella region. Violence and carnage ensued, and the assailants escaped with 108 women and children and nearly 2,000 stolen cattle, according to Ethiopian government estimates. On Monday, the government announced that the death toll rose to 208 civilians and sixty attackers; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that more than 21,000 people fled their homes in the raid’s aftermath.

Gambella, one of Ethiopia’s nine official regions that is approximately the size of Belgium, is located in the western part of the country, jutting into South Sudanese territory. It has 400,000 estimated residents, and is home to some of the country’s most fertile land—significant chunks of which have been leased to international companies in lucrative, but controversial, land deals.  

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In popular imagination of Africa, the continent is more famous for its savannahs than its skyscrapers. Sub-Saharan Africa’s total urbanized population is just 37 percent, compared to nearly 75 percent of European Union citizens who live in cities.

Africa’s rural population has always been larger than its urban population. But that is changing, and in 2030, the number of urban and rural Africans will be roughly the same: nearly 1.6 billion people altogether. By 2050, nearly two-thirds of all Africans will live in cities. By the same year, nearly a quarter of the world’s workforce will be African—and these workers will be overwhelmingly young.

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As the global downturn in commodity prices and the decreasing demand and investment from China begin to stymie Africa’s historical drivers of economic growth, one of the continent’s largest potential assets—its workforce—is taking off. Africa’s high fertility rates are leading to a demographic shift that will have profound consequences for the region’s long-term economic outlook.

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While a number of African rulers—most notably Joseph Kabila of the rather ironically named Democratic Republic of the Congo whose ham-fisted attempts to prolong his presidency threaten to reignite the continent’s most bloody conflict—have been trying to extend their tenures by all possible means, fair or foul, voters in Senegal were asked in a March 20 referendum to not only reaffirm the two-term limit on the presidency, but also cut the length of terms themselves down to five years from the current seven years. Altogether, the fifteen constitutional amendments approved by nearly two-thirds of the citizens who took part in the plebiscite consolidate the already significant progress made by the West African country in terms of democratic governance and make it something of a model for the region.

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Since the tumult of the Arab Spring in 2011, the broader Middle East and North Africa region has grappled with instability, internal strife, and an existential struggle against extremist terrorism.

The region has descended from the great hope for change into a spiral of fragmentation, insecurity, and fragility, and it continues to face complex emergency situations on an unprecedented scale. The conflicts cause untold damage to both human life and physical infrastructure, as fifteen million people to date have fled their countries. Syria today is an increasingly fragmented nation and the humanitarian situation there remains extremely challenging.

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World leaders met this week for the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) with an ambitious agenda to tackle warming global temperatures and reduce carbon emissions.

At the same time, Ethiopian officials revised their predictions of the number of people affected by the ongoing drought upward by nearly two million. They now estimate that more than 10 million people—over 10 percent of the country’s population—need emergency food aid. The successive failure of two seasonal rains due to the El Niño weather phenomenon caused massive crop failure, and drought is now straining farmers who depend on the land for their livelihoods.

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