BY OLUKAYODE OYELEYE
EGYPT IS A GOLDMINE in the literal sense as it is a country rich in gold. To crown that even further, it discovered another swathe of land with good deposit about this time in June 2020, thus adding to its potential sources of national revenues. Egypt is currently the second largest economy in Africa, after Nigeria. While it has displaced South Africa to the third place in continental ranking, it needs to be asked, among other things, how strong Egypt’s economy truly is in an era of growing relevance of “capitalism without capital,” applying the title of the book recently jointly written by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake. It is worrisome, indeed embarrassing, that Africa as a continent of over 50 odd countries and a population of over one billion people does not show so prominently in the radar of the global financial system. Reports upon reports, from World Bank, IMF, multinationals and international financial institutions – especially investment banks – tended to relegate Africa to just footnotes, passing comments or appendices, in which cases detailed attentions were hardly paid to Africa as a continent in international financial discourse.
Twenty-two years ago, The Economist magazine’s gloomy prognosis about Africa was published in its May 13, 2000 edition, under an alarmist title of, “The hopeless continent.” That was rather too sweeping! A decade later, in June 2010, the optimism expressed by McKinsey global consulting probably nudged The Economist back into realism as the latter changed its tune from elegy to epics. McKinsey, in that seminal publication titled, “Lions on the move: The progress and potential of African economies,” observed that, at that time, 40 percent of Africans lived in urban areas. It pointed out that the rise of the African urban consumer also will fuel long-term growth. Then, The Economist had a change of mind, writing one year and six months later in December 2011, that, after decades of slow growth, Africa had a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia, apparently referring to the trending Asian Tigers paradigm then in its summary of what it titled “Africa rising.” As if to give effect to its new standpoint, it refined its description of Africa to, “A hopeful continent” in its March 2013 edition, attempting to justify this with the statement that “African lives have already greatly improved over the past decade.” This probably was a tacit admission of the fact that it went off tangent and erroneously wrote off Africa in the first place.
Reference to The Economist magazine here is both relevant and significant because it is the world’s foremost authoritative magazine that has an age long tradition of combining reporting and analysis on economy and politics in an interwoven and intricate manner. It is in many ways an opinion moulder, an agenda setter and a policy influencer. Ignoring The Economist by any country could be to that country’s detriment. Pontificating by that magazine appeared like an attempt to consign Africa into irrelevance. So, the international investors, business managers, and many career diplomats might have taken the wrong clues from its publication, thereby minimising the relevance of Africa in their reckoning. It became worthwhile, therefore, to look at the influence of such a medium on Africa in the recent past. Whatever its intentions were – not a focus here – The Economist’s May 19 edition of this year brought into focus the African Development Bank, an African institution. Considering the enormity of damage that negative publicity could do to a state, region or continent, there is a justification for the call made last February at the African Union meeting by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In his address, Abiy Ahmed noted that “Africa’s voice on the world stage needs to be heard loud and clear. Africa must also be represented on important international bodies.”
It is hoped at this point that the Prime Minister was not sounding overly enthusiastic or fantastic by his open recognition of the importance of “Africa’s media representation on the international stage.” He made a point that “Africa is often portrayed in the international media negatively.” Although he fought a needless war, he was still brazen enough to say that “the endless representation as a continent troubled by civil wars, hunger, corruption, greed, disease and poverty is demeaning and dehumanising and likely driven by a calculated strategy and agenda.” But looking beyond the internal contradictions of Abiy Ahmed and some other African countries’ leaders, his statement holds some validity, that “the stereotypical and negative media representations of Africa not only disinforms the rest of the world about our continent, but it also shapes the way we see ourselves as Africans.” It is also logically right that “telling our own stories and shaping our own narratives must be our top priority.” What he did not say, however, was that our leaders must walk the talk and match their words with action.
Nonetheless, his actions do not invalidate those quoted statements made by him. But, here is a problem: his proposal for the establishment of an African Union Continental Media House. While it is theoretically sound that such a “media house could be organised to provide authoritative news and information on our continent, fight disinformation, promote our collective agenda and offer opportunities for Pan African voices to be heard,” the troubles with state-controlled media are legendary and well-known. As long as there are many dictatorship regimes in Africa, such a media house will run into some diplomatic headwinds and conflicts. Moreover, the issues of funding might not be a tea party, especially as many African countries are known to be lagging behind in contributions to the mainstream African Union and many countries do not conform to participatory governance. However, these are in no way a reason why such an experiment should not be tried.
One starting point for Africa is to address its peculiar and general problem of commodity export dependence. In their raw forms, these commodities, mostly from the extractive industries in mining and agriculture, are exported in their raw, unprocessed forms, attracting just a fraction of the values of finished products, a lot of which end up being exported back into Africa. Côte d’Ivoire, a foremost cocoa exporting country in West Africa, exported $3.52 billion in cocoa beans in 2020, making it the largest exporter of cocoa beans in the world. By contrast, the global chocolate market size in 2019 was valued at $130.56 billion and was expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.6 percent from 2020 to 2027. Consider the gap between the values of raw cocoa and the markets for finished products! From authoritative statistics, Côte d’Ivoire, as of 2012, was supplying over one third or 38 percent of cocoa produced in the world, while West Africa collectively supplied two thirds of the world’s cocoa crop, with 58 percent coming from the combined outputs of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana at some point in time. How the country fares now with the commodity is a cause for concern in a world of unpredictable commodity prices as cocoa, which became also the country’s leading foreign exchange earner, is not fully playing its role as the engine of economic development, with more than half of producers reportedly living below the poverty line at less than $1.2 or CFAF 757 a day. Moreover, according to the World Bank, the price paid for the expansion of cultivated areas in recent decades has been the destruction of virtually all the country’s forests. Add to these the fact that Côte d’Ivoire has not yet managed to increase its share of between five and seven percent of the profit made along the cocoa-chocolate global chain. These raise serious questions of sustainability of the industry that is the flagship of a whole country’s monocultural economy.
Egypt, with 80.73 metric tonnes of gold holding, ranks fourth after Algeria with 174 metric tonnes, South Africa, with official gold reserves reaching 125 metric tonnes and Libya with 117 metric tonnes based on a 2021 estimate. Gold producing countries are paying heavy price in environmental and human terms from the outcomes of the lucrative enterprise. Despite over a century of gold mining operations, South Africa has failed to protect residents affected by pollution from contaminated water and mine dumps as thousands of abandoned gold mines are scattered across the country, polluting the water with toxic wastes, filling the air with noxious dust and leading to birth defects which go mostly unreported. Nigeria, easily the largest economy in Africa, has been designated a country with a rising population of poor people as four in 10 Nigerians live below the national poverty line, according to a recent finding, with the number of poor people projected to reach 95 million in 2022. This is despite the volume of petroleum sold by Nigeria in the world market annually. In addition to the high level of official and unofficial corruption within the petroleum industry, reports are rife about the unabated pollution and displacement of communities in the oil producing areas from their traditional farming and fishing because of pollution, without alternative means of livelihoods and without compensations. Those internally displaced add to the teeming population of the rural poor in the countryside.
Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire epitomise Africa’s economic doldrums, public relations dilemma and social embarrassment. With the diverse experiences of various countries in the continent, less obvious are the ordeals of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) or Western Sahara. For those who make a case for an African media outlet, a contrasting situation is presently playing out. While the onslaught of Russia against Ukraine within the past four months has occupied the thoughts of African policy makers, diplomats and a development financial institution, the protracted and recent flare-up of the crisis in the SADR remains relatively obscure, despite the fact that it encapsulates some of the continent’s challenges. As the country struggles for independence, it still remains 80 percent under Morocco’s administration, backed by the former colonialist Spain, to Algeria’s consternation. Earlier, in 1984, Morocco pulled out of the former Organisation of African Unity (AU’s predecessor) in protest against the seating of the Polisario Front as representatives of the SADR, claiming that it was part of Morocco’s territory, after the African regional body decided to recognise the independence of SADR. That the UN regards SADR as a neutral ground has not changed things much in favour of SADR. Morocco, however, returned to the AU in January 2017 after 33 years of absence. But the SADR problem still remains.
As succinctly captured by the International Crisis Group, Morocco’s resolve is to overrun and override SADR, using many different tactics, including keeping the SADR refugees of over 30 years permanently away. According to the Crisis Group, Rabat violently stifles any claim by SADR of independence, frequently resorting to torture and arbitrary arrests, including against human rights activists. It has repeatedly prevented visits by international delegations wishing to observe the situation and has frequently expelled foreign journalists.” Is this a misrepresentation of the African story by a foreign interest? Surely, No! Are the African leaders and media telling the story as widely as they tell of the Russian-Ukraine war? Again, No! This brings us to the crux of our internal contradictions and muddling up of narratives for lack of appropriate information and inexplicable motives, which ultimately affect the continent in the areas of national policies, diplomatic relations and socio-economics.
Meanwhile, some African vocal personalities are already screaming on the rooftops about how the fertiliser supply chain is disrupted by the Russian-Ukraine war, but either little is known by the same people about SADR, its economy, industry and probable impact on Africa’s food security, or they prefer to talk about these in hushed tones. Although SADR has a small market-based economy whose main industries are fishing, phosphate mining, tourism, and pastoral nomadism, its dependence on natural resources and commodities is remarkable on one hand, and the phosphate mining is highly relevant to fertiliser production on the other hand. When will this capture the attention of the African leaders and be considered as a beneficial resource for the continent, which must be widely promoted?
But while the SADR conflict rages, the overall cost of this conflict, according to the Crisis Group, “is also very high for the region as a whole, since it hinders the development of the Arab Maghreb Union, generating delays in economic integration, low foreign investment and slower rates of growth.” Here is a wider dimension to the SADR debacle as painted by the Crisis Group: “Perhaps more serious is the fact that the badly governed area covering Western Sahara, Northern Mauritania and South West Algeria is becoming a zone of trafficking (drugs, people and multiple forms of contraband) that suffers from lack of security cooperation. Finally, the UN has been thoroughly discredited by its attitude in this conflict, while the international community has to pay large sums for an observation force and economic aid.” SADR is a small country, but a part of Africa. If its plight goes unnoticed, how would it get help for emancipation? A continent that is largely dependent on commodity export still remains at the fringe of the global economy. Sadly enough, much of the raw and unprocessed commodities exported from Africa are major drivers of the global economy when they enter the global value chain. Except and until Africa is involved in value addition to raw commodities within the continent and moves away from absolute dependence on commodity export to the export of processed goods, it is reasonable to expect that the continent might still remain in relative obscurity, accompanying poverty, insecurity and underdevelopment. Already, the continent is living with huge heavy environmental and human costs of the aggressive mining and deforestation while expanding the mining and plantation agriculture for export purposes. How will an Africa-wide media network capture these without stepping on the toes of countries that think their economic prospects are at risk if all the dark sides of the activities involved are exposed? Would that be fair or unfair reporting on the continent? In whose interest will such reports be construed? And how will the world outside Africa perceive such reports?