Africa Dodged the Worst of COVID-19, Except When It Comes to Its Economies

Editor’s Note: Every Friday, Andrew Green curates the top news and analysis from and about the African continent.

African leaders used this week’s virtual United Nations General Assembly to call for international support to help their economies recover from the coronavirus pandemic, pressing for debt cancellation and up to $100 billion in annual support over the next three years.

From a health perspective, the continent appears to have withstood the pandemic better than many experts predicted, registering just 5 percent of global cases and 3.6 percent of deaths. But economies across Africa have been battered by the extraordinary measures that governments took to slow the spread of the virus. South Africa saw its economy contract by 51 percent in the second quarter of the year, and Zambia has started to default on its debt. The continent is predicted to fall into its first recession in a quarter century.

As new COVID-19 cases decline and testing capacity continues to improve, more African governments are easing restrictions and scrambling to jumpstart their economies. But many administrations lack the funds to spur a quick revival, as leaders like Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara warned in their video addresses to the General Assembly this week. Ouattara called “on Africa’s partners to take bolder measures.”

The members of the G-20 have already agreed to pause all their debt payments through the end of the year, but some countries have been reluctant to accept the offer, fearful it would tank their credit ratings and actually worsen their long-term economic outlook. Others have said the suspension has not freed up enough cash to adequately meet the crisis. In his General Assembly address, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said the international community now needs to “take other decisions with a view to complete [debt] cancellation.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking in his capacity as chair of the African Union, framed the continent’s requests for debt cancellation and financial support as a “comprehensive stimulus package.” He also specifically called for global powers, including the United States and European Union, to drop sanctions against Sudan and Zimbabwe, to help speed their economic recovery.

Economic relief wasn’t the only item on the agenda at this week’s all-remote General Assembly. Ramaphosa was one of many African leaders to use their video speeches to reiterate demands for a permanent African seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Keep up to date on Africa news with our daily curated Africa news wire.

Here’s a rundown of news from elsewhere on the continent:

North Africa

Libya: The Libyan National Army, the breakaway militia fighting Libya’s internationally recognized government for control of the country, said it killed the leader of the Islamic State in Libya during a raid in the southern city of Sabha earlier this month. A spokesperson for the LNA said Abu Moaz al-Iraqi was among nine militants killed in the raid. The Islamic State has not confirmed the death of al-Iraqi, who took command of its affiliate in Libya in 2015. The extremist group, which was formed by former al-Qaida militants who have taken advantage of the chaos in Libya following the 2011 overthrow of President Moammar Gadhafi, briefly seized the key port town Sirte in 2015. Although its activities have since diminished, the Islamic State has continued to launch irregular attacks in the capital, Tripoli.

East Africa

Ethiopia: A prominent opposition figure, Jawar Mohammed, was one of 24 people charged over the weekend with terrorism-related offenses and other crimes stemming from violence that erupted in July after the killing of a popular singer who was critical of the government. Attorney General Gedion Timothewos said 2,000 people could still face charges relating to the violent demonstrations in the capital, Addis Ababa, and in the sprawling Oromia region. More than 180 people were killed and 3,500 arrested during those protests, including Jawar, a former media mogul who draws significant support from young people in the Oromia region. A former ally of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Jawar turned on the government, accusing Abiy of not doing enough to support the Oromo community. In addition to the terrorism charges, he has been accused of telecom fraud and breaking firearms laws. He faces life in prison if convicted.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center, at the 33rd African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Feb. 9, 2020 (AP photo).

Southern Africa

Botswana: Wives are now allowed to own land at the same time as their husbands following a presidential amendment to the country’s land policy. The decision will have an immediate impact on land allocation in Botswana, which allows citizens to sign up to receive free parcels. Women were previously barred from doing so if they married a man who had already received a plot. Rights groups said this created significant problems if the couple divorced or the husband died. President Mokgweetsi Masisi revised the 2015 policy late last week, acknowledging it “was discriminatory against married women and did not give them equal treatment with men.”

Central Africa

Cameroon: Opposition leaders said at least one protester was killed in demonstrations this week over President Paul Biya’s handling of the crisis in the restive Anglophone region and his decision to hold regional elections in December. Security forces fired tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators in the economic capital, Douala, and surrounded the home of opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who had called for the protests in part to jumpstart stalled talks to resolve the Anglophone crisis. More than 3,000 people have been killed and nearly a million more displaced since separatist fighters from Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, headquartered in the country’s two western provinces, launched an insurgency in 2017, seeking to establish their own independent state. Government officials met with jailed separatist leaders in July, but the administration remains divided over the negotiations, as R. Maxwell Bone explained in a WPR briefing this week, with one camp threatening to sabotage the peace process.

Meanwhile, a military court sentenced four soldiers to 10 years in prison for the 2015 extrajudicial killing of women and children. A shocking video of the killings surfaced in 2018, showing the soldiers accusing two women—one with a baby strapped to her back—of assisting the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, before executing both women and two children. Though the government initially dismissed the video as “fake news,” it stirred an outcry in a country where security forces are regularly accused of torturing and killing civilians in their campaigns against both Boko Haram and the Anglophone fighters.

West Africa

Cote d’Ivoire: In a bid to reduce tensions ahead of next month’s general elections, the government has announced plans to release nine associates of opposition leader Guillaume Soro from prison. The detainees, including five lawmakers, have been held since December for allegedly plotting to overthrow President Alassane Ouattara’s government. Soro, who fled to France to escape arrest, was convicted in absentia of corruption in April and barred from the presidential race. Calling the charges politically motivated, he has been encouraging protests against Ouattara’s controversial decision to stand for a third term. Ouattara had pledged to stand down, but reversed his decision following the July death of his preferred successor, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly. Even as Ouattara promises to restore stability in a nation with a recent history of civil war and military mutinies, his campaign threatens to fracture Cote d’Ivoire, as Clair MacDougall reported for WPR in August.

Mali: Bah N’Daw, a retired military officer and former defense minister, is set to be sworn in as president of a transitional government Friday, with the leader of the military junta that deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita slated to serve as his deputy. Assimi Goita, who heads the junta, announced Monday that he and N’Daw will lead the 18-month transitional government, following consultations with political parties and civil society. Observers said their inaugurations should help resolve the period of political and economic uncertainty that followed the August coup, which Peter Tinti wrote about for WPR earlier this month. The coalition of West African leaders known as the Economic Community of West African States appeared to approve of the government, with members signaling that they were ready to lift economic sanctions imposed on the country following Keita’s overthrow. ECOWAS leaders had previously said they would not accept a government that included any junta members.

Top Reads (and Listens) From Around the Web

Blood Lands: In 2016, an alert went out in the rural South African community of Parys that a white farmer had been attacked. Farmers in the area had suffered a string of violent assaults, and a mob of white men quickly gathered. They tracked down two black men they suspected of committing the crime and began to viciously beat them. Both died hours later. For the BBC podcast series, “Seriously…”, Andrew Harding followed the investigation into their murders and the ensuing trial, which raised uncomfortable questions about why the two men were really at the farm and exposes the persistent racial tensions in post-apartheid South Africa.

Finding Thousands of Zimbabwe’s Hidden Dead: It was only after Keith Silika, a member of Zimbabwe’s Police Protection Unit, moved to the United Kingdom in 2005 that he became fully aware of his native country’s history of violence, including the massacres of thousands of Ndebele civilians that were overseen by former President Robert Mugabe in the 1980s. That realization inspired Silika to study forensic archeology, as he writes for Quartz Africa. Now back in Zimbabwe, he is using his skills to expose how the state hid its victims and how the current regime—with the complicity of its security forces—continues to conceal its violent past in order to avoid a public reckoning.

Andrew Green is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. He writes regularly about health and human rights issues. You can view more of his work at www.theandrewgreen.com.

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