Until the fourth quarter of 2020, Africa’s economic growth – despite imbalances and many systemic challenges, including poverty and youth unemployment – was the second fastest in the world, after Asia. But the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed growth in sub-Saharan Africa and could reverse years of economic and social progress. Worse still, as the pandemic began to fade, allowing the continent to focus on recovery from its first recession in 25 years, the war in Ukraine began. The conflict, sparked by the Russian invasion, has compounded the challenges and sources of stress that Africa already faces.
Some are economic, including low-income countries’ debt problems and overreliance on commodity exports. Political instability and terrorism remain a threat in several parts of the continent, including the Sahel, the Lake Chad region, East Africa and, more recently, the West African coastal region. Africa is also struggling to manage the adverse effects of climate change and food insecurity. In this context, the war in Ukraine has intensified socio-economic pressures in Africa. As many African countries are highly dependent on food imports, new spikes in global agricultural and oil prices caused by the conflict have made the poor increasingly vulnerable. This threatens to exacerbate simmering conflicts in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel and could further undermine Africa’s prospects of achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Another consequence of the war in Ukraine is a paradigm shift in how Africans perceive the rest of the world. The African public is increasingly aware of the difference between the resources that traditional international cooperation partners allocate to fight hunger, security threats and Covid-19 in Africa, and what they mobilize to support the ‘Ukraine. Today more than ever, therefore, African governments are showing a desire to work with new partners like China, with even greater concern for their national interests and with a view to more balanced international cooperation. As a result, a common view in African media and social media is that “this is not our war”, a perception reflected in the international positions of many African governments.
The current geopolitical crisis is an opportunity for Africa to reduce its dependence on food imports from outside the continent. Policy makers are implementing and strengthening regional responses under the aegis of initiatives and organizations such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, the Economic Community of West African States and the African Bank of development. In addition, several national and regional programs aim to reduce the impact of rising food prices and support local production. African countries are increasingly implementing national development plans and policies through partnerships with the AfDB and the UN, among others. Many countries, for example, focus on local oil and gas production, renewable energy, local manufacturing capacity and youth employment.
While formidable challenges remain, African populations have adopted effective responses to health threats such as Covid-19, Ebola and cholera, as well as to humanitarian crises resulting from natural disasters, violent conflicts and famine. It is now up to African leaders to improve governance and take bold policy decisions focused on promoting local production and consumption and strengthening mutually beneficial regional cooperation.
Political courage, supported by the majority of the population, will accelerate the region’s recovery from the effects of the war. More generally, Africa should seek to manage the impact of climate change by focusing on food security, improved nutrition, social protection, environmental sustainability and resilience to shocks. To this end, the region has made access to sustainable energy for all and the restoration of one billion hectares of degraded land by 2030 a top priority.
Many Africans are convinced that the war in Ukraine is not their problem to be solved. However, failure to restore peace and end the disruption of food and energy supplies will likely lead to political instability and growing social tensions in the region. This in turn will reduce Africa’s chances of charting its own path to a more prosperous and sustainable future.
‘What the war in Ukraine means for Africa’ – Commentary by Aichatou Mindaoudou – Project Syndicate.
The commentary can be downloaded here