With unprecedented levels of investor interest both on merit, and because growth may well prove elusive elsewhere, 2012 promises to be an exciting year for sub-Saharan Africa. In this two-part series, I examine some of the key questions businesses looking to the continent should ask themselves as they plan ahead:
(1) Can the continent withstand continuing volatility in commodity prices?
While broadly insulated from sovereign debt and banking-related contagion from the OECD countries, Africa’s vulnerability to commodity price movements – particularly in the form of inflation – remains considerable, and will be a key theme for the region’s macro-economic outlook alongside an average 5.25-5.75% GDP growth projection into 2012, driven by strong domestic consumption. Importers of food and fuel – including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – are already facing sharp inflationary pressure, a situation that could worsen in the year ahead if costs for those inputs trend upward. Producers of oil and industrial metals – Angola and Nigeria the giants in the former category, countries such as Zambia and Congo (DRC) falling in the latter – will meanwhile see their fortunes rise or fall depending on global commodity price and demand shifts, with higher prices boosting government currency earnings but also creating upward pressure on domestic prices. A renewed recession in Western markets, meanwhile, would impact African economies through lower remittances and renewed risk aversion amongst investors from those affected countries. South Africa, with its exposures on metals prices, established manufacturing exports, developed tourism sector, looks particularly vulnerable should worst-case macro-economic scenarios play out in North America, Western Europe and Japan.
(2) Will a series of major elections cause seismic shifts or entrench the status quo?
2011 has been a busy time for elections in Africa: larger countries that have been or are yet to go to the polls this year include Cameroon, Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Uganda and Zambia. Assuming Zimbabwe’s vote is delayed as expected, that country will join a similarly important list for 2012 that also includes Angola, Ghana, Kenya (whose outlook I cover in more detail elsewhere in this list), Mali and Senegal. In addition to the familiar potential for delays, disputes and protests, this wave of elections could be demonstrative of a number of wider cross-border trends. To begin with, that so many countries are organizing and holding broadly free and fair voting each year represents a dramatic and continuing important shift away from the autocratic norms of the 1980s and early 1990s. On the flip side, with accountability and transparency also comes greater policy unpredictability – as mining companies in Guinea discovered in 2010, when a change of president via the ballot box in that country catalyzed a major review of mining licences and royalty payments. Many of the elections will pit very elderly incumbents – Senegal’s Wade and Zimbabwe’s Mugabe are both over 85, while Angola’s dos Santos is entering his 70s – against younger opponents promising an agenda of change, reform and renewal. In addition to generational and policy change, how to manage and beneficially spend these countries’ growing mineral wealth will be a prominent issue in many of the elections – most especially in oil- and diamond-rich Angola and in Ghana’s first vote since it joined the ranks of petroleum producers, but also in Mali and Zimbabwe where mineral finds have yielded much-needed new government revenue streams.
(3) Will North Africa’s wave of anti-government protests shift southwards?
It hasn’t escaped the notice of many Africa watchers that the same cocktail of raw ingredients that broadly underpinned the so-called Arab Spring – long-entrenched and corrupt undemocratic regimes presiding over increasingly youthful and socially connected, technology-savvy populations struggling with unemployment – are also present in a fair number of sub-Saharan countries. It should be noted that mass uprisings leading to regime change are not unknown in the region – the toppling of Madagascar’s previous president in 2009 providing but one recent example – while military-led coups, although far rarer than in previous decades, also continue to occur sporadically in some countries. For some, the question has become why such ‘revolutions’ are not more commonplace given the potentially volatile causal factors in place. The answer to that question likely varies location, but includes – channeling de Tocqueville’s theory of what causes revolutions – a certain degree of lower expectations on the part of poorer African populations (often focused more on basic subsistence / survival or emigrating than marching on the streets) than their Arab counterparts, combined with governments that by and large have still maintained a sufficient monopoly of force and willingness to stamp out dissent fairly ruthlessly before it spreads. With public expectations rising alongside GDP – and food prices – in the months ahead, the potential for more unrest during 2012 is highly credible. Whether this manifests as more ‘manageable’ street protests of the type witnessed already in a number of countries during 2011 (such as Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Uganda) or more sustained disturbances remains to be seen. Other candidate countries for turmoil in the year ahead include Senegal, Gabon, Zimbabwe and Cameroon.
(4) Can Kenya come through a pivotal year unscathed?
It’s been a tough few weeks for Kenya, East Africa’s critical hub market: from the serious food crisis in its north, through the abduction of a female British tourist and the murder of her husband in the coastal resort of Lamu, to a major pipeline fire near the capital Nairobi. The negative impact of such developments on tourist visitor numbers and investor appetite would be negligible compared to the situation should the serious nationwide political violence that accompanied its December 2007 election resurface surrounding new polls due in August 2012. The implementation of a new constitution and wider Kenyan politics remain effectively on hold pending the long-awaited start of hearings at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, involving a number of key politicians accused of involvement in the clashes that paralyzed the country in 2007-2008. Any resurgence in political violence due to the Court’s findings or around the next poll will reverse recovery in the tourism sector, and with it any chance of growth close to the 5.7% YOY GDP figure projected for 2011. In the long-term Kenyan politics needs to move on from confrontational, ethnic-based divisions into more ideological / policy-based debates in order to achieve stabilization and much-needed reform.
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