Freezing Africa’s debt would help the continent’s response to COVID-19

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

Forty African nations will be eligible for a debt moratorium declared this week by the richest countries in the world. The G-20’s decision to freeze the debt of the world’s poorest countries follows calls for an unprecedented effort to support the continent’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Demands for debt freezes have multiplied as countries across Africa scramble to find the resources needed to respond to the pandemic. Oxfam had sounded the alarm that the The world’s 76 poorest countries must repay $40.6 billion in debt this year the money, the advocacy group says, would be better spent on strengthening health systems and providing support for people who have lost their jobs as economies stall.

Wednesday’s G-20 decision calls for a moratorium on public and private debt payments totaling $20 billion, beginning May 1 and at least through the end of the year. It follows an approach by The International Monetary Fund earlier this week invested $500 million in debt relief for 25 of the world’s poorest countries, including 19 in Africa.

These efforts are still below the recommendations issued by a group of 18 African and European leaders this week. Warning that if the coronavirus “is not defeated in Africa, it will come back to haunt us all”, heads of state from Germany, Kenya and South Africa were among those who signed the appeal calling for a $100 billion economic recovery plan for Africa, in addition to the debt moratorium.

Some form of additional relief is likely. The French government is already hinting that it could consider pushing for outright debt cancellation for some countries, as predictions of the toll the pandemic will take on African economies grow increasingly bleak. The World Bank warned last week that Africa was at risk of sliding into a recessiongrowth on the continent could fall from 2.4% in 2019 to minus 5.1% this year.

Keep up to date with news from Africa with our daily Africa News Feed.

Here is an overview of news from elsewhere on the continent:

central Africa

Democratic Republic of Congo: A a new Ebola patient was identified last Friday in eastern Congo, just two days before world health officials prepare to declare the end of the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history. Two patients have now died in this new outbreak. Response teams are racing to stop the spread of a virus that has killed more than 2,200 people since August 2018, even as they simultaneously try to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. Angered by the unexpected reappearance of Ebola, mob attacked WHO workers as they attempted to decontaminate a patient’s home. The response to Ebola in Congo has been overshadowed by the mistrust of local communities and the activity of regional militias, such as Emmanuel Freudenthal reported for WPR last November.

Cameroon: Separatist fighters launched attacks last week in response to a reconstruction project initiated by the government in the troubled Anglophone region of Cameroon. President Paul Biya announced earlier this month a plan to rebuild schools, roads and hospitals in the northwestern and southwestern regions of the country, with the two English-speaking provinces seeking to secede from the country. Separatist fighters warned the government against starting construction, saying they would not accept help from a foreign government. More than a dozen fighters have been killed in seven attacks on military posts and construction sites, according to Cameroonian military officials.

South Africa

Mozambique: A jihadist group terrorizing gas-rich northern Mozambique has grown more brazen recently, including plunder an island community this week. Several villagers drowned as they tried to escape the militants, who then destroyed schools and health centers on one of the Quirimbas islands off Cabo Delgado province. The shadowy extremist group, which may have links to Islamic State, has terrorized the region for more than two years, but has has recently stepped up its attacks while declaring his intention to impose his own “caliphate” in northern Mozambique. The government, which has struggled to contain the militants, seems to have turned to Kremlin-backed Russian military contractors for support, like Candace Rondeaux predicted in her WPR column in November.

North Africa

Chad: Foreign Ministry officials confirmed The Chadian army will continue to participate in regional efforts to fight extremist groups, apparently reversing President Idriss Deby’s suggestion last week that he planned to withdraw troops from the mission. In a public broadcast, Deby promised that “no Chadian soldier will take part in a military mission outside of Chad”, setting off alarm bells throughout the region. Chad is a key player in regional efforts to counter jihadist groups operating in the Lake Chad region, but Deby has publicly complained that partner countries, including Nigeria and Mali, have not assumed their responsibilities sufficiently. Government officials said Deby’s remarks were misinterpreted and that he was merely ending unilateral operations outside Chad’s borders. But the threat could encourage regional partners to increase their contributions multinational operations.

Chadian President Idriss Deby with French President Emmanuel Macron, Paris, France, August 28, 2017 (AP photo by Francois Mori).

Libya: The head of the United Nations-recognized government, Fayez al-Sarraj, ruled out any future negotiations with Khalifa Haftar as did the leader of the dissident militia intensified its bombardment of the capital, Tripoli, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. “We expected the dangers of the epidemic to make Haftar a man of his word, for once,” al-Sarraj said in an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica. “But he saw in the pandemic an opportunity to attack us.” Tripoli-based forces responded with their own offensive, would have captured a key base of Haftar’s forces 75 miles outside the capital this week.

East Africa

Kenya: A Ugandan refugee, who had fled to Kenya to escape anti-LGBT persecution, committed suicide outside the regional headquarters of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Nairobi. He had gone to the agency to protest a cut in support when he was attacked by strangers then took his own life, according to a leader of the LGBT refugee community. Sexual minorities in Kenya face persistent harassment and discrimination, Robbie Corey-Boulet detailed for WPR. The man was part of a group of LGBT refugees whom UNHCR had left a camp for their own safety, offering them support and shelter in Nairobi. This assistance came to an abrupt end two months ago, prompting a group of refugees to sleep outside the agency’s headquarters in protest. UNHCR officials said they were cooperating with a police investigation into the man’s death.

West Africa

Guinea: To build a Chinese-funded hydroelectric dam, the Guinean government displaced thousands of people without providing new land or adequate compensation, according to a Human Rights Watch report. The government plans to eventually relocate 100 villages in western Guinea, which are home to more than 16,000 people, to make way for the dam reservoir. Although resettlement began early last year, the agency responsible for relocating people told HRW that it did not set up a grievance procedure until September. The 450 megawatt Souapiti dam is expected to start producing electricity before the end of the year.

International

China: African governments are condemn Beijing amid reports that Africans in China are being harassed under the guise of containing the spread of the coronavirus. Africans living in Guangzhou, a Chinese city home to the country’s largest African diaspora, were specifically targetedwith residents evicted from their homes, barred from restaurants and forced into self-quarantine, even when there is no evidence they have COVID-19. African diplomats in Beijing protested the “disturbing and humiliating experiences to which our citizens have been subjected” and governments across the continent have summoned Chinese ambassadors to demand that Beijing take action to prevent further mistreatment. These incidents could disrupt China’s recent efforts to gain influence in Africa, as Benjamin Wilhelm writes in his weekly newsletter China Note for WPR.

Top reads on the web

The Durban Detoxifier: Des D’Sa, a South African activist, has taken on some of the country’s biggest industrial giants in his efforts to end labor exploitation and reduce pollution. It almost cost him his life. In 2007, D’Sa and her family narrowly escaped the firebombing of their home in Durban. This did not deter D’Sa from organizing labor strikes and lobbying to shut down obsolete oil refineries. In a profile for New Frame, Carlos Amato explores D’Sa’s radicalization and considers the impact of his efforts in South Africa.

Why lockdowns may not be the solution in Africa: For the BBC, Alex de Waal and Paul Richards say sweeping, long-term shutdowns may not be the best way to respond to coronavirus for all African countries. Full lockdowns are impractical when governments lack the capacity to secure people’s basic livelihoods or maintain supply chains of essential medicines. In these contexts, de Waal and Richards argue, governments should work with local communities to establish more appropriate protocols, such as locally administered systems to track and test patients or reorganize local markets to better protect consumers and traders.

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

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