Never waste a crisis

Africa: agriculture and environment

Climate change will hit Africa hard, but it also offers the continent an opportunity to build resilience and diversify livelihoods

A young man stands among stationary boats at the dried inland Lake Chilwa in Zomba District, eastern Malawi, October, 2018. Lake Chilwa is the second-largest lake in Malawi after Lake Malawi. The dying lake is having an adverse effect on the livelihoods of communities.
Photo: Amos Gumulira / AFP

The changes ahead for Africa’s environment, which form the foundation of the continent’s societies and economies, will be challenging, but bright spots abound. Africa is a continent of contrasting environments absent a singular definition. A mosaic of terrains, the continent weaves together tropical forests, grasslands, savannahs, deserts and mangroves, ice-capped mountains, rivers, lakes and coasts across 55 countries, 1.2 billion people and 30 million square kilometres of land. This enormous landmass contains a quarter of global biodiversity, supports the world’s most prodigious gatherings of large mammals, and its diverse animal, plant and marine ecosystems drive economies and shape societies, cultures and development.

Human actions have played a central role in changing the African environment and its landscape over a long and complex history. African indigenous knowledge and practices include shared cropping systems and zai rain-fed irrigation methods that have mitigated droughts and famine for centuries. Yet, much of the more recent environmental history of Africa is dominated not by stories of Africans managing a challenging environment in harmony with ecosystems, but rather of foreign-driven exploitation of its people and resources, including minerals, fossil fuels, farm and forest produce for export.

Africa today is no less dependent on its environment than in the past. This is especially true in rural areas. Approximately 57% of Africa’s population, or 740 million people, live in rural areas. Agriculture is the continent’s biggest employer, supporting the livelihoods of 51% of the population. The majority of the population working in agriculture is engaged in smallholder agriculture that is undertaken in harsh environmental conditions with limited and highly variable natural rainfall. The high dependence on agriculture and the environment has significant and far-reaching consequences, not just for the 740 million rural people of Africa, but for the continent as a whole.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that nearly a quarter of the population, or 224 million people, in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished, with 31% experiencing food insecurity. Food shortages and malnutrition result in stunted growth and permanent damage that has long-term impacts. On a continental level, Africa is not feeding itself. According to the African Development Bank, net food imports to Africa are costing on average $35-$42 billion per year and are predicted to reach $110 billion by 2025. As stated by Akinwumi Adesina, the bank’s president, in 2017, “Africa’s annual food import bill weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent.” This food bill does not represent investment – these are sunk costs.

The consequence of this heavy reliance on challenging and unpredictable environmental conditions by such a large proportion of the population is a significant downward pressure on human and economic development. With two thirds of every country’s human capital beholden to the environment, and more specifically unpredictable rainfall to provide livelihoods, the opportunities for entry into skilled employment such as teaching, business, the health profession and trading are curtailed.
Climate change is making these challenges worse. The facts and figures on global climate change are startling. Prior to 1800, the global level of atmospheric CO2 was 280 parts per million (ppm).

Data drawn from ice cores show that CO2 varied within a relatively narrow range, roughly between 180 and 280 ppm, over the past 800,000 years – never moving above 300 ppm. Currently, CO2 is above 416 ppm. Over this same 800,000 years, methane has never been higher than 750 parts per billion (ppb), but now this gas, which is 22 times more powerful than CO2, is 1,873 ppb. The unprecedented speed and scale of these greenhouse gas emissions brings us into a new era of uncertainty with regards to their impact on the environment and our planet. According to the UN, Africa is the continent that will be hardest hit by climate change.

The key word, however, when attempting to understand climate change in Africa, is uncertainty. One of the challenges in predicting the impact of climate change on the continent is the extremely complex, yet poorly understood, large-scale weather systems that interact across the landscape. While rainfall patterns have been exceptionally difficult to predict, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that temperatures have risen by about 0.5°C over most of the African continent during the past 50-100 years. While this increase in temperature may seem insignificant, it is accelerating and will have a widespread impact on agriculture.

Many staple crops such as wheat, maize, millet and sorghum are especially susceptible to changes in temperature. Scientists predict that by 2050 the agricultural production of millet and sorghum in West Africa will potentially decrease by 13% in Burkina Faso, 25.9% in Mali and 44.7% in Senegal. Even if a quarter of these decreases in production are actualised, they will amplify shocks and stresses in those countries that today face food insecurity that will have an impact on up to five million people, according to the World Food Programme. Higher temperatures will also likely cause desert areas to encroach further south, also limiting agricultural options.

This may have unexpected consequences on migration and food insecurity, forcing people into conflict and causing an increase in bush meat consumption that may encourage new zoonotic diseases to emerge. Climate change will further impact biodiversity. An assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa, published by the independent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), estimates that by 2100 climate change could have caused the loss of over half of Africa’s bird and mammal species and a significant loss of plant species.

That will have a substantial impact on livelihoods, water and food supply and reduce people’s resilience to shocks and stresses because these ecosystems are the foundation of healthy societies and economies. Another area of clear impact occurring along coasts due to rising sea levels and warming. Sea levels have risen between 13-20 cm over the past 100   years and this is accelerating. Rising sea levels are caused by warming seas that expand as they increase in temperature and melting land-based ice flows into the ocean. Africa has just over 30,000 km of coastline that is undergoing increasing population growth and urbanisation.

These urban areas will be susceptible to more flooding due to storm surges. But warming sea levels are also impacting the environment in other, unpredictable ways. The devastating locust swarms currently destroying crops and livelihoods across East Africa may be linked to climate change. The warming Indian Ocean has contributed to 2019 being one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in five decades. This drove eight cyclones across the region in 2019 – the most since records began – and enabled desert locusts to leapfrog into East Africa where they have now laid eggs and are hatching in their trillions.

David Hughes of the UN’s FAO, told the BBC in May that they “threaten the food of 23 million people. It is the number one food security issue in East Africa at the moment.” Climate change is not the only factor leading to this uncertain future, however. Many scientists posit that we have now entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. The African environment, for example, has suffered significantly from human-led degradation that has accelerated over the past century. This includes the over-exploitation of wildlife and fisheries and natural habitat loss, especially from agricultural expansion.

The Anthropocene is characterised by an increasingly interconnected and accelerating world. These characteristics have significant implications for how we understand risks. The current Covid-19 pandemic is an example of how a zoonotic disease that emerged from wildlife to humans in a city in China is having an enormous and rapid negative impact on people and economies in Africa and around the globe. When we combine the interconnected and rapidly changing nature of the Anthropocene with the uncertain impacts of climate change in the context of Africa, the future looks challenging.

African leaders are not to blame for the impacts of climate change against which they must build resilience. Africa has 17% of the world’s population, but has only contributed 4% to global carbon emissions, and much of this has been to supply export products for higher-income countries. But regardless of where the blame for climate change lies, the reality is that the global public and private sectors have a shared responsibility to address the interconnected and uncertain risks it poses.

Domestically, African governments and the private sector need to recognise the impact of climate change and champion green growth that works with nature to build resilience and supports people, especially rural populations, to adapt through improved early warning systems, agricultural investment and diversified livelihood options. The current Covid-19 pandemic and its economic implications provide an opportunity to employ the old adage of “never waste a crisis”. As Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda stated: “We are not making a choice between environment and prosperity; but we are rather looking at how we combine both.”

This is the opportunity to invest in recovery solutions, such as job programmes that directly invest in natural capital like nature-based tourism, that will help the continent to come back stronger. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates, for example, that 3.6 million people in Africa are employed in the nature-based tourism industry, which was worth $29 billion in 2018. These programmes can also build the capacity of local communities and drive forward opportunities for women and youth.
Navigating this uncertain future will also require an improved understanding of environmental and human interactions through investing in science and education.

For Africa to thrive amidst the shocks and stresses that lie ahead, it will need leadership and cooperation from governments, the private sector and people that builds resilience to upcoming challenges by supporting growth and development that protects and works with the environment. As South African climate activist Ndivile Mokoena said: “Climate change is largely viewed as an environmental issue. However, it encompasses everything: it is a developmental issue, it is a human rights issue, it is a social issue.”

Nathanial (Nate) Matthews is a political and environmental scientist and Director of Programmes at the Global Resilience Partnership. He holds a PhD in geography, has published two books and authored over 55 scientific publications and reports. He has 16 years’ experience in international development across 30 countries. Twitter: @Nate_Matthews_

A herbal approach to what ails us

Traditional medicine is a valid healthcare alternative in African communities if regulated

Phephisile Maseko, 44, traditional healer and national coordinator of the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO) of South Africa attends to patients on October 1, 2018 using a blend of cannabis and other herbs in a consultation room at their offices in Johannesburg.  PHOTO GULSHAN KHAN/ AFP

The use of traditional medicine and its perceived negative impact has raised several concerns, and given rise to a dilemma. On the one hand is the notion that traditional medicine is not clinically tested in the way that modern medicine is, and on the other, many people overlook the fact that most traditional herbs, or their extracts, are used extensively in modern pharmaceutics. This debate is often uninformed in that the dominant issue is the governance of traditional healing systems rather than the merits of the respective practices per se. All medical practices are susceptible to malpractice. The difference, arguably, is that there are standard governance processes overseeing the practice of modern medicine, to root out charlatans.

In the absence of easy access to the prevailing healthcare system in South Africa, traditional medicine has, in some rural areas, become a basic and primary alternative. Due to COVID-19, people are often afraid to travel as they have to take crowded public transport, which increases the risk of infection and amplifies COVID-19 spread. Evidence suggests that some rural communities have embraced the use of traditional medicines and herbs as their preferred healthcare system, which is perceived as the most reliable, accessible and affordable healthcare option.

Since COVID-19 has hit the more vulnerable rural areas in South Africa, the most popular ancient traditional medicines, “UMhlonyane and UMjuluka” (African wormwood and a succulent called aptenia, respectively), have re-emerged. These products are typically used for the treatment of flu-like symptoms in African rural areas.  UMhlonyane (see video below) is mostly used for alleviating coughing and releasing occluded sinuses and a tight chest. It is also used to reduce fevers and colds while combatting muscular pain, in addition to treating other conditions such as liver infections, swelling, blood afflictions, mouth sores and gum swelling. UMjuluka is said to fight diseases that cause sweating, pain and cold shivers. In most cases these plants are found growing naturally in the fields and on mountains in rural areas, and the harvesting is generally conducted in a sustainable manner that mitigates extinction risk. Beneficiaries of these plants believe they must be fully grown for the treatment to be effective,  so harvesting is done in a way that allows the plant to multiply organically.

In the absence of regulation, people need to seek the right information from the right sources (registered traditional healers and credible books on medicinal plants). Also, there appears to be a pervasive lack of understanding regarding exactly what constitutes traditional medicine or traditional herbs. Some people incorrectly perceive traditional medicine/herbs – also known as “umuthi” – as the practice of witchcraft. The word “umuthi” means African medicine which mostly comprises plant roots, leaves and bark from trees (which sometimes need to be dried out so it can be converted to a powder form for consumption).

Samson “Ngonyama” Mvubo, who’s been practicing as a traditional healer since he was a 10-year-old, sits inside his shop on September 2, 2009 at the Faraday market in Johannesburg.This is where South Africans come to seek help for anything from high blood pressure to warding off bad dreams.  PHOTO: PABALLO THEKISO/AFP)

In addition, a misconception abounds that traditional healers or ‘izangoma’ are evildoers possessed by foul spirits. Ironically, this is the main reason people end up sourcing their medicinal needs from black market suppliers, who among them are charlatans masquerading as traditional healers. Consuming their alleged ‘medicine’ is unsafe and poses death risks associated with ‘traditional medicine’. This gives rise to the need to regulate the traditional medicine system, to allow people to understand how it works and have the means in place to identify counterfeit medicines and practitioners.

From a policy perspective, there is an urgent need to craft and implement more robust regulatory processes for better governance of traditional medicine and also for the exposure of counterfeit traditional practitioners. This will serve to reduce the death rate affiliated with the use of traditional medicine and traditional healers (“the average number of deaths from traditional medicine poisoning decreased from an average of six per year (1981-1985) to one per year (1996-2000, for parts of North west Province, Northern Province and Mpumalanga”). A traditional healer who practices legitimately is bound to be known within a community, and as such, he or she  is held accountable for diagnosing and treating patients, including being aware of any side-effects and complications caused by their prescribed medicines.

Traditional healing, practiced correctly, can serve as an effective healthcare system and remains affordable for those who cannot access modern healthcare. This creates an opportunity for all registered healthcare practitioners to be included in the formation of healthcare policies. Regulatory procedures and evidence-based criteria would determine who may register and who may not, and would control the health-related and societal risks that currently bedevil traditional medicine practice. In turn, this would assist with governance solutions to the problem of inequality and knowledge asymmetry in the traditional healthcare system.

When the world is facing life-threatening illnesses, tested traditional medicines should be considered as a viable alternative. There is a critical need for equal measures to be instituted to test and regulate all kinds of known medicines. Therefore, relevant governance institutes such as the Medical Research Council should make the case for better governance processes to ensure that local knowledge is harnessed and not ignored, and that charlatans (in all medicine) are crowded out. The current official healthcare system is overwhelmed and some of the resultant gap in equitable access to healthcare may be bridged through traditional medicine (rightfully practiced and regulated). Hence the need for a more inclusive policy process and a new debate.

SIXOLILE NGQWALA holds a Masters of Commerce (MCom) in economics from the University of Fort Hare, where he was involved with the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) in econometric research (econometric modelling, data coding, data mining, data analysis and interpretation). He has a BCom Hon in economics, and an undergraduate degree in Business Management and Industrial Psychology.

Zimbabwe: Have the lessons been learned? The signs aren’t good

Public reaction to President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s tweet announcing the death of Lands and Agriculture minister Perrance Shiri on July 29 summarised the polarised nature of the Zimbabwean society, while also serving as a barometer of the effectiveness of government policies in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although Mnangagwa did not immediately reveal the cause of death, word had already gone around that Shiri – a powerful former head of the air force and the former commander of the infamous 5th Brigade which is estimated to have killed about 20,000 civilians in the Gukurahundi massacre in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions in the early 1980s – had succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On July 31, Mnangagwa confirmed Shiri had indeed died of Covid-19, after bizarrely visiting his family brandishing test results. Meanwhile, some family members questioned the claim, and told the media that they suspected that Shiri had been poisoned. Shiri’s death shook the corridors of power and resulted in several ministers and high-ranking government officials going into self-isolation after coming into contact with him.

Shiri – a powerful former head of the air force and the former commander of the infamous 5th Brigade which is estimated to have killed about 20,000 civilians in the Gukurahundi massacre in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions in the early 1980s – succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the president praised the departed minister, Zimbabweans responded by criticising government corruption and reported looting Covid-19 funds and demanding working hospitals. A response from @libyPatendero read: “Build hospitals (rather) than promoting corruption through Command Agriculture. Covid-19 is the greatest equaliser.”

Command Agriculture is a support scheme for farmers introduced by government and was overseen by then vice president, Mnangagwa, who chaired the Cabinet Committee on Food and Nutrition. It was introduced at the beginning of the 2016-17 farming season to ensure food security. Joseph Made was the agriculture minister at the time.

Under the controversial programme implemented through Sakunda Holdings owned by Mnangagwa’s advisor Kuda Tagwirei, beneficiary farmers, among them ministers and senior government officials, army commanders and judges received farming inputs and implements. In 2018, Sakunda Holdings failed to properly account for close to $3 billion, according to Auditor-General Mildred Chiri’s audit report for that year, subsequently corroborated by Lands and Agriculture ministry senior officials in parliament.

Shiri’s death shook the corridors of power and resulted in several ministers and high-ranking government officials going into self-isolation after coming into contact with him.

Responding to the president’s tweet, other Zimbabweans openly celebrated the minister’s death, citing the role he played in the Gukurahundi massacres; Shiri has been as “one of the key architects of the Gukurahundi mass executions in the early 1980s”. Other respondents said Shiri was a typical example of the country’s powerful political and military elite, which had subjected Zimbabweans to all sorts of human rights violations.

The state of decay of the country’s health care system has certainly been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic – and with it, another glaring inequality. It is common knowledge that the members of the ruling elite hardly ever use local hospitals. In an emergency they might use an expensive private hospital, but only until they can fly out to a better-equipped foreign hospital.

When former President Robert Mugabe died on 6 September last year, he was in Singapore, where he had been treated periodically for over a decade. Mnangagwa was treated in South Africa after a poisoning scare in 2017, while Vice President Constantino Chiwenga is a frequent visitor to China, where he has been receiving treatment since last year. Chiwenga has also been treated in South Africa and India.

While the president praised the departed minister, Zimbabweans responded by criticising government corruption and reported looting Covid-19 funds and demanding working hospitals.

Other cabinet ministers and high ranking Zanu PF officials have shown a similar preference for costly overseas treatment. Co-Vice President Kembo Mohadi and Defence Minister Oppah Muchinguri were treated in South Africa after being caught in a bomb blast in 2018. Mohadi also visited South Africa several times last year for treatment. Indeed, at one time, both Zimbabawe’s vice presidents were hospitalised in the neighbouring country at the same time.

Popular opinion regarding Chiri’s death reflects the views expressed in the responses to the president’s tweet.  “Covid-19 knows no elite or poor person. This pandemic is a killer, [and] it should remind the likes of Mnangagwa that they are mortal,” said Miriam Muchongwe (33) a vendor resident in Mbare, a high density suburb in Harare.

She was happy, she said, that limits on international travel meant that powerful people could not easily fly out of the country for treatment. “I may sound like a callous person, but I hope the pandemic hits those at the top hard. Zimbabweans are not stupid. They demand that the government should invest tax-payers’ money in hospitals and other social needs, instead of funding their luxurious lifestyles.”

Responding to the president’s tweet, other Zimbabweans openly celebrated the minister’s death, citing the role he played in the Gukurahundi massacres.

Zimbabweans have expressed their disappointment on various platforms – health care, industry and trade unions, among others – at the containment measures adopted by government to stop the spread of the pandemic since the first case was reported on 20 March.

Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights secretary general Norman Matara told me that Covid-19 had brought many lessons with it. “Basically, as a country we were not prepared for Covid-19. Pandemics and natural disasters don’t give warnings, so it is important for countries to have strong systemic building blocks for health systems.”

Zimbabwe has been shown to be weak in all six system components as recommended by the World Health Organisation, Matara said: leadership and governance, service delivery, health system financing, health workforce, medical products, vaccines and technologies and health information systems.

“Covid-19 knows no elite or poor person. This pandemic is a killer, [and] it should remind the likes of Mnangagwa that they are mortal” – Miriam Muchongwe

“As a result, the positive policy steps taken by the government to contain the pandemic, such as introducing a national lockdown, equipping hospitals and isolation centres, decentralising Covid-19 treatment and so on, failed. You can’t neglect hospitals for decades and then attempt to equip them in six weeks. When the pandemic struck, Wilkins Isolation Hospital didn’t have plug points, or a single ventilator.”

Although Covid-19 treatment had been decentralised, most provincial hospitals lacked resources such as beds, ventilators and even personnel, including ICU nurses and anaesthesiologists, while some districts were unable to transfer patients due to a lack of ambulances. The same lack of resources has seen the government failing to roll out Covid-19 tests, with many Covid-19 deaths being discovered only during routine post mortems.

One vital lesson from the pandemic, Matara said, was that the Zimbabwean government should adhere to the Abuja Declaration, in which African leaders committed to allocate 15% of their annual budgets to improving the health sector.

Zimbabwe has been shown to be weak in all six system components as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

In an effort to stem the spread of the virus, government declared a 21-day total lockdown on 30 March, which was extended by two weeks before being gradually eased. Meanwhile, according to the official figures, Covid-19 cases are on the rise. As of 18 August there were some 5,378, with 141 deaths reported and 4,105 recoveries.

However, it is not clear how accurate these figures are. No comparative statistics for Zimbabwe are available. Across Africa, though, the total number of Covid-19 cases is much higher than official numbers suggest, according to the International Rescue Committee. The lack of data may be “due to a variety of factors – such as testing capacity, health infrastructure devastated by conflict, and stigma,” the organisation says.

The rapidly rising numbers raise the question of the effectiveness of the lockdown. Around the world, the primary aim of lockdowns has been to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed by cases of Covid-19. But Zimbabwe’s severely neglected health care system broke down very soon anyway. So, as Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) secretary general Japhet Moyo told me, the lockdown was pointless.

As of 18 August there were some 5,378, with 141 deaths reported and 4,105 recoveries.

The government also failed to provide effective social safety nets for citizens. Most people in the country are dependent on the informal sector for a living, and they were forced to continue informal trading activities despite lockdown regulations. There was also a lack of any effective public transport, as well as a shortage of staple foods such as mealie-meal, with the result that there were often long queues at bus terminuses and shopping centres. Crammed minibus taxis and long queues are concentrations of people, and the very opposite of physical distancing, which increases contagion risk. So it’s likely that enforcing the pointless lockdown has increased the infection rate.

Moreover, while the government had introduced a taskforce, chaired by Mohadi, to fight the pandemic, it had erred by not including a range of stakeholders, among them labour and business, in the taskforce’s deliberations, Moyo said. “It’s very unfortunate that our government does not believe in dialogue or inclusivity. On many occasions business and labour were caught by surprise by some Covid-19 measures and announcements. Consultations could have seen us all pulling together in the national interest. Going forward, the government must learn to consult.”

On 1 May, Mnangagwa announced a ZW$18 billion ($430 million at the time) Economic Rescue and Stimulus Package, “designed to scale-up production in all sectors of the economy in response to the adverse effects of Covid-19.” The amount would see ZW$6.1 billion going to stimulate agricultural production, ZW$3 billion to cover capital and operational expenses for the manufacturing sector, a ZW$1 billion credit support facility for the mining sector, ZW$500 million to support the tourism and hospitality industry and ZW$1 billion for the procurement of Covid-19 testing kits, PPEs and the purchase of drugs.

Across Africa, the total number of Covid-19 cases is much higher than official numbers suggest, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The ZCTU had asked information on disbursements during a Tripartite Negotiating Forum meeting involving government, labour and business on 14 July, Moyo said. However, they were told that the plan “remained an intention”.

In any case former finance minister Tendai Biti has said that the plan did not set aside enough money to save Zimbabwe’s ailing industries. At least $1 billion would be needed, he told the Zimbabwe Independent in mid-June. CZI President Henry Ruzvidzo concurred, describing the stimulus as “a modest amount given the challenges faced by industry” to the Zimbabwe Independent in the same article.

As noted in previous blogs in this series, even before the Covid-19 outbreak, Zimbabwe’s economy was hamstrung by a number of problems, among them a debilitating liquidity crunch, acute fuel and foreign currency shortages, currency volatility and low capacity utilisation as well as runaway inflation. Covid-19 has worsened the plight of Zimbabwe’s ailing industries while stretching its ill-equipped medical facilities and exposing the weakness in the health sector.

Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, Zimbabwe’s economy was hamstrung by a number of problems, among them a debilitating liquidity crunch, acute fuel and foreign currency shortages, currency volatility and low capacity utilisation as well as runaway inflation.

As Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights’ Matara noted, major crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic seldom announce themselves, allowing time to plan. As we have seen around the world, the major difference between countries that have weathered the pandemic relatively well and those that haven’t has been the presence or absence of strong, capable institutions – in leadership, health care and research, among other areas.

It was clear from the beginning that decades of under-investment in health care would leave Zimbabwe totally unprepared for the pandemic. And as it turned out, public health care facilities at all levels were completely unable to cope.

Now other major crises are looming, with climate change at the top of the list. Some of my fellow blog writers in this series have mentioned the looming impact of climate change on Africa’s environments. Africa in Fact’s recent edition on the environment (July 2020), to which I contributed, looks at this in a number of African countries.

The warnings are clear. Also for Zimbabwe. Indeed, climate change is one crisis that is actually announcing itself. Much remains unpredictable, but we know quite a lot about its causes and likely impacts. Time will tell, though, if the message of the pandemic is loud and clear to Mnangagwa and his administration.

 

We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to richard@gga.org.

 

Owen Gagare is the assistant editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, a weekly newspaper, covering business, politics and investigative stories. He has previously worked for NewsDay and the Chronicle. Owen has also written for the Mail and Guardian and has a passion for investigative and in-depth stories as well as human rights and governance issues. He is based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Do citizen protests matter?

A sustained combination of internal and external pressure is required to create a genuine civilian government in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga (C) and colleague Julie Barnes hold placards as they are arrested during an anti-corruption protest march on July 31, 2020 in Harare. Police were enforcing a ban on protests coinciding with the anniversary of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s election.  PHOTO: ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP

Ahead of planned mass protests on July 31, Zimbabwe’s state security apparatus cracked down on citizens. Largely initiated via social media, the calls for the protests galvanised popular sentiment and mobilised citizens to exercise a co-ordinated political voice against corruption, the failing economy and repression.

The regime responded by sending a strong signal to would-be dissenters. In a startling resemblance to events unfolding in Belarus, it arrested journalists and detained, abducted and tortured opposition members, or indeed anyone appearing to question the state.

For consistently exposing government malfeasance and corruption, veteran journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was abducted from his home on July 20. In particular, Chin’ono had revealed Covid-19 related corruption to the tune of $60m.

He is being unlawfully detained at the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. Arrested on the same day was Jacob Ngarivhume, who had been spearheading the calls for a July 31 protest.

Both were spuriously charged under the auspices of inciting citizens to participate in public violence. Chin’ono’s lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, was then accused of treating the court with contempt because of comments on a Facebook page associated with her.

She has since been barred from defending Chin’ono in a mockery of the rule of law.
In addition to these arrogations of justice, the military junta imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew (ostensibly to slow the spread of Covid-19) and openly beat citizens and opposition members.

Five senior members of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC-A) and its two vice-presidents have recently appeared in court, along with other activists. The Zimbabwean judiciary has been co-opted by Zanu-PF, and opposition groups and many civil society organisations have been infiltrated by the regime.

Zimbabwean journalist and documentary filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono (R) watches while police search of his offices in Harare on July 21, 2020,  a day after he was arrested and charged with incitement to commit public violence. PHOTO: JEKESAIi NJIKIZANA / AFP

The government then attacked a judicious pastoral letter by the Catholic Bishops Conference, stating that the letter’s “evil message reeks with all the vices that have perennially hobbled the progress of Africa”.

It accuses the archbishop of “fanning the psychosis of tribal victimisation”, dismissing the Gukurahundi massacre of the early 1980s as a mere “dark spot”. It is far worse than that, with upwards of 20,000 people recklessly murdered while the very perpetrators hold positions of power today.Despite this narrowing of the democratic space in Zimbabwe over recent months, largely behind the smokescreen of Covid-19, the Southern African Development Community has failed to condemn the behaviour of the regime.

Bilaterally, SA eventually responded by sending the first of what will likely be a number of diplomatic envoys to Zimbabwe. SA is at least now shedding the hollow excuse of non-interference in the affairs of a sovereign state that tends to animate foreign policy.

Through premeditated violence, the July 31 mass protests were scuppered before they started. Hopes of a southern Arab Spring were dashed. Does this suggest that public protest is not worth it, especially given that the Arab Spring largely turned to a prolonged winter of discontent?

No. Were it not for the planned uprising, the world would have continued to turn a blind eye. Some serious focus is now directed towards Zimbabwe, particularly through the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign.

This is a necessary — if insufficient — condition for change, given the state’s denial of the crisis and its culpability in human rights violations.
A sustained combination of internal and external pressure is now required to convince the military to relinquish power and create the space for a genuine civilian government to be formed.

Internally, the probability of a credible coup attempt seems low. The 2017 coup that ended Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule is historically anomalous. Constantino Chiwenga (the vice-president) appears unlikely to upend President Emmerson Mnangagwa, despite apparent tensions between them.
Had credible internal support for a coup existed, it is difficult to see why Chiwenga wouldn’t have launched one already.

When Mnangagwa retired four generals loyal to Chiwenga in early 2019, that would, presumably, have been the opportunity. Either way, the internal dynamics of the governing coalition (and state-military relations) are not stable and could potentially be exploited to effect change.

South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa with his Zimbabwean counterpart, Emmerson Mnangagwa. PHOTO: GCIS

The probability of free and fair elections being held any time soon is close to zero. The last elections (2018) were a charade and resulted in a predictable unleashing of violence against citizens. Economically, the situation is dire, with 90% of the population out of formal employment and inflation above 700%.

As a result, citizen appetite for revolt appears ripe. While the regime’s calculus is that repression is less costly than reform, an active citizenry can nonetheless win out.

Externally, global powers presumably have a direct self-interest in ensuring regional stability and need to step up to the plate.

But the US and the UK face intense pressures on the home front that they are struggling to address. And China and Russia hardly epitomise respect for human rights. Their respective leaders have shattered internal power-sharing mechanisms and are hardly likely to condemn Zimbabwe for pursuing autocratic consolidation.

SA — its political leaders and its businesses with interests in Zimbabwe (such as Anglo Platinum, Implats, Old Mutual and Pick n Pay) — will therefore have to intensify efforts to intervene fruitfully in Zimbabwe. A serious second envoy, including President Cyril Ramaphosa himself, is surely the next step.

Below is a World Economic Forum video on the role of civil society in shaping a future where people matter.

 

This article first appeared in the South African newspaper Business Day here.

 

Dr Ross Harvey is Director of Research & Programmes at GGA. Ross is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria.

Kenya: Forgotten promises, corruption and ‘relathieves’

Pressure has been piling up on the Kenya government to accelerate the national roll-out of its proposed Universal Health Coverage (UHC) plan in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Speedy implementation of the comprehensive medical coverage will enhance service delivery, health financing and governance, according to the Chairman of the Council of Governors Wycliffe Oparanya.

“This is a people-centred health system. Its ultimate execution in all the 47 counties in Kenya would have saved many lives, especially at such a time when we are faced with the COVID-19 crisis,” Oparanya, who is also governor of Kakamega County, noted in an interview with Africa In Fact.

President Uhuru Kenyatta declared UHC a national priority on 12 December 2018 as part of a grand development blueprint, known as the “Big Four Agenda”, that sought to sustainably transform the country. Besides healthcare, other pillars on the “Big Four” agenda are food security, manufacturing and affordable housing.

Pressure has been piling up on the Kenya government to accelerate the national roll-out of its proposed Universal Health Coverage (UHC) plan in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the UHC initiative, President Kenyatta committed to make strategic investments in health, with all Kenyans able to access essential medical care by 2022. But the plan appears to have stalled almost 10 months after one-year pilot programmes in Kisumu, Machakos, Isiolo and Nyeri counties ended in October 2019.

The Kenyan Government undertook to appraise the project when the test experiments in the four counties were concluded. The exercise would evaluate the UHC package and if necessary, make improvements to it before countrywide roll-out, Ministry of Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe told me.

The evaluation appears to have been carried out, but not published. One of the main challenges identified during the trials, Kagwe said in an earlier interview with me, was the monumental demand for care. Medical facilities that are barely developed have been labouring to respond to the huge pressure for care. But insiders say the evaluation has been ignored. (Kagwe did not respond to requests for comment on this.) No further effort appears to have been made to pursue the UHC initiative.

The evaluation of the Universal Health Care pilot projects appears to have been carried out, but not published. One of the main challenges identified was the monumental demand for care.

Meanwhile, hospitals are being ineffectively managed, with inadequate budgetary allocations, and demoralised personnel, putting the lives of many Kenyans at risk. Kenya National Union of Nurses Secretary General Seth Panyako says such challenges could force the union to withdraw its members from facilities until their grievances are addressed. “Frontline workers are neither getting responsibility allowances, [n]or insurance [cover]; this will have spiralling effects on the spread of the virus,” he said.

In a March 2020 peer-reviewed research paper Tessa Oraro-Lawrence and Kaspar Wyss used interviews with informants in the national and county levels of healthcare to establish points of agreement and divergence on the aims of the UHC. On the basis of these interviews they say that “the perceived lack of strategic leadership from Kenya’s national government has led to a lack of agreement on stakeholders’ interpretation of what is to be understood by UHC, its contextual values and priorities”.

The authors note that most interviewees supported the expansion of access to health services, but that conflicting priorities of key stakeholders are slowing progress towards this goal. The conversation around healthcare policy had become highly fragmented, they note. Kenya needs “a centralised, systematic and inclusive process” to drive the development and implementation of UHC. The authors recommend that the national government and particularly the Ministry of Health should “foster collaboration in Kenya’s health space”.

Meanwhile, hospitals are being ineffectively managed, with inadequate budgetary allocations, and demoralised personnel, putting the lives of many Kenyans at risk.

Endebess Member of Parliament Robert Pukose agrees. A trained surgeon and medical doctor, Pukose told me that there is a “clearly visible and long-standing strain between county governments and the national government in the running of the health docket”. “Why would the national government allocate more resources to the health ministry than those allocated cumulatively to the 47 counties’ health docket?” he asked.

Healthcare in Kenya is supposed to be a completely devolved function, but the national government appeared hell-bent on controlling it, he said.

In the last financial year, the national government allocated 5.1% (Sh 90 billion) of its budget to the health sector. Of the Sh 90 billion, recurrent expenditure consumed Sh 49.1 billion while grant transfers to seven semi-autonomous government agencies under the ministry took Sh26.9 billion. The remaining amount was spent on universal health coverage transfers and personnel emoluments. Counties spent 27.2% (Sh 121 billion) of their budgets on health, but experts say the number is still below the 35% commitment made before devolution.

There is a “clearly visible and long-standing strain between county governments and the national government in the running of the health docket”. – Endebess Member of Parliament Robert Pukose.

Council of Governors Health Committee Chairman Mohammed Kuti agrees that tension between county governments and national government on funds allocation to medical care has impacted negatively on their service delivery. “Clear policy action is needed in order to develop a logical and consistent approach towards UHC,” said Kuti, who is also governor of Isiolo County.

“If adequate funds were allocated to counties, we would certainly not be under strain in fighting coronavirus disease,” said Kuti. “[But] most of the resources have ended up being misused or stolen while counties struggle with meagre resources to serve the people,” he told me.

For the 2020/2021 financial year which started on 1 July, the Parliamentary Budget and Appropriations Committee approved Sh2.73 trillion ($27.3 billion) for the national and county governments, of which the Health Ministry was allocated Sh111.7 billion ($1.1 billion). Meanwhile, the 47 counties in the country were allocated a total of Sh316.5 billion ($2.9 billion) – but this amount is the same as last year’s allocation, meaning that funding for the counties has stagnated. Moreover, the allocation covers a range of portfolios, says Jackson Mandago, governor of Uasin Gishu county.

“If adequate funds were allocated to counties, we would certainly not be under strain in fighting coronavirus disease,” – Council of Governors Health Committee Chairman Mohammed Kuti

“How do you explain this dismal figure to all the county governments that handle almost all functions ranging from agriculture, infrastructure, health, education, among others?” the governor asked. Relative to the amounts likely to be available to counties for the health portfolio, the allocation to the Ministry of Health was large, he suggested. “It is time counties got the maximum stipulated amount of 35% of the total national budget as envisaged in the Constitution,” he added.

In early August, reports began to emerge that funds meant to mitigate against the deadly disease were being stolen by influential people. According to a series of stories published by the Daily Nation, a leading newspaper in the East African region, businessmen close to President Kenyatta and some of his relatives had profited from the inflated prices of various Covid-19-related tenders.

On 3 August, one of the articles reported that the country had secured Sh223 billion ($2.23 billion) from various donor sources – the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Union and the African Development Bank – to support its fight against Covid-19, much of which had ended up in the pockets of powerful individuals.

In early August, reports began to emerge that funds meant to mitigate against the deadly disease were being stolen by influential people.

So powerful are the figures behind the theft and corruption that they have even been able to waylay well-wishers’ donations at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) — a guarded facility — and divert them to private warehouses. As Paul Wafula, the author of the article mentioned above put it, they were “waiting for the procurement whistle to be blown” – with the likelihood that it never will.

“Kenya’s health ministry is headed by hyenas. The policymakers’ business is to endanger our lives with their mission to be limitlessly rich,” Kimilili Member of Parliament Didmus Barasa told me. He urged the “hyenas” to stop trying to eat as much as they can within the shortest time possible, and the Ministry of Health to channel funds “to gainful undertakings”. The pandemic had emphasised the need for “high quality research to inform action, not only to combat the coronavirus but also inspire solutions to future pandemics.”

Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) CEO Twalib Mbarak says that corruption must be fought ruthlessly, and made “a high-risk, low-return vice. If there [were] full disclosure, transparent and accountable use of resources, counties would be doing their own tests and also reporting their own COVID-19 statistics, which will go a long way in informing policy,” he told me.

They were “waiting for the procurement whistle to be blown” – with the likelihood that it never will.

Constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina says that the country has pursued a range of reforms and launched various commissions of inquiry into corruption without effect. Corruption cases are routinely reported in the media, in the Auditor General’s reports and to EACC, but they are rarely fully investigated or even resolved. “If any investigation is done, it is aimed at exonerating the powerful or to punish their enemies. Corruption is deeply embedded in politics, which it both funds and subverts,” he observes.

On social media, public opinion about the reported corruption has been vitriolic. Economist Professor David Ndii,  in a tweet on 3 August, asked President Kenyatta to check on his “relathieves” from “plundering our taxes with your protection” as the country’s healthcare system suffered a paucity in resources.

Donald Kipkorir, a well-known lawyer, said that a government that had allowed “tenderpreneurs” to profit from pandemics had “surrendered its soul to the devil”.

Beryl Achieng’, a Nakuru town resident, told me she was a Covid-19 survivor. She had been in hospital for nearly three weeks with the disease, she said, but “it was a struggle to access proper care. Drugs were in insufficient supply, [and] doctors also appeared demoralised.” She suspected that donations and resources from well-wishers and development partners were being misused and stolen with the government showing little concern about it.

Corruption cases are routinely reported, but they are rarely fully investigated or even resolved.

Meanwhile, on 2 August it was reported that Marian Awuor Adumbo, a nurse working at the Rachuonyo sub-county Hospital in Homa Bay in Western Kenya, died of Covid-19 complications in a context of reported shortages of protective gear for medical care staff. She had been pregnant, and gave birth to a baby boy before succumbing to the disease.

UHC is an ambitious scheme to extend proper healthcare to the whole country. But under the present circumstances, even the more incremental improvements in healthcare aimed at battling the Covid-19 pandemic are proving difficult to implement.

Improving healthcare in Kenya will require national and county governments to work together. But this would require a willingness on the part of key stakeholders to put aside their differences in the interests of the greater good. Health funding should be properly distributed, or the structure of health funding as provided for in the constitution revised to ensure sufficient health funding to counties.

Marian Awuor Adumbo, a nurse working at the Rachuonyo sub-county Hospital in Homa Bay in Western Kenya, died of Covid-19 complications in a context of reported shortages of protective gear for medical care staff.

Given the political logjam that prevents adequate funding from reaching hospitals and treatment centres, there appears to be little chance of this being corrected, either in relation to the pandemic, or indeed, to the wider problem of endemic corruption.

As I pointed out in my previous blog, the ruling party has ensured a lack of critical evaluation of its policies and actions by striking a deal with the opposition. Meanwhile, key political stakeholders in healthcare have no interest in revising the structure of health funding, since that would deny them influence over budgets – and access to rents to be derived from them. Similarly, they will have little interest in ensuring proper healthcare funding within the present structures, for the same tawdry reasons.

So the country’s capacity to deal with other potential crises, such as climate change, has been further diminished. With other contributors to this blog series on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on countries around Africa, I have to agree that in Kenya, too, the pandemic – a global and national emergency – has simply been another opportunity for members of the entrenched elite to conduct business as usual. For them, that means entrenching their power bases and siphoning off public funds.

 

We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to richard@gga.org.

 

Mark Kapchanga is a senior economics writer for the Standard newspaper in Kenya and a columnist for the Global Times, an English-language newspaper in China. He is pursuing a PhD in investigative business journalism at the University of Nairobi.

South Africa: The bigger pandemic is corruption

Few issues highlight the dilemma of policy-making more than the choices faced by African governments during the Covid-19 pandemic. For many African countries with large numbers of day workers in the informal sector, the lockdown solution – preventing workers from earning their daily bread – was often worse than the problem it sought to solve.

For others, with large budgets fuelled by loans, the pandemic brought other, more serious, ails.

Take South Africa, for example. When citizens heard the country had secured a R70 billion ($4.3 billion) loan from the international Monetary Fund to support its post-Covid efforts, we were struck by a sense of despair. Why? Because in South Africa, the longer-term pandemic is corruption.

For many African countries with large numbers of day workers in the informal sector, the lockdown solution was often worse than the problem it sought to solve.

The IMF loan is not without checks and balances. But, apart from the burden of debt, citizens have ample reason to be concerned that the funds will find their way into the pockets of corrupt politicians and their business associates.

It is not an overstatement to say South Africans were astounded at the level of corruption during the lockdown. “Stealing from your own people is a crime; stealing during the pandemic is a crime against humanity,” said the Daily Maverick’s editorial in early August.

With reports of corruption involving state tenders in the fight against COVID-19 circulating, President Cyril Ramaphosa set up a ministerial committee to investigate the issue. Ramaphosa has asked for speedy updates and has promised decisive action.

In South Africa, the longer-term pandemic is corruption.

Among the many reported incidents were suspected deals between government officials and businesses providing medical equipment, huge mark-ups on personal protection equipment and the sale of food aid parcels meant for the poor.

Ramaphosa himself described those profiting from the disaster as a pack of hyenas circling wounded prey: “It is difficult to understand the utter lack of conscience that leads a businessperson who has heeded the call to provide lifesaving supplies during a devastating pandemic to inflate the price of a surgical mask by as much as 900%.

“Nor can one explain why a councillor would stockpile emergency food parcels meant for the poor for their own family, or why another councillor would divert water tankers en route to a needy community to their own home.”

Citizens have ample reason to be concerned that the funds will find their way into the pockets of corrupt politicians.

It is impossible to review policy in South Africa without tackling corruption. There is some progress, though slow, in this direction, as JP Landman records in an 18 August article. The country’s Justice Minister Ronald Lamola has already noted that the country will need a permanent, multi-disciplinary structure to combat corruption.

South Africa, with the fifth highest Covid-19 infection rate in the world, has seen its already fragile economy decimated. The inequality gap has widened as the wealthy have been able to weather the storm from their Wifi enabled homes while poorer manual labourers have struggled from hand to mouth.

Covid-19 has laid bare the fault lines in our society: Inequality, fragile health systems, an under-delivering economy, large joblessness and unacceptably high levels of gender-based violence.

“Stealing from your own people is a crime; stealing during the pandemic is a crime against humanity,” – Daily Maverick editorial

As the country prepares to build back after the pandemic, it is important not to leave behind the most vulnerable. There is sufficient evidence that women have been particularly hard hit with the International Labour Organisation predicting that measures to curb Covid would disproportionately affect women workers.

At least two-thirds of the three million South Africans who were estimated to have lost their jobs in the informal sector are reported to be women. That same research, based on the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, showed that women in the informal economy, and particularly those in informal self-employment, recorded large cuts in working hours and earnings during the lockdown.

The country has a long list of policy making priorities. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has reiterated that the National Health Insurance plan is still on the agenda. Indeed, Dr Nicholas Crisp, a consultant at the Ministry of Health and a key figure in developing the NHI, says that the healthcare public/private partnerships that had been developed to deal with the pandemic have shown that “we can do it”, according to a 28 July report. The government was pushing ahead with its plans to introduce the NHI, the minister said.

Ramaphosa himself described those profiting from the disaster as a pack of hyenas circling wounded prey.

But the government’s record on managing health care in the country isn’t great. As I reported in a previous blog, severe mismanagement has seen the (near) collapse of health care systems in at least one province, the Eastern Cape. Meanwhile, overall spending on health care has declined in real terms over the last few years, according to a Section27 report.

Moreover, “in 2017/18 health departments accounted for 57% of unpaid bills by government. Budget constraints are exacerbated by fruitless, wasteful and irregular expenditure (National Treasury, 2019). In 2017/18, departments of health had some of the poorest audit results (AGSA, 2018)”.

Crisp admits that public health care has seen “inefficiencies” and “deficiencies”. This suggests that the problems are merely occasional, and the system is functioning otherwise.

Covid-19 has laid bare the fault lines in our society.

But corruption and mismanagement are not incidental. They are structural elements of how the county has been run. It has been calculated that corruption over the second term of Jacob Zuma’s presidency cost the country R1.5 trillion. That amount could pay for the country’s public health care budget for seven and eight years, calculated by this year’s allocation.

For all the promises of change and building back better after the crisis calms, the reality is that South Africa’s policy making has been held hostage to declining levels of accountability for more than two decades. The NHI is a noble goal, but we have seen noble goals abused for corrupt purposes before. We cannot more forward effectively until we deal with the issue of corruption.

 

We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to richard@gga.org.

 

Paula Fray is a leading media trainer and coach who works across Africa and the Middle East. The former regional director for Inter Press Service Africa, she is the CEO of the pan-African communications company frayintermedia, which has worked to improve the quality of journalism in Africa since 2005.

When COVID-19 sways cash-strapped Cameroon into debt relief

Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Cameroon, an oil exporter with a bloated bureaucracy, was still reeling from the 2014-2016 oil price collapse – one of the most significant oil price slumps in modern times.

The country had also increased security spending countering Boko Haram incursions in the north since 2014, while battling to quell an armed secessionist struggle in its English-speaking regions since 2017. The economic shock and insecurity were already a burden, but were compounded by necessary increases in humanitarian spending. Then, the coronavirus struck.

The economic shock and insecurity were already a burden, but were compounded by necessary increases in humanitarian spending. Then, the coronavirus struck.

In five months, following the outbreak of the coronavirus in Cameroon on 6 March, 2020, the government has spent slightly over 21.9 billion francs CFA (circa $54.1 million) in its response to the pandemic, according to a report on reliefweb on 29 July, 2020.

The money was used to construct isolation units, finance communication campaigns, purchase PPEs, rapid diagnostic kits and drugs for the management of patients, provide resources for the free treatment and management of patients, amongst others. The government would continue to spend “along these budget lines” while the virus pandemic continued.

The government has spent slightly over 21.9 billion francs CFA (circa $54.1 million) in its response to the pandemic.

As mentioned, the government was incurring this unforeseen expenditure at a time state revenue was shrinking. Now, the closure of borders and the introduction of restrictions on movement and other measures to slow down the spread of the coronavirus has meant a reduction in customs and tax revenues – two important income streams. In a 7 May interview with the state-owned Cameroon Tribune newspaper, Director General of Taxation Modeste Mopa Fatoing said it was certain the health crisis would mean the loss of a projected 2,103 billion francs CFA (circa $3.8 billion) in taxes this year.

Taxes are a prime source of revenue for the government and were projected to cover half of the 2020 state budget. By May, Cameroon had lost 22 billion francs CFA ($39.7 million) in projected customs duty and 92 billion francs CFA ($166 million) in tax revenue due to tax relief granted by the state to economic operators.

In the midst of the ravaging coronavirus, the World Bank’s Development Committee and the G20 finance ministers rolled out a Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) to help the governments of some of the world’s poor countries to free up financial resources they could use to respond to Covid-19. Cameroon was one of the countries that indicated it had a problem simultaneously managing its debt burden and the unprecedented health crisis. It applied for the debt relief, which has helped it mobilise 0.5% of GDP in DSSI savings.

Taxes are a prime source of revenue for the government and were projected to cover half of the 2020 state budget.

According to Misheck Mutize, a post-doctoral researcher at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, participating in the debt suspension comes at a cost. In a 28 july article in The Conversation, he argued that such countries could be viewed as defaulting, which might result in an investment rating downgrade. “A rating downgrade would erode the benefits accrued from the debt relief as countries would have to pay more interest on the same volume of debt,” Misheck posited.

Fiscal deficits caused by the need of governments to respond to the coronavirus have been a global phenomenon, according to Prof. Kelly Mua Kingsley, a Harvard-trained expert in financial engineering. He told Africa in Fact that the situation made it difficult for many countries, including Cameroon, to keep up with both internal and external debts.

“It was obvious for Cameroon to seek the debt relief in order to keep the economy going,” Kingsley said. Cameroon and other eligible countries have different options in negotiating their debt relief, varying from full cancellation of debt to rescheduling datelines for debt servicing, with or without additional interest paid, among others, according to Kingsley.

Participating in the debt suspension comes at a cost.

Despite the risk, Cameroon decided to take debt relief. And for the time being, it hasn’t suffered any ratings downgrade.

On 7 August, 2020, rating agency Moody’s confirmed Cameroon’s B2 (stable) rating, but expressed concerns that the country’s ongoing participation in the DSSI posed risks to private creditors. The rating agency said it would reflect any related changes in risk should the probability of losses to private sector creditors increase and become clearer.

“The stable outlook reflects Moody’s view that the pressures the sovereign faces in the wake of the coronavirus shock, and prospects for its credit metrics in general, are likely to remain consistent with the current rating level, given Cameroon’s comparatively more diversified economy relative to neighbours, the anticipated renewal of the IMF programme providing a backstop, and Cameroon’s membership of the Central African Economic and Monetary Union (CEMAC) attenuating external vulnerability risks,” Moody’s highlighted.

On 7 August, 2020, rating agency Moody’s confirmed Cameroon’s B2 (stable) rating.

While the government is said to be working on a comprehensive global response plan, a government official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t mandated to talk to the press, said the government is also counting on response measures by the African Development Bank (AfDB), Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), and other bodies.

The AfDB’s continent-wide approach is to provide monetary envelopes to fast-track budget support to ensure that countries are able to fund their response measures. It seeks to sustain growth, strengthen economic and financial governance, support policy and institutional reforms, mitigate the adverse impact of shocks, and contribute to the recovery, state building and arrears clearance in fragile states.

For its part, CEMAC’s Economic and Financial Reform Programme, which has been running since 2016, plans to “leverage industrialisation and economic diversification” for  post-Covid-19 recovery in the sub-region. This follows the desire of the six heads of state of the membership-based CEMAC to have a common destiny for the sub-region.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” the government official said.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” the government official said.

With the coronavirus showing signs of lingering in Cameroon, people are beginning to integrate the virus into their way of life. More than five months into the pandemic, things have largely gone back to business as usual.

But other than applying for debt relief, the government does seem to have learned lessons from the pandemic. Cameroon is a country prone to floods, while climate change, with rising temperatures, is seriously threatening public health, agriculture and livestock production. These threats are well-known, and could significantly alter Cameroon’s growth prospects.

The country also suffers institutional challenges, corruption and public financial management key weaknesses, according to Worldwide Governance Indicators. Moreover, its internal stability is remains affected by the ongoing sectarian struggle in the north and a separatist conflict in the south-west, with continuing violence. Press freedom is also under attack. Clearly, the government is also returning to “business as usual”.

 

We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to richard@gga.org.

 

Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian freelance journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism.  His works have been published by independent regional and international outlets, including Quartz, Mail & Guardian, Reuters, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times. 

Zimbabwe: One vast informal business

The collapse of the economy has seen thousands of traders flooding into Harare

Downtown Harare. PHOTO Sadat Sanhehwe

Zimbabwe’s economy has seen a drastic collapse since 2000. Once a fairly highly industrialised country, Zimbabwe is now a vast informal economy after the collapse of its once-thriving manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

Industry is operating at 30% of its capacity. Since 2011, more than 6,000 companies have closed shop, rendering hundreds of thousands unemployed, according to a 2016 Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) study. The CZI is the umbrella body of the manufacturing industry.

Hundreds of thousands of school leavers are graduating with no hope of formal employment, the CZI says. Unemployment now hovers around 85% and for many, the only hope is now in the informal sector.

With the late President Robert Mugabe holding onto power for 37 years, the chances of any respite are next to zero even under President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mugabe is credited with lording it over a dying economy rife with corruption, fraud and tenderpreneurs, who are mostly politicians and well-connected party supporters.

Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, has historically prided itself as being Africa’s “Sunshine City”; its once- gorgeous First Street Mall was often referred to as “little London”. Its infrastructure and service provision were without comparison in the region outside South Africa.

Harare was a functional and hopeful city; it was peaceful, safe and pretty, especially with its jacaranda trees in full purple bloom. But no longer. The sun still shines, but more likely in anger as it looks down on an unsightly mess. Thousands of desperate informal traders, or vendors, have flooded into the city centre to sell all manner of goods in front of high-street shops. It’s only a matter of time before grinding mills – used for grinding maize into the staple, mealie meal – line up along First Street, adding their roar to the dissonance of vendors’ competing megaphones, touting underwear and affordable perfumes.

All this informal and largely unregulated activity, which offers all manner of products and services, including toiletries, motor vehicle spares and basic foodstuffs for sale to passersby, is seen as the “dark side” of the economy. Yet for many Zimbabweans it is a crucial resource for survival, given the collapse of formal employment.

“The best thing that ever happened to me is this stall,” says Marjorie Kandawa, a clothing vendor in her early thirties, who runs an informal business near Harare’s Copacabana bus terminus, in the central business district. Her selection of used clothes is spread out on the street, half of which she and her fellow vendors have taken over.

 

Vegetable seller Shorai Kavhute, Harare © Sadat Sanhehwe

Kandawa says she used to be a clothing designer for a leading retail group, but cheap clothes from China and elsewhere had rendered her industry redundant. “But when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” she says with a smile.

As she is interviewed, she continues to shout out the prices of her wares to passersby, competing with the din of traffic and hooting motorists – as well as the voices of fellow vendors calling out the virtues of their own offerings. Along the street, the goods and services on offer include clothes, agricultural produce, electronic goods, cosmetics, kitchen utensils, spices, fast foods, street photography and even farm implements.

Michael Hodobo, a young man barely out of his teens, is busy roasting fresh mealies (corn cobs) in the city centre. He says he has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Zimbabwe, but has never had a formal job. “My brother,” he says, “the only marketing I am now doing is of these mealies. But I am making a living from it!”

Another graduate, Hazel Mujuru, also in her early twenties, a psychology major, runs a thriving car-wash enterprise nearby with eight colleagues. Near the Machipisa Business Centre in Highfield, Emily Chikide, in her late forties, keeps a stall selling chickens, in competition with 12 others. Even so, she says, she earns about $400 a month from her business, after costs.

According to Stanley Zvorwadza, president of the Vendors Association of Zimbabwe, studies have shown that around 50% of the informal businesses are owner-run, with the other 50% staffed by employees. About 45% of the business owners earned $400 a month, 30% between $251 and $399, 15% between $100 and $200, and 10% less than $100 from their informal business activities. The cash is used for education, remittances, rent and buying food. About 50% earned enough to sustain their household needs.

The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority describes an informal trader as an “individual who carries on a trade for his own account from which he derives gross income of less than $6,000… This includes a hawker, street vendor, a person who sells articles at a peoples’ market or flea market, and a person who manufactures or processes any articles in or from residential premises”.

Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers president Denford Mutashu says retailers are grappling with the challenges posed by the mass of vendors in the city centre. They have asked local authorities to ensure that vendors operate in designated trading areas, rather than occupying space in front of formally registered businesses, which they see as unfair competition.

“Harare has literally legalised vending carts. These, with illegal street vending, have given the retail business nightmares,” Mutashu says. He added that night-time vending was also “rampant” in other cities.

Across town in the sprawling high-density suburb of Highfield, a different type of informal business is underway. Here the clanking of hammer on metal is everywhere. Car mechanics, panelbeaters, wood and metal fabricators thrive here. “I run my own carpentry shop here,” says Laxon Zvakavapano, 37. “I employ five young men who help me out. Business is booming. Even if the economy were to change for the better, I will not seek employment elsewhere.”

This section of Highfield is called Engineering, a reference to the range of engineering or manufacturing trades underway here. Zvakavapano sells his products to the big furniture shops in the city. “The big companies which used to manufacture furniture have long ceased to exist,” he explains. “But we, the carpenters, are still around. Now we are producing the same quality products, but at less cost.”

Technology-savvy young men have ventured into new industries created by innovation. Computer and cellular phone sales and repairs, internet cafés and pirated music discs for resale, thrive.

Photographer Britho Musara, Harare © Sadat Sanhehwe

According to a recently released BSA Global Software study, Zimbabwe has the highest percentage of pirated software on the planet. At virtually every corner of the capital, millions of pirated movies, music and pornographic videos and CDs are on sale.

Remembrance Dzapita, who lost his job last year, now manufactures and sells toiletries. “I started my business after realising that I could not get a new job but that I could earn more by developing a new line of toiletries to sell to local hotels,” he told Africa in Fact.

A 2016 study by the CZI found that at least 2.7 million people were making their living in the informal sector. According to economist John Robertson, Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate is more than 85%. Fewer than 900,000 people are formally employed, out of a population of 13 million. An estimated 200,000 jobs have been lost since 2004, as government has failed to stimulate the economy or to foster job creation.

The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) pegs the country’s unemployment rate at 10.7%. But perhaps conveniently, ZIMSTAT defines unemployment as lack of any means of contributing to the country’s gross domestic product. Industry officials say the informal sector is thriving because it faces fewer regulations or taxes compared to the formal sector.

“In the informal and black market there are fewer regulations or taxes, so costs are low,” Mutashu says. “The formal sector is overtaxed and laden with rules, regulations and red tape. That’s why it is shrinking while the informal sector is flourishing.”

A 2016 study of the sector by the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Economic Policy Analysis and Research Unit found that although people active in the informal sector had few resources in isolation, they could become a formidable source of resources when combined.

“Banks should thus engage informal sector players and embrace the idea of fostering partnerships and clusters,” according to the study. “Under this arrangement, informal sector players, through the assistance of banks, pool their resources by bringing their capital and expertise together to make a meaningful investment. This also allows them to gain more knowledge and skills from their partners than when operating as individuals.”

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), organising the informal sector and recognising its role as a profitable activity may contribute to economic development. This can also improve the capacity of informal workers to meet their basic needs by raising their incomes and strengthening their legal status. According to the AfDB, little attention has been paid to the role of the informal sector in fostering growth and creating jobs.

In fact, the informal sector contributes about 55% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP and 80% of the labour force. “Nine in 10 rural and urban workers have informal jobs in Africa and most employees are women and youth. The prominence of the informal sector in most African economies stems from the opportunities it offers to the most vulnerable populations such as the poorest, women and youth,” the bank says.

The Zimbabwean government has finally realised the importance of the informal sector, and is making moves to tax informal traders. In his national budget last year, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa announced government plans to tax the informal sector by levying a presumptive tax on landlords whose premises are leased by the traders.

Respected economist Witness Chinyama, however, doubted the efficacy of the move. “The problem with trying to formalise the informal sector is that the informal sector will simply go underground and the economy will go down as well,” Chinyama told Africa in Fact.

Another economist, Francis Mukora, urges caution. Taxing the informal sector might sound like a great idea to the broke Zanu-PF government, he says, but there are no quick fixes to the country’s multi- faceted crisis.

BARNABAS THONDHLANA has worked for Dow Jones and Bloomberg newswires as their Zimbabwe correspondent. He is the publisher of three community newspapers and a national daily, and a media trainer in investigative journalism. He has been instrumental in the formation of several independent newspapers, including the Zimbabwe Independent, The Daily News, The Daily News on Sunday, Newsday and The Observer.

Ethiopia: Covid-19 puts the country’s politics in ICU

Itika Teferi, a singer in Afan Oromo, one of the widely spoken languages in Ethiopia, found himself inside the Millennium Hall, a kilometre away from Addis Ababa’s international airport, a couple of weeks ago. The hall, which is of a size unmatched in the country, serves as a conference centre. It is the preferred venue for major national events, including concerts by the country’s pop sensations. It was here that Hachalu Hundissa, a popular singer and outspoken critic of the EPRDF regime, electrified young people in 2018, at a time of momentous political change in Ethiopia.

In mid-July Itika, a close friend of Hachalu, was one of the thousands of Ethiopians isolated in the Millennium Hall after health authorities transformed it into a temporary medical facility to treat people who had contracted the coronavirus. Unlike many, Itika had an idea where and how he had caught the virus. On 29 June, his friend, Hachalu, was assassinated. The day after, Itika helped to organise the release of the body from the hospital and in the days following the burial.

After the burial, Itika returned home, and started to feel weak, with an unrelenting cough, he told the BBC Amharic service. He recalled that not many of the mourners wore masks, or maintained physical distancing with others at the burial ceremonials in the town of Ambo, Hachalu’s birthplace. He thought they must have been too struck by the shock and trauma of the loss of Hachalu, whose protest songs made him had an iconic figure to many Oromos – an ethnic group comprising the largest number of the population.

After the burial, Itika returned home, and started to feel weak, with an unrelenting cough.

About 1,000 positive cases were recorded in the period between mid-March, when the first case occurred, and the end of June. But by mid-August, roughly 26,204 positive cases had been recorded, with 11,428 recoveries registered and 479 deaths. About half a million people have been tested. Clearly, the infection rate is starting to climb steeply.

Throughout July, there was violence across many parts of Oromia Regional State and in the capital Addis Ababa, when the youth took to the streets angry at the murder of Hachalu, the icon of his generation. This was not lost on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. “Following the conflicts and protests of recent weeks (Oromo), we are seeing the equivalent of monthly case numbers in just a few days,” he said recently.

More than 230 people died in the violence, while close to 10,000 people in the Oromia region were arrested, many of them held incommunicado, their whereabouts unknown, Amnesty International reported. They included leading opposition figures Jawar Mohammed from the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Eskinder Nega of Balderas for True Democracy party, leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and journalists, including a Kenyan.

By mid-August, roughly 26,204 positive cases had been recorded, with 11,428 recoveries registered and 479 deaths.

Hachalu’s tragic death opened a pandora’s box of violence, revealing a delicate unfurling political reality forced on Ethiopia by the outbreak of Covid-19. It could not have come at a worse time as the country was about to hold national elections after two years of hope and, of course, uncertainties.

Prior to that, there had been three years of widespread and persistent protests against the ruling EPRDF coalition’s electoral authoritarianism over the past two decades. A prime minister resigned as a result, and the EPRDF coalition promised sweeping reforms. Abiy Ahmed was put forward to take the mantle of leadership and he pledged economic liberalisation, a more open political environment, institutional reforms and reviews of draconian laws – all leading to fair and credible elections. Optimism grew that Ethiopia was heading toward a liberal political order.

Prisoners were released, dissidents from the diaspora returned, and rebel groups were undesignated as terrorists before they were incorporated into the political mainstream. An overture for peace with Eritrea – Ethiopia’s arch-enemy for more than two decades – earned Prime Minister Abiy international recognition in the form of a Nobel Prize. The country was euphoric.

Hachalu’s tragic death opened a pandora’s box of violence, revealing a delicate unfurling political reality forced on Ethiopia by the outbreak of Covid-19.

That, however, has proved short-lived.

A fateful decision was taken, ostensibly because of the Covid-19 crisis, to indefinitely postpone the national election through a controversial interpretation of the constitution. The House of Federation’s decision to extend its own term limits, as well as for the parliament, the regional states’ councils, and the executive branch, was perceived as a ploy by the prime minister to stay in power beyond the term limits inscribed in the constitution.

Abiy’s administration has claimed that Ethiopia is not unique in this, given that over 24 countries have postponed national elections due to the potential threat to public health posed by Covid-19. But critics of his government say that the (as noted, indefinite) postponement is just another familiar episode of Africa’s ongoing political soap opera, with incumbents carrying out constitutional manoeuvres to hold onto political power – if possible, in perpetuity.

Abiy sought recommendations for the move from the relevant constitutional institutions, and particularly the House of Federation, but it has not been plain sailing. The Speaker of the House, Keria Ibrahim, resigned a day before members of the House of Federation voted on interpretations of the move motioned by the Council of Constitutional Inquiry, protesting that its recommendations were unconstitutional. And the party she leads, the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the Tigray Regional State, has rejected the decision by the House.

A fateful decision was taken, ostensibly because of the Covid-19 crisis, to indefinitely postpone the national election.

Despite strong opposition from the upper house, preparations are nonetheless well underway to conduct regional elections in Tigray, due for September 2020. The move contradicts a resolution by the House that national elections should be held between nine to 12 months after WHO, the world health body, has declared the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the country’s own health authorities have certified this.

The political opposition in the Oromia region, which includes Abiy’s own constituency, has been no less vocal in denouncing the postponement. They say that the resolution gives the prerogative for deciding a polling date to the executive, without the participation of the broader political community .

Jawar Mohammed, a political analyst and activist who has a large following, has warned that postponing the national election will induce a constitutional crisis. Mohammed, who was resident in the US before returning to Ethiopia, was instrumental in organising the protests that led to the fall of the previous prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, in 2018. But as noted, he has also been arrested, with the other opposition figures mentioned, along with thousands of other people.

Despite strong opposition from the upper house, preparations are nonetheless well underway to conduct regional elections in Tigray, due for September 2020.

Other vocal critics of Abiy`s administration have now also been arrested, among them Lidetu Ayalew, a formidable and outspoken figure during the most contested elections in 2005, and Yiliqal Getnet, an opposition figure known for his provocative and controversial statements. An old reflex to jam critical media outlets has returned, and journalists are finding themselves behind bars once again. No doubt a new wave into exile by dissident groups will follow. Meanwhile, popular protests continue.

The latest occurred in the Wollaita Zone, a county in the southern region, which is demanding autonomy after residents of the Sidama zone were allowed to vote in a referendum in December, in which 98.5% of residents chose autonomy for the region. Indeed, 10 of the 11 counties in the regional state are now petitioning for referenda through their respective councils. Administrators of the Wollaita Zone, including its chairperson, were arrested recently, provoking a fresh outbreak of blocked roads and burning tyres . At least 10 people were killed, including a 14-year-old boy, and many others wounded.

There are concerns that the public protests and continuing large gatherings at burials are helping to spread of the coronavirus. Sentayehu Tsegayie (MD), an advisor to the minister of health, has attributed the sudden escalation in the infection rate to the unrest that followed the death of Hachalu.

Itika spent two weeks in the isolation centre and was discharged before he tested negative. Showing mild symptoms, but not fully recovered, he was told to stay at home, where he was promised a follow-up by medical workers. His early release may be a sign that the Covid-19 treatment and isolation facilities for people who test positive are being overwhelmed. The goal of flattening the curve appears as distant as the possibility that the country’s political gridlock will be resolved any time soon.

 

We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to richard@gga.org.

 

Tamrat G Giorgis is the managing editor of Fortune, which covers mainly the economies of Ethiopia and Africa. He has over 28 years experience in nearly every aspect of publishing with more than 11 various publications. He is a member of the Alumni of the University of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Policy and regularly contributes to specialised international publications.