What is behind the renewed violence in Central African Republic?

CAR will struggle to break the cycle of violence without international commitment to end it

Militiamen of the armed group coalition Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) in the village of Niakari, which marks the front line with Central African army and its allies, north of Bangassou. On January 3, 2021, the city of Bangassou was attacked by hundreds of CPC militiamen, causing tens of thousands of people to flee into the bush and neighbouring DR Congo. Since the end of December 2020, the rebel coalition has taken control of the main roads and several of the country’s major cities. Photo: Alexis Huguet/AFP

On January 4, the incumbent president of Central African Republic (CAR), Faustin-Archange Touadéra, was re-elected for a second term after the country’s electoral commission announced he defeated 16 other candidates and garnered 53.9 percent of the vote, enough to render a runoff unnecessary.

DThe elections have generated an upsurge in violence triggered following the Constitutional Court’s rejection of former President François Bozizé’s candidacy on December 3. The court cited his failure to meet the constitution’s “good morality” requirement due to an international warrant and UN sanctions against him for his alleged involvement in assassinations, torture and other crimes during his tenure.

Following the announcement, Bozizé joined a coalition of armed groups, the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), some of whom were formerly part of the Séléka coalition which toppled him in 2013. They launched attacks on several towns outside of Bangui in an effort to force an election postponement and initiative a new round of peace talks.

Over the course of December, hundreds of civilians died, 30,000 were forced to flee into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while another 185,000  were internally displaced. Three UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSCA) peacekeepers lost their lives in the violence.

To help quell the violence, CAR requested additional military assistance from Rwanda and Russia. Both sent troops and supplies in support of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), while France carried out flyover missions in the days preceding elections. CAR prosecutors have launched an investigation into Bozizé, who is accused of plotting the alleged coup.

Violence has escalated further since the announcement of Touadéra’s victory, with most of the opposition calling for the election results to be annulled citing voting irregularities and the fact that instability prevented many from casting their ballot. On January 13, the CPC launched a coordinated attack on the outskirts of Bangui before being pushed back by MINUSCA in fighting which killed one Rwandan soldier and several CPC fighters.

The election, which is only the second in the country’s history, was supposed to be an important milestone. However, this new round of violence has laid bare the deep flaws in the peace process and threatens to undo the tentative progress made towards stability since the signing of the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in February 2019.

If urgent action is not taken by international and regional actors to both address flaws in the peace process as well as some of the country’s deep structural drivers of conflict, CAR could slip into civil war in the coming months.

A cycle of violence

Since gaining independence from France in 1960, CAR’s political history has been punctuated by military rule, rebellion, and multiple coups against a backdrop of state disintegration, deep interethnic cleavages, and high levels of inter-communal conflict. The violence which was seen before, during, and following the December election is not unique, it is instead merely the latest expression of this long-running conflict.

Former President Bozizé seized power in a 2003 coup before being removed in 2013 by the Séléka: a coalition of predominantly Muslim armed groups, at least some of whom represented communities in northern CAR, who have historically been politically and economically disenfranchised. Following the rebellion, an opposing association of local Christian and animist self-defence groups, the “Anti-balaka”, engaged in retaliatory attacks, which escalated to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population.

In the following years, the country was plagued by violence despite efforts to restore stability, including the deployment of a 12,800-strong UN peacekeeping force. After a two-year transition led by a temporary government, CAR returned to constitutional democracy with the election of Touadéra in February 2016.

The new president continued to engage in dialogue with former Séléka and Anti-balaka armed groups, who had by this time fragmented and reconfigured. In February 2019, the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation was signed between the government and the country’s 14 main armed groups.

Despite the political agreement, as well as the deployment of MINUSCA peacekeeping forces, the conflict has continued. The 2020 UN Panel of Experts’ assessment of the political agreement reported hundreds of violations and noted the continued exchange of accusations of reneged commitments by both the government and armed groups.

Since 2013, it is estimated that of the country’s population of roughly five million, about one in five people have been internally or externally displaced, thus creating the world’s highest humanitarian caseload per capita.

Outsourcing governance

There are a number of structural issues that keep CAR trapped within a cycle of conflict and underdevelopment. Multiple peace agreements have failed to address these deeper realities, and some have, at times, contributed to incentivising those who benefit from instability.

As outlined by Louisa Lombard, professor of anthropology at Yale University, rather than develop local government administration, French colonial officials leased CAR’s territories to private companies to run at their own profit or loss and to strike deals with local tribes to provide labour and security.

This system has effectively continued post-independence, whereby political elites in Bangui with little capacity, experience, or interest in extending governance beyond the capital, grant mining concessions to a range of international actors who rely on private military companies (PMCs) to facilitate transport and security without building out local government or infrastructure.

Basic services are mostly outsourced to the UN, European Union, and international NGOs and due to multiple coups, and in particular, Bozizé’s efforts to reduce the army to a presidential guard] to ward against coups, the state does not have a monopoly on the use of force in most of its territory.

Security has been privatised in a chaotic way by local leaders, clans, and militias, leaving communities to essentially fend for themselves. It has also provided ample opportunity for non-state actors to develop criminal enterprises in order to exploit the country’s vast natural resources.

Today, armed groups control most territory outside of the capital and there is little in the way of a social contract between citizen and state.

Militarisation of politics and peacemaking

In a closed political system, comprised of a small political elite in Bangui, violence has become a tried and tested route to power. Rebel leaders cycle between armed groups, which serve both as a vehicle for illicit criminal activity as well as helping to guarantee them a place on the political chessboard when the incitement of enough chaos forces the government into a political dialogue.

The state has a history of incentivising this behaviour by co-opting rebel leaders during political settlements in the interest of creating temporary peace, thereby rewarding those who make a living out of provoking insecurity. Most major peace agreements since 1997 have awarded government positions to rebel leaders.

The 2019 Political Agreement was no different. Like previous peace deals, it provided the leaders of signatory armed groups government posts. For example, three of them gained positions as “Special Military Advisors” to the prime minister to oversee the creation of Special Mixed Security Units (USMS) comprised of armed group combatants and Central African state forces.

After disagreements regarding the pay and titles of former combatants within the new USMS units, two of the three special military advisers – who are also leaders of the country’s two strongest armed groups – resigned, while the third used his status to continue the operations of his armed group and expand his territorial control.

Last month’s election was an attempt to move the country towards a more orderly political settlement, whereby leaders would represent a political base and have popular support to hold office. The armed groups can no longer be said to represent communities’ grievances and are widely despised by citizens. They are therefore reluctant to transform into legitimate political parties and by disrupting the elections, hope to return CAR to a state where, as political-military entrepreneurs, they can find themselves a seat at the table.

A playground for foreign actors

Adding complexity to finding a lasting political solution to the conflict in CAR are the large number of international and regional actors who have interests and influence in the country. Over the last 10 years, Chad, Angola, and most recently Sudan, have all played host to political negotiations between armed groups and the CAR government – each driven by their own geostrategic interests. The porous borders between the CAR and its neighbours have allowed for ethnic groups having strong cultural allegiance and economic ties outside of the country.

In recent years, Russia has stepped up efforts to support Touadéra’s government through the Wagner Group: a private security company closely connected to the Kremlin and often used by the Russian state as a proxy force when plausible deniability is necessary. The head of the Wagner Group in CAR was appointed national security adviser, affords President Touadéra personal protection services, and provides some training to FACA.

Russian interests in CAR seem to be both financial (acquiring access to diamonds, gold, and other mining contracts) and part of the country’s wider strategy in Africa, aimed at countering American influence and gaining greater African support for Russian initiatives at the UN.

France, which has historical ties with CAR, and contemporary economic and security interests in the country, continues to push back against Russian influence. Ahead of last month’s elections, rival French and Russian disinformation campaigns that sought to influence internet users in CAR emerged.

Facebook released a statement saying it had suspended over 100 accounts and pages for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” linked to CAR. One network was linked to “individuals associated with French military”, while another two had connections to “individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency” as well as Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group.

Charting a way forward

Escalating insecurity in CAR calls for a thorough review of the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in order to determine whether it remains a relevant road map for peace and stability. If armed groups continue to refuse to transform into legitimate actors and can simply instigate violence as a means of political manoeuvring with little repercussion, a negotiated political process seems unlikely to work in the long term.

At the very least, MINUSCA should be strengthened and their mandate revised so they can take a more aggressive posture against those armed groups that continue to act as spoilers to peace. A more concerted effort is also required to train, equip, and expand CAR’s armed forces to the point where state authority may be reinstalled across wider regions of the country.

The international community must also face the reality that without significant investment in the economic development of CAR, the country may not ever be able to rise out of the cycle of conflict and poverty. This will require international community and influential regional actors to raise the interests of CAR above their own and work together in a transparent manner to support sustainable peace efforts.

The African Union (AU) should use CAR’s recent election as a case study in developing a typology of online disinformation strategies and countermeasures, in order to counter future attempts by foreign actors to influence African elections through online disinformation campaigns.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Stephen is a security analyst with several years of experience working in both conflict and post-conflict settings in Africa, primarily on issues of peace and security; transitional justice and reconciliation; democratisation and governance; and preventing and countering violent extremism. He currently serves as head of the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa and is a co-editor of the Extremisms in Africa anthology series.Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa and is a co-editor of the Extremisms in Africa anthology series.

A poor prognosis, with some cause for hope

Abuja Declaration: broken promises

African nations have largely defaulted on a 2001 pledge to commit at least 15% of their annual budgets to healthcare

Followers in front of the Yoff Layene Mosque during the Islamic festivity of Korite marking the end of the
Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Dakar, Senegal, May 2020 Photo: John Wessels/AFP

Africa has so far seen controversial and even dramatic policy measures in response to the coronavirus crisis. From Tanzania withholding infection and fatality data as the government pushed conspiracy theories, to Egypt’s clampdown on citizens disagreeing with the government’s handling of the pandemic, to Madagascar’s promotion of a botanical brew as an antidote without following the standard scientific approval steps, the continent has had its share of the blunders that have helped exacerbate the crisis globally. Few, however, have seemed as ironic as Nigeria’s fiscal response at the peak of the crisis.

As the virus ravaged nations, overwhelmed health systems and devastated markets, the continent’s biggest economy announced a steep health budget cut in June, citing a decline in crude oil revenues. The government sliced basic healthcare funding by nearly half, reducing it to 25.5 billion naira ($71 million). The move angered a public already enraged by the government’s earlier plan to refurbish its parliament building with 37 billion naira. Before the pandemic, Nigeria’s entire health sector received 8% of the country’s total budget this year. That figure fell to 6% after the cut.

“This shows what is wrong with our country: poor prioritisation of projects,” Sam Ohuabunwa, the president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, told the popular Lagos-based daily, Punch, at the time. “How come the renovation of the National Assembly is taking priority over healthcare and education? It does not make sense to me.” But Nigeria’s typically measly health spending this year is not unique. Kenya proposed to spend only 4% of its total budget on health this year before the pandemic started, and South Africa allotted 11.8% of its budget to the sector.

Besides being relatively low, all three budgets – and many others – share a thing in common: they fall short of a benchmark voluntarily set by African leaders in the Abuja Declaration in 2001, to yearly allocate at least 15% percent of their countries’ budgets to health expenditure. Nearly 20 years after the Abuja Declaration, named after the Nigerian capital where it was signed, many African countries have largely failed to honour it. Their health systems are without needed resources to build and equip hospitals, train and pay health workers and implement health insurance for citizens. The World Health Organization says more than 37% of all of Africa’s health spending comes from out-of-pocket payments.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic, more than any other crisis in recent history, has shown how grim the situation is across the region. In April, the WHO said 43 African countries had just 2,000 ventilators and 5,000 intensive care beds, while 10 countries had no ventilators at all. Making up just 16% of the global population, Africa bears 23% of the world’s disease burden, yet accounts for just 1% of the total global health expenditure in 2015, according to United Nations and WHO figures. “The COVID-19 crisis and its impact on health and other social policy sectors such as education as well as the economy, has brought to the fore the importance of strong healthcare systems to pre-empt and deal with such global threats,” Kalipso Chalkidou, professor of practice in Global Health, Imperial College London, told Africa in Fact.

The Abuja Declaration was agreed to address the persistent funding problem that had seen health per capita public spending in Africa at a meagre US$70 in the early 2000s. A decade after the declaration, 27 nations had increased the proportion of their health expenditure, according to a 2011 report by the WHO. By 2013, only three countries – Rwanda, Botswana and Zambia – had achieved the 15% mark. By 2014, while the average per capita health spending rose to US$160, more countries (19) were spending less on health as a percentage of their budgets, a follow-up report by the WHO in 2016 stated.

Coronavirus awareness graffitti at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, March 2020 Photo: John Wessels/AFP

According to the report, countries whose health spending fell lower than the pre-2000s figures included Chad, Mozambique, Tanzania, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Rwanda, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Comoros, Benin, Mauritania, Togo, Botswana, Niger and Central Africa Republic. Remarkably, the report found that a country’s wealth did not exactly determine its allocation share to healthcare. For example, while countries with high per capita income (over $10,000) such as Algeria, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Mauritius, Seychelles and South Africa did not spend as much on health, those with relatively lower per capita like Ethiopia, Gambia and Malawi, surpassed the 15% target.

“Despite increases in fiscal capacity, spending on health has been deprioritised as governments strive to meet other obligations,” the report stated. “In low income settings, the deprioritisation of health in public expenditure tends to be associated with country-level fragility and political instability, poor governance and corruption.” It also found that most countries prioritised high-end care, that is secondary and tertiary levels referral hospitals that treat mostly the middle and upper classes, and committed, on average, less than 40% of health expenditure to primary care that caters for the majority of the continent’s poorest population.

In some countries, the allotted funds were never fully spent due mainly to unpredictable allocations, mismatch between policy and budget allocations, inappropriate budget structures, and under-performing execution systems. As much as 60% of the money remained unspent in Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance. The Nigeria case shows that years after the WHO’s latest report, not much has changed across the continent. Nigeria’s highest-ever public budget share for its health was 7%. A more recent assessment of specific countries in 2019 by a non-governmental group, Africa Health Budget Network, based in Abuja, found that only Burkina Faso (11.03%), Ethiopia (8.1%), Malawi (9.83%), Mozambique (8.35%), Rwanda (8.88%) and Tanzania (9.52%) made some level of progress in trying to meet the 2001 target.

Among all the countries reviewed, only Madagascar reached the 15% goal. “In the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, health expenditure has nosedived, with many African countries relying on regional and international loans, grants, and donations,” Aminu Garba, the coordinator of the group, told Africa in Fact. By 18 August, Africa had recorded over 1.1 million cases of the coronavirus and 26,346 deaths. Activists and health experts are hoping the COVID-19 experience will provide a new window for Africa’s policymakers to take the decisive step of committing more resources to healthcare.

Chalkidou, who is also the director of Global Health Policy and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said with debt at unsustainable levels, they could do so by leveraging innovative and radical ways of generating revenue to not only protect but also to boost spending on health. Also, wealthier nations, although even worse hit by the recession, should do their bit by boosting rather than cutting development aid, she said.

“Radical tax reform, including revisiting fuel subsidies and introducing excise, including tobacco and alcohol taxes, smarter spending, leveraging pooled public procurement to improve procurement of pharmaceuticals where billions are wasted every year in a fragmented and inefficient fashion, and actively exploring underused tools such as debt swaps, must be at the forefront of the policy response,” she said. Response measures should also include governments cutting unnecessary overhead and recurrent expenditures and ensuring judicious utilisation of all loans, grants and donations, Garba added.


Ini Ekoutt is the Assistant Managing Editor (News) at Premium Times, an online newspaper based in Abuja, Nigeria. Prior to this, he reported for Next ,an investigative newspaper in Lagos. He has written for IPS Africa and other publications and is a former Wole Soyinka Investigative Journalist of the Year.

A stronger and more united Africa?

Strong medicine: the COVID-19 effect

Despite immense challenges, the coronavirus pandemic could offer a unique opportunity for transformative change across the continent

Factory workers check personal protective equipment for COVID-19 frontline health workers at a factory commissioned by the government in Accra, Ghana, April 2020 Photo: Nipah Dennis/AFP

Despite the devastating worldwide effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, some politicians and scholars have advanced the idea that this crisis could be a transformative event in the long run. Others have refuted that notion, suggesting we will simply return to the “status quo”, whatever that means. One thing is certain: life will be more difficult for many people around the world for some time, as they confront the pandemic’s health, economic and social consequences. But in the longer term there is good reason to believe that COVID-19 can be positively transformative for African and global health.

However, this will require some honest retrospection on what didn’t go so well with the global response, and a willingness to do things differently in the future, as I have argued in a commentary recently published in the Global Public Health journal (2020). Although a pandemic of this nature was not unforeseeable, the arrival of COVID-19 in late 2019 seemed to catch the world off guard, hurling us into a state of partly haphazard disaster mitigation. In early 2020, some of the world’s wealthiest areas initially affected by the pandemic, in Europe and the Americas, saw their health systems overwhelmed and their economies crippled.

Containment measures have since been inconsistent within and across countries. Global solidarity mechanisms and allocated funds have not come close to the predicted need: in May, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicated that less than 15% of the estimated $6,7 billion needed to respond to the public health and humanitarian consequences of this pandemic had been met. Moreover, challenges in global response coordination have not been helped by the United States (US), the World Health Organization’s main contributing member, undermining the agency’s credibility through accusations of mismanagement and withdrawal of funding at such a crucial time.

Strengthening both health crises management – and more broadly global health – will require going beyond the development of more effective plans for health emergency preparedness. It will entail confronting the failings of global health governance and leadership, which in turn cannot be disentangled from power disparities and social inequalities that continue to exist at various levels. These include individual level social determinants of poor health, such as inadequate housing and food insecurity, weak public health systems that prevent universal access to decent healthcare, and disparities in health research, information and decision-making power between the Global North and South.

As always, across the world, the most vulnerable have borne the brunt of this latest health crisis. COVID-19 has simply further highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities. Redressing health disparities cannot be effectively achieved during times of crisis, but instead requires longer-term sustained action: through policies and interventions that tackle key social determinants of health; through more sustained technical support for, and investment in, health systems in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs), as envisaged in the International Health Regulations; through the creation of contingency resources for crisis solidarity funding and, importantly, by ensuring that governance structures of key global health players – including the WHO – are more representative of LMICs, marginalised communities, and civil society organisations.

A public hand washing facility on a street of Accra after the lockdown announcement on March 28, 2020
Photo: Nipah Dennis/AFP

But what is Africa’s role in this much-needed transformation of global health? This will ultimately have to be determined by African countries and their constituents. However, the COVID-19 response provides some useful lessons. First, African countries should further strengthen their own health (and broader) governance, building on the gains of past decades, such as progress made in addressing infectious disease and preventing childhood illness. This will both bolster countries’ health and crisis management capacity and increase their influence on the world stage. There have already been examples of good African leadership in response to COVID-19. In fact, despite grim predictions of the pandemic’s effects in lower-income countries, the reality has been more nuanced.

Initial success stories can be mainly attributed to prompt evidence-based action, strong leadership by example and community mobilisation, driven by the realisation that some of the approaches adopted in wealthier settings would not be an option. For example, Senegal and Ghana managed to control their epidemics early through good contact tracing systems and the involvement of community health facilities, workers and volunteers. Senegal developed a low-cost COVID-19 testing kit, while Ghana implemented “pool testing” (testing of multiple blood samples together, followed up only in the case of a positive result).

Moreover, it has been argued that the pandemic can be a catalyst to transform health services in Africa and re-envisage health as a public good. In their recent commentary titled: ‘How COVID-19 could benefit tuberculosis and HIV services in South Africa’, Keene et al (2020) argue that interventions developed for COVID-19, such as stigma reduction campaigns and community screening and tracking tools, could enhance existing services (for example, for TB or HIV) and systems. At the same time, they point out, the pandemic has highlighted persisting system weaknesses to be addressed, such as poor integration of community health workers and supply shortages.

Second, we should draw inspiration and learnings from the myriad of innovations, creative ideas and resourceful thinking emerging in response to COVID-19 across sectors in Africa, often in a context of scarce resources. Examples include: a free online triaging App developed in Nigeria to help users assess their coronavirus risk level and connect them to remote medical advice or healthcare facilities; the South African government’s Whatsapp interactive chatbot to address queries on COVID-19 prevention and treatment; a $1 immune-based diagnostic test and multifunctional medical robots to lessen the burden on healthcare workers, developed in Senegal; and the use of drones to take samples to testing sites or provide inflight public awareness broadcasts in Ghana and Rwanda.

Companies across the continent have adapted manufacturing capacity to produce compact economical ventilators and other medical supplies. E-commerce models and digital technology solutions have been strengthened, motorcycle taxis repurposed into couriers and delivery services, and mobile testing booths set up. And these examples are by no means exhaustive. Third, cross-sectoral country and regional partnerships should be established or strengthened to systematically promote, scale up and fund innovative local products, emerging technologies and information exchange. Here, too, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for new initiatives.

Staff in a secure laboratory research the coronavirus at the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal, February 2020 Photo: Seyllou/AFP

These include regional economic and technical communities, public-private coalitions and innovation hubs across the continent. For example, a Kenyan coalition including technology firms and community groups is using their digital platforms and supply chains to distribute sanitisers and other protective equipment in informal settlements. South Africa developed a COVID-19 modelling consortium and an online dashboard to share real-time updates. Business coalitions have been set up in Nigeria and South Africa to mobilise private sector resources for the pandemic response. E-learning platforms have been launched in a number of countries through partnerships among broadcasters, telecoms and private organisations.

And in July, the WHO and the Africa Centres for Diseases Control (CDC) launched an expert advisory committee to enhance the research and development of traditional medicines for COVID-19 in Africa. Fourth, cooperation and integration on health and social issues need to be further bolstered on the African continent. The COVID-19 crisis has, in fact, prompted greater health collaboration within the African Union (AU). Initiatives include the AU’s Joint Continental Strategy to guide cooperation between member states, a COVID-19 response fund, and a platform to pool African countries’ procurement of diagnostic and medical supplies.

It remains to be seen whether these developments can be sustained and lead to longer-term cooperation on health and social projects, including research and development, within and beyond the region. Lastly, African countries and supranational bodies should play a key role in reshaping the global health order and redressing power disparities. As important as it is to support initiatives originating from Africa, this should not obscure the need for broader structural and systemic change on the continent and beyond, as argued above. In an increasingly interconnected world with historical and persisting social injustice, the change we need has to be both local and global, and the two are inextricably connected.

A stronger and more united Africa should use its leverage to influence the world’s most powerful countries and global health organisations. It should advocate for increased solidarity and sustained investment in health systems support in African and other Lower and Middle Income Countries (LMICs), and for their stronger representation in the decision-making processes determining world health priorities and funding allocation. Despite the pesky international politics that overshadowed African leaders’ presence at the 2019 G7 in Biarritz, the increasing focus on issues of inequality and the dialogue on health initiated at these world fora are at least steps in the right direction.

African leaders should capitalise on these to push forward discussions and collaboration for global health reform. This is also a moment of pressure for change emerging from other important centres of power: for example, social movements such as the “Me Too” movement and “Black Lives Matter” are connecting individuals and civil society organisations across the globe in their demands for a more just world. We should not underestimate their power, nor forget the transnational change spearheaded by African civil society during the darkest moments of HIV denialism. Africa needs to move with the resolve and the energy of this moment, to push for the local and global change its people deserve.


Marisa Casale is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape’s School of Public Health (SOPH) and an Associate Member of Oxford University’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention. She is currently leading a work package focused on translating evidence into impact, within the UKRI GCRF Accelerating Achievement for Africa’s Adolescents Hub.

Profit and power

A nuclear future for Africa will end up a game of Russian roulette

Russia is becoming increasingly aggressive in attempts to exert its influence in Africa, and nuclear energy is an area in which they are making major inroads. With Africa’s energy deficit and Russia’s comparative advantage in this field, advocates suggest this is an approach which could deliver win-win solutions for both parties. However, this is not a view that is universally held. The debate therefore continues to rage around whether the nuclear approach is simply pragmatic, or whether it is dangerous, unsuitable and a potentially damaging option.

Answering this question effectively requires a nuanced understanding of a number of intricately linked complex factors, namely, the continent’s energy needs; the pros and cons of nuclear energy; how Russian energy diplomacy works in practice, and the strategic rationale for Africa to pursue this avenue. By assessing the current state of affairs alongside past progress and future prospects, a clearer understanding of the potential and pitfalls of this approach is possible. First, it is important to understand the continent’s energy deficit. Despite being home to some 20% of the world’s population, Africa currently accounts for just 4% of global power supply investment. Only 40% of Africans have access to electricity, leaving 600 million people in the dark.

According to the International Energy Agency’s Africa Energy Outlook 2019, the global population without access to energy will become increasingly concentrated, with 90% without access to electricity and almost 50% without access to clean cooking in 2040 living on the African continent.  

The status quo is clearly untenable, especially in light of the continent’s evolving demographics. Simply put, today’s policy and investment plans are still not enough to meet the energy needs of Africa’s growing population. 

With over 1,000 GW of additional power urgently required to address this power gap, the need for cheaper, more sustainable energy alternatives has become urgent. In this context, the search for new sources, partners and strategies is accelerating. Recently, a number of African nations decided to pursue nuclear power industries or are currently considering this option. Africa is largely virgin territory for this mode of energy. Indeed, at present there is only one operational nuclear power plant in South Africa, representing the full extent of the continent’s functional nuclear capacity. However, this is changing fast. 

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi make a press statement following the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Sergei Chirikov/Pool/AFP

However, nuclear’s association with weapons triggers grave concerns about safety. Indeed, for critics, potential for a nuclear meltdown like Chernobyl and Fukushima outweighs the positives of nuclear power, as do the high initial costs and environmental impacts of the nuclear waste produced. African states are expressing a desire to pursue this route, and Russia is expressing eagerness to make it happen, Moscow’s influence on African countries is starting to grow. To be sure, Russia is a major player in the nuclear market. It accounts for 7% of world uranium production, 20% conversion and 45% enrichment of this element, as well as for the construction of 25% of nuclear power plants in the world.  

Russia’s energy diplomacy, which centres on two imperatives – profit and power, is the primary avenue used to achieve this. The Russian government, and more specifically Rosatom, has been used to woo African nations into making deals.  For Russia, Africa is too big to ignore and an important partner in a changing global geopolitical landscape in which it is looking to assert itself as a dominant power. This theme was strongly emphasised during the 2019 Russia Africa summit in Sochi, which was billed as the start of a new era of Russo-Africa relations.  

Understanding Russia’s broader strategic aspiration in Africa requires understanding the broader geopolitical context. Historically, Russia and many African countries’ leaders share close ties and existing relationships to lever as a result of the assistance Russia offered during the time of African independence and the Cold War. African states are of strategic interest to Russia in terms of the geopolitical support they can offer – African states comprise the biggest geographic voting bloc across a multitude of global diplomatic, security and economic institutions and organisations. 

There is a broader economic imperative behind this rapprochement, too. As Aailya Vayez notes in her August/September 2020 paper on the evolving nature of Russia-Africa relations for The Republic, “the looming prospects of shrinking national natural resource reserves have extended into the country’s nuclear sector, with uranium reserves in shortage. Uranium extracted from African countries, such as Egypt, South Africa and Namibia, has become a significant raw material for Russian nuclear companies. This has gradually pushed Russia to become an importer of many raw minerals.” 

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi make a press statement following the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, on October 24, 2019. Photo: Sergei Chirikov/AFP 

Meanwhile, African countries see Russia as a partner that is not morally, politically or otherwise prescriptive. Russia’s trade and investment in Africa without conditions or imposition of ideals means that African countries view Russia and the related relations in a positive light – opening the way for further economic interactions.  

For African countries that lack financing to enhance energy infrastructure, the value proposition around nuclear is clear. Rosatom provides cheaper products than its competitors, is ready to loan money for construction and take care of the disposal of nuclear waste, and, in the conditions of constant blackouts, the continent needs uninterrupted, environmentally friendly and inexpensive electricity supplies as never before. 

However, Russian engagement is not without risks. What African economies stand to gain in terms of huge investments into cheap and reliable electricity, increased access to global markets and economic opportunity, may undermine governance and lead to a potential loss of institutional oversight.  

The recent headline grabbing nuclear deal proposed between Russia and South Africa is a clear example of the secrecy and lack of transparency associated with such transactions. It was only after strong pushback from South African civil society, independent media and robust institutions that the deal (which made very little commercial sense) was aborted.

However, other countries with less sophisticated systems and weaker institutions may be less lucky and fall victim to such malfeasance. Building nuclear plants with Russia would also open up those African nations to the vagaries of energy diplomacy relations with the country, which if evidence with Europe is anything to go by, could carry disastrous consequences. Indeed, if things turn sour, political displeasure could be expressed in unconventional ways – as was evidenced when Russia shut off gas supplies to Europe during the winter of 2015. Load shedding via Russia may become a reality for African countries who fail to manage their arrangements pragmatically and who enter into lopsided, unfavourable deals. For average citizens, the opacity around these government-to-government contracts should be carefully monitored.  

Then there is the issue of debt. To contextualise, over the past 20 years, Moscow has written off $140bn to foreign borrowers, of which $20bn came from African states. The persistent pushing of expensive nuclear projects in countries with a bad credit history suggests that there may be a political motivation overriding economic calculations. African countries need to be careful of ending up on the wrong side of exploitative practices, which are not mutually beneficial and could saddle them with unanticipated budgetary consequences. A more streetwise approach is therefore needed.  

Finally, there are concerns around the capacity of African states to manage these entities and questions on whether nuclear is actually fit for purpose. Insufficient infrastructure and a lack of human resources are key constraints which would hobble the success of such endeavours. Deep technical skills and experience is required to run such reactors, and unfortunately these are not in high supply on the continent.

In theory, if managed sensibly, nuclear energy could be a game changer for the continent. Indeed, the peaceful use of nuclear energy could act as an instrument to achieve national, African (Agenda 2063) and international development goals such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

However, there are a number of important caveats to this. Given the dangers associated with this mode of energy, sound governance and management will be needed to prevent sub-optimal societal and economic outcomes. Here, co-ordination and sequencing will matter, as will the need to “strengthen relevant bodies responsible for nuclear governance on the continent, improvement of national-level legislation on nuclear safety and security, and promotion of public debate on these issues”, as noted by the South African Institute of International Affairs’ (SAIIA) Atoms for Development project.    

In the absence of these measures, gambling on a future in nuclear will end up being the equivalent of a game of Russian roulette – both literally and metaphorically. The rewards may simply not be worth the risk.  

RONAK GOPALDAS is a director at Signal Risk, an exclusively African risk advisory firm. He was previously the head of country risk at Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) for a number of years, where he managed a team who provided the firm with in-depth analysis of economic, political, security and operational dynamics across sub-Saharan Africa. He holds a BCom degree in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) and a BCom (Hons) from the University of Cape Town (UCT). He also has an MSc in finance (economic policy) through the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.


Working from the ground up

Case study: Talensi, Ghana

A low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique has helped smallholders in northern Ghana resist the ravages of climate change

Farmers select pineapple plants to be cultivated on a farm in Ekumfi, Ghana, 2018 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

Although climate change has not received as much discussion as it should have in Ghana, it has taken its toll on the Talensi district in the upper east region of the country. Fortunately for the farmers in the area, a Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) project, sponsored by World Vision Ghana, has helped to alleviate its effects on the people. The project, which has been well received and is showing signs of success thus far, could be replicated across the African continent to increase food and timber production as well as resilience to climate extremes.

The Talensi district forms part of the 15  municipalities and districts in  the upper east region and is one of 260 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). About 90% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Production of the main staple food crops, namely cereals and legumes, is done by smallholder farmers using traditional methods, which have made little room for modern scientific advancement. The main crops produced are millet, sorghum, groundnut and beans. These are dependent on annual rain, which has become erratic over the years, leading to poor harvests.

Inusah Baba, a senior research scientist at the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says the Ghanaian authorities have woken up to the fact that climate change is a phenomenon that is not remote to the country. Changing weather conditions have also led to flooding, which has become an annual ritual in all major farming communities on the banks of the White Volta [the headstream of the Volta River, Ghana’s main waterway], Inusah said. As a result, many people’s crops have been washed away by flood waters.

In addition, the erratic rains have reduced yields for most crops grown in northern Ghana. Moreover, in recent years intermittent droughts – which are understood to consist of three or more weeks with no significant rains – have also combined with unusually high temperatures in March through to April, affecting the period between August and September, when most crops are grown under rain- fed conditions. Farmers in the Talensi district, however, say that World Vision’s FMNR has helped to maintain their livelihoods.

Standing in his fields, wearing his fugu – a cotton outfit worn by men – John Anaba, a farmer at Namoalug in the Talensi district, said he was proud of what he had been able to achieve using only hoes and cutlasses. However, changes in the weather had given him good and bad times, he said. He did not understand what climate change was, but the weather had changed in recent years, negatively affecting his crops and those of others in the district. It was “better now”, he added.

“The Talensi FMNR, is a rapid, low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique to combat poverty and hunger that works with communities and partners to restore degraded lands in the district so as to improve on soil health for healthy agricultural production,” World Vision Ghana’s food security and resilience technical programmes manager, Maxwell Amedi, told Africa in Fact. In practice, FMNR involves the systematic regrowth and management of trees and shrubs from felled tree stumps, which helps to sprout root systems or seeds.

The regrown trees and shrubs, which help restore soil structure and fertility, inhibit erosion and soil moisture evaporation, rehabilitate the water table and increase biodiversity. Some tree species also provide the soil with nutrients. The FMNR approach encourages the use of living tree stumps, which can resprout or produce seeds. When trees are cut down, their root systems often remain alive underground. “In many formerly forested areas this underground forest [may be] vast, with millions of trees waiting to be regenerated. FMNR systematically regenerates this underground forest,” he said.

The project is a tree management practice, involving selection, pruning, protection and maintenance, and also empowers communities, regreening both community mindsets and peoples’ relationship with nature and the landscape. Preparation for the FMNR project started in October 2006, with the support of World Vision Australia (WVA). “WVA’s aim was to improve the socio- economic living conditions of the people in the Talensi area,” Amendi says. “The WVA contributed to this goal through a programme focus approach that tackled deep-rooted issues of poverty, economic empowerment and capacity building in health and nutrition, education, water sanitation and hygiene, environmental sustainability and livelihood empowerment.”

Farmers tapping rubber trees to collect latex at Agona, Ghana, 2019 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

The FMNR did not just take off, Amendi says. “A baseline study was conducted before the implementation of each of the three phases. With each phase, we worked with the communities to reverse land degradation and hunger resulting from poor soils in the district.” In addition to the drought, floods, and erratic rainfall patterns mentioned, the Talensi district is vulnerable to infertile and degraded soils, food insecurity, land scarcity, with occasional disease outbreaks of cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM). To further test the viability of the project before it was fully implemented, a pilot was started in 2009, which aimed to incorporate sound environmental management into the farming practices in the project area.

This led to the first phase, which started in 2009 and ended in 2011, involving nine communities using the FMNR concept. So far, more than 3,000 people have benefited, and the project has helped restore over 400 hectares of degraded lands. “After successfully implementing the first phase, the second phase began in 2012 and ended in 2017,” Amendi says, adding that, “The second phase was implemented in 33 communities with funding support from Computer Share Australia through WVA. It benefited more than 8,000 people and restored over 700 hectares of degraded lands in the district.”

The third phase of the project started in July 2017 and ended  in  June this year, with funding support from the Australian government through WVA. It aimed to benefit 8,000 people and restore another 500 hectares of degraded land. WVA has similar FMNR projects in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burundi, and Senegal, the organisation’s media manager, Mike Bruce, told Africa in Fact. The outcomes differ slightly from community to community, depending on circumstances.

“I have seen the difference that the project has brought to my people,” farmer John Anaba says. “Before, it was like the soil had quarrelled with us. Our crops refused to show any sign of life. We were just the forgotten people in the country, and food to feed our families became a problem.” So far, the project has seen an improvement in household food security and the resilience of people in the Talensi district, especially the most vulnerable and their families. This has happened through farmer-managed natural regeneration approaches and improved farming systems.

In addition, there has been better environmental management and stewardship, as well as an improvement in household income and savings among the people. Two project evaluations have taken place, both of which have shown that the approach has resulted in an increase in soil fertility and crop yield, as well as improvements in bulk compost and field mulching with crop residue, which has produced more food, Amendi says. Moreover, bush fires, once an annual occurrence, have been reduced by 80%, protecting the soil and allowing grasses and trees to recover, leading to massive reforestation of farms and communal fields.

The district now produces more fodder and nesting for livestock, which means the animals do not need to wander to feed. More fruit is available for home consumption and for sale, and more firewood is available. In total, the project has restored over 2,000 hectares of degraded land, with more than 10,000 farmers using conservation practices such as zero/minimum tillage, the use of stone bund walls, protecting the soil with layers of the residue from harvest crops, and making and using compost to improve soil fertility.

Other people in the district, among them several women, commented that FMNR has had a huge impact on the Talensi district by improving smallholder farmers’ levels of the production and reducing environmental degradation. Overall, the approach has seen an increase in opportunities for livelihoods and incomes for the people in the area.


Francis Kokutse is a journalist based in Accra, Ghana. A former member of the governing board of the state-owned Ghana News Agency (GNA), he is currently a writer for the Associated Press (AP) and a contributor to Science and Development.Net (SciDev.Net) as well as the University World News.
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