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Africa’s mixed blessings in 2019

African politics

Africa’s mixed blessings in 2019

Despite floods, famine and disputed Congo elections, hopes rose in Sudan and the fintech sector

Protesters celebrate in Khartoum after Omar Hassan al-Bashir, president of Sudan, was toppled by the army in April 2019 © AFP via Getty Images

As this goes out, Beyoncé and 500 other mainly African-American celebrities are expected to head to Ghana for the culmination of the Year of Return. Part marketing ploy, part genuine initiative to forge closer understanding between Ghana and the African diaspora, the event marks the 400th anniversary of the start of the transatlantic slave trade. It is impossible to get a booking in any of Accra’s top hotels.

The A-listers are arriving at a time when, for the second year running, an African has taken home the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2019, it was the turn of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, who pressed on with a daring economic and political reform agenda — now endorsed by a $2.9bn IMF loan — in the teeth of a growing ethno-nationalist backlash. Elections scheduled for May 2020 will be critical. For all its problems, its fast-growing economy carries the hopes of the continent.

Another big hope for Africa, the African Continental Free Trade Area, a $3tn trade area of 54 countries, made progress this year with the accession of reluctant heavyweight Nigeria. But xenophobic riots in South Africa and Nigeria’s closure of its land borders to stop smugglers hint at some of the obstacles ahead. 

As in 2018, the continent’s economy grew by less than 3 per cent, wretchedly slow, thanks mainly to laggards South Africa and Nigeria. But Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Djibouti all managed growth rates of 6-8 per cent, some of the world’s fastest.

Here are five things that helped shape the continent in 2019. 

Sudan: The Sudanese revolution deserved more global attention. Millions of people, many women, many young, faced down bullets in the name of peaceful change. They met savage repression, but eventually prevailed. After 30 years as president, Omar al-Bashir fell. A fragile military-civilian council is charged with overseeing a transition to democracy. The economy is still on its knees. The soldiers still have guns. What happens next will be important for a continent with out-of-touch leaders and a median age of 19. 

Climate change: This year the impact of changing weather became obvious in a continent that has hardly contributed to global warming, yet will be among the first to suffer. Cyclone Idai, the second deadliest on record in the southern hemisphere, ripped through Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, killing 1,300 people and displacing 2m. Idai brought flooding, but drought is a bigger problem still, including in Zimbabwe where crop and government failure combined to put nearly 8m people on the brink of severe hunger.

In the Sahel, desertification is helping to stoke conflict between nomadic herdsman and settled farmers. In Mali, which saw an upsurge in terrorist attacks, those conflicts are intertwined with rising Islamism. In Ethiopia, coffee farmers are moving to higher altitudes as temperatures rise. Expect some African governments to soften their opposition to genetically modified crops. 

Felix Tshisekedi: He became president of the Democratic Republic of Congo after elections that Financial Times reporting suggests were fixed. Joseph Kabila remains the power behind the cobalt throne. How long that continues will help determine the fate of the vast, resource-rich country.

Jumia: This company, perhaps unfortunately dubbed Africa’s Amazon, provided the most spectacular initial public offering. Others included Helios Towers, Bharti Airtel Africa and Network International. Jumia listed in New York, became the continent’s first $1bn start-up. After initially soaring, shares fell back with a bump as the company’s on-the-ground logistical difficulties mounted. Losses neared €55m in the third quarter. Some expect it to be sold next year.

Fintech: There are signs that Africa’s homegrown fintech industry is at last mustering critical mass. In December alone, $400m flowed into Nigerian start-ups, adding to the $1.2bn already invested in Africa in 2019. That is still low, but it marks a jump and is roughly where south-east Asia, now attracting around $8bn in annual investments, was five years ago. 

Jack Ma, co-founder of the Chinese technology group Alibaba, is full of optimism about Africa. In November, he was in Ghana to award an inaugural $1m prize in what will be an annual “Netpreneur” contest. Another internet star, Twitter’s chief executive Jack Dorsey said he would be spending quality time on the continent next year. “Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!)” he tweeted cryptically. “Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid 2020.”

david.pilling@ft.com

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