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Behind the News

Behind the News: All the backstories to our major news this week

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Over the past week, there were many important stories from around the African continent, and we served you some of the most topical ones.

Here is a rundown of the backstories to some of the biggest news stories in Africa that we covered during the week:

Morocco in fresh culture reform

The week started with Morocco’s Ministry of Culture announcing that it has begun meetings with the National Foundation of Museums to discuss methods and practices to better police and detect forged paintings and artworks, including handing down harsher sentences and better regulating auction houses.

Later in the week, Moroccan activists began online campaigns demanding the return of a letter that dates back to the 18th century, which they see as an important part of the country’s history.

The historic letter was allegedly sent by Moroccan Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif to Charles Stewart of the United Kingdom in 1720. It is presently on display in Austria. The letter was reportedly a diplomatic communication delivered by the Sultan in December 1720 to Stewart, the English Ambassador leading a mission dispatched during King George I’s reign to negotiate peace with Morocco.

Over the years, culturally strong Morocco has been keen on the return of its artefacts scattered across the world; in 2021, Moroccan authorities received nearly 25,000 archaeological objects, which had been seized in France during three customs controls and which illustrate the “scourge” of looting of cultural property.

But Morocco’s claims of “cultural theft” are beyond tangibles. Historically, the country has also been in diplomatic tension, particularly with neighbouring Algeria, over the appropriation of some of its intangible cultural heritage as the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and skills that communities, groups, and individuals recognize as part of its cultural heritage. Adidas, a company that makes football uniforms, became embroiled in a dispute in 2022 between the two countries over a new national team design created for Algeria, which Moroccan officials claim amounts to cultural appropriation.

But the issues extend beyond Morocco; other African countries also have claims of illegal cultural engagement that amounts to theft, forgery and cultural appropriation. In some other instances, it is a case of “error of facts” around certain history similar to that which surfaced in 2023 over the Netflix docudrama “Cleopatra,” in which some Egyptian observers claimed the feature of the eponymous character was appropriating their culture and rewriting their history, primarily because Cleopatra is portrayed by a black woman in the film.

Perhaps Morocco’s latest drive for “cultural policing” will pave the way for other African countries and provide a template to maximize the potential of Africa’s culture and art. It is curious to see if the controversies around cultural theft will ever end, with most countries on the continent being “colonial states” and some having a history of settlers.

Zimbabwe is considering another adventure for currency stability

The governor of Zimbabwe’s central bank announced on Wednesday that the bank and the finance ministry will be working together to devise fresh plans for stabilising the country’s currency. The decision was required because the Zimbabwean dollar in less than two months has dropped by over 40% since the start of the year due to lower commodity prices that have dampened inflows and increased demand for foreign currency from state employees earning December bonuses.

The planned collaboration will be the latest of many policy attempts to stabilize the Southern African economy. According to a study by Statista, “inflation in Zimbabwe rose to 10.61 percent in 2018 and is projected to jump dramatically to 577.21 percent in 2020. After that, estimates predict a slow decline for now; however, given Zimbabwe’s history of poor monetary policy, including one of the worst instances of hyperinflation, this seems unrealistic.” The current economic situation appears to have fulfilled Statista’s projection.

The country’s dark economic history can be traced to when the Economic Structural Adjustment Policy (ESAP), a policy of economic liberalisation that demolished a planned “siege” economy from the UDI era, was implemented in August 1991. The value of the currency started to decline sharply. Also, Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Second Congo War, the chaotic redistribution of land to unskilled farmers, and declining export revenues all contributed to the currency’s official and unofficial exchange rates plummeting further.

So bad did the situation turn that the Zimbabwean government announced on July 13, 2007 that it had temporarily stopped releasing official inflation data—an attempt observers say was to deflect attention from “runaway inflation, which symbolises the country’s unprecedented economic meltdown.” Also, in response to the currency’s declining value, the central bank favoured the printing of additional banknotes, which experts say compounded the issue.

Following years of price speculation and hyperinflation, general consumer prices began to stabilise in January 2009, when the use of foreign currencies became authorised. The Central Bank declared on January 29, 2014, that the following currencies would be recognised as legal tender in Zimbabwe: US dollars, South African rand, Botswana pula, pound sterling, Euro, Australian dollar, Chinese yuan (renminbi), Indian rupee, and Japanese yen.

It is yet to be seen what the likely new moves by the central bank and the finance ministry will be this time, as Zimbabweans hope that incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa  who was recently reelected, can turn things around, but a more critical point would be the sustainability of the reforms vis-à-vis lasting effects on the public after years of various quick fixes.

World Bank won’t budge over alleged sexual assault in Kenya’s IFC division

World Bank President Ajay Banga, for the umpteenth time, denied allegations that the organization’s International Finance Corp (IFC) unit tried to hide allegations of sexual assault at a chain of for-profit schools in Kenya that it controlled between 2013 and 2022. Banga took this position during a public event sponsored by the Centre for Global Development. When asked about the IFC’s response to an independent investigation into the claims at Bridge International Academies, Banga refuted the idea that the IFC was involved in a cover-up.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the bank failed to meet its own environmental and social requirements prior to funding Bridge International Academies in 2014 and during its oversight of its investment in the project, which came to an end last year, according to the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), the bank’s internal watchdog.

The CAO stated in a draft report in August that the company was aware of complaints of abuse but had not made sufficient efforts to address the cases or implement preventative measures to prevent abuse in the future. According to the CAO, between 2014 and 2021, it discovered 21 instances of teacher sexual abuse of minors at Bridge schools.

Bridge acknowledged that nine reports of child sexual abuse were made in 2016 at one of its schools. It claimed to have terminated the contracts of the teachers who had been accused of abuse, reported the occurrences to the police, provided the victims with psychiatric support, and communicated with the communities and parents of the affected children.

The scandal has continued to resurface despite the World Bank’s continued denial. Although Banga was not selected for the position of bank president at the time of the divestment, he will still have to cope with the fallout while trying to improve the lender’s operations.

Nigeria’s central bank under pressure as economic crisis deepens

Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor, Yemi Cardoso, appeared before the House of Representatives for the sectoral debate on Tuesday, as many of the lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of the governor in handling the naira, which has been on a downward spiral in the past couple of months.

Alongside him were Wale Edun, the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance; Atiku Bagudu, the Minister of Budget and National Planning; and Zacch Adedeji, the Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service.

Nigeria is talking about receiving up to $1.5 billion in loans from the World Bank to help ease the chronic dollar shortage that has been a major factor in the sharp collapse of the naira. International investors have praised recent reforms, but they have also resulted in a sharp increase in living expenses. Last month, inflation reached a 27-year high of 28.9%, and the value of the naira fell by about 50% compared to the US dollar.

During his address to the House, Cardoso outlined the difficulties the naira is facing, particularly the demand from students studying abroad. According to Mr. Cardoso, Nigerians also spent $11.06 billion on medical travel during that time. Also, more than 100,000 students are presently enrolled in programmes abroad, he said, adding that between 2010 and 2020, Nigerian students expended $28.5 billion abroad.

The country anticipates that oil production will increase to 1.78 million barrels per day, up from 1.49 million barrels last month. This should support the government’s finances and stimulate the economy. Meanwhile, domestic crude refining is anticipated to start up again this year at the state-owned refinery in Port Harcourt and at the Dangote refinery in Lagos. This would help ease the currency crunch by lowering the amount of petrol imported.

Behind the News

Behind the News: All the backstories to our major news this week

Published

on

Over the past week, there were many important stories from around the African continent, and we served you some of the most topical ones.

Here is a rundown of the backstories to some of the biggest news stories in Africa that we covered during the week:

West Africa’s ‘Brexit’ moment as junta-led states withdraw from ECOWAS 

The week began with the news that three West African junta-led states—Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso—announcing their withdrawal from the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), immediately.

The leaders of the three nations, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, Colonel Assimi Goïta, and Brigadier General Abdourahamane Tiani, issued a joint statement that was read aloud on Niger national television. They stated that they had decided to withdraw Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger from the Economic Community of West African States immediately, “in the face of history and responding to the expectations, concerns, and aspirations of their populations.”

The three have long explored the possibility of a political and economic alliance, ‘the Alliance of Sahel States (AES)’, following a series of sanctions from international and regional bodies. With the announced withdrawal, they are likely to become even more isolated. There have also been talks around the adoption of a single, unifying currency amongst them.

Five coups have occurred in the West African sub-region in the previous three years, and the World Bank has issued a warning that the most recent coup, which occurred in Niger, would exacerbate problems pertaining to the food markets of Nigeria and other West African countries.

The withdrawal is particularly of political and economic importance, particularly for Nigeria, the regional leader, as two of the country’s three borders are now “hostile territories,” leaving the regional giant almost geographically isolated and exposed.

Informal cross-border trading (ICBT) crossing customs borders is a booming economic factor in Africa, and West Africa in particular, thus making the withdrawal a likely clog in the wheels of the regional economy.

Senegal’s Macky Sall strikes another ‘coup’ in West Africa

West Africa witnessed another coup on Saturday, howbeit a constitutional one, as Senegal’s scheduled presidential election for February 25 has been postponed by President Macky Sall after revoking an appropriate electoral statute because of electoral disputes that he said may spark unrest.

“These troubled conditions could seriously undermine the credibility of the ballot by sowing the seeds of pre- and post-electoral disputes,” Sall said in his address.

With just over three weeks remaining before the election, Senegal is thrust into unknown constitutional territory by the unprecedented decision to postpone the vote to an undisclosed date, which some opposition and civil society organisations fear could cause instability.

After months of speculation and controversies alleging Sall’s plan to seek a third term reign, he in July announced otherwise: “My decision, carefully considered, is not to run as a candidate in the upcoming election on February 25, 2024, even though the constitution grants me the right.”

With five coups already recorded in the West African sub-region in the previous three years, the postponement of the election raises questions and likely tensions around political transitions. While Sall didn’t seize power through military force, his political disposition raises curiosity about the sit-tight syndrome on the continent, which has the ugly record of being home to most of the world’s longest-serving leaders, with 84-year-old Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo currently in his sixth 7-year term topping the chart.

More on Nigeria’s foreign exchange issues 

During the week, Nigeria made major monetary policy directives as it currently battles its worst currency freefall. On Wednesday, the Nigerian central bank said it had cleared the entire backlog of verified claims owed to foreign airlines whose payments had been blocked in the country, but the airline association, IATA, said another $700 million of owed money remained in Nigerian banks.

According to the International Air Transport Association, Nigeria has over 27 international airlines operating there, and its government has the largest amount of airline-trapped funds globally. According to information gleaned from IATA, by year’s end, the funds had increased to almost $792 million.

Following the Central Bank of Nigeria’s release of $265 million in outstanding ticket sales, some airlines, including Emirates, resumed operations after having earlier suspended flights in September 2022. The airline then abruptly stopped operating in the nation, citing fruitless discussions on money repatriation with Nigerian officials merely two months later. During the same time frame, Etihad Airways also stopped operating flights to Nigeria.

Even though the CBN has pledged to clear the backlog, investors are extremely concerned about Nigeria’s matured FX forwards, which are estimated to be worth $7 billion. This is because the shortage of foreign currency is causing the naira to drop more.

As part of the measures to address the FX challenge, the central bank has also directed that banks and financial technology businesses (fintechs) are no longer permitted to carry out foreign currency transfer services. It also updated guidelines for International Money Transfer Operations (IMTO) as it hopes to discourage abuse in the foreign exchange system.

Another Africa Summit sets in Rome 

Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, called for a fresh approach to Africa and unveiled a long-awaited proposal on Monday to improve economic ties, create an energy hub for Europe, and lower immigration.

At the one-day summit, which was attended by over two dozen African presidents and European Union leaders, Meloni delivered a speech and unveiled many ideas, including state guarantees and an initial investment of 5.5 billion euros ($5.95 billion).

Considering that Africa is home to the majority of the world’s natural resources, observers have highlighted that Italy, with its enormous debt, has little chance of competing with nations like China, Russia, and the Gulf states. Although the country has promised to make Africa a major focus of its presidency of the Group of Seven (G7) countries, which it will assume late this year.

Beyond commerce and the economy, Italy is also worried about the rise of undocumented African migrants crossing the Mediterranean, which is compelling it to look for mutual control measures with some African nations.

Recently, a growing number of European nations have enacted their own “Africa policies.” With sessional summits like Russia-Africa, US-Africa, China-Africa, France-Africa, Saudi-Africa, Turkey-Africa, and India-Africa, Africa has continued to be the toast of many international interests. How much African interest these summits and relations actually address remains to be seen.

Continue Reading

Behind the News

Behind the News: All the backstories to our major news this week

Published

on

Over the past week, there were many important stories from around the African continent, and we served you some of the most topical ones.

Here is a rundown of the backstories to some of the biggest news stories in Africa that we covered during the week:

South Africa leads the line against Israel 

During the week, South Africa made another bold step in the international system with the hearing of its allegations of rights abuses against Israel. In December, South Africa petitioned in an 84-page document about Israel’s inability to supply the Gaza Strip with basic necessities like food, water, medicine, fuel, shelter, and other humanitarian aid. South Africa is accusing Israel of failing to uphold its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which both countries are parties.

At the hearing on Thursday, Irish lawyer Blinne Ni Ghralaigh, who represented South Africa in the case, claimed that since the war broke out in October, 247 Palestinians had been killed each day, 1 every 6 minutes, 48 mothers in 2 every hour, and 117 children in 5 every hour. In addition, South Africa’s Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Minister Ronald Lamola, also argued in his prayer before the ICJ that “the ongoing violence and destruction in Palestine and Israel did not begin on October 7. “The Palestinians have experienced systematic operations and violence for the last seventy-six years.”

On October 7, Islamist militants from Hamas carried out a cross-border attack in which 1,200 people were killed, as reported by Israel. According to Palestinian health sources, nearly 22,000 people have died as a result of Israel’s airstrikes and ground operations in retribution for the incident that started the war.

In 1989, Hamas launched their maiden assault on Israel, capturing and murdering two soldiers, which prompted Israel to detain its founder, Yassin. In 1997, Yassin was given up in return for Mossad agents who had attempted to kill Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, in Jordan.

Hamas entered politics in 2005 and defeated rival Fatah in the following year’s legislative elections with an overwhelming win. Presently, the group is now classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union, although it is also considered a resistance movement by some.

It is curious to underline South Africa’s interest in dragging Israel to the World Court in the conflict, but it is worthy to note that the country lately has sought to position itself as a leading voice from Africa in the international space, from initiating and leading a mediation campaign between Russia and Ukraine last year to its role in the BRICS group of major emerging economies and hosting its 15th heads of state and government summit in Johannesburg last year.

Nigeria’s Dangote Refinery finally begins operations

Months after launching the world’s largest single-train refinery, Nigeria’s long-awaited $20 billion Dangote Refinery finally began production of diesel and aviation fuel, with an immediate target to meet the domestic demand in Nigeria. The refinery had received approximately six million barrels of crude oil from the 650,000 barrels per day plant over the past few weeks. The first crude delivery was completed on December 12, 2023, and the sixth cargo was delivered on January 8, 2024.

Nigeria’s state-owned refineries have not operated at full capacity for many years, despite numerous attempts to bring them back online. The government’s inability to bring them back to life has added to the intense national interest in the Dangote refinery.

The situation around crude oil refineries warranted a subsidy system, which the government later judged unsustainable and ended. This led to fuel prices increasing more than threefold in the following months, heightening expectations for the refinery to commence operations and deliver cheaper petrol.

With local production and production costs attached to imports and exports of crude as well as external refining out of the country, Nigerians expect an era of cheaper petroleum products, but the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited has said that the local production of Premium Motor Spirit, otherwise known as petrol, by Dangote Refinery, Port Harcourt Refining Company, and others in Nigeria is not going to change the pump price of the commodity.

Ghana edges closer to a debt restructuring dea

Official creditors of the West African country, Ghana, have agreed to restructure debts that were extended to the country up until December 2022. According to the deal, official creditors would allow the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Executive Board to authorise the payment of $600 million from its $3 billion bailout plan.

Ghana has a financial crisis, with the country losing around 30% of its annual government revenue to paying off its external debt, even though large portions of its debt were cancelled ten years ago, with its external debt falling from $6.6 billion in 2003 to $2.3 billion in 2006. Despite being a significant producer of oil, gold, and cocoa, it was one of the first countries in Africa to default on its foreign debt.

Such massive payments are only possible because Ghana has been able to take on more loans from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which are used to pay the interest on obligations to prior lenders while the overall size of the debt increases.

Bilateral lenders, namely China and France, who jointly chair the Official Creditor Committee (OCC), own over 25% of Ghana’s $20 billion in external debt that is scheduled for restructuring.

While some creditors had pushed for March 24, 2020, when the Group of 20 introduced its debt service suspension initiative (DSSI) to help the world’s poorest countries cope with the fallout from the COVID crisis, others were said to prefer December 31, 2022, as the deadline, given Ghana’s earlier default that month.

UN forces finally leave Congo  

About 2,000 United Nations forces troops will depart the troubled eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the end of April. The mission has been under tremendous pressure to end operations in recent months because of the public outcry against it for failing to bring peace to the country’s eastern regions, where armed groups have been operating for the past thirty years, killing, raping, and pillaging the region’s abundant natural resources, which include gold and diamonds.

 

 

In an effort to help lessen insecurity in the east of Central Africa, where armed groups fight for territory and resources, the 13,500-person mission known as MONUSCO took over a previous UN operation in 2010. But conflicts in the region have persisted and taken on an international dimension, with allegations linking rebel attacks to Congo’s eastern African neighbour, Rwanda.

 

 

Human Rights Watch reported in 2022 that resurgent M23 rebels, supported by Rwanda, mounted their largest attack on state forces in ten years, taking control of areas of North Kivu and exacerbating the region’s catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Congo has also accused a regional force, the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), of sympathising with the rebels.

 

Given its seeming ineffectiveness and being bigger and more expensive than any of the 12 UN peacekeeping operations that are stationed across the globe, this has also positioned it for wide criticism, with several calling for its end. The jury is out on how much Congo DR can achieve without regional and international alliances in the battles with has lasted over a decade.

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