Africa in the news: COVID-19, debt relief, and political updates

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA- Community leaders closed Sophumelela High School, sending all students home after 4 teachers tested positive for COVID-19 and one of them died in Cape Town, South Africa on June 18 2020. Health Minister Dr. Zweli Mkhize admitted that, according to the World Health Organization, South Africa did not qualify to go to level 3 reopening, thus increasing the number of Covid-19 infected in the country, with 83,890 positive cases. (NO RESALE)

COVID-19 update

While COVID-19 continues to spread in some areas of Africa, other countries look to open up. As of this writing, Africa has registered over 275,000 cases and over 7,00 deaths, though testing remains relatively low. Experts do not believe, however, that Africa is out of the woods yet: Earlier this week, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, warned, “Even though these cases in Africa account for less than 3 percent of the global total, it’s clear that this pandemic is accelerating.”

Experiences fighting the virus continue to be mixed, with cases surging in Cameroon, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire, but very few new cases in countries such as the Gambia and Namibia. Nigeria announced it will delay the opening of houses of worship in Lagos, and Sudan is extending its lockdown in Khartoum. In Tanzania, where President John Magufuli has taken on an aggressive reopening strategy and criticized local health officials for inflating the country’s COVID-19 numbers, which continue to rise, larger social gatherings—including weddings and schools—will be allowed beginning June 29.

Restrictions on travel in the region also vary widely. In West Africa, where many of the countries in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed various border-crossing restrictions, government ministers in ECOWAS countries proposed a phased reopening of borders starting in early July. In East Africa, where some countries have imposed border restrictions and subjected cross-country truck drivers to mandatory COVID-19 testing, the East African Community announced it would begin to use digital COVID-19-free certificates to combat the use of fake documents for traveling within the region.

Despite experiencing the highest and still-growing number of cases, South Africa continues to move forward with its reopening strategy. In this next step, businesses such as sit-down restaurants, hairdressers, and hotels, among others, will be allowed to reopen. At the same time, according to the BBC, the number of cases in South Africa jumped 37 percent in the last week alone, though the number of deaths has not been increasing. While experts attribute the South African lockdown with curbing not only COVID-19 deaths but also alcohol- and traffic-related deaths due to a ban on the sale of alcohol and minimized travel, President Ramaphosa acknowledged earlier this week that the lockdowns have also been associated with increases in gender-based violence.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, which has seen relatively few cases and is in the midst of lifting almost all its restrictions, local public-sector health workers have gone on strike to demand better working conditions. Health workers across the continent continue to be largely at risk of catching the virus: For example, the WHO recently announced that 9 percent of Guinea-Bissau’s health workers have been infected.

Debt relief for Africa in the midst of COVID-19

In a virtual summit with African leaders on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to “cancel debt for relevant African countries in the form of interest-free government loans that are due to mature at the end of 2020.” He also encouraged extending the deadlines for debt repayment through the G-20’s debt service suspension initiative, specifically for the African countries most impacted by COVID-19, and encouraged international lenders to take similar actions to support the continent financially. Africa owes China approximately $145 billion, making China its biggest creditor. Government officials and leaders of international finance institutions have called for debt relief in order to mitigate the severe economic, social, and health implications of the pandemic as Africa’s vulnerable economies have particularly suffered under lockdowns, border closures, export restrictions, and commodity price decreases.

In Angola, leaders are looking to secure debt relief from China by offering equity stakes in six oil fields of Sonangol Sinopec International. Two-fifths of Angola’s external debt is in oil-backed loans, and the country previously sent oil cargoes to China as its form of repayment. Earlier this month, however, Angola cut down the number of oil cargoes shipped to China in a move to renegotiate repayment terms and deal with the impact of COVID-19, and is now shifting to this new system.

In related news, Tanzania has received a loan for debt relief through the International Monetary Fund’s Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT). The IMF approved $14.3 million over the next four months with the potential of providing up to $25.7 million over the next 23 months, based on available funds within the CCRT. The relief is intended “to free up resources for public sector health needs and other emergency spending, as well as mitigate the balance of payments shock” of COVID-19 in Tanzania.

Politics in Burundi, Mali, South Sudan, and Kenya

On Thursday, June 18, Burundi’s newly elected president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, was sworn into office two months earlier than planned after the sudden death of his predecessor, Pierre Nkurunziza. Ndayishimiye, a former army general backed by Nkurunziza, was elected in May in a contentious vote widely disputed by the opposition. In his oath on Thursday, he stated that priorities for his presidency were to “ensure the national unity and cohesion of the Burundian people, peace and social justice,” “bring back to our country the refugees in the camps,” and “renew ties with the international community so they can help us develop.”

In Mali, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta announced on June 16 that he would hold talks on establishing a new unity government after weeks of criticism from political opposition. These announcements come in response to Keïta’s struggle to maintain political support in the face of a jihadist conflict active since 2012, economic stagnation, faltering public services, and widespread public perceptions of corruption. He also suggested steps for reforming the constitutional court and national parliament and promised to meet the demands of striking teachers’ unions.

In South Sudan, President Salva Kiir and now-Vice President Riek Machar, a former rebel leader in the country’s devastating civil war, reached an agreement on June 17 regarding the selection of governors for the country’s 10 states. Under the agreement, Kiir’s party will nominate governors for six states, including oil-rich Unity State and the state surrounding capital Juba; Machar’s party will nominate for three states, including the largest oil-producing state; and the South Sudan Opposition Alliance for the final one. The allocation of governors to states was one of the main disagreements between Kiir and Machar because it is a major component determining the division of power in the country. This issue had delayed the political transition process begun in February when a transitional unity government was first formed.

Finally, on Thursday, June 18, Kenya narrowly won an election against Djibouti for a nonpermanent United Nations Security Council seat. A two-thirds majority—128 votes—was required for victory; Kenya received 129 votes, while Djibouti, which was notably backed by China, received 62. Kenya will join Norway, Ireland, India, and Mexico for a two-year term as nonpermanent Security Council members, and replaces South Africa in the position.