Covid-19 and crisis in sub-Saharan Africa

Nigerian CWI supporters campaigning, in Ibadan, last month, on measures needed to protect workers from Covid-19

Lenin once said that with the 1917 Russian revolution, “Imperialism broke at its weakest link”. Today, the deadly combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rapid development of an almost unprecedented worldwide economic catastrophe is producing potentially explosive social, economic and political situations around the world.

By any standard, sub-Saharan Africa, as a whole, is a massive weak link for imperialism and the local capitalist classes. The over one billion population are at a turning point, facing old and new threats to health and life.

Economically, it is being hit by the fact that the world economy in many senses is falling off a cliff, creating in many countries what the UN has called a ‘hunger pandemic’. The majority of sub-Saharan African workers are casual workers, individual artisans or traders – the so-called “informal” sector. The ILO estimates that their median income will fall by 81% to $96 a month (at ‘purchasing power parity’). And as a result, the ILO forecasts that the poverty rate amongst African casual workers will rocket from 21% to 83%: obviously a major disaster. Globally, the UN’s World Food Program forecast in mid-April that crises trigged by Covid-19 could mean that “the lives and livelihoods of 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be under severe threat … up from a current 135 million.” The areas where the WFP’s “concern is highest (is) for those in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East”.

The spread of Covid-19 was relatively late in sub-Saharan Africa and the extent to which it will develop is being debated amongst scientists and doctors. There are those who say that Africa’s youthful population and climate will help limit the pandemic’s spread, while others point to the widespread impossibility of maintaining “social distancing” in most African cities and the lack of safe water as conditions for it spreading rapidly. But it is still possible that large numbers will be hit by the pandemic especially in the densely packed urban areas and amongst the over 19 million people currently internally displaced in Africa. Covid-19 is still spreading and the state of the continent’s health care systems means that many will die unnecessarily and also unrecorded as Covid-19 victims.

However, even if Covid-19 does not become endemic in sub-Saharan Africa, the population will continue to face sickness and death from preventable or treatable diseases, including pneumonia, malaria, diarrhoeal diseases and TB. On top of these continental-wide ailments, and the new threat of Covid-19, there are currently regional outbreaks of diseases like Ebola, measles and cholera in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), measles in the Central African Republic (CAR), and Lassa fever in Nigeria.

Huge death toll

The death toll from these “old” diseases is huge. More than 400,000 African children die each year from pneumonia. In Nigeria, the lack of medical oxygen is a key factor in it being the biggest killer of that country’s children. The World Health Organisation (WHO) 2019 World Malaria Report said that Nigeria accounted for 25% of the 228 million global malaria infections in 2018. Over 185 people died from Lassa fever in Nigeria in the first four months of 2020. While not yet fully preventable, HIV/AIDS is now a manageable disease, but, in South Africa, out of a 20%+ infection rate, it is estimated two million people are not on anti-retroviral treatments.

On top of this, east Africa is facing, in June, the second wave of huge locust swarms, partly the result of climate change, which is expected to descend on Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia and will destroy crops. Recently the Save the Children charity warned that with already five million children under the age of five acutely malnourished, this region faces an “unprecedented” triple threat as, in addition to locust swarms, it is hit by Covid-19 and flooding.

Health care systems in Africa, while differing between each country, are incapable of treating significant parts of the population. This is a reason why the African elite travel to Europe, the Gulf or India for treatment, routes which the Covid-19 travel lockdown has blocked. Sub-Saharan Africa has about one doctor for every 5,000 people, compared with one per 300 in Europe. There is a similar gap in the numbers of healthcare workers. In 2013, there were only 2.2 workers per 1,000 people compared with 14 per 1,000 in Europe. Many hospitals in the USA and Europe have more intensive-care beds than some African countries. Kenya has 130; Uganda 55; and Malawi about 25.

Across the continent, insurgencies and wars in west, central and east Africa, only add to the total of people needing medical assistance and create yet more refugees. These battles are often over resources – food, water, land, jobs – which are in short supply due to underdevelopment, climate change and economic crisis. Currently, these conflicts are especially acute in the Sahel, Somalia and South Sudan, while in central Africa and Mozambique armed clashes are developing. The Boko Haram insurgency around the borders of Nigeria with Chad and Niger, as well as armed clashes between farmers and herdsmen in the north of Nigeria, have led to widespread displacement of people and threats to food security. The UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, says one result is that “Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26 per cent of the world’s refugee population. Over 18 million people in this region are of concern to UNHCR. That number has soared in recent years.”

Against this background there now is the spectre of the Covid-19 pandemic and an extremely deep world economic crisis.

Character of the economic crisis

However, Covid-19, while being the trigger for the economic crisis and giving it a particular character, is not the underlying cause. There were signs of a crisis brewing towards the end of 2019 with, for example, falling world trade. Sub-Saharan Africa was, before the pandemic erupted, showing symptoms of the crisis starting to develop in the world economy, especially the fall in raw material prices. Just months before the COVID-19 outbreak South Africa, the second-largest economy on the continent, fell into its second recession in five years.

Last October, the IMF reported that the world’s five fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa. However much of this was not on a stable basis. Already before the latest crisis began to erupt, Africa’s debt was rising again. “Between 2010 and 2018, average public debt in sub-Saharan Africa rose from 40% to 59% of GDP, the fastest increase of any developing region. More than half of African countries are above the IMF’s recommended limit for public debt. The World Bank says that 29 out of 47 African countries need to tax more than they spend just to keep their debt constant as a share of the economy.”

But the benefits of the recent period of growth hardly “trickled down”. An Afrobarometer study found that between 2014 and 2018, what it called ‘lived poverty’ (an index taking account of how often people did not have food or clean water) rose slightly for the first time in more than a decade. In some countries – including South Africa, Niger and Uganda – it rose considerably. The idea that general progress, “Africa Rising”, was taking place was one-sided. Yes, these were years when African economies generally grew, but poverty grew as well. This was the result of gross economic inequalities and the looting of the economies by both the local and imperialist ruling classes. Additionally, in some years the populations of some countries grew faster than the economy.

This looting of Africa is a symptom that, despite all its human and natural resources, the continent is still the most underdeveloped and is more directly dominated by imperialism than parts of Asia or Latin America. This, and the heavy preponderance of raw material exports, is a key factor in the ruling classes’ looting of the state and their “take the money and run” (or bank it elsewhere) philosophy. The inability of capitalism to develop Africa, in a rounded way, is seen in the general trend of the local capitalists to invest in finance, property or in products that can be immediately sold locally, like foodstuffs, building materials, rather than longer-term investments that would bring them into competition with the international monopolies. The result is that local business people are generally compradors, local allies and agents of imperialism, not seriously trying to develop their own nation-state, instead having a rentier or client character.

This underdevelopment not simply means low living standards, weak infrastructures of all kinds, and poor health services etc. but also an extreme vulnerability to the crisis situation which has started to develop.

All current forecasts are for a recession and decline to hit all, or nearly all, African countries. The ILO figures show the dramatic drop in earnings as jobs and the possibility to work dry up in lockdowns. The IMF is forecasting that sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product will contract by 1.6% this year, compared with a 3.1% growth in 2019.

World Bank pessimism

The World Bank is far more pessimistic. Its Chief Economist for Africa, Albert G. Zeufack, explained: “What we are projecting is the worst we’ve seen in 25 years … We’re projecting that household welfare (meaning household consumption and income) could decline between 7% and 14%, depending on how long this crisis lasts … Africa could also be at risk of a food crisis. That’s how bad it is.

“Even before Covid-19 hit Africa, our three largest economies were not performing that well. Nigeria, South Africa and Angola together make up 60% of our GDP in sub-Saharan Africa. Before Covid-19 hit, there was a recession in South Africa, there was a recession in Angola in previous quarters. Nigeria was growing but at a very slow pace and was still timidly recovering from its last commodity price shock in 2016 … overall, it’s clear that no African country will have enough room to manoeuvre to be able to face this crisis alone”.

Translated into real life these figures mean a huge disaster. The African Union is talking of nearly 20 million job losses, but clearly this does not take the position of casual workers and artisans into consideration. However this will not create a new situation, as mass unemployment or underemployment in Africa is widespread. Prior to this crisis, the official unemployment rates were 29% in South Africa and 23% in Nigeria. Furthermore remittances from family members working in other countries are likely fall in this international economic crisis, something which will be a further blow to a sizable numbers of families.

Last year’s economic growth (2.4% according to the World Bank) was less than the 2.7% increase in its population, meaning that Africa’s GDP per person fell. Now with all forecasts predicting a drop, the sub-Saharan economy will maybe over 5% smaller by December, at a time when the region’s population is forecast to rise by around 2.6% to 1,094 million. On average, all Africans will be poorer, although the reality of class society means that most of the ruling classes and their hangers-on will hardly suffer, if at all.

This will further sharpen the situation. Already there is anger at what is seen as the elite bringing Covid-19 into Africa when they returned from trips to Europe, the Gulf and Asia. It was quite symbolic that the first confirmed Covid-19 death in Africa was that of the vice-president of Burkina Faso’s legislative assembly.

Africa’s other deadly diseases

The spread of Covid-19 is starting to cause fear as the number of cases and deaths increase. At the same time, the continual failure to deal with malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, and other deadly diseases, means there is scepticism that Covid-19 can be dealt with, especially as many of the initial infections and deaths were amongst the ruling and middle classes. In Nigeria, it was not lost on broad layers of the population that, because of travel restrictions, sick members of the elite could not go outside the country for treatment, as they usually do, and then some of them died in Nigerian hospitals.

In one country after another, people are questioning the ability of their governments to protect, provide for and, if necessary, treat them. Even if, like Ebola, Covid-19 can be contained in parts of Africa, the impact of the likely world economic slump will be brutal.

The lockdowns, which have often been harshly imposed, have increased anger. In situations where huge numbers of the working population are casual workers, artisans or traders, the lockdowns meant, in the words of some protesters “no work, no food”. Despite promises, state relief was often not effective. The state brutality that working people met when they either tried to go to work or to procure food has fuelled resentment.

As in other continents, governments in Africa are taking advantage of the pandemic to impose or re-impose sometimes wide-ranging powers, often using ‘emergency’ procedures to bypass parliaments. This Bonapartist tendency towards the state taking, or trying to take, unilateral action is, of course, widespread in Africa. The African elites correctly fear that their looting means that their rule has no legitimacy in the eyes of many, so they rely on corruption (‘stomach infrastructure’, as they say in Nigeria) or force to rule. The rulers will not want to quickly give up these emergency powers after the Covid-19 crisis. This would mean that the limited democratic gains acquired in some African countries in the past few years of “democratisation” could be further rolled back.

Despite this repression, in some countries, frustration and anger are almost boiling over. In the absence of a lead from the trade unions or left forces, like the CWI, riots and bedlam can very easily and rapidly spread. In Lagos, Nigeria, a lockdown led to sizable gangs of youths attacking working-class and poor areas in search of money and valuables. They did not attack middle or ruling class areas, as they are often gated and defended. Given the absence of police, local people, sometimes at the urging of CWI members, organised their own self-defence activities to resist attack. However, the security of the rich and middle class areas was not entirely guaranteed. In fact, as the lockdown went on, bands of hungry people showed up in some of the rich and middle class areas in Lagos, begging for alms or banging on the gated residential estates in Lekki, Victoria Island and Ikoyi. As one scared rich resident correctly observed, from gently begging for alms, these hungry bands could turn to more direct means. To ward off these dangers, some residents of well-off estates in Victoria Island organised daily contributions to feed the “area boys” for protection.

The development and strengthening of self-organisation by workers, the poor and youth are key tasks, both for survival and for the struggle for change. Without the working class and such organisations showing a way out, and engaging in struggle, there is the danger of the development of communal, ethnic, religious and national clashes breaking out. Africa has seen before how such developments have inflicted misery and destruction over wide areas as states and societies have broken down. In our ‘Emergency programme to fight Covid-19 and protect working people’, the CWI puts forward a proposals for how such self-organisation can begin in this crisis. For example, “the trade unions should take the lead in encouraging democratic self-organisation to organise supplies and their fair distribution and pricing – including action against profiteering and black marketeering.

“Where necessary, set up public kitchens and relief centres at community levels for distribution of foodstuff, drugs and other essential supplies. Emergency action to provide adequate supplies of cheap drinking water and safe sanitation. Control and distribution of such supplies to be in the hands of democratic committees set up at community level and comprising elected representatives of trade unions, community/neighbourhood associations and grassroots groups etc., in order to prevent fraud, price gouging and other sharp practises.”

Such actions, linked to demands for free, good healthcare, and a living income for all, would be a basis for building a united movement to both win immediate improvement and for fundamental change. Without this, there would not just be the danger of rising criminality but the development of ethnic, religious and national tensions both within and between countries.

Growing tensions meant that 2019 saw, for the first time in five years, a rise in military spending in Africa to an estimated US$41.2 billion. Partly this reflected increased insurgencies in different countries but also, in some areas, potential conflicts between states.

Imperialist powers tussle for influence in Africa

Against a background of increasing rivalries and friction between the main imperialist powers, there has been a growing tussle between them for influence and positions within Africa. Covid-19 provided the latest example, with China offering large in-kind medical donations to combat the pandemic, something that their rivals have labelled “facemask diplomacy”. The US administration has not been so generous: Trump phoned the Nigerian president Buhari to offer an “unspecified” number of ventilators.

The imperialist powers are not just fearful of one another they also fear what the popular reaction to this fundamental crisis will be. That is a reason why imperialist agencies like the IMF are currently prepared to grant some concessions, like the loans totalling over $18 billion it has offered to over 40 African countries. Nigeria has been loaned $3.4 billion of this with an agreement to repay it within five years at a “low” annual 1% interest rate. But this is hardly generous. The very first, but not the only, British government package to deal with the impact of the pandemic totalled $39 billion, over double what the IMF offered the entire continent. But Britain has a population of over 66 million compared with over 200 million living in Nigeria, and well over a billion living in Sub-Saharan Africa, as a whole. Loans like those from the IMF barely touch the surface and, because the burden of repayment will fall on working people, will not offer a way out. Notwithstanding the IMF’s recent offer of a 1% interest rate, which is four times higher than the US Federal Reserve’s current 0.25% rate, the demand for cancellation of foreign debts will be an important issue in Africa and elsewhere, especially given the sharp decline in revenue.

The ruling classes will use this crisis as an excuse to launch attacks on workers and the poor, in general. In South Africa, the pro-capitalist ANC government has used the worldwide crisis in the aviation industry to carry through, as the South African CWI comrades explain, its policy of wanting “to break the workers’ resistance, bury SAA and create a new privately-owned entity parasiting on the state”. (SAA: A Warning to the Working Class).

In Nigeria, the government has seized hold of the opportunity of this crisis, especially the crash in oil prices, to officially remove the “oil subsidy”, posing the possibility of sharp increases in the prices of petrol, and other oil products, when the oil price rises again. The decline in Nigeria’s oil revenues also means federal state governments, in particular, will soon start again to owe workers’ salaries. Already Kaduna state has begun to cut the workers’ salaries by twenty-five percent. Announcements about plans to cut salaries or sack workers have been made not only by governments but also by the private sector.

As in the rest of the world, CWI comrades in Africa have been active in building movements to secure the necessary medical defences against Covid-19, defend working peoples’ safety and living standards, while striving to build the forces that can challenge the capitalist system. Even before Covid-19, health services were in an inadequate and pitiful state in much of Africa.

CWI campaigns in Africa

We have argued that words are not enough. Our South African comrades in the Marxist Workers Party have been campaigning for the left-led metalworkers’ union, Numsa, the largest trade union in South Africa, and Saftu, the trade union centre Numsa dominates, “to adopt a bold socialist programme as a response to the economic crisis of capitalism and the ANC government’s programme of pay cuts, job losses, austerity and privatisation, both now massively aggravated by the coronavirus crisis”.

In Nigeria, CWI comrades leading the Socialist Party of Nigeria, warned that the trade union leaders’ “inability to fashion and campaign for a clearly independent working class programme over the health emergency and the economic crisis, is what is behind the current audacity of the capitalist ruling elite to not even attempt to do one per cent of the kind of massive state interventions and relief programme that are taking place in other capitalist countries”. (ALTERNATIVE ACTION PLAN FOR LOCKDOWN).

Already events are showing the limits of the “market” and capitalism. The fact that capitalist classes around the world now have to economically rely on the state shows the limits of private ownership. However, the capitalists want to use what is essentially “their” state to secure the profit system by state funding and, if necessary, suppressing protests. Inevitably, the question will be posed that if private companies can only survive by resting on the state, what is the role of private ownership apart from making a profit for capitalists? This increased role of the state will raise the question of public ownership, especially of the commanding heights of the economy, and planning the economy in the interests of the vast majority and not private profit.

A stormy period has opened. Like in other parts of the world, working people will not indefinitely tolerate this situation. This is especially so in Africa, where the average age is 19 years old, and where 77% of the population is below the age of 35. The young, with their energy and anger, will be the driving force of change. Again and again, there have been mighty movements in Africa for freedom and fundamental change. Often dictatorial regimes have been overthrown, but then the question is what happens next?

This is a vital question for the future, for there can be no doubt that struggles will, sooner or later, break out. What lessons can be learned from the past? Sudan provides some answers. Last year, months of mass struggle overcame murderous repression and finally ousted a 20-year-old brutal regime. In one sense, power lay in the hands of the working people but there was no agreement on concrete steps to make that a practical reality. This allowed top generals, a key part of the old regime, to entice opposition leaders into a coalition that resulted in the state remaining largely in the hands of the military. The situation in Sudan is still unstable; it is one of “dual power”. The revolution has not been crushed and struggles continue but the military continues to defend capitalism and landlordism. Unless an independent movement of workers and poor takes power completely, sooner or later the capitalists and their agents will re-establish full control.

Tremendous human potential

There is tremendous potential human energy in Africa, alongside huge natural resources. The challenge facing socialists is building a movement which, in the words of the CWI comrades in Nigeria, sees that the “Covid-19 pandemic is an indictment of the capitalist system. It has shown that a system built on profit and not human need will fail humanity when it matters the most. Now, more than ever, we need to begin to fight for a different kind of society – a socialist system under which the commanding heights of the economy are nationalised under democratic workers’ control and management, and the needs of the vast majority, not profits and greed of a few, form the basis of governance and economy”.

It is with such a programme that Africa can be transformed. It is entirely possible that, as with the Russian Revolution in October 1917, in the coming years, imperialism will indeed break at one of its weakest links. The coming to power of a workers’ and poor peoples’ government in one African country that starts the socialist reconstruction of society and appeals to workers and the poor in other countries to follow, to overthrow their own despots, and begin to create a voluntary socialist confederation of Africa, would not only transform the continent but would be a signal to the entire world to follow suit.

That is the challenge that has to be taken up if a world of perpetual crises is going to be ended and society transformed in the interests of the many, not the capitalist elite.

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