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Fresh from signal victories in Khartoum and Algiers, youthful mass movements are demanding jobs, opportunities and accountability as financial uncertainty grows
Two developments in the past year will be of seismic importance in 2020: the revolutionary movements in Algeria and Sudan and the start of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA). The tension between the aspirations of Africa's overwhelmingly young 1.2 billion people and the continent's sluggish economic progress is palpable throughout the continent's 30 million square kilometres. In several countries, especially in the bigger economies such as Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa where hopes are highest, the political temperature is close to boiling point. It will take quantities of political will not seen so far to respond to such pressures with a credible plan.
That explains the attention given to the free trade deal, which all the members of the African Union bar Eritrea have signed, and is due to start operating in July. It is the most ambitious trade zone project in the world. No other region has tried to weld 54 countries into a single market and eventually a full customs union. It also flies in the face of the waves of nationalism, protectionism and populism surging around the world. Africa isn't immune to those pressures, as shown by the xenophobic attacks in South Africa and Nigeria's closure of its land borders.
It will take many years to change Africa's economic game, to reach its first target of a single market with a gross domestic product of over US$3 trillion, bigger than India's economy today. But the trade treaty is the essential first step.
It is the biggest of several regional initiatives, such as a new regional currency in West Africa, attempts to rationalise the range of overlapping trading blocs, and ending visa requirements for all African visitors as a first step on the road to free movement across the continent. All face political opposition from vested business interests and hard-pressed workers fearful of more competition for local jobs.
Outsiders, governments and multinational companies are re-focusing attention on Africa this year – mainly for natural resources, markets, votes at the UN General Assembly and occasionally as a location for high-return investment.
Britain starts off with an Africa investment summit in London on 20 January; Turkey says 2020 is its year for Africa and follows with an investment conference in April; France hosts its event in Bordeaux in June and will also launch a six-month festival of Africa in May to be run by Senegalese architect and public intellectual N'Goné Fall. And China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi started this year with his customary African tour, this year to Egypt, Djibouti, Eritrea, Burundi and Zimbabwe. It's significant that the last three countries on Wang's itinerary are all under some Western sanctions.
Certainly, the battle for African hearts and minds is heating up. Expect to hear more claims from the United States, which is due to announce its own new initiatives in Africa, about how China's prolific lending based on resource deals threatens a new debt crisis for Africa. The reality is that China is now unassailably Africa's leading trading partner, in spite of infrastructure projects of often doubtful utility and massive expense. Western business feels left out and wants to catch up.
Fresh from what is sees as the triumph of its Africa summit in Sochi, Russia will ramp up its trade with the continent, although it's still trailing the major players such as China, India, the European Union and the US. Moscow hopes for more natural resource deals backed by diplomacy and security assistance. Several massive deals are in the pipeline.
As a guide to the year ahead, Africa Confidential is dedicating this and the next edition to the coming political, economic and security developments in Africa. Apart from the biggest countries, such as Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, we will cover the many elections throughout the continent this year, together with regional and national economic and financial trends. We will also focus on the growing security crisis across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and in the Great Lakes region, as well as the escalating war in Libya which is sucking in more outside powers.
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