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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 27th February 2017

NIGERIA/SOUTH AFRICA: Bilateral relations under pressure as protests mount

Patrick Smith

This week, we start with the fraying relations between Africa's two biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa. Then to Matebeleland in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has been celebrating his 93rd birthday. We have a series of tough economic reports from Ghana, Gambia and Zambia. And finally, Morocco's King Mohammed VI tries to win over the new head of the United Nations on the Western Sahara question and Pope Francis announces that he is planning a joint trip to South Sudan with his Anglican counterpart, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

NIGERIA/SOUTH AFRICA: Bilateral relations under pressure as protests mount
After a week of street protests, there are calls for action by the Nigerian and South African authorities to dampen down the growing nationalist rivalries between their two countries. On 24 February, a group called the Mamelodi Concerned Residents organised a march in Pretoria against illegal immigration, blaming Nigerians, Zimbabweans and Pakistanis for deteriorating conditions in the country.

In a scary echo of current United States' politics, an activist known as Mario Khumalo claims to have registered a 'South Africa First' party with the Independent Electoral Commission, claiming – quite falsely – that there are 13 million foreign nationals in the country. Malusi Gigaba, Home Affairs Minister and an ally of President Jacob Zuma, told Parliament on 23 February that the government would crack down on companies hiring illegal workers.

There have been counter-demonstrations in Nigeria with protestors targeting South African firms, especially the telecommunications company MTN and vandalising one of its offices in Abuja. Last week, MTN Chairman Phuthuma Nhleko was in Nigeria to meet Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo. This comes after Nhleko resolved a dispute with the Nigerian authorities over the company's failure to disconnect unregistered telephone SIM cards.

Nhleko negotiated a cut in the fine from US$5.6 billion to $1.7 bn. but that deal has provoked criticism in both countries. Members of Nigeria's National Assembly have called for an investigation into the negotiating procedures, given widespread suspicion that MTN may have made illegal payments to officials, as it had been accused of doing to secure a licence in Turkey.

At the same time, we hear that intelligence officers linked to President Zuma have launched an internal investigation into MTN's operations in Nigeria to evaluate those accusations. There may be a political motive behind this. Zuma's rival and Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, was formerly Chairman of MTN, during a period when it was accused of moving revenue out of Nigeria (its biggest market globally), Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Ugandato Mauritius and Dubai to avoid local tax obligations.

ZIMBABWE: At a surrealistic party, Mugabe marks his93rd birthday with hour long speech dismissing calls to quit
The ruling party is desperately factionalised, unemployment is rising fast and the economy is chronically short of dollars, yet an upbeat President Robert Mugabe held an extravagant birthday party on 25 February, reiterating his plans to stand again in national elections due next year.

Party officials lined up to offer Mugabe presents, as did some foreign dignitaries, while a local baker produced a 200-pound birthday cake in the shape of the country. The party was held in the Matobo Hills, close to Bulawayo, a long time opposition stronghold.

Mugabe's Deputy President and probable successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, told the bystanders that the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front would rule for ever. Mugabe's wife, Grace, who heads a faction in the party which opposes Mnangagwa, argues that her husband, living or dead, could defeat any rival candidate in the elections.

GHANA: Finance Minister Ofori-Atta's maiden budget to follow tough economic report
After a hard-hitting state-of-the-nation address on the nation's economic woes from President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo on 21 February, Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta is due read the 2017/2018 budget this week. His priority will be dealing with the country's indebtedness: its debt stock had grown to 122 bn. cedis ($26.2 bn.) from C9.5 bn. under the previous government, according to Akufo-Addo's figures.

Ofori-Atta also faces pressure to cut some of the utility tariffs raised by the preceding government and end what people call 'nuisance taxes'. He is also likely to extend the agreement with the International Monetary Fund, due to end in April 2018, to December 2018.

The government is also pushing ahead with its anti-corruption strategy. Last week, the Economic and Organised Crime Office froze bank accounts belonging to Stephen Kwabena Opuni, the former Chief Executive of the state's Ghana Cocoa Board (Cocobod), whom workers accused of using its resources to help the former governing party, the National Democratic Congress.

ZAMBIA: Government seeks $1 billion from IMF and debt refinancing deal
Finance Minister Felix Mutati is trying to win support from the African Development Bank (AfDB), World Bank and International Monetary Fund to raise about $1.3 bn. in budget support this year.

Mutati, who is yet to open formal talks with the IMF, says he hopes to agree a deal before the middle of the year. Financial sources say the government is seeking around $1 bn. from the Fund and the remainder from the AfDB.

The country is cash-strapped after a spending spree in the run-up to last year's elections and lower copper export prices. After resolving short-term financial matters, Mutati has said he would seek to refinance some $3 bn. of sovereign bonds.

GAMBIA: New government to get $60 million emergency finance from World Bank
Visiting Banjul on 25 February, the World Bank's Vice-President for Africa, Makhtar Diop, pledged short-term financing of $60 million for new President Adama Barrow's government. This follows revelations that the outgoing government under Yahya Jammeh looted many state institutions.

Barrow's officials are due to meet with a range of international financial institutions in the coming weeks to put together a plan for economic recovery. The political glitch triggered by Jammeh's refusal to leave power after losing December's elections has cut deeply into tourist earnings.

Finance Minister Amadou Sanneh, formerly a political prisoner under Jammeh, said state companies managing water, power, transport and telecoms had been bankrupted by the former regime. Jammeh is now living in Equatorial Guinea but some of his key security officials have been detained in Banjul.

MOROCCO: King Mohammed sounds alarm to UN as tensions rise again over Western Sahara
After clashing with former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the Western Sahara dispute last year, Morocco is trying to win over his successor António Guterres in its strategy of pushing back against the Polisario Front. Coming a month after Morocco's readmission to the African Union, which it also wants to win over to its position, there are signs of a coordinated diplomatic push on the issue.

In a phone call, King Mohammed VI complained directly to Guterres about what he described as “repeated incursions” by Polisario fighters around Guerguerat, an area in Western Sahara near the border with Mauritania. Its is next to a buffer zone patrolled by UN peacekeepers; Polisario accuses Morocco of trying to build a road into the UN area, a breach of the 1991 agreement.

SOUTH SUDAN: Pope Francis plans visit with Anglican leaders as famine and security crisis worsen
In a ground-breaking show of ecumenism, Pope Francis proposed on 26 February that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, should join him on a planned trip to South Sudan this year. The joint trip had been suggested, the Pope said, by local religious leaders in South Sudan who visited Rome last year and called for Roman Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian leaders to visit their country together to have the maximum influence.

Speaking of the need to draw attention to the terrible conditions in the country, Pope Francis described the local religious leaders in South Sudan as working for peace. As the death toll in the fighting between rival militaries and parties has risen, religious leaders have emerged with far more credibility among the wider population than their political counterparts.