Author: Alessandra Gramolini.
The year that has just begun does not seem to be rosy for the African continent. At the beginning of 2022, Africa suffered from the pandemic and its effects on the economy. 2023 opens with many nations facing another crisis: unsustainable debt.
The crisis has been underway for years, long-term loans have more than doubled reaching 636 billion dollars in the decade 2011-2021, a figure that exceeds the gross domestic product of more than 40 African countries taken together. The pandemic has worsened the economic situation and the war in Ukraine has pushed many countries to the brink, cutting off access to finance, depleting foreign exchange reserves and sending national budgets into a tailspin.
Living on the razor’s edge
Debt is the biggest problem they will face even though the ratings agency, Fitch, expects average debt in sub-Saharan Africa to improve and be below 65% in 2023, after reaching 72% in 2020, helped from the economic recovery after the pandemic, rising commodity prices and efforts to reduce budget deficits, but this level compares with an average of 57% in 2019, before the pandemic, and with less than 30% between 2007 and 2013.
According to the analysis of the public debt of sub-Saharan African countries, almost half of the countries (42%) have a debt-to-GDP ratio above 70%, while the average debt-to-income ratio will continue to be above 300%, double the value of 2013. This would prove the deterioration of the economic bases of these countries and their evolution prospects.
The risks these countries will face are related to high inflation, difficult financial conditions, the general indebtedness of the economies caused by the pandemic and now also by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Fitch also forecasts that average inflation in the region will fall from about 8% in 2022 to 5.5% this year and that GDP growth will be around 4%, close to the average of 3.8% in the five years up to 2019, but well below the growth recorded up to 2014. In some countries, however, inflation is well above the regional average. Add to this that there are eight sub-Saharan African countries with government debt payments, in 2023, accounting for a quarter of foreign reserves.
On the political front, many countries will be called to vote during 2023. The results of these elections could increase the discontent of the populations already strongly suffering from the increase in the prices of basic necessities.
Election time can be very volatile in Africa and the 2023-24 cycle will be no different, with a high risk of political protests, mass demonstrations and strikes in a number of countries. Upcoming elections in countries such as Algeria, Madagascar, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe could prove hotbeds of disruptive civil unrest in 2023. Worsening socioeconomic conditions in some of these countries, driven by subdued wage growth, rising costs of living and food security concerns, could also prove problematic for incumbent or new government administrations.
While African policy makers can’t influence the global headwinds, they can take steps to build resilience. Rising prices of commodities in a continent endowed with everything from diamonds, iron ore, bauxite, cobalt, copper to platinum offer a chance to create stabilization or sovereign wealth funds to insulate against future shocks. The key to building savings is to have proper governance, by some estimates Africa has 20 such funds already, but not all have delivered.
Recent research says that China and the West should work together to find solutions for African debt distress. The report says that although China’s lending to Africa did not cause the current debt in the continent, it must cooperate with the international community and African nations, to support Africa’s investment needs, after a year of recession for most economies on the continent.
The G7, led by the incoming Japanese presidency for 2023, could develop and build support for a new plan to be eventually embedded at the G20 level on debt relief and investments in Africa. The plan could include a broad-based dialogue led by the G7, African nations, and China on:
- Africa’s medium- to long-term external financing needs;
- a high-level political understanding between the West and China on the mutual benefit of strengthened cooperation to address African debt distress;
- and a detailed action agenda, led by the G7 and G20 Finance Tracks, to address obstacles for debt treatments.
A way out of this situation could be strong reforms to find long-term solutions that can meet African economies’ financial needs and avoid a similar scenario in the future.