Reorienting Discussions of Political and Economic Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Reorienting Discussions of Political and Economic Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Author’s note: This piece was written in the beginning of January 2021, before the second wave of COVID-19 hit Sub-Saharan Africa and therefore focuses only on the first wave of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa, which spanned from March to December 2020. 

Recent developments in Tanzania and Nigeria indicate the complexity of the African continent’s politics and economics. Labels of Afro-optimism and Afro-pessimism, which are often used in the media to forecast the future of an African country in blanket terms, have been inverted in response to recent economic and political developments. The current administration in Tanzania, a country long held as an example of Afro-optimism, displays authoritarian patterns and dances into more ‘pessimistic’ political territory.

Alternatively, the Nigerian government’s robust public health response to COVID-19 and the recent surge in political activism amongst Nigerian Youth indicate an increasingly optimistic future for a country which has long been plagued by Afro-pessimism. Such developments demonstrate that the terms Afro-optimism and Afro-pessimism ought to be discarded altogether. The use of such binary labels to describe African countries disregards the complexity of their inhabitants and their political and economic affairs. The politics and economics of African countries merit the rigour of analysis and the nuance of discussion that so many other countries have received for so long.

Tanzania has long been considered a model of Afro-optimism and an ‘island of stability’ amongst the African continent. However, the Presidential administration of John Magufuli has undermined this reputation by wreaking political and economic havoc, particularly in its handling of COVID-19. When Magufuli ran for President in 2015, his anti-corruption campaign resonated strongly with Tanzanian voters and he won decisively.

However, many democracy experts correctly recognized an undercurrent of authoritarianism early in his campaign and a partially-concealed persona of ‘strongman ruler’ in Magufuli. His administration has flirted with authoritarianism since coming to power by endangering civil society and all but eliminating opposition voices. Magufuli himself earned the nickname of ‘bulldozer’ when, over the course of his first term, he banned foreign trips for public servants, live parliamentary broadcasts and public rallies, undermining other diplomatic norms and democratic freedoms. Since 2015, Tanzania has reported a rise in police brutality, detention of opposition politicians and arbitrary arrests: additional evidence of the erosion of democracy.

Not only has President Magufuli eroded Tanzania’s democracy; he has also constrained long term economic growth. The Magufuli administration has engaged in a policy of economic nationalism, which has been conducive to short term economic growth but threatens long term economic stability by limiting opportunities to take advantage of international cooperation. In particular, economic nationalism has left Tanzania particularly vulnerable to the economic effects of COVID-19. 

President Magufuli’s handling of both Ebola and COVID-19 has demonstrated his disregard for the safety of his citizens and for the transparency and accountability of his administration. In September 2019, as an Ebola outbreak spread amongst Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Tanzanian Government said there were no confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola in the country. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) strongly rebuked the Magufuli Administration for withholding information from its citizens regarding the possible Ebola outbreak. In fact, The WHO reported three Ebola cases in Tanzania, one suspected fatal case in Dar es Salaam and two others. Meanwhile, the Magufuli Administration has repeatedly denied the WHO’s claims.

The pattern was repeated when the Magufuli administration declared Tanzania free of COVID-19 on April 29, 2020 and ceased reporting cases. While President Magufuli praises the Tanzanian government and security officials for eradicating the virus in the country, Tanzanian citizens denounce the government for its cover-up, citing the widely circulated videos of night burials and photos of government attendants wearing protective gear as evidence that the virus continues to proliferate in the country. 

The October 2020 Presidential election in Tanzania ought to have been a democratic referendum on the Magufuli administration but, instead, was confirmation of the country’s descent into authoritarianism. The run-up to Election Day was marred by political violence, credible allegations of election fraud and several conspicuous arrests of opposition leaders. When Magufuli was declared winner, reporters accused Magufuli of transforming his ruling party’s benign hegemony into a malevolent one,  transforming democratic freedoms in Tanzania into authoritarian tendencies.

Since experts largely agree that authoritarianism has been linked with substandard growth in Sub-Saharan African nations, the anti-democratic patterns of the Magufuli administration are likely to bear negative economic repercussions as well, especially when combined with poor handling of COVID-19 and continuing policies of economic nationalism. Magufuli’s second term has left few feeling optimistic about the future of Tanzania. 

By contrast, Nigeria has been widely held as a model of Afro-Pessimism, a country seemingly plagued by corruption and overwhelmed by rampant population growth. However, recent public health efforts and political activism, particularly among Nigerian youth, have been cause for more optimism about Nigeria’s direction and future.

In 2014, Nigeria defeated an emerging Ebola epidemic in under three months, a feat that the World Health Organization declared “a piece of world-class epidemiological detective work.” Out of a population of 206 million, only 20 Nigerians contracted Ebola: a testament to a rigorous and robust public health response, which included vigilant disinfecting, port-of-entry screening and rapid isolation and a total of 18,500 total in-person follow up visits as part of a vigorous contact tracing effort.

Nigeria’s public health playbook and pandemic preparedness were well-established by the time the first COVID-19 case was declared in the country in February 2020. As of early April, the Buhari administration had established a strict lockdown, distributed conditional cash transfers to low income citizens and deployed touchless thermometers to all of the country’s borders. As a result of such efforts, Nigeria’s COVID-19 cases— 1,264 as of December 27, 2020—have been impressively low relative to its population size. By comparison, South Africa has a population of just over one fourth of the size of Nigeria’s and has recorded over 1 million cases as of the same date. 

In addition, the magnitude of nationwide protests in Nigeria this past October revealed the breadth and depth of civic participation in the country. On October 3rd, 2020, a video was released of the unprovoked killing of a man by members of the SARS, Nigeria’s notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This became a catalyst for a national anti-SARS movement that spanned several weeks and encompassed hundreds of thousands of mainly youth protestors. On October 12th, President Buhari agreed to disband SARS as part of a larger commitment to extensive police reform, including a panel of inquiry into police brutality.

More optimistic and more realistic than these commitments, though, are the commitments shown by Nigerian youth towards equality, democracy and the rule of law. The magnitude of participation in Nigeria’s anti-SARS protests is a testament to the strength of political activists, particularly youth. This bodes well for the future of Nigeria’s democracy. The willingness of Nigerian citizens to demand better accountability from their government and responsiveness from their leaders indicates a potential for longer term democratic deepening in Nigeria, similar to as has occurred in Ghana.

This trend, combined with the recent public health successes, indicates an optimistic future for Africa’s most populous country.

The recent economic and political trajectories of Tanzania and Nigeria in light of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate the nuances of African politics and governance. Binary terms, such as Afro-optimism and Afro-pessimism, have been inverted and simplistic terminology has been discarded altogether – and rightly so. African states deserve the complexity of language and diligence of examination which others have received for so long. To depict African societies in simplistic terms does a disservice to African people. Africa is no less complex than North America or Europe and it ought to be rendered in the language we use as such. 

Edited by Sarah St-Pierre

Photo credits: “A nurse at Madina Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, puts on a face mask before attending to a patient in the hospital’s ER” by Tobin Jones, published on February 20, in the Public Domain.

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