BY OLUKAYODE OYELEYE
IF THOSE 45 LEGENDARY American musicians who came together and sang, “We are the World, We are the Children,” in response to the early 1980 poverty, droughts and famine in Ethiopia were still to be all alive today, were gathered together today and told to sing that song again, their rendition this time would have changed drastically. The song itself would very likely have been changed into something like, “We are the World, We are the grandparents”, as many of those artists in their mid-30s then are well above 70 years old now; some are above 80 and some have died. “We are the World, We are the Children” was a Grammys award-winning hit song borne out of a charitable cause in response to a humanitarian crisis in Africa then. It reportedly sold more than 20 million copies, winning over $60 million for work in Africa. Those singers were just a single group within a diverse array of those concerned about the threat to some African countries then. Their logo for that humanitarian endeavour featured “USA for Africa,” in which case one musical note was written on the alphabet A of the USA while an ear of wheat was on the A that began AFRICA. Symbolically, it could have been interpreted to mean that a song from the US was used to bring food into Africa. Not a bad concept after all as all the profit – over $60 million – was reportedly donated to Ethiopia, Sudan, and other poor countries.
Thanks to the US musicians that gave their intellectual property and all other public spirited donors that readily financially supported the cause of Africa then. Thankfully too, Ethiopia has risen from the ashes of the environmental disasters of droughts and crop failures now to a sub-regional power. In that region, Ethiopia has suddenly become a regional manufacturing powerhouse; with an economy said to have been the fastest growing within the continent for several years, till 2019. Then came COVID-19 that hit the world, destroyed travels, logistics and supply chain business and slowed down Ethiopia’s economic growth. The Tigray war was to later slow down the economy even further. With COVID-19, Ethiopia’s flagship airline was devastated. Although it did not run at a loss, it nonetheless experienced a cooling off in the immediate aftermath of the protracted lockdowns. In what could easily be described as the biggest dam within Africa, especially ignoring the great Inga Dam in the DR Congo for the purpose of the present arguments, Ethiopia has successfully constructed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has the ability to serve three purposes at the same time, namely: electricity supply, urban water supply and irrigation for farming.
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Although Ethiopia is not yet the best it can be, it has been transformed from a drought-plagued and famine-ridden country to one with great prospects of becoming a regional bread basket and a major exporter of electricity to the sub-region. On the contrary, Sudan – a beneficiary of the same “USA for Africa” donations of the 1980s is still mired in large scale poverty, drought and famine today. Ideologies form part of all these crises. With many years of military dictatorship, Sudan is still grappling with internal crises, wars and food shortages. Compared to the resurgence of Ethiopia, the huge transformation of India after its own experience with poverty, drought and famine was similar and familiar. The Indian Bengal famine of 1943 – when the old India was still under British rule – was largely blamed on policy failure rather than drought. Ethiopia’s famine too was more of a result of the experimentation involving the shift from feudalism to Marxist-Leninist political framework that gave rise to agricultural policies that compounded the effect of the prevalent drought then. The radical land reform programme of 1975 that formed the cornerstone of the new political order caused so much devastation in the agricultural sector, leading in part to the 1984 famine in which no fewer than 300,000 people died and about seven million Ethiopians starved. The three years of great famine within a period between 1959 and 1961 in China symbolised by widespread food shortage was also a period of experimentation with communism in which some 30 million Chinese starved to death and about the same number of births were lost or deferred. The famine – which had overwhelmingly ideological causes – led to a rethinking of communist China’s approach to economic development and a revision of key economic policies.
Looking back to 1984 or 1985, therefore, a new generation of Africans have attained full adulthood. How to tell African stories since then? How much has changed? These are a nightmare to many development thinkers as Africa still lives with a combination of poverty, hunger, drought and general misery while there are pockets of areas of affluence. There are diverse cases of many African countries still struggling to break the logjam of poverty and poor economy. Although many looked at Ethiopia’s problems from the perspective of what was subsequently described as “climate change,” a major problem was that of socialist system being foisted on Ethiopia – a system synonymous with authoritarianism and despotism where strictly practised. Leaders of any African countries that prioritised ideology over pragmatism must have seen how negatively the mistake has affected them. Botswana is an exemplar and an exceptional example of a country that the leadership had put people before ideologies and is able to compete outside in the food industry with the export of its animal products. Producers from Botswana and Namibia have been very dependent on their market in the EU, obtained through the Lomé Convention in what was then the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a precursor to today’s World Trade Organisation. Despite being a major beef exporter from the SADC region, Botswana has been up against many hurdles in its access to the EU beef market in the forms of tariff and non-tariff barriers. It had to comply with strict sanitary rules after the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in the EU in 1999. It faced strict Sanitary and Phytosanitary standards requirements, including mandatory deboning of beef for fear of possible transmission of Foot and Mouth Disease. It faced high tariffs expected to have been resolved under the stillborn Doha Development Agenda of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Botswana’s annual revenue, largely dependent on export of beef, has been thus affected one way or another.
The low level of Africa’s intra-continental integration has been sustained over the decades, resulting in a lot of missed opportunities on market innovation and economic growth. Otherwise, why should Botswana be a major exporter of beef to the EU when Egypt – Africa’s greatest beef importer – keeps importing beef from faraway Brazil? Would it have been cheaper, faster and perhaps more economical for beef from Botswana to reach Egypt compared to one from Brazil? Now that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) market is operational, is Botswana likely to be able to access Egypt’s beef market? Or, might Egypt be keen on importing beef from Botswana? This seems like one of the areas AfCFTA needs to explore and exploit as it seeks to build bridges to connect countries through trade. There is an urgent need to explore the markets within Africa in terms of export and import opportunities. It may soon be discovered that all estimates about African market potential had been grossly lower than reality. But, while looking at realities, it is important to also take a hard look at Africa’s economic cooperation with countries outside the continent. Russia is an example. The fact that most African countries tend to “flock together” in their flights into other more advanced countries for multilateral meetings is a cause for some concerns. African countries – through their representatives and leaders – tend to approach such diplomatic relationships from the standpoints of benefactor versus beneficiaries or lender versus borrower. In this case, Africa knowingly or unknowingly comes into such relationships with the attitude of vulnerability and unconditional dependence. If not, why would African countries be too obsessed with China’s Belt and Road Initiative or its Forum for China-Africa Cooperation?
In recent times, Sochi is the new place for ever-hopeful African leaders to seek succour as they collectively meet Vladimir Putin to discuss possible Russia’s support for Africa. Russia, with an estimated $26200.00, an economy of $1.71 trillion – compared to the US with $23 trillion – is expected to offer hope to the whole of Africa with a GDP of $2.7 trillion. And these leaders expect so much from Russia? What real new thing does Nigeria, for instance, have to learn from a similarly natural resource and commodity export dependent Russia? The two countries suffer from the same macroeconomic malaise involving economic stability dependent on commodity price fluctuations. Like Nigeria, Russia’s economy is yet to be diversified in the real sense of diversification as it largely still depends on export of oil and gas to some few world markets, including China, India and the EU. Undoubtedly, Russia’s misadventure into Ukraine since March 2022, the wastage of men, money and military hardware, compounded by the widespread sanctions, will generally affect Russia’s economic fortune in the long run, particularly as a country with a narrow range of sources of income. A World Bank commentator has referred to Russia’s case as “not economic diversification in the conventional sense, but it is diversified development.” Another expert agreed in part that Russia “is diversifying, but the process is both slow and is nowhere near close to giving any noticeable results.” Any serious African leader therefore needs to be circumspect in diplomatic dealing with Russia.
Can Russia feed itself? This is a major question that has not been in public domain even before Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Setting aside all the propaganda, half-truths, misinformation, manipulation of statistics and a show of ignorance embarked upon by many, the question needs to be answered with a lot of introspection. Is Russia likely to be a strong supporter of global energy transition from the fossil fuel economy to renewables? That Russia is yet to diversify and truly transform its economy could be discernible more from fossil fuel energy dependence while the world is embarking on an energy transition. Although the arrest of Alexey Navalny in Russia sparked off protests in 2021, it was fuelled by people’s protracted anger over corruption, a foundering economy, and dissatisfaction with the ruling elite, the contraction of the economy as real incomes fell 3.5 percent the preceding year as unemployment rose to its highest since 2011. Such protests have been brutally suppressed. In March, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Institute of International Finance predicted that Russia’s economy would shrink 15 percent, with the recession wiping out 15 years of economic gains by the end of 2023. The discontent that fuelled these protests seems to have been forgotten by Russia’s optimists who only seem to think that Russia must be food self-sufficient since it exports some types of grains, particularly wheat. Contradictory and confusing as these may be, these narratives seem also to embolden Putin and give what could be described as exaggerated sense of importance.
Out of about 12 world leading wheat producing countries, Russia comes fourth. Considering just about five top producers, Russia comes second after India that produces 31.4 percent of the tota wheat output. Although the impact of the Russian wheat in the world market could be felt if Russia decides to weaponise its wheat export, apprehensions about Russia’s wheat may have been exaggerated after all as importing countries could switch to other countries or other grains if forced by circumstances. Russia and Ukraine reportedly share 30 percent of world wheat output and Russia alone comes fourth after the EU, China and India in the wheat export market. The world may be learning about the need to diversify supply sources of not only wheat but also other forms of food imports. So, it is unlikely that the world will starve if Russia alone becomes recalcitrant and refuses to export. African countries importing wheat from Russia and Ukraine, therefore, need to review their understanding of the world’s food balance sheet, see the need to be realistic about world food economics and politics and therefore respond with appropriate action that would lead to food security on a continental scale. Benefits of hindsight will be useful here. The old Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) of which the present Russia was a part was a big empire bereft of understanding of the right economic policy on food.
The agricultural collectives or communes in Josef Stalin regime were a disaster. Nikolai Kondratieff, an economist, was shot on the orders of Stalin for daring to criticise the agricultural collectives and predicting its ultimate failure. Kondratieff who became an economic martyr, turned out to be right on his point that such a system wasn’t going to be sustainable. And it wasn’t. After becoming the country’s helmsman, the reformist but short-lived regime of Mikhail Gorbachev could not officially afford to continue, even though some political heavyweights might not have agreed with him as the two subsequent leaders – Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin – have no proof of successful transformation from communes into viable commercial scale farming before or after the country broke into various smaller countries that they are today. How did the world fare in food security when Russia was groping and grappling with economic crises under the USSR and in transition years after breakup? The world was fed all through that period till now. The assertion that the world’s food security is threatened now by Russia may be more of a speculative and panic response to a likely but not necessarily sure occurrence. The support for Putin from Africa, Asia or India in particular seems to stem from either, or a combination of, wilful ignorance, selfishness or plain irrational thinking and poor analysis of the situation. The hype about Russia’s wheat or other typical grain and disproportionate impact on global food security may unwittingly be providing Putin the food weapon to wield in international relations. Does the fact that Russia exports wheat emanate from an abundance of excess production?
In Africa-Russia relations, African leaders need to operate from the standpoint of knowledge and strength. The continent should no longer be presented as donor-dependent or aid-dependent. This is a time to diversify our food base by promoting those for which there are comparative and competitive advantages. Flour from root and tuber crops and from some other types of grains have been researched into and they form good alternatives. These can be used as replacement for, and alternatives to, wheat. The success stories of Botswana could be an inspiration. More countries of Africa can tell their own stories in their own unique ways. But let them be supported, promoted and publicised for the world to see. Let Ethiopia’s teff, Nigeria’s sorghum, Kenya’s corn and DR Congo’s cassava be launched on the global market for what they are capable of achieving. Let Africa’s food priority be well ordered. Africa will not starve without Russia’s wheat.
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