CONFIGURATIONS OF national and Africa’s continental security architecture are about to undergo unprecedented changes arising from the prevalent global Coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic. The changes, which will take different forms post-COVID-19, will vary in the extent of impacts in various countries. What will be common to all is the inescapable truth that the impacts of this pandemic will be prolonged in all countries, directly or indirectly.
The big challenge, however, is the absence, deficiency or incompetence of institutions that should have been expected to take immediate and long-term remedial measures to restore normalcy after the roaring hurricane of COVID-19 has spent its fury. Because of the global nature of COVID-19 outbreak, various countries of the West and – in particular – the global North will be busy trying to put their houses back in order. This might leave limited or narrow chances for them to intervene in the affairs of other weaker countries, particularly from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.
It will be rather fatalistic to wait for international communities’ interventions before African countries begin all over again. Economic recoveries will be highly demanding and precarious, particularly for a continent so fractured along national lines with no fewer than 54 separate countries, many of which are economically fragile and small. To get back on track, much more work would have to be done. Economic crises that have weakened many African countries would be compounded by the impact of COVID-19. Many countries that have been struggling with food security will have much more of this to contend with. This will be compounded by food losses and food wastes annually experienced in many African countries.
The manifestations of the food crises in Africa vary from region to region. The food security impacts of the severe drought in the southern Africa, particularly the 2017, the Armyworm infestation of the corn-producing countries in the Southern, Eastern and Western Africa, the Cassava Mosaic Virus epidemic in cassava-producing belt, the blight that has put banana and plantain in jeopardy in many areas are all still being felt before the advent of COVID-19. Locust infestation, extending from the Eastern flank of Africa, has wreaked havoc in countries as it made its way westwards. Many heads of cattle have been lost to desert heat wave, water and herbage scarcity in Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. The 2019 Cyclones Idai and Kenneth did untold damage and devastation to agriculture in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
The quantum of disaster relief responses to the victims of the two cyclones should give us a fair idea of what not to expect from the international communities in Africa after the COVID-19. It is to be expected that the great nations of the world will be busy trying to put their houses back in order after the COVID-19 pandemic. The great exporters of wheat – a major staple for many non-wheat producing countries – will hold back thousands of tonnes from export. Rice producing countries of Asia will choose rather to fill their national strategic reserves first before exporting. Fish exporting Scandinavian countries will have to re-assess their priorities. With Brexit already done, African countries will have to rethink their AU-EU alliance in the context of an European bloc that has lost one big member and will have to begin fresh trade arrangement with post-Brexit Britain.
Like the advanced economies, Africa needs an economic platform to spur its post-COVID-19 recovery. The nascent AfCFTA, barely a year old, is still trying to find its institutional compass. At this time of crisis, AfCFTA is not adequately well placed to provide the needed platform for Africa’s economic resurgence in the present circumstance. Every country, at this point, still has to struggle to get back on track economically. In this case, charity must first begin at home. So, leaders over the continent need to get to work on how to ensure continent-wide food security. The food balance sheets of various countries should first be assessed, and the means of making up for shortfalls identified. To avoid the social security threats related to hunger and food shortage, nations of Africa need a convergence of ideas and strategies that will leave no nation behind.
An increase in bread prices triggered nationwide protests in Sudan in 2018, leading eventually to truncating the nearly three-decade rule of the totalitarian regime of Omar al Bashir, and the loss of hundreds of lives in the process. In the same way, the inadequacy of food in many other African countries could upset many more regimes, cause social unrest and lead to a crippling of economic activities. After the period of lock-ins, lockdowns and forced restriction of movements, the energy that hungry people will unleash on their countries and their governments may produce negative and undesirable impacts, especially when the masses of the people are involved. The governments that have been willingly obeyed by the people must therefore proactively act to provide food for the people when they are let loose from confinements occasioned by COVID-19 epidemic.
The global assessment of Africa’s food situation is grim, and should give African leaders reasons for worry. A UNICEF publication describes a situation thus: “Hunger is on the rise in almost all African subregions, making Africa the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment. Hunger is also slowly rising in Latin America and the Caribbean, while Western Asia shows a continuous increase since 2010, with more than 12 per cent of its population undernourished today.” The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) attempted to juxtapose hunger and economies that are slowing down.
In a recent report, the FAO posited that “hunger has been on the rise in many countries where the economy has slowed down or contracted.” For the past two years in a row, the two leading economies in Africa have been contracting. Nigeria and South Africa have consistently experienced economic contraction in two consecutive years. This offers no reassurance for lesser economies. According to the FAO, “economic shocks tend to be significant secondary and tertiary drivers that prolong and worsen the severity of food crises, especially in countries experiencing acute food insecurity requiring urgent humanitarian assistance… Economic slowdowns and downturns often lead to a rise in unemployment and decline in wages and incomes, challenging access to food and essential social services for the poor. People’s access to high-quality, nutritious food can be affected, as can access to basic services such as health care.”
Africa thus has a lot to do if the negative narratives are to be reversed. In terms of food sufficiency, Africa seems to be living on borrowed time, postponing the evil days. Leaders need to urgently address and correct the prevailing anomaly. The FAO, in a publication, asked “Why has Africa become a net food importer?” In its attempt to explain Africa’s agricultural and food trade deficits, the publication wondered that “Africa has become a net importer of food and of agricultural products, despite its vast agricultural potential,” describing the situation as “puzzling.” In its submission, the FAO disclosed that “the core finding is that population growth, low and stagnating agricultural productivity, policy distortions, weak institutions and poor infrastructure are the main reasons.”
If, in normal times, according to FAO’s findings, few and relatively rich countries in Africa had the highest net food imports per capita (of $185 per year in real terms), because they had ample means to pay for their food import bills by using revenue from non-agricultural sources, what do we say of the majority of the Africa’s low-income countries (mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa), where two-third of its population lives? And how would less affluent countries that had been net food importers cope after the economic upset triggered by COVID-19? To put it in perspectives, if they have had difficulty covering their food imports bills, as their export revenues were limited in normal times, how will they survive now?
There are thus genuine reasons for concern in a continent where hunger, malnutrition, food deficit and poor economies have been prevalent. Food comes first. Without it, it is futile to think of any other economic programme or economic growth. With the disruption in global economies caused by COVID-19, Africa needs to act fast and early in repositioning its economy as well as ensuring food security for its people and increased revenue for re-launching its economy. With all the great opportunities and natural endowments within the continent, Africa must get it right.