Africa Brief
From Algeria to Zimbabwe and countries in between, a weekly roundup of essential news and analysis from Africa. Delivered Wednesday.

Zambia Votes

A country long seen as a bulwark of stability is facing economic stagnation and democratic backsliding.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
A man closes a door at the Matero district party headquarters of the Zambian opposition party, United Party for National Development, in Lusaka, Zambia, on Aug. 10.
A man closes a door at the Matero district party headquarters of the Zambian opposition party, United Party for National Development, in Lusaka, Zambia, on Aug. 10.
A man closes a door at the Matero district party headquarters of the Zambian opposition party, United Party for National Development, in Lusaka, Zambia, on Aug. 10. PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

This week’s highlights: Zambia prepares for a tense election amid the pandemic and a deteriorating economy, Ethiopia’s conflict threatens its historic heritage, and an app bets on Africa’s unreliable public transportation system.

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Zambia’s Pivotal Election

For decades, Zambia was celebrated as a bulwark of democracy in southern Africa. Under independence hero Kenneth Kaunda, the country played a key role in the region’s liberation movements and used its copper resources to build a stable state. This year’s election, on Aug. 12, could be a test for Zambia’s democratic stability.

Compared to its neighbors—the perpetually troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north, struggling Zimbabwe to the south, and conflict-ridden Mozambique and impoverished Malawi to the east—policymakers occupied with tropes of African instability have ignored Zambia for decades. That has meant Zambia’s growing malaise, now reaching concerning levels, has largely gone unnoticed outside the country.

A stagnant economy. Within Zambia, citizens have long grappled with growing economic disappointment. Reliant on the extractive industry, particularly copper, Zambia’s economic outlook began to dim as resource prices fell.

Since 2015, Zambia’s growth rate has slowed to about 3 percent, exacerbated by low rainfall that affected agricultural output. The country’s economy threatened to be engulfed by a tsunami of debt to Chinese state companies, so much so that Zambians feared Chinese companies would take control of the national power company Zambia Electric Power Corporation (known as ZESCO). It led to tensions and xenophobia directed at Chinese immigrants in Zambia but did little to alleviate Lusaka’s $3 billion debt to the Chinese government.

The pandemic worsened the situation and the economy contracted. In September 2020, Zambia was unable to repay its international debt, becoming the first African country to default on its debt due to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zambian President Edgar Lungu asked for reprieve from private creditors, who hold around $3 billion in bonds, and promised to work with the International Monetary Fund regarding a repayment strategy. Zambia’s default raised fears it would create a regional domino effect.

As inflation rises, approval ratings for Lungu are dipping. Lungu has dragged his feet on economic reforms, experts said, failing to soften the economic blow for ordinary Zambians. “Mismanagement at the macro level is affecting common people,” said Zambian economist Trevor Simumba. “The poor don’t have mechanisms to adjust their living costs.” In a May poll by pan-African pollster Afrobarometer, more than three quarters of Zambians said the country is “going in the wrong direction,” and 80 percent said the economy is “fairly bad” or “very bad.”

Still, Lungu’s policy has focused on large infrastructure projects, such as flyover bridges to aid Lusaka’s gridlocked traffic. Just days before the election, Lungu announced the commissioning of a new terminal at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport. The new terminal, he said, would make Zambia a “hub of air transport in the region” and boost commerce and tourism.

With rallies banned under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, Lungu’s campaigning has taken the form of inspecting new building sites, handing a newly built palace to a local chief, and reminding everyone of his Patriotic Front-led government’s role in building these.

Campaigning amid COVID-19. While Lungu has used much of his social media campaigning to call for peace while appealing to the country’s large Christian population with evangelical messages and visits to churches that arguably flout the country’s own COVID-19 restrictions, his rival, Hakainde Hichilema, said the president has shown an authoritarian streak.

Where Lungu’s gatherings have been met with hundreds of supporters, security forces have been strict with his opponent’s rallies. In 2017, the United Party for National Development was arrested and charged with treason when his convoy refused to make way for Lungu’s motorcade.

Hichilema lost the 2016 election to Lungu by a tight margin of just over 100,000 votes and accused the president of rigging the vote. His party has already raised the alarm over fears of voting irregularity and a crackdown on critics for this year’s election—a warning echoed by Amnesty International.

Known by his initials HH, the opposition leader is a businessperson who has suggested a number of more practical policies to save the Zambian economy—from reducing fertilizer prices to replacing political appointees with capable technocrats.

But Hichilema does not face a fair fight. Although Zambia’s authorities have promised to keep the internet on during the election, Lungu’s government has already deployed the military and other security forces onto the streets, particularly in Patriotic Front strongholds, where skirmishes between ruling party and opposition party supporters have led to the deaths of two people. The image of army tanks rolling through Zambian suburbs is an ominous sign of what could go wrong in one of Africa’s most stable states.

The Week Ahead

Thursday, Aug. 12: Zambia votes in a general election.

Thursday, Aug. 12: The United Nations Security Council discusses Somalia’s ongoing political crisis.

Tuesday, Aug. 17: South Africa’s parliament debates the country’s civil unrest and looting.

What We’re Watching

Tourists walk next to the rock-hewn church of Saint George in Lalibela, Ethiopia, on March 6, 2019.
Tourists walk next to the rock-hewn church of Saint George in Lalibela, Ethiopia, on March 6, 2019.

Tourists walk next to the rock-hewn church of Saint George in Lalibela, Ethiopia, on March 6, 2019.EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

Ethiopia’s conflict threatens its heritage. As the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) advanced deeper into Ethiopia’s Afar and Amhara regions, by Aug. 5 they approached Lalibela, home to a world heritage site of underground churches carved out of stone. Although there is no clear sign the site is directly in danger, fears that fighting may spill onto the centuries-old religious sanctuary have raised alarms.

Amhara regional forces responded to the Tigrayan offensive, escalating the violence and negating any attempts at a cease-fire on either side. In a statement from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ethiopian government accused the TPLF of turning “a deaf ear” to Addis Ababa’s so-called unilateral cease-fire—announced after the TPLF retook the Tigrayan capital, Mekele—and promised to “take all the necessary measures” to ensure the protection of Lalibela and other heritage sites. The move signals the Ethiopian conflict may escalate, spreading to the rest of the country.

South Sudan’s opposition in crisis. As South Sudan swore in the 588 lawmakers that make up its latest transitional government on Aug. 2, one of the country’s most pivotal leaders was sacked by his own party. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition removed Riek Machar as its leader and head of its military wing.

Machar’s critics accused him of presiding over the party with a “policy of divide and rule,” with nepotism interfering in advancing the movement’s cause. Although it’s unclear what this means for Machar’s role as vice president of South Sudan, his ousting triggered violent clashes between rival forces within the party.

British reparations for Kenyans. The United Nations is demanding a response from London on reparations and redress to victims of British colonial exploitation and violations. In a recent report, a group of special rapporteurs outlined the United Kingdom’s ongoing failure to recognize the atrocities. With limited legal scope in Kenya and the United Kingdom, the victims approached the United Nations.

The Kipsigi and Talai tribes were removed from their land in the early 20th century and relocated to reserves to make way for tea plantations. During what was known as the “emergency period” of armed conflict between Mau Mau fighters and British forces, the Kipsigis were also rounded up and held in detention camps. Although members of the Kipsigi and Talai tribes continue to bear the scars of that time—both physically and psychologically—the land they were removed from is still under the control of multinational tea companies, some of which are based in the United Kingdom.

Another delay in Jacob Zuma’s corruption trial. Former South African President Jacob Zuma was admitted to a hospital on Friday. Just over a month into his a 15-month jail term for contempt of court, Zuma required “medical observation,” prison authorities said.

Several days after his admission, a military doctor said the former president had suffered a “traumatic injury” last year, without giving details on the nature of the injury but adding it would take at least six months to heal. The move further delayed a long-awaited corruption trial that was set to continue on Aug. 10, pushing the trial date out further to Sept. 9. The 79-year-old faces charges for his role in a fraudulent arms deal during the presidency of Nelson Mandela.

This Week in Tech

Betting on poor public transport. The Egyptian bus-hailing app Swvl will go public after a merger that will raise its valuation to approximately $1.5 billion dollars and finance its planned expansion into megacities with poor public transportation. Founded in 2017, Swvl offers an app-based bus-sharing service that promises punctuality, efficiency, and reduced carbon emissions. Its target market is the professional fed up with dealing with congested roads in rapidly expanding cities.

Using a fleet of eight- or 18-seater buses, driven by Swvl captains, users enter their current location and planned destination and the app directs them to a nearby Swvl stop on a network of routes catering to customers’ needs and real-time information from Google Maps. The prices are fixed so gridlocked traffic won’t eat into riders’ pockets either, the way other ride-hailing apps may.

The Cairo and Dubai-based company merged with Queen’s Gambit Growth Capital, a so-called blank check company that specializes in acquisitions. This round of investments also attracted investment from mobile company Zain, logistics company Agility, and New York-based hedge fund investor Luxor Capital Group.

Billing itself as Africa’s newest unicorn, the app’s strength draws from understanding the chaos of public transportation in cities like Nairobi in Kenya as well as Karachi and Islamabad in Pakistan, and it hopes the Nasdaq listing will help it expand to more cities in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Chart of the Week

Africa’s light medal tally. African teams returned with a smattering of medals from the 2020 Olympic Games held in Tokyo. The games, delayed by the pandemic, faced a raft of challenges, including empty stadiums and fears of spreading COVID-19.

Apart from individual stories of triumph—like Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge’s back-to-back gold in the men’s marathon or Namibian runner Christine Mboma’s silver in the 200 meter sprint after she was barred from running the 400 meter due to high testosterone levels—the odds were stacked against African athletes who have had to contend with a chronic lack of funding for sports development, little practice during the pandemic, and, for some, a lack of access to vaccinations prior to competing.

African Voices

France’s economic colonialism in Africa. The first French president born after the end of colonialism, Emmanuel Macron, has tried to forge a new relationship with Africa. Yet, he has done little to dismantle one of the most enduring aspects of French influence over Africa: the CFA zone. Twelve African countries still use the CFA franc, which is guaranteed by France, meaning monetary policy in the CFA zone is largely determined in Paris, extending France’s economic power long after the official end of colonialism, Mohamed Keita and Alex Gladstein argue in Foreign Policy.

Can Young Ghanaians #FixTheCountry? Ghana rarely sees mass demonstrations, particularly from the country’s youth. Ghana’s #FixTheCountry movement could force the country’s main political parties to shift gears before the next election or even start a brand new political movement, Audrey Donkor suggests in Foreign Policy.

Dogs are political in Zimbabwe. In The Conversation, Innocent Dande and Sandra Swart show that during white minority rule, the mixing of imported thoroughbreds and African breeds caused bureaucratic anxiety among leaders obsessed with racial purity. Kennel clubs and animal welfare societies ensured “purebreds” maintained their status. Large populations of stray dogs were seen as a symptom of Zimbabwe’s financial crisis, with strays wandering into the formerly white-only suburbs. Even the renaming of the Rhodesian ridgeback to the proposed Zimbabwean ridgeback has raised questions about what makes a true Zimbabwean dog.

Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel

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