Climate Change Wreaks Havoc in Southern Africa
Cyclone Freddy displaced more than 400,000, confirming scientists’ worst fears about extreme weather caused by global warming.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Senegal protests flare, Zimbabwe’s crackdown on the opposition continues, and China focuses investments on data and cybersecurity.
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Africa’s Frightening New Reality
Drought in Somalia, flooding in Nigeria, and a cyclone in Malawi have confirmed scientists’ grim climate projections about Africa’s future. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest damning report this week, noting that the world will likely miss a target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
The report warned that extreme weather is “increasingly driving displacement” and that without “rapid, deep and sustained mitigation and accelerated adaptation actions, losses and damages will continue to increase, including projected adverse impacts in Africa.” The report’s release came on the same day as another United Nations survey that estimated 43,000 people died during Somalia’s worst drought in decades last year, and half of those deaths were likely children under 5.
In the past week, Cyclone Freddy—which wreaked havoc across Mozambique, Madagascar, Réunion island, and Zimbabwe—circled back to hit southern Africa for the second time in a month, killing hundreds of people in Malawi and Mozambique and leaving tens of thousands more homeless in what could potentially be the longest sustained storm ever recorded.
Cyclones are typical in the region between November and April, but what makes Freddy unique, according to U.N. weather experts, is that it never completely dissipated, despite multiple landfalls. Scientists say global warming caused by mostly industrialized nations emitting greenhouse gases has made cyclone activity more frequent and intense.
“The destruction and suffering that I witnessed in southern Malawi is the human face of the global climate crisis,” said, Rebecca Adda-Dontoh, the United Nations resident coordinator for Malawi. “The people I met with—many of whom have lost their homes and loved ones—have done nothing to cause this crisis.”
By Monday, the death toll for both countries combined had passed 500, with hundreds still missing. In Malawi, more than 360,000 people have been displaced, and the government has declared a state of disaster. Struggling farmers have lost their maize harvests and entire villages have been washed away by mud.
The Malawian government has set aside $1.5 million to help victims and is appealing for international help. “The level of devastation we are dealing with is greater than the resources we have,” said Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera in a televised speech. The United Nations emergency fund on Monday released $5.5 million to Malawi to assist affected communities.
About 59,000 Mozambicans are displaced as a result of the storm, according to local authorities. The situation was made worse by an ongoing cholera outbreak. According to UNICEF, cases have quadrupled to over 10,000, with more than 2,300 cases reported in the past week.
While support is being provided on the ground, “the humanitarian community is overstretched at the moment to deal with this adequately,” said Guy Taylor, spokesperson for UNICEF in Mozambique. The country “has been hit year on year by these tropical storms and cyclones. It is a population that is not really that resilient after being impacted so many times and being already in a state of vulnerability.”
He warned that the cyclone season has not ended, so there is a possibility that Mozambique could be hit again.
Following the IPCC’s report, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on richer nations to try to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions “as close as possible to 2040,” rather than waiting for the 2050 deadline most have signed up for. Last year, global carbon emissions hit record levels. According to the International Energy Agency, “over 95 percent of the world’s coal consumption is taking place in countries that have committed to reducing their emissions to net zero.”
Reaching net zero in Africa has been complicated by goals to provide electricity for many in the region who have no access and therefore use toxic forms of energy such as firewood. African leaders argue that the only way to realistically provide power cheaply is through coal.
A study published last month in the journal Nature found that IPCC scientists are expecting African countries to cut fossil fuel use twice as fast as developed nations ever did. Yet borrowing money for renewable energy investments is more expensive for African nations.
Emerging economies including China and India—which plan to reach net zero in 2060 and 2070—must do so faster, Guterres said. “Every country must be part of the solution,” he said. “Demanding others move first only ensures humanity comes last.”
While global leaders squabble over which arrangement is best, the world is on track for a temperature rise of between 2.4 and 2.6 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, and Africa will be the most affected continent.
The Week Ahead
Thursday, March 23: The U.S. House Committee on Armed Services holds a hearing on national security challenges in the Middle East and Africa.
Friday, March 24, to Friday, March 31: The U.N. Human Rights Council holds sessions discussing periodic reviews of Tunisia, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.
Saturday, March 25, to Sunday, April 2: U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visits Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia.
What We’re Watching
Nigeria local elections. Nigerians voted on Saturday to elect governors and state assembly representatives in an exercise once again marred by low turnout, voter intimidation by hired thugs, and cultural tensions. Turnout in Nigerian elections is typically low.
Across the country, intimidation was a common thread as polling stations were attacked by gangs who snatched ballot papers. Governors were being chosen in 28 of Nigeria’s 36 states. Lagos was the key focus as All Progressives Congress (APC) incumbent Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu fought to retain his seat against Labour Party candidate Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour.
Sanwo-Olu’s win, with a healthy margin of over 400,000 votes, was marred by xenophobic statements issued by APC politicians against Igbos in Lagos. The Labour Party’s presidential candidate, Peter Obi, is Igbo, a member of Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group that has historically been marginalized in the country’s political space.
As analyst Bisi Olawunmi noted in the Guardian Nigeria, “the spectre of Igbo takeover of Lagos has become an obsession with the APC,” which, prior to the Feb. 25 presidential election, had assumed “the aura of invincibility—that no political force can unseat them.” Obi on Tuesday announced that he had filed a court petition challenging the results of the presidential election.
Russian meddling. U.S. intelligence warned Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Déby that Russian mercenaries were backing Chadian rebels amassing in neighboring Central African Republic as part of a wider plot to kill him, the New York Times reported. Military leader Déby, who was not democratically elected, is facing public calls for a speedy transition to democracy amid widespread insecurity across the Sahel.
His administration has responded to pro-democracy protesters with deadly force, killing more than a hundred people. France’s support of Déby has given rise to much of the furor against Paris in the country, and there is a perception across Africa that the United States is more concerned about its rivalry with Russia than it is about African lives.
Zimbabwe jails opposition figure. A court in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, has once again refused to dismiss charges against Job Sikhala, an outspoken Zimbabwean opposition politician. Sikhala has been held in a maximum-security prison since June after being arrested alongside fellow members of his Citizens Coalition for Change party.
He was charged with inciting public violence based on a video in which he allegedly demanded justice for the murder of opposition member Moreblessing Ali, whose mutilated body was found dumped in a well in June 2022. Sikhala has unsuccessfully applied for bail 15 times, while more than a dozen activists have since been freed. Sikhala’s lawyers argue he is being politically persecuted.
The ruling Zanu-PF party has controlled Zimbabwe since independence, and rights groups expect an escalation of crackdowns against opponents as elections approach in August. Last year, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga was given a suspended six-month prison sentence after being found guilty of inciting violence when she held up in public a placard stating: “We want better. Reform our institutions.”
Senegal protests. Fresh protests erupted in Senegal last week as thousands of people gathered on the streets of Dakar in support of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko during his latest court appearance. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd as some protesters set fire to buses and burned down grocery stores.
Sonko is facing a lawsuit for libel after he allegedly accused Mame Mbaye Niang, the tourism minister, of embezzlement. The judge eventually postponed the hearing until March 30. Sonko is viewed as a fierce presidential challenger and, if convicted, he would be disqualified from running in next year’s election. He claims his legal problems are part of a concerted effort by President Macky Sall’s government to derail his candidacy. Sonko faces a separate charge of raping a beauty salon employee. No date has been set for this trial.
Meanwhile, Sall has refused to state whether he’ll run for a third term, which has angered many Senegalese and led to charges of democratic backsliding.
This Week in Tech
China’s new Belt and Road? The Chinese technology giant Huawei has announced a $300 million investment in Africa’s data centers and cybersecurity industries. Currently, African organizations are in need of computing power and built-in systems against cyber threats, which Huawei hopes to partner on. The announcement was made by David Wang, a Huawei executive, while addressing an audience at a digital transformation summit in Barcelona.
Beijing is now one of the largest investors in African tech infrastructure, which some analysts see as a modernized revamp of its Belt and Road Initiative. Moving away from buildings and roads to hardware and software potentially creates new trade opportunities for Chinese firms.
In June 2021, Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, opened the Diamniadio National Datacenter, about 20 miles outside Dakar. The facility cost 46 billion CFA francs ($18.2 million). It was built by Huawei and financed through a Chinese loan.
Chart of the Week
African experts have struggled to take on a stronger voice on important global issues, such as migration and climate change, that impact Africans the most. The authors of IPCC reports come from 120 different countries, but expert voices remain unequal, according to one analysis by Carbon Brief. While the diversity of experts contributing to IPCC reports has improved over the past three decades, just one African country, South Africa, appears in the top 20 countries when it comes to contributors.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War by David V. Gioe
• Staring Down the Black Hole of Russia’s Future by Anastasia Edel
• Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America by Stephen M. Walt
What We’re Reading
No Country for Women. In the Elephant, Mordecai Ogada writes about the fallout from a BBC Africa Eye documentary released last month that uncovered the extent of sexual abuse on tea plantations in Kenya that supply some of the world’s biggest tea brands. Ogada lambasts Kenya’s legislature for sweeping cases under the rug, allowing the exploitation of women working for international institutions to continue with impunity.
According to a 2007 Kenya human rights and business country risk assessment, more than 90 percent of women working in export processing zones in Kenya have experienced or observed sexual abuse at their workplace. “The malaise is so deep and widespread that instances can be found in virtually all companies,” Ogada writes.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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