Africa’s Moment, Dashed Again

In recent years, many have hailed Africa as the next economic growth miracle. Harsh realities have dashed these hopes.

Booming commodity markets and plenty of foreign investment made it appear that Africa was (finally) about to have its moment.  It was to be the new growth engine emerging to take the reins as Asian economies matured. Data from the World Bank indicate that Africa’s Gross Domestic Product has risen by 77 percent this century through 2013, with some of the larger Sub-Saharan nations performing exceedingly well. In total, Sub-Saharan nations have more than doubled their GDP and a few countries have tripled it. As commodity prices marched relentlessly higher, Africa stood a chance of becoming the latest economic miracle.

But it was not meant to be. The old plagues of Dictators and Dutch Disease were only masked by the commodity boom. As China’s infrastructure investments wane and low (at least relative to recent history) oil prices settle-in, many African nations will struggle to replace their commodity revenues with something more sustainable. It is far more difficult to foster cultures of innovation and knowledge than it is to exploit minerals or low cost labor. Africa has yet to truly industrialize, nevermind create knowledge industries.

Financial pundits have been keen to write about the happenings in Russia with the dramatic decline in the ruble and a boisterous leader blaming the West. But they have largely overlooked the consequences of lower oil and a stronger dollar on one of Africa’s more politically stable and economically successful countries—Nigeria. Nigeria is Africa’s largest exporter of crude oil, which in the past has been mostly a good thing. As oil slid and the U.S. dollar steadily strengthened in recent months however, it has a become source of pain.

The naira—the Nigerian currency—is now at an all-time low to the dollar, and Central Bank has been unable to halt the slide thus far. In response, Nigerian stocks are down around 30 percent in 2014, and trading restrictions are being put in place.  Nigeria is in a particularly tight spot due to its reliance on oil for its economy—the government receives 80 percent of its revenues from oil and gas exports—but it is not alone. A strong dollar causes capital flight from the continent, and damages domestic currencies. The Fed tightening of the late 1970 and 1980s caused several African currencies to collapse, and their economies required bailouts.

Many of Africa’s internal problems are sadly familiar. Education reached only a limited segment of the population 40 years ago, and, though there are more children in school now, they do not appear to be receiving a quality education.

There is the ongoing problem of militancy on the continent, which often times ignores political boundaries. Two of the more successful nations, Nigeria and Kenya, struggle to cope with Islamic extremist groups from outside their borders. Kenya is unfortunate enough to reside below the failed Somali state, and al-Shabab can attack with little interference. Nigeria struggles to thwart Boko Haram. These threats will not dissipate quickly, and Nigeria’s government, strapped for cash, may become increasingly vulnerable.

Despite the headlines, positives exist. For instance, the Ebola outbreak appears to have been corralled, if not contained, though not quickly and certainly not without a fair number of hiccups. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to about a billion people, and while the developed world is rapidly aging and stuck with expensive social safety nets ,Africa’s people are young—more than 60 percent under the age of 25. This also poses a problem as well though. Income and wealth inequality in Africa is dramatic. As households struggle with economic instability, they must not only gain but maintain middle class status.

Granted, commodity prices may begin to rise again soon. But the recent swoon illustrates the problem that, while commodity exports are an easy path to economic growth, the reversals can be hard and fast. Eyebrows should have been raised after Ghana and Zambia called for an International Monetary Fund bailout earlier this year, but few seemed to notice. China made a significant number of investments in African resources.  As China scales back its infrastructure investment however, it will be more difficult for African countries to convince Chinese leaders to continue investing.

The Fed, in essence, may have spoiled the 1970’s version of the African moment. Now the continent faces not only a stronger U.S. dollar as global monetary policies diverge, but a total collapse in energy prices. The African moment appears to have passed the continent by, again.

Samuel Rines is an economist with Chilton Capital Management in Houston, TX. Follow him on Twitter @samuelrines.

Image: Flickr/ United Nations Development Programme