Michelle Sieff: Banquets and Battles

By Michelle Sieff

Since I finished my article, “Africa: Many Hills to Climb,” for World Policy Journal’s 25th anniversary issue in October, the world has changed dramatically. A financial crisis has engulfed the developed economies. The American populace elected Barack Obama as president. And, Africa (the continent, not the country!) is a part of these world historical events.

Kenya declared a national holiday in honor of the election of Barack Obama, whose father was born in rural Kenya. Obama’s hybrid identity is a powerful symbol of Africa’s complicated relationship with the West. America’s most inspiring modern politician is but one generation from rural Kenya. This week, the African media outlet Allafrica.com had a blogger in Kisumu, in western Kenya, who reported on the outpouring of joy at Obama’s election. If Kisumu sounds familiar, it should, for the city was the site of violent conflict after Kenya’s disputed election last December. But, this week, Kisumu’s residents were unified in their joy over Obama’s election.

Though Africa is intimately connected to American politics, fortunately, its growing economies have not been undermined by the financial crisis.The financial crisis is primarily a developed world problem and will not reverse Africa’s recent pattern of economic growth. The growth of African economies has not been financed by Western capital, and so most economies are unlikely to be severely hit by the crisis. The International Monetary Fund still predicts average growth rates in Africa of 3 to 5 percent in 2009. Africa’s banks have been conservatively managed so they are not exposed to the toxic sub-prime investments.

The one exception is South Africa, a country whose economic growth has been financed by Western capital. Over the past few weeks, investors have frantically pulled out and, as a result, the rand has lost nearly half its value.

The rapid drop in oil prices does not seriously threaten Africa’s oil producers because most countries base their budgets on very conservative estimates of the price of oil. For instance, Nigeria’s budget is based on a benchmark price of $62.50 a barrel.

In recent weeks, my fears about the spread of organized crime in Africa have also been confirmed. Last week a group called the Bakassi Freedom Fighters kidnapped 10 crew members from an oil vessel off the coast of Cameroon. The raid resembled the attacks of gangs like MEND in the Niger Delta. The Cameroon raid is a dangerous sign that new criminal gangs throughout the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea region will emerge and easily replicate MEND’s methods. And, as I argued in my article, even if Western donors begin to recognize the severity of the threat, the battle against organized crime in Africa will be long and arduous.



Michelle Sieff is assistant director of the Africa Institute at the American Jewish Committee, and has served previously as an Africa analyst for the Eurasia Group and Human Rights Watch. Her article, “Africa: Many Hills to Climb,” can be found in World Policy Journal’s 25th anniversary issue, on newsstands now.

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