Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: U.S. State Department contractor charged as spy for Ethiopia, France to withdraw troops and ambassador from Niger, the United States and Kenya sign a defense agreement, and more.
Have feedback? Hit reply to let me know your thoughts.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, on a three-day visit last week as part of Washington’s strategy to counter China and Russia. His visit came at a time of growing instability on the continent caused by nine coups in three years.
The intended message of the carefully choreographed trip was clear: U.S. diplomacy in Africa is back, and to counter “foreign actors” the Biden administration wants to partner with Nigeria, the continent’s largest population and economy.
Adeyemo, the highest-ranking member of the African diaspora in the Biden administration, was born in Ibadan, a southern city about 80 miles from Lagos. His family emigrated to California when he was 2 years old.
Adeyemo told an audience at the graduate Lagos Business School that the country’s “economic and social impact” could be felt beyond its borders “with a diaspora that has spread across the world, bringing with them the unbounded creativity and innovation” found across the country. He drew upon Nigeria’s immense but underutilized global soft power in film and pop music.
But as Nigeria celebrates 63 years of independence on Sunday, the visit unintentionally demonstrated the country’s most glaring problem: Nigeria’s status as a talent exporter.
According to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, Nigerian Americans are the most educated immigrant group, and Nigerians top the most educated of all people living in the United Kingdom, where they occupy positions as surgeons, doctors, and nurses.
Grappling with a stagnant economy, failing infrastructure, rolling blackouts, and insecurity, it is not surprising that japa—a Yoruba word meaning to flee—is a prevalent thought among Nigerians looking to migrate. As Ugonna-Ora Owoh explained in Foreign Policy, the “japa phenomenon is fueling brain drain in Nigeria,” particularly within the country’s health care sector, which has seen a 280 percent increase in the number of Nigerian-trained nurses and midwives practicing in the United Kingdom since 2018.
Of course, many young urbanites in Nigeria are highly educated; they hold multiple degrees and yet are often without jobs. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s northern region has the country’s largest population of out-of-school children, who are destined for early marriages that bloat population figures and worsen the country’s economic woes.
Security remains a serious challenge. Gunmen abducted at least 20 students from a university on Friday in northwestern Nigeria, while a state commissioner and former local government official were kidnapped over the weekend. Some students were later rescued. Measly government spending on education, health care, and jobs continues to fan the flames of insecurity—a challenge Nigerian President Bola Tinubu has yet to address.
Several Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have visited Nigeria, but Adeyemo’s speech in Lagos could be one of the most direct by a U.S. official on the problems ailing Nigeria. He said stabilizing Nigeria’s currency and rooting out corruption are key priorities. “I know the Nigerian people are willing to make sacrifices in the service of progress but have a legitimate fear that corruption and mismanagement will dash their hopes that the benefits of these reforms will enrich the people rather than the powerful,” he said.
Tinubu has tried to make the country more attractive to foreign investors by implementing tough fiscal reforms. He scrapped the fuel subsidy that cost the state $10 billion last year and ended a system of multiple fixed exchange rates, prompting the currency’s official value to plummet by more than 40 percent.
But the changes introduced together and without warning amid record inflation caused pain in a country where an estimated 133 million people live on less than $2 a day. “The country’s minimum wage of 30,000 naira per month has not increased since 2019, despite the sharp increases in cost of living,” Pelumi Salako wrote in Foreign Policy. To ease hardship, the Nigerian government suspended fuel price increases, which effectively brought back a subsidized price.
The U.S. business presence on the continent has historically not been geared toward what countries such as Nigeria need. By contrast, a new Lagos metro service that was built by the state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. began operation earlier this month.
Nigerian officials have railed against a global financial system that does not work in Africa’s interests. For years, Nigeria has argued for reforms to global corporate tax policies that favor the richer economies that make up the membership of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). A report, which will be finalized in the coming weeks, by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres supported Abuja’s grievances, saying OECD rules “do not adequately address the needs and priorities” of poorer nations.
However, some Nigerians are skeptical that Tinubu will be a reformer. The country’s constitution requires at least one minister for each of its 36 states, but Tinubu’s 45-member cabinet is the largest since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. Nigeria’s bloated cabinet means a continuation of rent-seeking within government; analysts say Tinubu has rewarded ex-governors who supported his election with jobs.
While Nigerians are asked “to endure record inflation and general hardship, the President’s failure to rein in the cost of governance from the top is disappointing,” read an editorial in the Nigerian newspaper Punch. The paper argued that Tinubu’s appointees included “recycled politicians with doubtful administrative value, and poor performance in their previous public office.”
Investors welcomed Tinubu’s swift removal of Nigerian Central Bank Gov. Godwin Emefiele, who oversaw a ruinous currency swap policy just before an election in February as well as other monetary decisions based on cronyism. Under former President Muhammadu Buhari, the bank lent more than the government could legally borrow, contributing to Nigeria’s $113 billion state debt. Yet Emefiele’s suspension cemented the erosion of Central Bank independence. Nigeria’s bank governor can only legally be removed following a two-thirds majority vote in the country’s Senate, but approval was not sought before his ouster.
Many Nigerians praised Tinubu’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly, emphasizing that he is “mindful” of the hardship he has asked Nigerians to endure on economic reforms, but in doing so Nigeria needs a “truly” equal partnership on foreign investment. Nigerians are also watching whether Tinubu can reform what keeps many qualified Nigerians out of Nigeria: its own government.
Nigeria matters—in global culture, in regional diplomacy, and in the potential of a young workforce. After six decades, Nigeria’s young and innovative citizens are still waiting for their parents’ and grandparents’ dreams of a prosperous Nigeria to be realized.
Wednesday, Sept. 27, to Friday, Sept. 29: The BRICS countries hold a parliamentary forum in South Africa.
Friday, Sept. 29: Eswatini holds parliamentary elections.
Sunday, Oct. 1: Nigeria celebrates its 63rd anniversary of independence from Britain.
Monday, Oct. 2: Guinea celebrates its 65th anniversary of independence from France.
French troops out. After a monthslong standoff with Niger’s putschists, France will withdraw 1,500 soldiers from the country by the end of the year, President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday. After seizing power in July, Niger’s military leaders had demanded the French ambassador and military leave. French officials said the junta had “no authority” to expel the military or Ambassador Sylvain Itté. But after statements that Itté was being detained and on food rations, Paris officials seem to have walked back their stance.
Itté was being pulled out and would return to the country in the next few hours, Macron said on Sunday. Macron had previously made a series of comments that implied former Sahel colonies would not exist without French security involvement, which upset leaders in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, prompting angry responses.
Election postponed. Mali’s military leaders have postponed elections due to “technical reasons.” Two rounds of voting were initially scheduled for Feb. 4 and 18 next year, and a new date will be proposed, said government spokesperson Abdoulaye Maiga.
Mali cited a dispute with French company Idemia, which has issued biometric passports in the country and which the Malian government said is involved in creating a census database. Mali is facing security challenges despite calling for U.N. peacekeepers to leave as it increasingly relies on the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. Thousands of people have been displaced by fighting including in the city of Timbuktu. The last U.N. peacekeepers will leave Mali by the end of December.
Ethiopian spy claims. A contract employee for the U.S. State Department and Justice Department has been charged by federal prosecutors with espionage, according to a court filing unsealed on Thursday. Abraham Teklu Lemma, of Ethiopian descent, had a top-secret security clearance and is accused of passing on classified information since August 2022 to an official associated with Ethiopia’s intelligence service.
Kenya defense pact. The U.S. and Kenyan governments signed a five-year defense pact on Monday ahead of a possible Kenyan peacekeeping mission in Haiti to combat gang violence. The United States will provide $100 million for Kenya toward peacekeeping in Haiti, but the fund still needs approval by Congress. Kenya has pledged to send 1,000 security officers to Haiti in a mission that is pending approval from the U.N. Security Council.
Locally produced anime and manga were showcased at this year’s Comic Con Africa, held this week in Johannesburg, South Africa. The annual festival had a dedicated “Afro Geek” pavilion, showcasing comics from South Africa reflecting African heritage. Lagos and Nairobi offer their own Comic Con festivals featuring homegrown content.
Investments from U.S. cable and streaming channels have been a key driver of Africa’s animation industry. African producers are starting to adapt comic books and animation set in Africa for TV and film. In 2021, Nigeria-produced Garbage Boy and Trash Can became Cartoon Network’s first African superhero animation. Netflix show Supa Team 4, released in July, became the streaming channel’s first African animation series. Zambian writer Malenga Mulendema set the series in a neo-futuristic version of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, focusing on a group of superhero schoolgirls. The animation was produced by Cape Town-based studio Triggerfish Animation.
China’s lending to Africa dopped to a 20-year low, according to data from Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center. Last year, Beijing issued just nine loans to eight African nations worth in total less than $1 billion—a stark climbdown from the $28 billion shared by more than 15 countries at a peak in 2016. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative appears to be gravitating toward sectors that Western powers focus on, having pulled back on large-scale fossil-fuel infrastructure projects to focus on defense, environment, and education. This may reflect that China’s biggest African debtors are undergoing laborious International Monetary Fund negotiations.
Many of Beijing’s investments, by sector, now mirror the World Bank’s. More importantly, the data reveals the World Bank and the African Development Bank have, since 2017, overtaken Beijing on sovereign loans to African countries. While China is not pulling away from historical ties with Africa, researchers believe last year’s loans reflect a long-term shift to social impact lending from Beijing.
Gulf compliance on Sudan sanctions. Washington’s targeted sanctions against high-ranking members of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) will not work without buy-in from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), argues Yasir Zaidan in Foreign Policy. The UAE has continued to supply arms through Sudan’s neighboring countries despite U.S. sanctions. Inspired by Russia’s Wagner Group, RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo has created within the UAE a vast financial network “of shadow companies run by Algoney Hamdan Dagalo, his younger brother in Dubai,” Zaidan writes.
Six decades of Nigerian elitism. As Nigeria prepares to celebrate 63 years of independence, Adebola Rayo in the Republic reviews Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer at Ease, first published in 1960. The novel set in a Nigeria about to gain independence explores a flawed political system in which bribery and the loss of traditional African values corrupt even the most idealistic of leaders. Rayo argues that the novel’s themes still hold lessons for Nigeria’s future.