At the beginning of the 2010 decade, when agricultural and mining commodity prices were at their peak, while the debt burden was being eased and international financing was abundant, many African countries, conscious of their lagging development, developed strategies to move up to the ranks of emerging countries. In Cameroon, this plan, called "Vision 2035", as elsewhere, aimed at in-depth economic and social transformation, notably through economic diversification and the use of technology to boost production, create millions of decent jobs and work towards equitable social development.
While these programmes have remained stowed in the drawers of most African governments, it is clear that "Covid-19 has exposed the structural weaknesses of our economic paradigm as exporters of primary products and importers of finished goods", as contended by John Dramani Mahama, the former Ghanaian President.
The damage engendered by Covid-19 is consequentially significant and cross-cutting, and will lead to a severe economic downturn, starting this year. "We are now facing new challenges due to the sharp decline in stock markets, falling commodity prices and an unforeseen sharp slowdown in our trade. The Coronavirus pandemic is therefore having a negative impact on the economy", Cameroonian President Paul Biya bewailed. Certain sectors, such as tourism, hospitality industry and transportation, are collapsing due to border closures and travel restrictions.
In Cameroon, where the economy is heavily dependent on exports of oil, wood, coffee, cocoa and cotton, the slowdown in world demand coupled with the fall in prices will engender a budget shortfall of FCFA 800 billion for the State with a 70% drop in oil revenues, including a recession of -1.2% as against initial forecasts of +4.6%. All commodity exporting countries will experience severe drops in public revenue.
The World Bank estimates that Africa will experience a recession ranging between -2.1% and -5.1%, after a growth rate of 2.4% in 2019. The African Union predicts 20 million job losses; while the United Nations estimates go up to a figure of 50 million.
For all that, should we despair for the future of the continent? No, say many experts and African leaders. The spread of the coronavirus in Africa has occasioned a full-scale clinical study on the continent's social and economic fragilities. "But with innovative leadership and a belief in especially our enterprising and dynamic young people, we can and we should turn the wheels of the African Economy back on track", underscored John Dramani Mahama. "Covid-19 presents an opportunity to reset Africa", banker Tony Elumelu further asserted.
The leaders’ responsiveness, the peoples’ resilience, the youths’ resourcefulness and spirit of innovation, and the States’ solidarity in the face of this pandemic has proven that Africa is capable of facing the most unexpected challenges. It is therefore an opportunity for countries to deploy these same values to rebuild a less outward-oriented and more integrated economy, geared towards the processing of local products to meet the food, health, energy and equipment requirements of the people. To develop an agro-food model that is commensurate with the agro-ecological assets and demographic challenges of the continent, which can accommodate more than 2 billion people by 2050 and ensure close to $50 billion worth of food imports annually.
Africa also imports an average of 80% of its drug consumption needs, a market of nearly $67 billion that should henceforth be reclaimed. Rejuvenating and strengthening human resources in agribusiness, supporting scientific research and its proper linkage to business and industry, interconnecting States through infrastructure, promoting and protecting the continent's industries against dumping, are salutary measures that require vision and leadership above all.
Africa, which accounts for only 5% of world trade, also has the opportunity to strengthen intra-African trade, which currently represents barely 15% of Africa's total trade in goods, by taking advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which is poised to establish a market of 1.2 billion consumers. Given that this trade within the continent creates more added value and more jobs than trade with the rest of the world, there is every reason to hope that Africa will be able to rethink and actualize its transformation once the health crisis is over … on the condition that the continent's leaders draw all the lessons from the crisis as well as from past failures, and commit themselves with determination to take up the challenge.
François Bambou is a journalist and President of the Association of Journalists of the Economic Press of Cameroon.