The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the socio-economic fabric of most of the world, but in particular, African countries. Virtually all African countries have had cases with over 6 million people affected and well over 150,000 deaths.
Already, troubling levels of poverty and joblessness were worsened here in Africa, and about 40 million people are estimated to have been pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, while unemployment in large African commonwealth countries like Nigeria and South Africa are over 30%.
In this misery, obviously, women and girls, are the worst hit. Indeed, the lockdowns have greatly shown to have increased school dropout rates of girls, especially from low-income families, increased child marriages, adolescent childbearing, and gender-based violence. A sharp drop in income for most families in Nigeria and in most economies of Africa, would mean that families would be making choices that almost always would disfavour the girl child.
Given this situation, it is fair that, as African policymakers and legislators, we are compelled to respond through policies that drive growth, create jobs, and improve livelihoods, and that pays special attention to the needs of women and girls. Since we do not have the luxury to undertake a huge and physical stimulus package that wealthier countries and economies have been able to provide, it follows that we have had to look inwards and take the opportunities open to us to boost productivity and local production.
With little fiscal space, it has been tough for most of our nations, but it has also been an opportunity to build back better. In many of our nations, the executive and legislature worked, and are still working conscientiously to seamlessly and efficiently together, deliver budgets and legislation to mitigate the severe economic problems in the aftermath of the pandemic.
There is a distinct sense in which the difficulties have provided us with the opportunity to reinvent our economies and revisit the social compass with our people especially, the poor and vulnerable.
Perhaps we have also been forced to focus on some low-hanging fruits for national and regional growth. For example, we know now more than ever that we need to take advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreements, which, fortunately, most of our countries have signed up to.
The agreements afford us the opportunity of wider markets that will make our agricultural, industrial, and service sectors more competitive. The African Continental Free Trade Area Agreements is an opportunity for us to grow regional value chains, including by boosting infrastructure investments and upscaling our payment systems.
There is no reason why the current encouraging share of manufacturing in the Intra-African trade cannot be further increased by improving transport links in particular. The single African Air Transport market offers us a fantastic opportunity to build a continental aviation sector that will help to move people and goods around the continent more quickly and efficiently.
Similarly, transport corridors and visit in the programme for infrastructure development in Africa, such as the Lagos-Abidjan corridor, will certainly help to boost trade and investment, and movement in Africa. The Pan-African payment system that is now being promoted by Afrexim bank, will also go a long way in reducing the transaction costs of trading within Africa by reducing the need for foreign exchange difficulties in the trade between our countries.
Africa is, of course, part and parcel of the wider global system and we would be needing the support of the international community to enhance our finances and better manage our debts and ensure access to vaccines.
Already the International Community, through the International Monetary Fund, has injected about $650billion in Special Drawing Rights into the global economy. However, the share that came to Africa was just over $30 billion which is about 5% of the total. This, of course, is grossly inadequate for our needs, and the scale of the challenges that we face clearly indicates that we need much more. But another round of support is underway, and we must work together to ensure that this round will be more substantial.
In a similar context, the debt situation of many of our countries has worsened as a result of the limited fiscal space to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic and it is incumbent on the international community, especially the Multilateral Financial Institutions, to help design instruments to ease the debt difficulties of African countries.
The debt service suspension initiative and the common framework for debt treatments are helpful, but there is certainly a need for more holistic solutions that recognize the mounting fiscal pressures of African countries, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.
To be sure, we need resources that will help increase the scale and pace of vaccinations against COVID-19 in Africa. The high and upper-middle-income countries have achieved vaccination rates of over 80%, while very few African countries have reached the 5% level of vaccination. Yet, without vaccination of a huge number of its people, Africa remains at continued risk of socio-economic stagnation, because continuing infections including from new variants, will prevent full recovery.
There is evidence that the economic rebound in other parts of the world is positively related to the extent of vaccinations that they have undertaken.
In any event, the rest of the world will remain at risk of resurgence of COVID-19 because the presence of the virus anywhere in the world poses the risk of the emergence of new and more deadly variants everywhere.
We appreciate the vaccines that have come to Africa through the COVAX Initiative and other bilateral donations, but there remains much more to be done.
We must ensure that while we are at it, we must develop the collaborations to be able to produce vaccines within Africa itself.
Another area in which global development is impacting Africa, and in which we need a unified response, is the issue of climate change. It is particularly important for Africa Commonwealth governments to pay attention to this matter. In any event, the protection of the environment is a matter of core concern for the Commonwealth.
The issue of climate change poses a number of dilemmas for African countries and must strive to find the right balance in shaping our responses.
To start with, it is well known that African countries contribute the least to global greenhouse emissions, yet we suffer the most from increased droughts, storms and floods, not to talk about the economic and social impacts of climate change like crop losses, food insecurity and migration and dislocation of the huge numbers of our people.
Similarly, Africa which needs energy for its economic transformation is being asked to give up the use of its abundant fossil fuel deposits to help reduce global warming. Our response, of course, must be that we are committed to helping to reduce global greenhouse emissions and also that the pathway to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, or 2060 in the case of Nigeria, must take our needs into account in a just and equitable manner.
For Africa, two existential crises confront us; climate change and extreme poverty, heightened by poor access to electricity. We must, for instance, push back vigorously against the efforts in multilateral financial institutions to defund gas projects and argue instead that gas is needed as a transition fuel not only for electric power generation and baseload for solar mini-grids but also for transportation, the use of CNG in motor vehicles and in households especially for cooking to replace kerosene and firewood, which of course results in the cutting down of trees.
In addition to the issue of climate justice, the international community must meet its pledges to Africa and the developing world in terms of financing and technology, to support mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The $100 billion a year pledged by the wealthier economies to help developing economies respond to the challenges of climate change has never been met. And in spite of recent attempts, this has remained very far off target.
Such investments will help our economies to invest in renewable energies and undertake climate-friendly agricultural practices, and green urban transportation. This, of course, must be backed by access to cleaner technologies, which should be made cheaper and more widely available. The task before you as African Parliamentarians, and indeed before us as African Governments, especially from the Commonwealth heritage, is a challenging, but exciting one. And I take this opportunity to urge you to come up with practical and actionable recommendations to us to enhance the political, economic, and social conditions of our people.
Parliaments are the locus of democracy. The price of liberty, someone once said, is vigilance; but I must say it is not just visions, but action. We must, for example, condemn adventurers who truncate democratic institutions by coup d’états like we have seen in parts of the continent in recent times. We should not only condemn such acts forcefully but also act decisively to nip this undesirable trend in the bud by mobilizing our countries, regional organizations, and the international community to implement sanctions where the need arises.
Of course, for such efforts to be credible, it behooves African leaders, including all of us, to promote good governance, transparency, and accountability, which are the institutional underpinnings of democracy.
By His Excellency Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR,
President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.