Despite challenges, West Africa looks towards a brighter future

West Africa needs far more aggressive economic integration in 2016, argues Siddhartha Mitter

A year ago the Ebola outbreak was ravaging Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. After 11,315 deaths, it is now all but over. John Moore / Getty Images
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First the good news: West Africa has entered 2016 under somewhat less anxious circumstances than a year ago. Back then Nigeria, the region’s giant, was readying for elections that many feared would turn violent. Instead, outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan peacefully ceded power to the winner, Muhammadu Buhari – a credit to Nigeria’s democratic evolution and a relief to its neighbours and investors.

Another fraught election went well in Côte d’Ivoire, the region’s top francophone economy. In 2010, president Alassane Ouattara’s victory had sparked a mini-civil war when his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to concede. But in 2015, Mr Ouattara won a second term by a huge margin in a vote that observers deemed free and fair.

There was good news, too, in Burkina Faso, which began 2015 in the throes of transition from the 27-year reign of Blaise Compaoré, deposed the previous year by a popular uprising. A coup attempt in September put the process at risk, but the November 29 vote went off smoothly, giving the new president, Roch Kaboré, uncontested legitimacy.

Finally, one year ago the Ebola outbreak was ravaging Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. After 11,315 deaths, it is now all but over. The World Health Organisation has declared it ended in Guinea and Sierra Leone; Liberia is due for clearance this month.

All this is worth celebrating. Yet in 2016, the 15-nation region, with its population of some 340 million (roughly half of them Nigerian), faces new challenges. Terrorism and insurgency threaten. The slide in commodity prices has shrunk export revenues, and oil’s collapse is devastating Nigeria’s economy. Upcoming elections in Niger, Benin, Cape Verde and Ghana should be peaceful, but are no sure thing – a crackdown has begun in Niger.

The November attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali’s capital, was a reminder that jihadi groups can strike big-city targets far from their bases. Almost every country in West Africa is a Western ally: all cooperate more or less closely with the US Africa Command or France’s Operation Barkhane military apparatus; some host special forces and drones. As such, none is safe from terrorist retaliation. A large stretch of the Sahara remains a safe base for a variety of jihadi groups, some associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, others operating on their own. They intersect with the busy trans-Sahara trade in drugs, arms, vehicles and people smuggling. Libya’s collapse has created a vortex for all these criminal opportunities. But jihadi clusters have been reported further south, near Mali’s borders with Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, raising fears that the threat is spreading.

Boko Haram remains rampant. As a stronger response by Nigeria’s military has stripped the insurgents of territory, they have reverted to guerrilla and terrorist tactics, raiding villages in Nigeria’s Borno State and in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and sending suicide bombers into Nigerian cities such as Kano. .

Perhaps even more dangerous is Nigeria’s economic situation. Oil accounts for 90 per cent of export revenue; the drop in prices is starving the country of foreign exchange, as the previous government failed to set money aside. Tales of graft on a massive scale are coming to light as Mr Buhari’s team sets about cleaning up the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and other sites of corruption, including in defence procurement.

Mr Buhari’s anti-corruption focus is impressive, but his economic policy remains uncertain. His emphasis on infrastructure and economic diversification is right on paper, but very hard to finance under current circumstances.

Facing its own crisis, Ghana, the region’s second economy, signed up last year for US$918m (DH3.37bn) in International Monetary Fund support.

Côte d’Ivoire, by contrast, is enjoying boom times, with growth above 8 per cent, aggressive infrastructure investment and an influx of foreign capital – not just from France, but also from China, Korea, Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere. Abidjan is regaining its lustre, as new construction, malls and luxury outlets bloom.

Côte d’Ivoire is fortunate: it is the world’s top producer of cocoa, one of the few commodities to have bucked the current slump. Mr Ouattara, a former IMF economist, must ensure more benefits reach the poor. Still, with its emphasis on infrastructure, diversification, and local transformation of commodities, Côte d’Ivoire is showing its neighbours the way.

Down the line, West Africa needs far more aggressive economic integration than exists under ECOWAS, the regional organisation. A regional power grid, motorway network, and rail system, for instance, are essential to maximise each country’s potential and offset its vulnerabilities.

This year again, West African leaders have the opportunity to take bold action together. Instead, out of habit and short-term exigencies, they are likely to go it alone

Siddhartha Mitter is a freelance journalist specialising in West Africa

On Twitter: @siddhmi