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Welcome to Semafor Africa, the intelligent guide to the news and analysis from the world’s fastest-growing continent.

Alexis Akwagyiram and I are excited to be in your inboxes and plan to be here two to three times a week with a growing team across the region. We start off in Nigeria trying to read the tea leaves on what those Peter Obi polls really mean.

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The global pandemic set back economic gains made by sub-Saharan Africa over the last 20 years. And while the region rebounded in 2021 with growth of 4.7%, the public finances of African countries were disrupted again this year by the global economic slowdown. Now the IMF says “regional debt is approaching levels last seen in the early 2000s.”

As global interest rates spike, countries will likely find it harder to access financing from investors and restructuring debts to make repayments more manageable will become a more common discussion topic. Fitch, a credit ratings agency, says one way to contextualize a country’s debt burden is to look at the ratio of debt interest payments and a government’s revenues. Here are the 10 countries with the worst ratios in 2022, most of which are set to find making repayments even more challenging in 2023.

Yinka Adegoke

A third party candidate is making Nigeria's two main parties nervous

THE NEWS

Nigerian pundits and political leaders have publicly dismissed media-commissioned polls suggesting that Peter Obi, the ‘third party’ Nigerian presidential candidate, could be a serious contender in February’s general election.

But Semafor has learned that the private polling of the two major establishment parties tell a similar story about the popularity of the former Anambra state governor with likely voters.

The natural skepticism about the public polls is driven by the fact that it’s still a ways to go to the election, and some of the key poll results have been collected from smartphone apps in a country where basic feature phones dominate. Also, Obi’s Labour Party is a minnow up against president Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) in power for seven years, and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which spent 16 years in power until 2015. The Labour Party has no political machinery in large swathes of the country.

Obi supporters in Lagos
REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Neither party will share their numbers publicly, but one APC insider who spoke to Semafor conceded that Obi, a former PDP governor and one-time vice-presidential candidate, has so far outperformed expectations — and suggested that it might be more than a ‘youth/Twitter vote’.

Obi is taking on political heavyweights in APC’s Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a former Lagos state governor and political kingmaker, and the PDP’s Abubakar Atiku, a former vice president who has run for president five times since 1993. Both have incredible political machinery on the ground in the country’s key regions.

While political polling has long been present in Nigeria’s since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1999, it hasn't had significant influence in recent elections

YINKA'S VIEW

The clear takeaway from these polls, and the concerns they have raised internally with Nigerian political operatives, is that there’s going to be a closer election than ever because a third party candidate is splitting the vote. That doesn’t mean Obi has a strong chance of winning. While reporting on this story, someone reminded me Atiku was ahead in all online polls in 2019 and still lost to President Buhari.

One APC insider pointed out that in many of theirs and other polls, while Obi was ahead, more than half of the respondents answered that they were undecided. It suggests the narrative that the two major parties have presented well-known but flawed candidates might be true.

Both publicly and privately, APC and PDP party officials are bullish on their chances and pour scorn on the idea Obi has a chance. “You don’t need any polls to know he can’t win that election,” said one official. But two analysts suggested Obi could realistically force a run-off if no clear winner emerged in the first round. It would be uncharted waters for a Nigerian presidential election.

ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

Peter Obi’s supporters insist he has a strong chance of winning the whole thing, against all odds. They see a path to Aso Rock’s presidential villa in Abuja through Nigeria’s north, which in recent years has become increasingly politically fractured in the wake of rising poverty and terrorist attacks. “If you look at these numbers, the idea that Peter Obi is just a social media phenomenon is untrue,” said the first analyst who has seen nationwide data. “The idea that he’s a tribal champion and that he will not get any votes outside the southeast is also untrue.”

THE VIEW FROM NAIROBI

In August, many Kenyan polls had veteran establishment politician Raila Odinga as the likely victor in the race for the presidency. But it was William Ruto, the vice president who repositioned himself as a political outsider, who ended up winning. Indeed, with relatively young multiparty democracies like Kenya’s and Nigeria’s there are often questions about the validity of polls. “Polling can be precise but there are factors that don’t get considered when we poll voters in Africa,” said Boniface Mwangi, the long-time human rights activist who ran for a seat in the Kenyan parliament in 2017. “There’s voter bribery to sway votes, voter intimidation to make them vote for a certain candidate, and vote rigging by a candidate.”

NOTABLE

  • The Economist also acknowledges that Peter Obi’s chances are a “long-shot” but its correspondent also explains part of his appeal with ordinary Nigerian voters, particularly with younger voters tired of the archetypal establishment politician even as their economic and security conditions worsen. “In a country cursed by politicians of extraordinary ego and entourage, his supporters marvel that as governor Mr Obi queued at airports holding his own luggage."
  • In Nigeria, a This Day profile piece digs into explaining “The Peter Obi Phenomenon” by going through his exit from the PDP before declaring his candidacy for the The Labour Party. The paper notes some of the “massive pre-campaign rallies” organized by young people in major cities across the country were “not largely influenced by monetary inducements” and have ”elevated a political party without formidable structures to a mass movement.”
Text

One good text with Njuguna Ndung'u, Kenya Finance Minister

One good text
Guest Column

After Burkina Faso, who's next?

by Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at SBM Intelligence


Nearly nine months after he seized power
, Burkinabe soldier, Paul-Henri Damiba was removed in another coup by a 34-year-old captain, Ibrahim Traore.

Since the pandemic, coups have been staged in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Tunisia. Of these, four are in West Africa. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has, as usual, issued a weak statement condemning the coup. Praise has come from Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Vladimir Putin and head of Wagner Group, the Russian private military contractor. He lauded Traore, adding: “The people of Burkina Faso were under the yoke of the colonialists.”

Burkina Faso's new military leader Ibrahim Traore is escorted by soldiers in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
REUTERS/Vincent Bado

Russia’s Africa policy offers putschists an ally unconcerned about democracy and personal freedoms. That raises the likelihood of contagion as the West, in a bid to find friends, is likely to look the other way as African governments become more authoritarian, which in turn risks more rebellions.

So which country is likely to be next? Chad comes to mind. The landlocked Sahelian country struggles with insecurity, desertification, and poverty. It is led by 38-year-old Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno who staged a coup after his father was killed. He recently extended his time in power by two years and is likely to run in the elections he is overseeing, creating a motive for another coup.

Staff Picks
  • US officials flew in for secret meetings with all sides in the civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region which rekindled in September, after a five-month truce, reported the New York Times. Now Ethiopia says it has recommitted to peace talks but also vowed to take over federal sites like airports in Tigray. It’s mind-boggling that a conflict impacting more than 5 million people has been largely ignored outside of the Horn of Africa. A White House official told me last week Ethiopia/Tigray is pretty much top of its priority list of Africa issues.
  • Africa’s longest oil pipeline is under construction in Niger after delays caused by the pandemic. The project, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)'s largest independent investment, will connect oil wells in Niger with the port of Seme in Benin, according to AFP. The pipeline is clearly the product of two forces: China’s push to become a major player in global oil and gas markets and the desire of African countries to build their economies using their natural resources - irrespective of the western-led push for clean energy.
  • Kenya’s decision to allow the cultivation and importation of genetically modified maize for mass consumption has caused confusion and consternation in neighboring countries. One of the first big agriculture policy moves taken under new president William Ruto, it’s a response to the country’s worst drought in 40 years, according to The EastAfrican. But neighboring countries have banned GM crops to protect smallholder farmers. In the absence of a binding regional policy on GM produce, these countries are trying to shore up porous borders to stop the crops moving. It’s a reminder of what can happen in situations where there isn’t joined up regional thinking.
  • African universities seem to be improving compared with their global peers. Up to 97 of the continent’s universities were listed in the UK's Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2023 out of 1,799 evaluated, up from 71 last year. In total, 40 African universities were ranked among the top 1,000 in the world, based on analysis by Mail & Guardian. A paucity of world-class local options often means those who are wealthy enough, leave the continent to pursue university studies. Maybe this is a sign that things are slowly changing.
  • The Cameroonian community in Baltimore, Maryland, is split over whether a member of their community, Tamufor St Michael, is a patriot or a lawbreaker. The former refugee bought thousands of rounds of ammunition and dozens of rifles online and stocked them in his basement before attempting to ship them to his home country in the back of a Toyota, reports the Washington Post. US federal prosecutors said his plan was to send them to the front line of the “Anglophone crisis” conflict in southwest Cameroon. The crisis, between the minority English-speaking region against the French-dominated national government, has been greatly underreported since it started in 2017 but this is a uniquely American reminder that it’s still carrying on.
Curio

“I myself am the Sun”

Ousmane Sembène Excerpt
YouTube/African Film Festival, Inc.

It’s always worth celebrating Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembéne, often referred to as the “Father of African Cinema”. And in this our first week we particularly enjoyed this short clip of an interview with the legend featured in the 1983 documentary “Caméra d’Afrique” (African Camera: Filming Against All Odds) by Tunisian director Férid Boughedir. In it Sembène pushes back at the idea that African film needs to be centered around the Western gaze. We feel the same way about African media.

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