Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Nigeria opens a new oil refinery and reels from an attack on a U.S. convoy, Congo’s president goes to China, and some African architects are feted at the Venice Biennale—while others are barred from entering Italy.
A planned seven-day cease-fire in Sudan intended to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid was broken after reports of sporadic gunfire and fighter jets flying above homes.
Previous attempts to halt the fighting between the army and rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces had been ignored within hours of deals being signed. But many had high hopes for this latest truce—which came into effect Monday evening after formal negotiations and a signed agreement brokered by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Fighting has pitted Sudan’s army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, against his former deputy and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti. In a decree issued Friday, Burhan formally sacked Hemeti and replaced him with former rebel leader and Sovereign Council member Malik Agar.
The war between Burhan and Hemeti has brought devastation to Khartoum, with much of the city’s critical infrastructure bombed out. Both armies are embedded in camps located in densely populated residential districts. Stocks of food and medicine are rapidly dwindling, with reports of mass looting at banks, warehouses, and civilian homes. There are also accounts of rape being committed by Hemeti’s militias.
The conflict has spilled over into the volatile Darfur region, where there have been many reports of sexual violence. More than a million people have fled their homes, and over 700 people have been killed as of Monday, according to the World Health Organization. Amid ongoing airstrikes, many more are hunkered down inside homes with dwindling access to water and electricity. On Tuesday, Washington announced $245 million in humanitarian aid to Sudan and its neighbors.
Even before fresh fighting erupted, Sudan was one of the world’s largest refugee host countries, with the majority coming from South Sudan and Eritrea. There is potential for neighboring militias to get involved in the conflict. Amhara armed groups in Ethiopia could try and reclaim contested land lost in a border dispute with Sudan that resurfaced during Ethiopia’s civil war. In March, Hemeti held a meeting on Sudan’s bilateral relations with Eritrea’s autocratic leader, Isaias Afwerki, whose soldiers have yet to fully withdraw from the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Afwerki has sought to increase his influence in eastern Sudan by positioning himself as a mediator among tribal leaders.
Meanwhile, Egypt has backed Burhan’s federal army but has so far not been keen to get involved. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun that Cairo would provide support for peace dialogue, but his country would not “intervene in the crisis in a way that fuels conflict and spills more blood.”
U.S. President Joe Biden has signed an executive order authorizing the government to sanction Sudanese individuals and entities involved in the conflict, and perhaps including Hemeti and Burhan among those targeted—but security experts believe that without buy-in from Gulf states and regional actors, this would prove to be a largely ineffective tool, as Arab states are the primary financial patrons of both generals. So far there has been no major intervention from global powers and a free for all could easily be created along Sudan’s borders.
Wednesday, May 24 to Monday, May 29: Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi visits China with a delegation including his ministers of mines, hydropower, and defense.
Monday, May 29: Nigerian President-elect Bola Tinubu is expected to be sworn in.
Thursday, June 1: The African Energy Chamber hosts the Invest in African Energy Paris Forum.
Thursday, June 1 to Friday, June 2: South Africa is expected to host a meeting of the foreign ministers of BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to discuss regional and global developments.
Congo’s president visits China. Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi is in China this week and is expected to discuss a controversial $6 billion infrastructure-for mining-barter deal signed in 2008 by his predecessor Joseph Kabila. Experts say the deal of Congolese cobalt and copper in exchange for infrastructure construction by a Chinese consortium, was poorly negotiated and favored the Chinese side.
A report last October by the Congolese arm of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a global anti-corruption body, called the deal “unconscionable” and recommended that it be renegotiated. In February, Congo’s state auditor estimated in a study that Chinese investors stood to make “$76 billion in gains” due to the value of the mining concession granted against “$3 billion in infrastructure for the DRC.” They also argued that Chinese partners have only disbursed about $822 million in funding over 14 years, while mining has been ongoing.
Congo holds 3.4 million tons of highly sought-after cobalt, nearly half of the world’s global supply, and China-backed investors control about 70 percent of Congo’s mining sector.
Nigeria attacks. Nigeria’s police announced the rescue of two people who were abducted during an attack on a U.S. convoy. Seven people were killed in the ambush that took place last Tuesday in the southeastern state of Anambra. Three were U.S. Embassy staff, while others were security agents. Washington said no U.S. citizens were in the convoy; all were Nigerian nationals. The Nigerian police said they had made two arrests and blamed the attack on secessionist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra.
Nigeria’s new refinery. Nigeria’s Dangote Petroleum Refinery was commissioned on Monday, yet hopes of an end to the country’s recurring fuel shortages remain far off. It is Africa’s biggest refinery and Nigeria’s single largest investment, at a cost of $19 billion. Once operational, the refinery plans to export surplus petroleum products, which could make Nigeria a game-changer as an export hub for other West African nations reliant on refined imports from Europe. The facility expects to begin refining crude in June—although experts believe that date is ambitious.
It will provide more than 100,000 permanent jobs, but much of the oil will still need to be shipped or transported by road because it doesn’t have a connecting pipeline to the country’s oil fields. Nigeria is one of Africa’s largest crude oil producers, but imports processed petroleum for domestic use because it lacks adequate working refineries. Nigeria spent $23.3 billion last year on imports.
Ghana-IMF deal. Ghana received on Friday the first $600 million tranche of a three-year, $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The funds will be used for budget support and to help relieve inflation, Ghanaian Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta said. Ghana had been a model for foreign investors in Africa, but shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a strong dollar severely impacted its economy.
Ghana’s debt stands at $58 billion—representing 88 percent of its GDP as of 2022. The country’s reliance on exporting raw materials while importing finished goods led to a shortage of foreign exchange reserves as commodity prices rose. Inflation in the country soared to 53 percent in January but dropped to around 40 percent last month; meanwhile, the local currency has depreciated.
Peace negotiations. The presidents of South Africa, Senegal, Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Zambia are set to visit Ukraine and Russia in June on what South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has billed as a peace mission. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have agreed to host the delegation; however, three of the nations—Egypt, Uganda, and South Africa—are closely linked to Russia: Cairo and Kampala through the purchase of military hardware from Moscow, and Pretoria through the BRICS group of nations and joint naval exercises. The leaders maintain that their neutrality in the war could aid talks, even if there is little chance of the Kremlin withdrawing, as Ukraine demands.
Africans at the biennale. For the first time, the Venice Architecture Biennale is curated by an architect of African descent—resulting in a showcase of previously under-represented African talent. The theme this year is the “Laboratory of the Future,” with sub-themes of decarbonization and decolonization set by curator Lesley Lokko, a Ghanaian Scottish architect and novelist. In the Biennale sections which Lokko directly curated—the central pavilion and the Arsenale—more than half of the 89 participants are from Africa or the African diaspora. By ignoring Africa’s voice, the existing architectural narrative is “incomplete,” argued Lokko. Africa is at the forefront of climate change, with the world’s youngest population and the fastest urbanization (which happens often at the expense of local ecosystems), all of which pose the greatest challenges for architecture, the curator noted.
In the main rooms, Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye’s studio exhibits models of the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library in South Africa, Ghana’s future national cathedral, and Nigeria’s proposed new home for repatriated Benin bronzes—the Edo Museum of West African Art. Francis Kéré’s studio highlights African use of sustainable materials and construction techniques that adapt to a warming climate.
Olalekan Jeyifous, a Brooklyn-based Nigerian artist who won the Silver Lion award recognizing him as a promising young participant, created his interpretation of a united African conservation effort, imagined a decade after African decolonization in an alternative 1972 that applies indigenous knowledge systems to green technologies.
The barriers to inclusivity were swiftly highlighted in the Italian government’s decision to deny visas to three of Lokko’s Ghanaian collaborators. Lokko remarked in her opening press conference that “this is not the forefront of policy,” but “is its ugly rear.”
This week, Kenyan authorities said they aim to turn Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps into urban centers in which residents can live and work in the country without being granted citizenship. In 2021, Kenya announced the closure of the camps but reversed the decision under international pressure. Since the U.N.-run sites opened more than 30 years ago, they have overstretched their capacity, hosting more than 430,000 people and prompting increased security concerns over the ability of al-Shabab to penetrate camps. Kenyan officials said they want to attract investors to improve security and turn the camps’ makeshift tents into permanent housing structures.
As of 2022, Uganda has consistently been the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa. In 2021, it agreed a request from the United States to temporarily accommodate 2,000 refugees from Afghanistan.
South Africa’s nonalignment. In Foreign Policy, Johannesburg-based political analyst Eusebius McKaiser argues that South Africa’s government has consistently failed to explain its nonaligned stance. “Being displeased with the United States’ place in the world does not logically entail supporting an illegal war started by Russia. A truly nonaligned country can critique both the United States and Russia,” he writes.
Saving Cameroon’s ecosystem. In African Arguments, Cameroon-based journalist Shuimo Trust reports on a group of local conservationists working with displaced communities to protect the country’s biodiversity. Since the outbreak of the conflict in the country’s Anglophone region in 2017, at least 6,000 civilians have been killed by government or separatist forces while fighting has displaced more than 600,000 people. Those displaced or out of school as a result of the fighting are now encroaching on national parks and poaching endangered species, such as pangolins, in order to survive.