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The Abidjan-based Bourse Régionale des Valeurs Mobilières (BRVM) stock exchange is ambitious but lacks liquidity. Questions persist about the CFA franc peg, underwritten by the French treasury since the West African currency was created in 1945. Destructive trends from climate change to jihadist insurgency can be acutely destabilising to under-resourced governments, while commodity shocks are a perennial headache in economies dependent on agri-business and oil imports. But these challenges have not stopped key areas of the eight-nation Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine (UEMOA) from producing bullish macroeconomic data and some exciting business developments. The region’s two largest economies, Côte d’Ivoire (CdI) and Senegal, plus Burkina Faso, Benin and (non-UEMOA) Guinea are expected by the International Monetary Fund to feature again this year among the top ten sub-Saharan economies in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

That something is stirring in francophone West Africa is reflected in Industries Without Smokestacks: Industrialization in Africa Reconsidered, a report to be published by Oxford University Press, whose African development specialists have identified “a new pattern of structural change emerging in Africa, one different from the manufacturing-led transformation of East Asia”. In this new paradigm, “ICT-based services, tourism, and transport are outpacing the growth of manufacturing in many African countries”.

Standard Chartered Bank Africa and Middle East economist Razia Khan calls the UEMOA a “region where stars, at least in relative terms, of Africa’s development have emerged”. Average 7% growth over the past decade means CdI’s economy has effectively doubled in size over ten years, Khan told a 2 May BRVM roadshow in London. Senegal’s economy is likely to look even better following a rebasing of its GDP, which is expected soon.

Infrastructure spending has driven growth, helped by favourable global financial conditions, including the cheap debt major francophone borrowers have been able to raise in international capital markets. “Investors have been very comfortable about investing in the region,” Khan said.

One essential element in maintaining growth will be the region’s ability to deepen domestic debt markets. Like most serious observers, Khan is more pessimistic about the outlook for the six mainly oil-dependent Central African countries of the Communauté Economique et Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale (Cemac) (AE 354/21), whose problems have increased speculation that their separate CFA peg may eventually be replaced by new arrangements. Some local critics advocate breaking with what they see as French control over their economies, but a majority of investors rely on the CFA’s convertibility and stability and, despite some possible contagion from Cemac, the UEMOA’s CFA arrangements seem solid for the foreseeable future.

The BRVM exemplifies the challenges confronting the UEMOA. Listing 45 companies, plus 32 government and corporate bonds and five Islamic sukuk issues, the BRVM is Africa’s sixth biggest exchange with $12.5bn in shares listed at end-2017. But, as chief executive Edoh Kossi Amenounve admits, much depends on efforts to attract more investment. Planned integration with Ghana and Nigeria could create a West African market, the second largest in Africa after Johannesburg, early in the 2020s.

Security threats, to some extent, reflect the social pressures weighing on a region where many of the 110m population still live on under $2/d. For all CdI’s remarkable growth, there are concerns for stability, with a mutinous military and politicking ahead of a 2020 presidential election in which the incumbent Alassane Dramane Ouattara has said he will not stand (AE 360/1). Still intense jihadist activity across the region means that, for France and other European governments, many of the UEMOA countries are primarily a security/migration issue but the region has shown impressive resilience and its accelerated integration is rich in potential. At the BRVM event, Khan concluded that the UEMOA was “a sub-region where something fundamental has shifted, putting the right building blocks in place to sustain growth… and remain the regional outperformers in terms of growth”.