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The Zambian government’s refusal to make a $42.5m interest payment by its 13 November deadline – thereby triggering a sovereign debt default – was hardly a surprise. The investor appetite that persuaded lenders to pile into $3bn-worth of Eurobonds has waned on President Edgar Lungu’s watch, while Covid-19 and falling commodity prices have affected sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts the region’s economy will contract by 3% in 2020 and its forecast 3.1% growth in 2021 will be “a smaller expansion than expected in much of the rest of the world”.

Zambia
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In this still young century, China has emerged as by far Africa’s biggest economic partner, establishing a vast footprint across the continent at breakneck speed. As many ties with the west have declined – especially following the 2008-09 global financial crisis – Chinese engagement shows no sign of diminishing. This will be underlined when heads of state gather in Beijing for the next Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit in September.

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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.

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Some African governments specialise in grandiose statements about mega-projects that will drive the continent’s electrification or achieve some other transformational goal. In many cases little happens, but the mega-project provides a useful symbol of rapprochement between two states. The Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline (TSGP) planned by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika is one example still prominent on the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa project list.

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Elections on 23 December are unlikely to deliver the change Democratic Republic of Congo so badly needs. The outlook is deteriorating as polling day approaches, following deaths at rallies in support of opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, and an apparently deliberate fire in Kinshasa that destroyed controversial voting machines. Fears have been expressed that the elections will be far from free and fair, potentially stoking further conflict as President Joseph Kabila Kabange – who has been in power since 2001 – seeks to hold on to state institutions via his hand-picked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

DR Congo
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The purchase of BG Group by Royal Dutch Shell confirmed predictionsthat the falling oil price would trigger a spate of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity in the upstream industry. It points to a need for even the biggest players to build scale in developing their natural gas trade; for Shell, BG’s assets in Australia and the Atlantic Basin (Brazil) will help to secure a dominant position in Asian and other key markets for liquefied natural gas (LNG).

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The growing number of energy sector professionals working in West Africa’s Sahel region can point to positive signs emerging from markets that must develop as quickly as possible to serve fast-growing and youthful populations seeking opportunities for a better future. The year ends with the first turbines being connected to Senegal’s national grid from the 158.7MW Taiba N’Diaye wind farm, developed by Lekela Power. Wind and solar developers are evolving projects across West Africa that are drawing in multilateral, bilateral and even commercial finance.

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Much of the news flow ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November has been about which global leaders will turn up and what carbon reduction commitments they will make. Many in Africa are more concerned the least-developed continent will be forced to adopt ill-fitting policy straightjackets and forced to choose between rival superpower-led development models, most notably China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative (BRI) and the US-led Clean Green Initiative (CGI) and Build Back Better for the World (B3W) programmes.

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Projections and commitments from Ghana’s eloquent political class and the human resources offered by its vibrant young population – forecast to reach 29m in 2018 – drive optimism that a sub-Saharan success story can generate sustainable growth to move its economy beyond lower middle-income status. Following their December 2016 election victory, President Nana Akufo-Addo and his New Patriotic Party (NPP) government have struggled to turn around a legacy of debt and alleged malfeasance by their National Democratic Congress (NDC) predecessors.

Ghana
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There was little surprise when SunEdison filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on 21 April, given the scale of its fall from grace – from nearly $10bn market capitalisation in mid-2015 to a 99% share price collapse and emergency asset sales less than one year later. The US developer’s crisis poses questions about the future of its substantial portfolio – which includes five projects with combined 371MW capacity in South Africa, awarded in the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) programme’s expanded fourth round – and the health of the wider solar industry.

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When most African governments struggle to fund even the most essential projects, costly new technologies may seem a luxury. But rethinking how they can be applied to energy networks can be a valuable exercise for policy-makers and investors: ‘disruptive technology’ can have far-reaching benefits, or prove a red herring for cash-strapped economies.

Kenya | Ghana | Rwanda | Djibouti | Morocco | South Africa
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Production cuts by a majority of Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) producers, working in coordination with non-Opec exporters led by Russia, have helped to raise oil prices from their 2014-16 lows; the strategy seems likely to maintain crude benchmarks at around $50 for some time. While second-guessing the oil price is a hazardous business, African Energy’s soundings of major international oil companies (IOCs) suggest this represents a ‘new normal’ for the industry, as factored into corporations’ base case scenario-planning.

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There may be strong economic arguments, as well as the ethical objections raised by campaigners, why development finance institutions (DFIs) should no longer focus on supporting extractives-led growth. A Chatham House research paper* asks whether such models of development are still appropriate as the global economy reduces its carbon dependency. Discussion of the paper at the Fossil Fuel Supply and Climate Policy conference in Oxford on 26-27 September tested the thesis made popular among DFIs during the long commodities boom that exploiting natural resources could end aid dependency and drive socio-economic development.

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Opposition from local authorities to UK private equity investor Actis’ planned takeover of French operator Veolia Environnement’s electricity, water and sanitation concessions in Morocco may be explained in part by a shift in political and popular opinion away from privately financed projects and concessions back to a greater role for local politicians and the state. Morocco is not alone in this: public/private partnership models that give public bodies, and the politicians who lead them, more control are increasingly in vogue.

Ghana | Rwanda | Ethiopia | Morocco
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The recent increase in oil prices will be especially welcomed by Central Africa’s small but dominant ruling elites. The stand-off over Gabon’s presidential election – with Jean Ping contesting the narrow victory announced for President Ali Bongo Ondimba, his former brother-in-law whom he served as foreign minister – is just the most recent manifestation of political turbulence in a region where vulnerable economies have been rendered even more fragile by the slump in the global commodities cycle. Suggestions that Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso and allies close to the presidency in Côte d’Ivoire might have supported Ping against Bongo point to the network of close contacts that still typifies the region’s murky politics.