Africa News blog
African business, politics and lifestyle
A few weeks back it was HSBC announcing news of its talks for South Africa’s Nedbank. Now it is the world’s biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, seeking a foothold on the continent with a plan to buy South Africa’s Massmart for more than $4 billion.
The idea of Wal-Mart bidding for one of South Africa’s retailers had been around for a while as it focuses on international growth.
“South Africa presents a compelling growth opportunity for Wal-Mart and offers a platform for growth and expansion in other African countries,” said Andy Bond, executive vice president with responsibility for Wal-Mart’s operations in the region, including the UK and Africa.
The expansion in the rest of Africa is key. Massmart doesn’t only have a presence in South Africa, it also has stores in 13 other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing has been creeping up the radar with an increase in attacks in the Sahara. But some have still sought to play down any strategic threat, citing the lack of key interests in the desert.
Westerners were at risk – a couple have also died in the hands of the Islamists – but incidents had mostly ended with in some sort of agreement involving a mix of prisoner swaps and, say experts, cash being passed to the right people.
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The shiny new headquarters of Sudan’s referendum commission was buzzing with activity on Monday, less than four months ahead of the scheduled start of a seismic vote on whether the country’s oil-producing south should declare independence.
Unfortunately, officials were not all busy putting the final touches to voting registration lists or preparing publicity materials for the region’s inexperienced electorate.
Kidnappings targeting foreign workers in Sudan for ransoms have become a dangerous phenomenon in Darfur in the past year with 10 separate cases and at least 22 expatriate victims. These are not the al Qaeda kidnaps of West Africa. The Darfuri criminals so far have demanded money and have not killed any of their victims. Some have threatened to sell their captives onto al Qaeda-linked groups if they do not get paid. The abductions have severely restricted the operations of those aid and U.N. agencies still working in Darfur, with foreigners mostly relocated to the main towns and rarely travelling into the rural areas where people are arguably most in need of help. The question always debated by Sudan watchers is: “Is it that Khartoum can’t protect foreign workers in Darfur or that they won’t?” Many point to the timing as an indication — these politicised abductions became a regular crime after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in March 2009. Others speculate that the government, which has long had a hostile attitude to the international humanitarian agencies in the world’s largest aid operation in Darfur, does not want them to travel and report on the worsening situation in the rural or more remote areas. This is one way to prevent that. But the problem now negatively affects the government too, making them look weak and unable to control even the region’s main towns. Russia voiced rare criticism of its African ally after three members of a Russian aircrew were taken from the middle of Darfur’s largest town Nyala, just days after another Russian pilot was detained by Arab militia loyal to the government. The Russian envoy said it was clear Khartoum was unable to control the security situation, striking a blow to Khartoum’s argument that the conflict in Darfur and the “isolated” cases of banditry are under control. Nyala, Darfur’s largest town and economic hub, was largely insulated from the brutal revolt and counter-insurgency campaign which has for seven years terrorised Darfur’s inhabitants. Now it is the epicentre of the abductions, with criminals taking foreigners from inside their guesthouses or in the town centre in broad daylight. Fuelling the kidnaps are constant reports of Khartoum paying money for many of the hostages, another expensive reason why the government would want to end the crimes. Kidnappers told me hundreds of thousands of dollars had been paid out to abductors. The government says they know who these kidnappers are – their tribes and their families. They threaten to arrest them. But the threats appeared empty as after the release of the longest-held hostage ICRC staffer Gauthier Lefevre when there was a two month kidnap-free window, no action was taken to prosecute or bring the kidnappers to justice. Cue the abduction of Samaritan’s Purse Flavia Wagner two months after Lefevre’s release. She then endured a 105-day ordeal alone in captivity with her kidnappers threatening to rape or kill her on numerous occasions. And new spate of shorter kidnaps also began. Those who support the theory that the government is sanctioning the kidnaps ask why they have not apprehended any of the criminals. But Khartoum is not in an easy position. The kidnappers are usually young men from mostly Arab tribes – the same powerful tribes who Khartoum mobilised to help quash the Darfur rebels. One government official told me they feared any attack on the young Arabs would provoke the entire tribe — already disillusioned by the government who they feel has not delivered on promised development and services — to defend their own. The local government in Darfur is often run by those from the same tribes as the kidnappers, creating a reluctance to act against them and risk losing their support base. In remote regions far from Khartoum, the tribe provides and therefore rules. Central policy set in Khartoum is not always in the interests of the Darfur state authorities run by the governor and vice versa. But it seems that Khartoum’s interests are now clearly in line with the international community’s – to stop the kidnaps. Some officials in Khartoum are convinced action must be taken to stop the crimes. And in the last kidnap, the army acted quickly — closing down on the kidnappers before they could whisk their victims away to a desert hideaway. Again now Khartoum has a brief moment of kidnap-free time to apprehend the abductors as threatened. The world will be watching closely to see what they do.
Kidnapping foreign workers in Sudan for ransom has become a dangerous business in Darfur in the past year with 10 separate cases and at least 22 expatriate victims.
These are not the al Qaeda kidnaps of West Africa. The Darfuri criminals have so far demanded only money and have not killed any of their victims. Some have threatened to sell their captives to al Qaeda-linked groups if they do not get paid.
Former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell sparked a furore when he suggested in Foreign Affairs magazine that elections due in Nigeria in January could trigger a conflict between Muslim north and Christian south or even precipitate a coup.
In his article entitled “Nigeria on the Brink”, Campbell argued that the ending of a power-sharing agreement between north and south in the ruling party — and a lack of consensus for the first time since the end of military rule over who its candidate should be — could be a recipe for disaster.
Eritrea’s arms seem to have been folded in a sulk for a long time now. The Red Sea state has, for some, taken on the black sheep role in the Horn of Africa family. But President Isaias Afewerki is looking eager to get off the naughty step.
His opponents say he was put there for good reason. Eritrea became increasingly isolated in the region after a 1998 – 2000 border war with neighbouring – and much bigger – Ethiopia.
Momentum appears to be building towards an election bid by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, but the real political horsetrading has yet to begin if he is to carry the whole country with him.
Jonathan, in his trademark fedora and traditional caftan-like attire, has kept Africa’s most populous nation on tenterhooks for months, declining to say whether or not he plans to seek re-election in the polls due in January.
The stakes are high either way in a country that has seen repeated outbreaks of religious and communal violence, and his reticence is born of well-grounded caution, observers say.
Parts of the Muslim north will feel aggrieved if he announces a bid because, as a Christian southerner, they say he would be breaking an unwritten pact that power rotates between north and south every two terms.
But he is the first Nigerian leader from the Ijaw ethnic group in the restive Niger Delta, and a failure to stand would provoke protest in his home region, the heartland of the country’s mainstay oil and gas industry.
“Jonathan has continued to tread very carefully as far as making public his plans for the future, as he knows there will be tremendous blowback from his political opponents if and when he announces he will run,” intelligence firm Stratfor said.
“It is no secret that Nigeria’s northern elites oppose what they see as a southerner trying to usurp their rightful place in power. The level of protest that leading northerners have sustained so far is nothing in comparison to what it will be if and when Jonathan actually declares his candidacy.”
At a late-night meeting in the presidential villa on Tuesday, Jonathan told powerful state governors in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that he intends to stand, one of the governors who attended the meeting said.
Imo State Governor Ikedi Okahim made the remarks in front of television cameras, and his comments were quickly broadcast on both state-run and private stations, leading many analysts to conclude it was a deliberate move to test the waters.
“(Okahim) was most likely preparing the ground for a possible formal declaration next week by the president … to gauge initial reaction,” said Kayode Akindele, a Lagos-based director at financial consultancy Greengate Strategic Partners.
“The president will only declare if he is confident of winning the primaries … There is a feeling of renewed swagger in the recent steps of the president and his close circle but real horsetrading of the PDP primaries commences next week.”
Jonathan kept his cards close to his chest in a message to Muslims on Thursday to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, reaffirming his commitment to ensure free and fair elections and pledging to push ahead with reforms.
“With your continued support and goodwill, we shall, in the coming months carry forward our plans to further stabilize all sectors of our economy, improve national infrastructure and power supply,” he said.
His recent actions have been more telling than his words.
Jonathan replaced the heads of the armed forces, police and state security service on Wednesday, a day after the electoral commission announced the timetable for polls.
He named Major General O.A. Ihejirika as his new chief of army staff, the first time since Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war that anyone from the southeastern Igbo ethnic group has held the top post in the most powerful branch of the armed forces.
Should the rotation agreement be upheld and the next presidential term goes to the north, the Igbo would feel their turn had come in 2015 when it rotates back to the south. A Jonathan win in 2011 would scupper that hope, and Ihejirika’s nomination is seen by some as a way of ensuring loyalty.
The election timetable announced this week says party primaries begin on Saturday and run to the end of October.
Jonathan has already been meeting former heads of state and other political heavyweights including his rivals in recent weeks, such as ex-military leader Ibrahim Babangida and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, both of whom have said they will run against him to seek the PDP nomination.
The state governors form a powerful caucus in the PDP and winning their support will be key to Jonathan’s chances of success. Those from his home region have already vowed to back him, but those from the north have stopped short of doing so, saying simply they recognise his right to contest.
Several northern governors were absent at Tuesday’s meeting with Jonathan, having travelled to Saudi Arabia to mark the end of Ramadan, This Day newspaper said, without naming its sources.
The newspaper said none of those present raised objections to Jonathan’s plans to run, but that they said another meeting should be held next week with all governors attending.
“Caution is an instinct that has served Jonathan well in a remarkable political career,” said Antony Goldman, London-based head of PM Consulting and a Nigeria expert.
“If he declares publicly, it will be because he is confident of winning and of holding the PDP together. His declaration is already so widely anticipated that any early leak, accidental or deliberate, is unlikely to have a significant impact.”
There is no shortage of signs of foreign investor interest in Africa as it transforms its image to one of rapid growth and away from the old stereotypes – with even Bob Geldof now planning a private equity fund.
Africa’s rapid growth over the past few years is changing its image and has very much put it on the agenda of investors seeking higher returns than they can get elsewhere.
But the latest Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum suggests that African countries – and particularly its biggest economies – are at best stagnating and at worst backsliding when it comes to how well they can compete.