PARIS — A decade after development began in earnest on the "continent of lions" — the result of vast riches in raw materials, and of Africa embracing globalization — the countries from the northern sub-Saharan Sahel region and large parts of central Africa are facing a double threat.
Over the past few weeks, panic over Ebola has replaced months of indifference and carelessness. At the same time, the spectacular ISIS advances in Iraq have shed a worrying light on the violence of armed Islamist groups in Africa.
What does this double crisis in Africa tell us? First of all, the arc of current health and security problems covers weak states. The threats are hitting hardest those that are struggling to face the rebellions and those — led by Liberia and Sierra Leone — in which authorities lack resources and the ability to organize a minimal quarantine to slow the spread of the virus.
The strong economic growth of Liberia and Sierra Leone over the last few years hasn't been enough for the countries to make up for decades of underdevelopment — not just in health care, but also in education, an essential factor in the evolution of cultural habits and social behaviors. Because it is wealthier and more organized, Senegal has fared much better.
But the dramatic events in these regions are telling us something else too, namely that "it's ridiculous to consider Africa as a single country. Would we say that of Europe?" asks Thierry Vircoulon, director of the Central Africa project at the International Crisis Group. There is a world of difference between the isolated countries of the Sahel or Central African Republic, and dynamic countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia or Zambia.
The economic question
Is the durability of the African growth miracle in question? Nobody wants to underestimate the risks that the crises carry for the continent. Some say that the effects of Ebola on the worst-hit countries are "more severe than a coup d’état." Their growth prospects, very encouraging until now, have already been revised down, and there are fears that the epidemic might create a diversion for victims of other diseases such as malaria.
The French Development Agency expects a "spillover effect on the budgets of neighboring countries that are taking precautionary measures." In Senegal, for example, "the shock could be irreversible if tourists leave," says Diery Seck, director of the Center for Research on Political Economy (CREPOL) in Dakar. He is also worried by the absence of a common risk management strategy and health coordination inside the Economic Community Of West African States, one of the best integrated organizations in Africa.
Meanwhile, World Bank officials believe that the "panic reaction fed by the fear of contagion" represents the real danger, more than the direct cost of Ebola.
But all experts are cautious about the risks on African development. "The growth of African economies is happening in an extremely chaotic context," explains Jean-Michel Severino, former CEO of the French Development Agency. "The growth of around 5% for the last 10 years will remain significant, but it will be fickle and will vary from country to country, insufficient to quickly bring the populations out of poverty and end political volatility without new structural changes. This will take a long time, and there's still work to be done."
Over and over again, experts point to Africa's great capacity for "resilience." After all, it has been living for decades with the ravages of HIV and virtually forever with malaria, which kills close to 600,000 Africans each year. What's more, Africa now has solid systems in place to combat these problems.
African economies have benefitted form debt write-offs, and they enjoy good trading conditions for their raw materials. They are also more diversified, fed as they are by an ever-growing global demand and an urban middle class that creates new markets. "Investors differ from one country to another, which minimizes the risks of contagion," says Patrick Raleigh, associate director at Standard & Poor’s.
Politically, "the risk of conflicts in Africa is today weaker than it was 20 years ago," says Philippe Hugon, research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
And despite undeniable shortcomings, the countries' foundations have been spectacularly shaken up over the last decade in terms of democracy, fallen dictatorships and varying governances, says Pierre Jacquemot, also a researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
Philippe Lévêque, director of the NGO Care France, holds a relatively optimistic view: Although Ebola "undermines the social and economic bases of the affected communities," it should not affect the rest of the continent.