Africa’s Pervasive Power Struggles

African stock markets got off to a mixed start through February with presidential elections and chronic electricity shortages dominant themes in the continent’s biggest economies South Africa and Nigeria. Nigerian equities were lackluster ahead of the contest between political veterans Buhari, vying for a second term, and former vice president Abubakar, a wealthy business executive from energy privatization deals. Both candidates are running on similar platforms, with state oil and gas company reform and fuel subsidies largely untouched as half the population lacks power, as they call for improved standing in the World Bank’s commercial environment rankings and easier foreign exchange access without unraveling controls. The challenger’s main departure is a fiscal decentralization changing revenue and responsibility relationships between the state and federal governments, designed to appeal to grassroots voters long resentful of Abuja’s authority and spending. The plank also aims to slow domestic debt growth to fund chronic budget deficits, with a possible shift toward external fund-raising at one-third the total. The campaigns promise to raise minimum and civil service wages to keep pace with double-digit inflation, and redouble the fight against Boko Haram and other insurgent groups, with moderate 3% GDP growth predicted this year on hesitant consumption. Corruption scandals around both major parties have served to neutralize it as a wedge issue amid official claims against multinational oil companies and banks for aiding embezzlement. JP Morgan is the target of a $900 million lawsuit for allegedly allowing a former state governor to abscond with funds, after the institution was excoriated for dropping the country from its benchmark domestic bond index for currency restrictions. A naira float is not in the cards for the post-election period, although analysts expect further liberalization of the multi-tier market that could suggest an eventual timetable.

South Africa’s President Ramaphosa, preparing to run for formal election in May, had to contend with another wave of power operator Eskom’s rolling blackouts after proposing a plan to split it into separate operating units.  Its $30 billion in debt weighs on the precarious sovereign investment-grade rating as Moody’s considers a demotion, and follows restructuring negotiations for the ailing state airline. With such contingent liabilities the debt/GDP ratio may be well into the 70-80% danger zone, as Finance Minister Gordhan reluctantly agreed to another bailout in view of Eskom’s “too big to fail” status. The management was replaced, and higher tariffs may be approved in the face of labor opposition prompting strikes. The board of the top public pension fund, Africa’s biggest by assets, was also revamped after members were implicated in graft under the previous administration. The President’s housecleaning is in line with his “New Dawn” platform to rally ruling ANC party support into the polls, although critics reiterate establishment ties dating to independence and urge fresh entrants. The successor team faces a continuing fiscal mess on anemic 1-2% growth as well as the fallout from next-door Zimbabwe’s renewed crisis, following a violent crackdown on fuel price hike protestors. President Mnangawa returned from a trip to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland to handle the aftermath, amid rumors the army would unseat him. The electronic proxy currency was formally devalued against real dollars, bowing to daily consumer and banking reality, as the Finance Minister tries to draw on earlier African Development Bank ties to overcome sanctions and obtain hard international community cash.

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