Africa’s looming debt crises

The 1980s are calling. According to Bloomberg:

Zambia’s kwacha fell the most on record after Moody’s Investors Service cut the credit rating of Africa’s second-biggest copper producer, a move the government rejected and told investors to ignore…..

Zambia’s economy faces “a perfect storm” of plunging prices for the copper it relies on for 70 percent of export earnings at the same time as its worst power shortage, Ronak Gopaldas, a credit risk analyst at Rand Merchant Bank in Johannesburg, said by phone. Growth will slow to 3.4 percent in 2015, missing the government’s revised target of 5 percent, Barclays Plc said in a note last week. That would be the most sluggish pace since 2001.

The looming debt crisis will hit Zambia and other commodity exporters hard. As I noted two years ago, the vast majority of the African countries that have floated dollar-denominated bonds are heavily dependent on commodity exports. Many of them are already experiencing fiscal blues on account of the global commodity slump (see for example Angola, Zambia and Ghana). This will probably get worse. And the double whammy of plummeting currencies and reduced commodity exports will increase the real cost of external debt (on top of fueling domestic inflation). I do not envy African central bankers.

Making sure that the looming debt crises do not result in a disastrous retrenchment of the state in Africa, like happened in the 1980s and 1990s, is perhaps the biggest development challenge of our time. Too bad all the attention within the development community is focused elsewhere.

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On the Zambian Presidential By-Election

Zambians go to the polls today to elect a president to serve the remainder of the late Michael Sata’s term. President Sata died on the 28th of October, 2014. The winner of the by-election will be office until late 2016 when when elections are due for both the presidency and the National Assembly.

Today’s contest is between the two front-runners: Edgar Lungu, the candidate of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF); and Hakainde Hichilema (HH), the candidate of the United Party for National Development (UPND). Lungu has the advantage of incumbency, and a favorable electoral map (interim president Guy Scott is constitutionally barred from running). As the table below shows, support for Sata in the last election (2011) was concentrated in provinces that were both vote-rich (column 7) and recorded high turnout (column 5). HH’s support has historically been strongest in his native Southern Province and the vote-poor Western and Northwestern Provinces. He is also competitive in Central Province.

Presidential Election Results (2011)
Province Sata (PF) Banda (MMD) Hichilema (UPND) Turnout Turnout (2008) Vote Share (Ascending)
Northwestern 10.85 50.21 35.24 54.88 42.7 6.249513033
Western 23.12 33.2 28.21 47.77 38.4 6.800182089
Luapula 73.54 22.9 0.85 50.49 37.8 7.447270534
Central 28.28 48.21 20.82 46.87 40.6 8.149764957
Eastern 18.46 72.6 3.33 49.89 40.5 11.60268286
Southern 6.59 19.15 71.41 58.04 49.8 13.47451036
Northern 64.18 32.16 0.78 57.28 44.6 13.62680466
Lusaka 55.94 30.76 11.29 52.05 50.7 14.50255098
Copperbelt 67.88 26.22 3.57 59.5 52.8 18.14672051

HH’s chances will depend on whether the fallout within PF (Lungu’s nomination did not occur without incident) and the implosion of MMD produce a swing in his favor. Disaffected MMD supporters will therefore be a critical swing bloc. Furthermore, ahead of the elections Hichilema managed to get the endorsement of Geoffrey B. Mwamba (GBM), a former minister in the Sata government. But it is unclear whether GBM will be able to sway voters in his native north of the country, which voted solidly for Sata in 2011 (see map below). Sata, like GBM, was from Northern Province (since divided into Northern and Muchinga Provinces).

Sata constituency level vote share (% of votes cast)

Sata constituency level vote share (% of votes cast)

A low turnout today will favor PF. In the last presidential by-election (in 2008) turnout was 45.43%, 8 percentage points lower than the 53.65% recorded in the 2011 General Election. PF, with its wide support in the more urbanized Copperbelt and Lusaka (see map and table, column 6), therefore enters the race with a distinct advantage. If Hichilema is to have a chance he must not lose the turnout contest, and at the same time win by wide margins in the northwest, west and south of the country.

Of course the biggest unknown is whether Lungu can attract the same level of support as did Sata in 2011 (I lean towards him getting a sizable sympathy vote). Lungu is new to the presidential race, while HH has run multiple times. HH therefore has an assured strong base in the south (and possibly west) and better name recognition across the country. So despite PF’s incumbency status (which is no small matter), in many ways this is an open race.

From a research perspective, I’ll be keen to observe how the map above changes once all the votes are in. Which regions of the country will swing out of the PF column? Will the MMD survive this election? Can HH break out of his “Southern” tag?

Whatever the results, this by-election is a warm-up to what promises to be a very exciting General Election in 2016 (Also, I hope to have opinion poll data to play with ahead of the 2016 contest).