THIS year, South Sudan displaced Somalia as the world’s most fragile country, a dubious distinction and depressing outcome for a country that was having heady celebrations of its independence as Africa’s and the world’s newest nation just three years ago.
As the country enters its second year of war, the 2014 Fragile States Index by the Fund For Peace (which until 2013 was the “Failed States Index”) argues it was almost inevitable that South Sudan would be wracked by violence following its secession from its northern neighbour, as decades of warfare and a complete lack of infrastructure meant that it was really a state in name only, with “virtually none of the capacities or functions of a nation other than a name and a flag”.
African countries occupy the top six most fragile slots on the Index, and 14 of the top 20, and have more or less done so for the past decade since the Index was first constructed – despite robust GDP growth and increased international attention.
But that raises a question: How is it that some countries could occupy the same slots on the Fragile Index ranking year after year, continuously under a “High Alert” warning for imminent disintegration, yet don’t fall apart?
Looking at the ten-year trend, the countries that have registered the greatest worsening of fragility is Libya, currently embroiled in sectarian violence and terrorist attacks.
But surprisingly, the second-most deteriorated country is Senegal, which is often held up as a model democracy, with a stable economy and a good business environment.
Countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe are consistently in the top 20 of the most fragile, yet they manage to keep going, defying all the crystal balls that herald their looming implosions.
We dug deeper into the data, wanting to find out why African countries refuse to die, as it were, and what lessons we can take into 2015.
The data from the African Economic Outlook suggests that Africa’s fragile-yet-stable countries owe their hardiness to two unlikely sources – the informal economy (with its increased diversification), and having more women participating in the labour force.
When we (unscientifically) analysed African countries on those two measures, four types of countries emerged, which we call the Mail & Guardian Africa Anti-Fragile Index.
Group 1: Libya, South Sudan, Algeria, Sudan
These countries that rely on a single primary commodity – usually oil – as their major export, but have relatively few people in the labour force, both formally and informally, and a particularly low rate of women working.
These countries are the most vulnerable on our Anti-Fragile Index – they have just one source of income, no cushion from a large domestic informal market that drives demand and supply, and families are reliant on just one income, typically the father’s/man’s.
The most exposed here are Libya and South Sudan, which have already gone up in flames. Algeria and Sudan could be next, as they are highly dependent on oil exports – and prices are tanking at the moment - and they have a very low participation of women in the workplace.
Group 1a: Nigeria, Somalia
Nigeria and Somalia are also part of this group, but despite their high dependence on just a few products for their incomes - oil in the case of Nigeria and livestock in Somalia’s - their robust informal economies keep them afloat.
Informality is driven, and sustained, by political uncertainty, which from the outside looks like chaos and is conventionally considered an outright “bad” thing – but that could actually be the key to their survival and impressive ability for ingenuity and endurance.
Group 2: Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, DR Congo
These countries also largely rely on a single primary commodity for incomes, but have many people in the labour force. Botswana (diamonds), Zambia (copper), Mozambique (aluminium and refined petroleum) make a showing here, but so do other countries where agriculture is important to exports, such as Zimbabwe (gold, nickel, diamonds, tobacco and cotton) as well as Rwanda (tea, coffee, tin ore) and Tanzania (tea, coffee and gold).
In this group, more women participate in the labour force, sometimes because the economy is structured in a way that provides broad opportunity for both genders, as in Botswana’s case, or because conflict and war killed a large number of men, leaving families with women as the primary breadwinner, as in Rwanda and Mozambique.
This group is relatively more anti-fragile than Group 1. But the low productivity of the informal economy, where women are concentrated, means that although the ordinary people can withstand all kinds of shenanigans at the top political levels – which the official rankings on fragility tend to focus on –they are likely to be trapped in a poverty cycle where you are just keeping your head above water, not swimming but not drowning either.
Group 3: Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire
These are the relatively diversified economies with high per capita incomes, such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and South Africa, and to a lesser extent, Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire.
These countries have a much higher formalisation and complexity in the economic sphere, where official unemployment levels tend to be high because they have stringent regulations on business operations that are diligently enforced.
Although this is good for big, formal enterprises and foreign direct investment, the lack of an informal alternative – or, in the case of a country like Kenya, the “criminalisation” of informality – leaves one without many options, or dependent on welfare handouts.
It also means that intrigue playing out at the top political levels has a direct impact on business and daily life, because laws passed in Parliament can and will be enforced – there is less of a “live and let live” mentality towards governments and its citizens.
More anti-fragile than group 2 owing to their diversified economies, these countries still need to allow some “slack” or “wiggle room” in their economies, or else small shocks, particularly political ones, can have a huge impact.
Having more women in the workplace can go a long way for Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, and finding a way to legitimise informality without necessarily forcing enterprises to go through the hassle of becoming a big, official businesses can give the economy a much-needed cushion when political wrangles slows down the formal sector.
Group 4: Uganda, Togo, Madagascar, Senegal, Benin, Cameroon
These countries are the most anti-fragile, but it doesn’t seem so when you look at the official figures. Most have low income per capita, they tend to be small and sometimes landlocked.
But these countries are both relatively diversified in their exports, have a high participation of women in the labour force, and have a strongly informal element to their economy – and so can pretty much withstand whatever global shocks are in the international market, as well as political drama at the local level.
Uganda is a classic case in point. Shortly after President Yoweri Museveni came into power in 1986, two years later, after his earlier leftist experiments failed, he shifted to the official policy that “government was bad/ the private sector was good”, one of the very few African countries to have such an explicitly pro-business stance at the time.
Years later he caused an uproar when he said government was so bad, he wouldn’t do business with his own government if he were a business (partly in an attempt to explain why it was taking years to pay suppliers and contractors).
In most African countries, the private sector was seen as a threat. Not so for Uganda, which was one of the first countries to liberalise the economy, dismantle price and foreign exchange controls, and aggressively privatise.
The unspoken agreement with local businesses, both big and small, was to give Museveni political support in reciprocation, resulting in a “liberalised autocracy” although lately Museveni has tried to increase the government presence the longer he stays in power.
Still, this organic, bottom-up approach to business has made Uganda remarkably resilient in the face of whatever is thrown its way, as the strongly market-driven economy is light and nimble enough to roll with the punches - although there is criticism that the now-excessive dependence on political patronage has entrenched cronyism and corruption.
Benin, Togo and Cameroon benefit from the conditions in Nigeria. For example, an estimated three-quarters of the petrol consumed in Benin is smuggled from Nigeria, where a fuel subsidy keeps prices low.
Although this denies the government tax revenues, “kpayo” as the black market fuel is called, is lucrative and decentralised, a source of work for many people.
One article describes how every morning flotilla of small boats approaches the Togolese coast, laden with Nigerian fuel; the jerry cans are thrown overboard and towed back to the beach by swimmers.
The price is 15% to 30% less than in Togo’s licensed filling stations; the same plays out in Benin.
To stop such a flourishing trade is “unthinkable” in a country where the informal economy is predominant, accounting for more than 70% of jobs.