Africa’s oil shock

The economic transformation of African countries and the falling price of oil.

Global economic relations to witness profound shifts as the US overtakes Saudi Arabia as largest oil producer [AP]

The plummeting of global crude prices is generating ripple effects worldwide. While oil exporters are reeling from plunging revenues, oil importers are bracing for cheaper oil, and the potential economic stimulus. Global economic relations may also witness profound shifts as the United States overtakes Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer.

Given the concentration of oil and other natural resources in Africa, it is worth examining how falling oil prices will affect the continent’s economic transformation aspirations.

Since the turn of the century, sub-Saharan Africa has recorded tremendous growth; it is the world’s second-fastest growing region. Many African governments’ expressed priorities are converging around sustaining this growth, modernising their economies and translating the benefits of this economic expansion into increased incomes, jobs and better educational and healthcare services for their citizens.

These laudable aspirations have been articulated by individual African governments, regional organisations such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the African Union.

Development goals

While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had an overwhelming social development focus, the Post-2015 successor framework aims to “promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation” as one of its proposed Sustainable Development Goals.

This renewed focus on the structural transformation of African economies from the domination of small-holder rural agriculture, bloated public sectors, informality and foreign multinationals, is reminiscent of the African industrialisation drive in the 1960s and 1970s.

Newly independent African governments then, fired-up by nationalist zeal, and emboldened by resource discoveries, set ambitious economic modernisation plans, to be financed by resource windfalls – copper in Zambia, cocoa and gold in Ghana, and cash crops and oil in Nigeria.

Newly independent African governments then, fired-up by nationalist zeal, and emboldened by resource discoveries, set ambitious economic modernisation plans, to be financed by resource windfalls – copper in Zambia, cocoa and gold in Ghana, and cash crops and oil in Nigeria.

However, the lofty dreams were abruptly halted by external shocks from volatile global commodity markets, which disrupted the flow of foreign exchange. The effects were exacerbated through mismanagement by weak bureaucracies, and often, predatory dictatorships as personified by Mobutu in Zaire.

Like the 1970s, a commodity boom driven by rising demand from China and other emerging economies since the early 2000s has led to a third boom particularly for oil-producing countries. Once more, resource earnings preceded a resurgence of state planning.

Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria and Rwanda are among several countries currently with articulated industrial strategies. Conveniently, a wave of democratisations has rid many countries of brutal dictatorships of decades past.

It is on the back of these economic and political developments that sub-Saharan Africa’s growth rates were generated. Since June 2014 however, the high global commodity prices have declined steadily; Brent Crude, the international benchmark for oil prices has lost almost 50 percent of its value.

If the tumble in commodity prices in the 1980s led to economic contraction, budget deficits, debt crises and social misery, how will the current oil rout affect Africa’s renewed economic transformation aspirations?

Economic effects

First, much depends on the length and severity of the oil crunch. Persistent low prices will deplete foreign reserves, strain budgets, trigger cuts in social spending and other austerity measures, and ensnare oil producers in new debt. Forecasts have been indecisive on the medium to long term trajectory of oil prices ranging from $43 per barrel in the first half of 2015 to $95 by year’s end.

Optimistic projections are banking on an improvement in global economic growth, and Saudi Arabia’s staying power in the stand-off with US Shale production. Even if these bullish projections were to hold true, the slowing growth of China and consequent lowering of its demand for fossil fuels, emerging non-OPEC producers and new technologies reducing the cost of shale production could cap oil prices.

Thus, if and when prices do rise, they are unlikely to reach the $100 mark. Perhaps, soaring oil prices and windfalls are relics of a time gone by.

Second, African oil producers will be hard hit with varying severity. Veteran exporters like Angola, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and South Sudan will be affected as they all depend on oil rents for 50 to 70 percent of their governments’ revenues and more than 90 percent of export earnings. Already, Nigeria is reeling from the consequences.

Counting the Cost – Feature: Black gold in decline?

Cuts have reduced capital spending to just 14 percent for 2015 while government salaries and other recurrent expenditure take the mammoth share, and the depreciation of the Naira is likely to have inflationary consequences in an economy that depends on imports for most of its food and consumer goods.

The war-torn South Sudan currently receives the lowest oil price in the world, $20 to $25, due to the shocks, the low quality of its oil and the payments for using of the pipeline traversing the Sudan.

Declining oil revenues and output will threaten its already precarious attempts at post-conflict nation-building.

Third, the experience for oil-importing African countries will be different. According to IMF projections, importers will experience increase in real income on consumption and decrease in the cost of production of final goods, and consequently, on profit and investment. Reduced import bills for countries like Djibouti, Benin and Malawi among others will save the equivalent of more than 11 percent, 6 percent and 5 percent of their GDPs respectively.

Countries like Malawi which depend on foreign aid for more than a third of government revenue will have greater fiscal space, while Ethiopia’s emerging manufacturing industry could be boosted from savings on oil imports.

Fourth, are countries with recent oil finds such as Chad, Ghana, Kenya, Niger, and Uganda. Ghana’s case is particularly striking. Having grossly overestimated expected earnings from its Jubilee oil fields, it embarked on a spending spree with wage increases and subsides and borrowed massively against future oil income. These have led to budget shortfalls since 2011, government debt, a 40 percent depreciation in the currency and a request for IMF stabilisation intervention.

Critically, Ghana’s oil production, like most of the new producers will be on a decline by late 2020 according to International Energy Agency forecasts. Ironically, the country is already exhibiting pathologies associated with the neighbouring dysfunctional veteran oil exporters.

As African countries respond differently to the oil crunch, it is clear that resource endowments and the presence of industrial policies by themselves are grossly insufficient without practical measures to ensure that the revenues count and the sustained commitment to generate shared prosperity for citizens.

The resilience of counter-cyclical safeguards to buffer the impact of sudden price swings on budgets and development spending will be tested. For instance, whether Angola’s $5 billion Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) and Nigeria’s $1 billion and its Excess Crude Account for stashing surplus oil earnings will allow them continue with infrastructural projects remains to be seen.

How these countries weather this storm will determine whether lessons have been learnt or whether the third oil boom is yet another missed opportunity.

Zainab is a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Her research assesses political institutions, the oil economy and economic reform in Nigeria since the transition to democracy in 1999. Her research interests are in governance, natural resources management, economic development, political institutions, gender and security in Sub-Saharan Africa.