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Charter Cities Podcast Episode 23: Africa, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow with Judd Devermont

A conversation with Judd Devermont, Director of the Africa Program at CSIS to find out Africa’s current global position

In our conversation, Judd reveals the continent’s shortcomings and touches on foreign policy and local democracy before pulling the curtain back on the many things that Africa can be hopeful for. The show opens with Judd telling us what inspired him to become an expert in his field. We find out about his mission to provide a fairer perspective of the continent that is oftentimes missing by Washington and American media. Judd goes on to tell listeners about the many misconceptions of Africa, and shares some of the top African news stories that have not been reported by western media; namely flourishing democracy and peaceful transitions of power in many of its nations. As the US makes its own transition of power, Judd gives his predictions for African policy under the Biden administration. We then dig into some of Africa’s bigger contemporary struggles like urbanization, revenue mobilization and the need to create better social contracts, and why COVID-19 has been a catalyst for action for many African countries. In the latter half of the show, Judd explores topics like knowledge creation and the difficulties that returning African expats face. We then take a look at how global powers have been involved with the continent, as Judd comments on the Trump administration and China’s heavy involvement. To conclude the show, Judd talks about why Africa has coped well amid the COVID-19 pandemic, oddly thanks due to its disconnected nature.

Transcript (edited for clarity):

Mark: Hello and welcome to The Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the Founder and Executive Director of The Charter Cities Institute. On The Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city, from governance to urban planning, politics to finance, we hope listeners to The Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them.

You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at, follow us on social media, on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.

Mark: My guest today is Judd Devermont. He is the Director of the Africa Program at CSIS. Prior to joining CSIS, he served as the National Intelligence Office for Africa from 2015 to 2018. He’s had a long career working with US policy in Africa and we’re excited to have him on the show today.

Welcome to the show, Judd.

Judd: Hey. Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Mark: Yeah, great. To start, can you talk about what got you interested in Africa and what you do at CSIS?

Judd: Yeah, sure. I was a history buff, practically my whole life. In college, I took the opportunity to study all over the place, and not just US history, European history, which is generally offered in high school. I took classes about East Asian history and Latin American history. I found the classes on Africa to be the most engaging, there’s just – it’s so complex, the way in which history has such a huge influence on the country’s trajectories.

I decided to study in South Africa, I spent a year in Cape Town, and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, mainly in government. I worked in the intelligence community. I also worked in the White House, under President Obama. I served as a diplomat in our embassy in Abuja, and then decided to leave government in 2018 and go work at CSIS, where I run the Africa program.

Our job is really to provide a perspective on the continent that I think is missing often in Washington, to elevate African voices, to identify new policy opportunities and recommendations and be constructive with our criticism when it’s warranted. It’s been a fabulous career so far.

Mark: Right. Thanks. What would you say are the right – and if we look at newspapers, for example, obviously, a lot of time you spent about on Europe, a lot of times now spent on China, a little bit on that America, but what would you say are some of the common misconceptions of Africa, particularly American policy towards Africa that you encounter?

Judd: Yeah. I mean, we know that American newspapers almost exclusively cover negative developments on the continent. Conflict, or terrorism, or infectious diseases, or humanitarian crises. It’s very difficult for journalists to talk about how vibrant urban centers are, for example. They, I think, try, but it’s just hard to get on the headlines to talk about the smart politics that different African countries are playing with foreign partners; that digital transformation on the continent gets short shrift.

I don’t think it’s because those journalists don’t get it. I think it happens to be a financial decision in terms of what’s the expression? If it bleeds, it leads. It’s been an uphill battle to deliver to the American public, more nuanced views about the content, both the good news stories, but of course, the bad news stories as well.

Mark: In those, I guess, that’s five years, what would you say are some of the top good news stories that might be underreported?

Judd: Well, one of the things that I focus on a lot is the battle right now between the authoritarian and democratic forces on the continent. If you spend a lot of your time reading the headlines, today is January 14th, and so many people are thinking about Uganda and President Museveni cracking down on his opponents, including Bobi Wine. You might miss that there is some real significant transitions and leadership across the continent right now. More than 35 leaders have handed over power in the past five years, that’s unprecedented, that rivals the end of the Cold War. About half of those are incumbent defeats.

We are seeing democracy still flourish in some places, in surprising places, as we saw in the Gambia in 2017, or the protest movements that led to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. That sits right next to some of these really negative stories of democratic regression and backsliding. What I ask and recommend people think about is that not the democracy is up or down on the continent, but to see that the tools that the government use and the governing use are changing rapidly. The rules of how one competes in democratic spaces, or an autocratic spaces is changing.

That means that we’ve got a lot of volatility ahead of us, but we will see some pretty significant surprises, as well as very disappointing backsliding. I think that’s one of the things that is often missed in the way that we cover African politics.

Mark: I guess, your key point is that there has been a lot more democratization, maybe more democratization, but at least the democratization trends have been strong over the last five years, much more than commonly understood. Why is that the case?

Judd: Well, I wouldn’t say the democratization trends are happening more than commonly understood. I would say that what people are missing is that in some countries, transition of powers become routinized. In another handful of countries, civil society, or opposition has been able to unseat long-standing leaders, peacefully, generally. The big point is that with the economic transformation of the economy over the past 15 years, followed by some slow down over the last couple of years, particularly exacerbated by COVID, the changes in urbanization, the changes in internet, communication technology, that both sides have these new tools. It’s a fiercer competition that again, can lead to some pretty exciting things, but then also, can result in some disappointments.

Again, being counting on the number of democracies is not really where I am. It’s thinking about how are the rules of the road being built right now for the future? Where can international community be helpful in that process? In some cases, at least in the last four, the US government has been largely absent, although there are a couple of ambassadors who have done a phenomenal job, including Natalie Brown, who is our ambassador to Uganda, who I thought has made some principled statements about the selection and decided ultimately, not to send observers, because it would legitimize Museveni’s stealing of another five years.

Mark: We’re on the cusp of the transition to a Biden ministration. How can we expect a Biden administration to treat Africa? I mean, they have, for example, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, she has been appointed UN ambassador and she was previously I believe, Assistant Secretary?

Judd: Assistant Secretary of State. Yeah.

Mark: That is the rising of somebody with a lot of Africa experience. Presumably, she will bring that to her cabinet level position. What other type of engagement can we see from – might expect from the Biden administration with regards to Africa?

Judd: Yeah. Well, even though we’re less than a week away from the inauguration, we haven’t seen the key positions being filled yet. That’s not surprising. It’s a little bit difficult right now to make predictions based on personnel, then I would add Samantha Power at USAID, who’s been very active in her career on Africa, as another one – a very senior person who really gets the importance of the continent.

When you think about the policies that the Biden administration is going to unspool across the continent, I would say, there’s a couple ways to think about it. First, what sorts of things are they going to resurrect, to bring back, to re-emphasize things that have been neglected under  the Trump administration? That’s particularly a democracy and governance issues, working with civil society.

I think that you will see a greater emphasis on multilateralism, particularly around the Biden priorities, which is climate change, and COVID. But those are going to be ones that I think the Africans are going to be very – particularly at COVID, embracing climate change is another discussion that we can get into if you like.

What I think is going to be interesting about the Biden administration is that they seem to be thinking through how do you have a different policy on China? There’s no question that Washington is more hawkish on China. That’s happened over the past four years. If you look at some of the more important thinkers in the Democratic Party, and now in key positions in the Biden administration, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, they are talking about how do we compete without catastrophe? How do we figure out places where we can work together? How do we focus on what we stand for?

Not always about what we oppose in China, and saying that in the same breath as recognizing that it is the big strategic challenge for the United States. There are going to be places where not only that we’re going to have to counter or compete, but we’re going to have to be much more aggressive with China. Those are a couple of things, I think, that you’ll see from the Biden administration on Africa.

There’s a couple of other things that I’m really excited about that we’ll just have to see. One of them is a focus on the diaspora. There was even on the campaign released, how do they are going to engage with the African diaspora? That’s really exciting. It’s not that other administrations haven’t done diaspora engagement, but to put that out in the campaign is a much stronger statement.

The other one appropriate for this conversation is urbanization during the campaign. Then the candidate talked about having an urbanization initiative. I’m not sure what that is going to look like yet. It’s pretty bare bones. I think, those are things that don’t just get us going backwards in time, resurrecting, or restoring what we did under Obama, or Clinton, or Bush, but it’s actually about looking forward and thinking about what are some of the hallmarks of a Biden administration policy towards Africa.

Mark: I don’t remember where I saw it. It might have been something you wrote, or somewhere else. One of the big changes in Africa, obviously, over last decade or so has been urbanization, as effectively meant for politics is previously, politics was largely about basically, creating strong support groups in the rural areas, because that’s where a majority of votes were. Now as Africa, I don’t think it’s an urban majority continent yet, but urbanization obviously is much higher. The politicians are focusing a lot more on urban areas, in terms of how to leverage those spaces for votes.

Obviously, I guess that does – as you mentioned, play into the Biden discussion about urbanization. I guess, with a particular focus on African urbanization then, what are some of the core themes that are going on and how can we better understand them?

Judd: Yeah. I think there are a couple of really important dimensions here. First is the growing majority populations that are urban, or in many countries are already majority urban population. The continent as a whole, as you know, will be majority urban by the end of this decade, by 2030. That will change how you think about urban planning. That’s really important. These cities are not necessarily set up to succeed.

The CBDs are often disconnected. The ex-servs. There’s terrible transportation issues, housing problems. Some of it is just getting the bones of African cities, so that they’re primed for investment. That’s, in some respects, important in and of itself, but it’s also connected to many cities don’t have full autonomy. If you looked across the continent, you would see a whole range of different ways in which African cities operate within their federal context.

Some cities have, the general rule of thumb is more responsibility, but less authority, or ability to tax. That’s not true for every city, or country. In general, there has to be a rebalancing of the authority, so that a city executive can actually manage his or her population, and raise revenue and make decisions about the way in which the city looks and how it houses its population if it’s going to succeed.

Again, so it’s pretty much hard infrastructure. That’s a question of really soft infrastructure and decision making. Politics, as you alluded to, Mark, earlier, it is changing the nature of politics. It doesn’t mean that the ethnicity isn’t a key driver. In fact, there’s some great research from Noah Nathan on that issue. How do urban populations think about opposition versus ruling parties? How do they mobilize? I think those are really important questions that we will see in the future become more important.

Then the last part, I think, is on security. We have a series at CSIS called talking urban futures. We were talking to some folks about how do you think about the way in which crime and insecurity will change in cities? In the American policymaker conception, insecurities on governed spaces in Northeast Nigeria, I think that ultimately, we’re going to have to flip that on its head to think about these challenges within cities. Those are the four that I think are really important to watch out for. Because if those are addressed successfully, in terms of infrastructure, soft and hard, how do you think about engaging politically and how do you think about security, I think we can have a very vibrant urban future. For those who are neglected, the future becomes a lot more dim.

Mark: Yeah. I think that’s an important issue. One of the projects that we’re working with in Honduras, actually – Honduras, basically, a charter city legislation, my primary selling points to potential residents is Honduras is a very violent country, so they’re basically providing security. I mean, they’re targeting mostly women. There’s a lot of young, basically, single mothers in their region and they often go to business parks, or industrial parks, where in the business park or industrial park, you can take your phone out outside, you are safe, because there’s a gate entrance. You’re trying to recreate that environment to a certain extent in that operating city scale that’s for about 10,000 people, but in their development to allow people to be able to walk a little bit more freely to solve that security issue.

To return to, I think, the taxation point that you brought up is that the city sometimes have more responsibility, but less ability to meet that. One of the challenges in these talking points is this idea of state capacity is, can governments actually, sometimes referred to purely as taxing authority, but sometimes it’s more broad like, can governments execute? Or if there is an objective, can they build a road in a reasonable amount of time, whatever that is?

In some African countries, for example, the tax base is usually less than 10% of the total population and many countries are very heavily resource dependent. How do you, I guess, think about that circle getting squared? If we look at the history of the US and other high-income countries, they were often built on a middle-income base, where there was a class that was very engaged in commerce and had this expectation of all right, well, we’ll pay taxes, but we expect these services to be performed.

In Africa, I mean, you’re seeing that, to a certain extent, the rising middle class in a handful of countries, but how should we think about these broader trends and whether we’re actually pointing in the right direction or not?

Judd: Yeah. I mean, domestic revenue mobilization, which is the fancy word for taxes is pretty paltry across the content, but particularly in places like Nigeria, or Lagos should be driving a lot more revenue from taxes. I think you hit the nail on the head, Mark. There’s a sense of why pay taxes if I’m getting no services in return? That’s the whole bargain that you make. You’ll pay taxes, so the state can provide services. That could include security, but a range of things.

I think, hopefully, these things will walk hand in hand. That’s about having more transparency, in terms of what the money that they’re raising and where it’s going, that will be helpful, because we have to be able to tie these two things together. Because the way it works right now, where money goes in and you never know where money is going out, won’t induce more people to pay taxes.

We don’t want to see a whole bunch of great projects, and that also is not connected to the money that went in, right? Because there’s a free rider problem. I think that there has to be a new social contract between urban dwellers and their municipal leaders around taxes. I mean, that’s one of the things, so that you can draw a much straighter line between what you are paying for and what you are getting in return.

Otherwise, I think elites will do what they have been doing, which is essentially, outsourcing all of their services to private companies. Or if you are ultra-wealthy, then you’re leaving the country when you need a particular service. I think, COVID-19 has been really interesting, the challenge for many African elites that they can’t go fly to Dubai, or Europe for medical services. I haven’t seen the conversation as robust as I would like, but I’m still hopeful that everyone will take a hard look at health systems. Not just the poor, the urban poor, but the urban middle class and the urban rich. These things are not really available for them, in many of these countries. Getting on British Airways shouldn’t be your go-to move.

Mark: Yeah, it was interesting, when Mugabe died a few years ago, he died in a hospital in Singapore. It’s like, okay, you run a country for 30 some years, and you don’t even have a hospital that you feel comfortable going to. There’s something lost in the intermediate. Do you see the demographic shift that we’re seeing in Africa is helping to contribute to these needed changes?

Judd: I’m not sure yet. I think we have seen some really interesting green shoots in certain countries around the demographic changes. Remember, the average age of the continent is 19. Most young people globally, start to get involved in politics in their mid-20s. We’re still not there, where the largest part of the population is in that more politically active 20s, or even early 30s period. I think the End SARS protests in Nigeria is a great example of mobilization of youth. What we saw in Sudan, those protest movements, largely led by young people, professionals and women, Bobi Wine as a avatar for a young candidate.

In other places like in South Africa, there’s been a lot of excitement about what they call the born frees — the generation born after apartheid. They haven’t been that politically active. Although, until recently, the leader of the DA, the Democratic Alliance, was a young man. Well, he’s not a young man, but he was in his 40s. I think, a couple of things. We have to wait a little bit. That’s clear.

If young people are just mobilizing largely on the street, that’s probably not insufficient to get real policy change. The next challenge, I know many end SARS protesters and society leaders feel this way is how do we translate this energy and anger in some cases, into ways that affect politics, whether that’s creating political parties, or just being more effective at working through the system. Because if you looked at the average age of Nigerian governors or legislators, they’re still much older than the population. We’re talking about 50s and 60s. Of course, Buhari is in his late 70s. Those are the challenges.

It’s there. I think it will become more dominant, more tangible and concrete as that demographic bulge moves into the 20s and 30s. They don’t have necessarily yet the platforms to really drive change. That’s going to be critical after the street protests, after the uprising to actually do the hard work of governing.

Mark: Yeah. I think, the other thing that makes me more optimistic for Africa’s future is that now, there are a lot of African expats who are moving back. For example, one project we’re working with in Zambia, the leader of it grew up in Zambia, he goes to college in the UK. He tries to start up in the UK and doesn’t really get off the ground. He ends up returning to Zambia.

My impression and talking to folks is in the 90s when most folks went abroad, they tended to want to stay abroad. Now there is much more of people being educated abroad and then returning to their countries, and that education allows for some of this knowledge creation. It allows for the spillover, trickle-down effects that hopefully, bring about broad, economic development. Have you seen that trend at all as well?

Judd: You hear of that trend a lot in the tech sector; young Africans who come to the US, or come to Silicon Valley and then return to the continent to make their fortune into translate some of the experiences and talents and skills that they’ve garnered abroad, of course, also in the UK. I’m just not sure how significant it is at this point. I mean, just there’s not good research that I’ve seen that puts a number to it, or a percentage to it.

This actually happened, at least in the case of Nigeria in the 1970s, as well, which is often thought the early 1970s is Nigeria’s Golden Age, and you had a lot of returnees after the Civil War with the oil coming up, then that fell down, or fell apart as they moved into the 80s. It’s cyclical, or it can be cyclical. To make it a real thing, there’s this mutually reinforcing dynamic. Returnees coming back to the continent, and the cities and governments and societies, enabling environments where they can succeed. Then their successes, bring more successes.

The challenge will be for all these people who have gone abroad, and then come back and try their fortune, if they find that the infrastructure is insufficient, the regulatory environment is too suffocating, then I think that we will see this really hopeful trend that you’ve mentioned, Mark, be suffocated in the cradle. Again, something that is hopeful, but I just don’t know how big it is yet. Again, I think that the question will be how are young, aspiring entrepreneurs and returnees, are they going to be able to succeed in the current environment that they work in?

Mark: Yeah. I think that’s right. What comes to mind is trends, or trending was successful, in part, because they created a strong enabling environment, but it’s also right next to Hong Kong; you had a lot of families that were affected with cross border. Usual financing come from Hong Kong, as well as the skills and talent. In thinking about 40 years ago, obviously, Africa is a lot less educated. Now, education is a lot more there, there’s a lot more people returning with skills that bring these broader benefits, by figuring out how to channel them into an enabling environment that allows it to be much more sustainable, instead of just these brief bursts of excitement, I think, is really key. How would you rate the Trump administration and their engagement with Africa? They launched prosper Africa, but the cynical take, it was just the anti-Belt and Road initiative, and not much more than that.

Judd: Okay, let me get out the negative stuff first. I think, unfortunately, the Trump administration – well, first of all, it’s the least active in terms of high-level engagement, compared to any of its predecessors, going all the way back to Kennedy. President Trump with less African leaders in the Oval Office, only two. Kenyatta twice, and then Buhari once. No predecessor, going back to again, to Kennedy has met with less in their first term. The president didn’t go to the continent, and his secretary of state’s in total made three trips, which again, compared to the Bush, or the Obama administration, travel is low.

It has been, I think the domestic policies, under President Trump around immigration, have disproportionately affected Africans and has caused a lot of resentment with the Visa bans, travel bans, etc. We’ve talked earlier, alluded to that this administration did not pay really any attention to democracy and government, didn’t prioritize it, didn’t mention it in the unveiling of their strategy. It’s only because of congress and because of I think, very impressive, and committed diplomats that that has not fallen off entirely.

Oh, let me just say something about security. Despite what people thought that this would be a very aggressive counter-terrorism administration, they’re really not that interested in those issues, and have been working towards reducing our troops in West Africa, pulling in all the 700 troops in Somalia. While they’ve unshackled the military in terms of their ability to do strikes in the Horn of Africa, their overall commitment to security in security engagement, I think has been under some considerable question.

Now you asked, Mark, about Prosper Africa. I think it’s in the realm of trade investment that this has been, what is the standout for this administration. I do think they deserve some credit for a couple of things. First of all, training the DFC, the Development Finance Corporation, which has been something that many administrations and think tanks have thought about and wanted, but they made that happen and that’s important. They doubled the reserves from 30 billion to 60 billion.

The reauthorization of the EXIM Bank, I think is very important. The signing of the free trade agreement with Kenya, as long as it is going to support and mutually reinforce the  free trade agreement is great. Prosper Africa, I actually think is doing something that absolutely should have happened a long time ago, which is getting the US government internally to work better. The analogy I always have is that if you are a company trying to invest in Africa, you’ve had to go on an Easter egg hunt, to go to each department and agency and to unlock the various services they offer, whether it’s risk, insurance, debt, etc.

Prosper Africa puts it all in one place. Prosper Africa, has deal teams and deal ideation, services, and creates this one-stop shop. That’s great. I think sometimes, they’ve oversold what Prosper Africa is, particularly in the very beginning, made really big announcements as if it’s a response to, or a counter to China. Then, we heard crickets for several months. I think in the last year, there’s just been a lot more work that they’ve gotten done. They put their head down, I think launched the website, and it’s making progress.

I am a fan of it. I think that the work that needs to be done is talking to the American private sector about the opportunities; I think, not overselling what it’s offering. Then one thing that’s missing is, as a general US policy towards Africa in the economic sphere is what are we doing about enabling environments? We talked about that earlier, when it comes to African returnees. Prosper Africa can’t just be, or any of these programs can’t just be working on demand, they also have to be working on supply and thinking through working with African partners around regulatory challenges, bureaucratic red tape, etc.

Mark: I mean, that’s the dream for charter cities and CCI is basically, figuring out, okay, if America is investing all this money, just put a pot of it and say, “Look, we’ll put, I don’t know, 500 million dollars, whatever, if you basically create the legal framework for a charter city and find some area, like maybe Nigeria finds an area outside of Lagos.” Lagos is growing at a fantastic rate. Just find 10 square kilometers outside of Lagos and say, “All right. Within this, we’ll have a regulatory sandbox. We’ll change the rules for business incorporation, so we can do it all online.” We’ll create a governance system that’s much more responsive to the needs of the people; will allow for different security, so you’re not having the anti-robbery spot that ends up – that are really murdering a bunch of protesters, young protesters.

Having that just separate system, and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, okay, whatever, you just revert to the old system. If it does work, potentially, you can scale it up, take those lessons and build a little bit more along those lines. I guess, one other point on the Trump administration, they recently announced their recognition of Western Sahara for the Moroccan government. I think, if I remember correctly, you tweeted skeptically of that. One, can you give us a brief summary of what happened?

Judd: Yeah. Well, the Trump administration has been focused on what they call the Abraham Accords, which is getting Muslim and Arab countries to recognize Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, and Sudan, and then Morocco. To do that, particularly for Sudan and Morocco, there was some transactions that were made, some deals that were made. For Sudan, it ultimately be caught up in the removal of the state sponsored terrorism list, that ended up being a prerequisite for Sudan. They had assigned the normalization with Israel. Although once they did that, they did get a significant assistance from Israel and from the US.

For Morocco, what they’ve always wanted is the international community to recognize Western Sahara as part of Morocco. The challenge to do that is that this is, first of all, the Western Sahara, we should be having a voice in this. That’s what the UN has talked about for a very long time, in terms of having a real referendum, so that population can make that determination. The consequences for the continent are really interesting, because Western Sahara is a member of the African Union as an independent nation. The African Union has 55 members, not 54, because it includes Western Sahara.

It is true that Morocco has slowly peeled off a number of African countries to recognize its control over Western Sahara, but not all, particularly in Southern Africa and not of the African Union. The US got ahead of an African consensus on this. The US decided unilaterally with Morocco, to disenfranchise the Western Sahara. This has been the long-standing issue.

The reality is Morocco has had a relationship with Israel for a long time, just not officially. All they did is make public what has generally been happening for a very long time, and at the expense of I think, African sovereignty and self-determination.

Mark: To me, I think that those are good points. I guess, take a slightly different. I’m not sure I disagree with you, but what I see this is as this a symptom of this general trend, which is also related to Trump wanting to buy Greenland. We’re having this right, moving from basically, a unipolar world with the US to a more multipolar world, obviously, with China. Then as well as a very – If we look at the 19th century, people bought and sold territory, or countries bought and sold territory all the time. The US has the Louisiana purchase, the US buys Alaska. This wasn’t really buying with cash, it was buying with diplomatic recognition for favor trading partners effectively.

Do you see this as, I guess, in the next decade, do you expect more similar moves? Not sure is anything directly analogous to Western Sahara, but there are a bunch of basically, low-boil, bubbling, somewhat semi-independence movements. Obviously, there’s Somaliland has wanted independence for three decades now or so. Do you see this as something symptomatic of just underlying changes in international norms and governments? Or is this a one-off from the erraticness of the Trump administration?

Judd: I think that we won’t see the US make these moves under the Biden administration. As you mentioned, the world has become much more multipolar, trying to just be one of those actors. It’s becoming more transactional. There are these multiple fault lines that are sprouting up all over the place. African governments and their external partners are dancing around them.

Here’s something that I’m not sure that you’ve been following, Mark. Under the Obama administration, we worked very hard to get recognition of Kosovo from Serbia, and a number of African countries. I don’t know the exact number, but let’s say, a dozen or so, maybe almost a quarter, recognize Kosovo.

Well, in the intervening four years, the Serbians, probably with the Russian’s help, have been rolling that back, including countries like Ghana. Here’s an issue of recognition that is being played in a transactional way. You could talk about, as you said, Taiwan and China, you could talk about – there’s other countries that are on the potential list to recognize Israel and Mauritania, maybe Comoros.

I mean, I don’t have a problem with normalization of Israel. I think that all of these things point to that African votes, African recognition is highly sought after by the various powers, both major and middle powers. African governments are making the best deals possible for themselves, but they’re also unintended consequences for their publics, but also for the general chessboard on the continent. This is something that I think all of us need to be mindful of as we go forward.

Mark: We’ve mentioned that the multipolar world, and there was an article, I think, in the Financial Times, maybe about a month ago, about China’s Belt and Road and how they were pulling back from it. I guess, mixed feelings about this. One, it holds the Belt and Road to a certain extent as an over extension, in that China was assuming Chinese growth rates in a lot of the places that they were building, and it doesn’t make sense to build a major infrastructure if the growth rates are much lower than what they were in China.

On the other hand, I’ve seen a handful of arguments that those reports of China’s pullback were a little bit overblown. There was just the – and I’m blanking on where it was announced. They just announced the new 1-billion-dollar railway somewhere in –

Judd: Tanzania.

Mark: Yeah, Tanzania. How should we interpret China’s involvement in Africa Belt and Road and the continuation of that?

Judd: Well, the BRI is more of an idea that it is an actual thing. You can say anything is BRI, or anything is Belt and Road that the Chinese do. Trade with China and Africa looks to be at about a 180 billion this year, or sorry, in 2020, which is surprisingly high close to the 200 billion mark that they were in the past couple of years. Even under COVID, it’s remained fairly high.

There is a report that their assistance, their lending went down significantly in this year and there’s some debate around it. If you pull back, there’s some bigger trends here. As you alluded to, there has been more thoughtfulness about their investments. I think they’re not throwing around money, as much as they were the early part of the going out strategy. That’s in part, because there has been some domestic pushback. Also, some of the reasons for the BRI, including an oversaturated local market, I think some of those pressures have been reduced.

I think, the Chinese have other options outside of Africa that have been attractive to them, at least until recently, like Latin America. They’ve made inroads into Europe. I think also, they have been under more criticism for the BRI, and they’ve made adjustments. I always think that what President Xi said at the 2019 Belt and Road forum was really interesting. I’m borrowing here from my friend, Hannah Rider, who said that the key points that he made was green, access, sustainable. I mean, these were all efforts to change the narrative around the BRI, and this predates COVID-19.

The Chinese are going to remain engaged in Africa. I think the economic benefits, some of their investments, I think they’re going to take a harder look to make sure there’s actual return. They are still going to do some things in some sectors, because there’s a political benefit, because they want to be a key partner for African countries and have those 54 votes, or 53 votes, because they don’t have the Eswatini, which that recognizes Taipei, in different multilateral forum.

I think the nature is changing. There’s more pushback at home and abroad. They’re thinking through some of the different sectors they’re involved in. I think we are in a period of the general lines are the same, but there is some adjustments on the margins that are really interesting.

Mark: Cool. Thanks. Obviously, one of the big stories in Africa in the last few months has been the civil war in Ethiopia, where the Tigray, I guess, community used to have a lot of influence over the Ethiopian government. That obviously recently has substantially changed, to the point where they tried to move their elections and the Tigray, or the country did not move their elections. East Africa, particularly the Horn of Africa has been one of the most quickly growing regions in Africa. Ethiopia grew by 8% over the last, basically, two decades. There’s been a lot of investment in ports. There’s Dubai ports. We’re opening a port in Berbera and Somaliland. What are the broader reverberations that we can expect over the coming years from this conflict?

Judd: It’s a great question. We should spend a lot of time thinking about and trying to address this crisis in Ethiopia, which for the last two years has been a pretty remarkable story of the rise of Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister, his commitment to address some of the human rights abuses of the previous regime, his commitment to have reproach mob with the country’s long-standing enemy and Eritrea, and at least a commitment to have a democratic transformation on the continent.

We also saw very early on that if you oppose Abiy, there were some consequences, and the TPLF opposed Abiy. The TPLF, the Tigray and People’s Liberation Front, which was the former government, until Abiy’s rise, and is a very small percentage of the population, about 7%, they have been at loggerheads, almost from the beginning. The TPLF deserves a lot of the blame for being particularly provocative and what it did with the election.

Abiy, also, I think, at every opportunity, missed the chance to find accommodation, or to at least prevent where we are now, which is as you said, a civil war. There’s a couple of consequences. First humanitarian. There’s more than a 100,000 refugees now that are in Sudan. They expected to get to 200,000. The huge amount, more than a million displaced in Ethiopia, in Tigray. This has an economic effect, obviously, in Ethiopia, which usually has a very fast growth rate. It has an economic implication for Sudan, one of its key partners. It could have an implication for Djibouti, which is its number one trading partner, and there’s the important railroad that goes from Atus to Djibouti, and then the port, which is how Ethiopia gets most of its stuff out to the general world.

Then there’s the security problems. This is already bringing in the Eritreans, the Tigrayans have fired on the Eritrea and the Eritreans have been fighting in Ethiopia. That’s a very alarming dynamic. There has been fighting between the Sudanese and the Ethiopians on the other side of the border. Then what’s happening internally, where we’re seeing more and more fighting between regions, and what this is going to mean for the democratic process and trajectory, obvious committed to having elections this year. But I think that this conflict may prevent that, any move, it doesn’t prevent that. I think, Abiy is going to Brooke no opposition as he moves towards this election. I think some of the excitement that we had about the transition is really has lost its luster.

Mark: It’s interesting you bring up the election, I was recently reading Grant’s biography and reading about the 1864 election in the Civil War. It was fascinating to see how, at least America pulled that off at one point. What I did not realize is that Lincoln was expected to lose, until I believe it was September 3rd, or September 4th, when Sherman took Atlanta. Sherman took Atlanta was effectively a vindication of Lincoln’s strategy, that basically gave him the votes needed to win.

Judd: Look, it’s not impossible, Mark, to have an election where there’s insecurity. Clearly, that’s been the case in a number of countries. The Central African Republic, most recently, in Burkina Faso, in Nigeria, in the DRC. There may be whole swaths of populations that are disenfranchised in those elections. What’s really critical is that there’s inter-party consensus on what you’re going to do.

In Burkina, despite the fact that there was a very significant part of the population in the northeast that were unable to vote, there was agreement from all sides that this is what we were going to do, because the democratic process is important. I don’t think you’re going to have that in Ethiopia. That’s the problem. I mean, it’s unfortunate people can’t vote, because of insecurity, but it is a threat to the legitimacy of the results if you have major parts of the political system saying that this is unacceptable and then the ruling party or their government steamrolls them.

Mark: Yeah, that makes sense. When I think about long-term economic development, one of the key things I think about is industrialization. Obviously, until recently, Ethiopia was one of the prime examples, also being Rwanda. Otherwise, Africa has been, I guess, relatively slow to industrialize, particularly compared to East Asia, which really saw a lot of those gains in the latter half of the 20th century. What can you see as the key steps that Africa could take to encourage industrialization? Are there any countries that you’re particularly bullish about?

Judd: Yeah. I’m an optimist about the region, even for all the things that we’ve just talked about. The one thing I’m pessimistic about is industrialization. There are some pretty significant hurdles for the continent, to develop for a number of countries to develop a vibrant manufacturing sector. Lots of them are around infrastructure. Having the energy sector, ports that work, roads that work.

It’s also about the workforce, or the knock-on effects of that; there’s this great study from the Center of Global Development, that says that African workers, in comparison to other developing countries are less productive and more expensive than their counterparts. That’s because all these things that I just mentioned, the transportation costs, the high food costs in urban areas are all pushed to the employer. There’s a number of these really important and damning structural factors that are I think, hamstringing the development of manufacturing sectors.

Another study from, I think it’s Boston University talks about that if you are bigger than a medium size company in the industrial sector, in general, but specifically industrial sector, you’re much more likely to be taxed heavily. There may be some predatory approaches from a government that is going to limit your size. There’s actually some incentives to stay small. All of these, I think, combined to a pretty negative picture, when it comes to industrialization. There’s only two countries that are outside of South Africa that are showing some progress, or we’re showing progress on industrialization, or manufacturing. One is Ethiopia, as you mentioned, in part because they created these sandbox, or these economic exclusive zones, like Hawassa and in Rwanda.

The two examples that you have are of autocratic states, developmental states that can do those sorts of things, that if President Kagame, or Prime Minister Meles, when these things were put together in Ethiopia, want that to happen, they could make that happen. It’s been difficult for the same types of environments to sprout up in Nigeria or Kenya.

Mark: Yeah. Recently, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement asked. How can we expect that implementation process to go and what are going to be the benefits that we see for African countries there?

Judd: This is a super exciting development. You asked me earlier about exciting and important developments. The CFTA, this long-held dream by African leaders came to fruition, really, I think a lot had to do with Paul Kagame’s leadership when he was the African chair, back in 2018. It has the ability to unlock the continent’s potential. It’s created the largest trading area outside of the WTO with a nominal GDP equal to India.

Now the hard part, right? The hard part now is implementation, is to remove tariff and non-tariff barriers and to make this work. I think, it’s is going to be something that is going to happen slow with some setbacks. Hopefully, it will bend towards a successful outcome. One of the things that we should be mindful of is that the East African Community is one of the most economically integrated of the regions, and they have problems all the time with their implementation. There’s constant fights between Uganda and Tanzania and Kenya, over let’s say, sugar imports, or exports, or carrots, or as a number of different hot button items that have constantly got caught up that are contrary to the EAC’s rules.

In West Africa, ECOWAS, there was supposed to be a free movement of peoples, and that doesn’t always happen as well. Again, the framing is great. There’s lots of political buy-in, some countries more than others and it’s just going to take some time to make this work and we have to have the long game in our mind.

Mark: Great. Thanks. Obviously, can’t talk about anything now without talking about COVID. How has Africa dealt with COVID? I mean, there was a New York Times article release that suggested that some of the death rates were really much higher than it had been previously reported. It seems as though with a very young population, as well as with not as much indoor air-conditioning as the US and Europe seen, perhaps has escaped a lot of the worst elements of COVID?

Judd: Yeah. I mean, so far, there’s 3 million COVID infections for a population of 1.3 billion. That’s pretty good. Most of that is actually in just a few countries, South Africa, Morocco, Egypt. There is some issues around the numbers. In terms of testing. There’s been some interesting research about South Africa’s death rate, for example, that even if you took away the COVID numbers in 2020, there’s still a large gap between how many people died in 2020 versus 2019. South Africa has got some of the best in terms of tracking tracing records. Yeah, we can expect those probably higher death rates and higher infections that we’ve seen.

Overall, the Africans have done fairly well, some countries better than others in addressing COVID-19. It’s for some of the reasons that you mentioned, Mark, it’s about the demographic, average being 19 as we talked about. Maybe more open air, doesn’t get as cold. I don’t want to dismiss the lessons and the experiences and the expertise that many African governments have dealing with infectious diseases, like AIDS, HIV, or Ebola, that they’ve been able to really use very successfully.

Leadership. A lot of this is about leadership, not capacity. It’s about leadership. Whether it’s president Ramaphosa, or Macky Sall of Senegal, many of the leaders have let science lead, and they have been communicative with their populations. I think that it’s been, in many cases, I think we’ve avoided the worst-case scenario. Although, we’re having another round of lockdowns in South Africa. we’re not out of the woods.

Take a step back. What did COVID-19 tell us about the continent, right? I mean, it told us this is probably not as globally connected as it should be, and that’s been a saving grace for them, I think, in terms of the infection rates, but that’s not good overall in the future. This has been largely an urban phenomenon, so how do we think about sanitation and congestion in cities? There’s a lot of reforms there.

Many Africans, just like everyone else in the world, have been able to continue to do what they need to do every day, because of digital and the information technology revolution. Those are things that we need to build on. The security forces have been the ones that they’ve used to do the lockdowns that has been problematic in some cases. There has been some corruption cases around COVID-19. Thinking, I guess, is a foot stomp for transparency around all the money that is coming in to do that.

Lastly, foreign competition has not disappeared during COVID-19. It’s just taken on a new color. China, the US, Russia. In fact, I counted 24 countries that are engaged on the continent, delivering medical supplies and trying to position themselves as the best partner to Africa. That’s a good thing. Arguably, we probably could have been more effective in our assistance and support and collaboration if we were working altogether. That’s something again, to look to the future under a Biden ministration, about having the United States lead, be part of the WHO and work with partners, including China in cases like this, to address the pandemic.

Mark: Great. Thanks. Are there any questions that I should have asked that I didn’t that you want to answer?

Judd: Man, you asked a lot of questions. Those are some of the things that are top of my mind, and I’m just grateful for the opportunity.

Mark: Great. Thanks for coming on.

Mark: Thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit Follow us on social media, on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter and thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast.

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