Risk Of Destabilization In Africa Escalates As Food And Fuel Prices Rise

The war in Ukraine has raised food and fuel prices dramatically, producing a serious risk of unrest in many African countries, particularly those with pre-existing food security issues or political instability. These price hikes come on the heels of a turbulent 2021, which featured Covid-exacerbated economic slowdowns, a series of droughts and conflicts which created a food security crisis for more than a fifth of the continent’s population, and a string of military coups in West and Central Africa. Tensions are likely to heighten as weak, underfunded, or repressive governments face demands to control consumer prices.

In March 2022, world food commodity prices rose to their highest recorded level, driven largely by the war in Ukraine, which has raised the price of wheat, coarse grains, and sunflower seed oil. Simultaneously, the World Bank reports that in the last two years there has been the largest 23-month increase in energy prices since 1973. These dual price shocks present a massive challenge to Africa. Abebe Aemro Selassie, the head of the IMF’s African department noted that food accounts for about 40% of consumer spending in the region and “fuel price increases feed into transportation costs, and people providing goods and services will raise their prices.” The continent is dependent on imports for 85% of its wheat and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that for the region’s 37 non-oil-exporting countries, higher oil and gas prices will worsen trade balances, increase transport and living costs, and deteriorate fiscal balances.

Price inflation of food and gas will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and contribute to food insecurity and social tensions, especially in fragile and conflict-affected states. In light of pre-existing factors which contribute to destabilization risk, like persistent COVID-19 exposure, increased prevalence of political and military coups, and armed conflict and terrorist threats, the additional stress of price increases threaten to amplify and create turmoil. Signs of frustration over rising prices have already surfaced, with Kenyan citizens venting their frustrations on social media, under the hashtag #LowerFoodPrices. In Somalia, amidst a worsening drought, the price of wheat and oil has already risen over 300%, straining humanitarian responses to escalating political tensions and widespread hunger. Iman Abdullahi, CARE Somalia country director, reports, “Thousands of people have already been displaced and have sought refuge in IDP camps to get food. With the supply chain interrupted, we are concerned about what will happen when current supplies run out.”

Recent history provides an example in which analogous inflation fomented substantial civil unrest. From March 2007 through the end of 2008, Africa faced significant rises in food prices, along with higher oil prices. Widespread discontent erupted into intense protest, with “food riots” breaking out in at least 14 African countries, some becoming violent. These protests catalyzed government action —  approximately half of countries reduced cereal import taxes and over half applied price controls or consumer subsidies to keep domestic food prices down. Though similar protests are likely to arise in the near future, Selassie argues that “In Sub-Saharan Africa in 2008-2009, there were many more governments that were in a better position fiscally to be able to absorb the shock.” Sub-Saharan Africa’s public debt has steadily increased for more than a decade, leaving them with little financial flexibility at a time of increased spending needs. Furthermore, the pandemic will have long-term negative economic effects on the region, with the Brookings Institute estimating that in 2026, 15 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will still have per capita income levels below their 2019 levels.

The international community must support African governments in increasing the efficiency of their public spending and strengthening accountability in order to preclude escalation into violent protest. Transparent messaging will also be critical in responding to dissent during the duration of the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine, because no policy adjustments will completely avoid consequences for consumers. In addition to political conditions, humanitarian needs in food crises should be monitored and attended to. As the United States and its allies support resistance in Ukraine, the war’s cascading impacts on Africa cannot be ignored.