A new report by the World Economic Forum predicts that the African economy will achieve economic growth of 6.2% in 2007. But it also says major structural changes are needed for it to catch up with the rest of the world. Africa is held back by poor infrastructure, greed and corruption. Meanwhile, the UN estimates that the economy must grow 7% a year to halve poverty by 2015, one of its key millennium development goals.
Oil and Conflict
Africa has an abundance of under-exploited resources that the rest of the world wants. States like Nigeria and Libya have oil aplenty, and opportunities for expats to come in and help them extract it. But for long periods many nations have had to sit on their mineral wealth because civil disturbances have stopped large-scale industry moving in. The continent has the world’s largest reserves of natural resources, yet is second to only the Middle East in terms of unrest and war.
The lands of Africa are mentioned throughout a report by the International Crisis Group: “Thirteen actual or potential conflict situations in the world.” There are signs that Eritrea and Ethiopia may be about to rekindle an old war that has only just ended, and the two are already involved in a proxy conflict in Somalia, the report says. It believes fighting could engulf the Horn of Africa, with instability in Darfur threatening to spill over Sudan’s borders. Crises further west in the Central African Republic and Chad also feature highly, and potential dangers remain in Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Sudan, Uganda, Western Sahara and Zimbabwe.
That’s a long list.
At the time of writing however, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office only mentions Somalia and Ivory Coast as places to avoid completely. The other African nations where they advise general caution are Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Sudan, and Uganda. And anyone working or who has worked in Nigeria recently will be only too aware of the risks involved there.
Meanwhile, as the west looks on the Chinese are muscling in. Hungry for raw materials to fuel their own economic boom, the Chinese are befriending resource-rich but cash-poor governments. By being somewhat less demanding on human rights issues than western governments who prefer to tie aid deals to democratic reform, China is securing access to the increasing quantities of ores and oil it needs.
If you want to work in Africa there are plenty of opportunities. The continent hardly lacks unskilled labour, but there is a demand for skilled workers, particularly those with long experience in industry and/or a university degree.
When searching the Expat Network’s JobSearch pages, there seem to be three locations that crop up regularly: Nigeria, South Africa, and the northern states, particularly Libya, Algeria and Egypt. Judging from the adverts for drilling engineers and supervisors, the Nigerian oil industry in particular is booming.
Yet with all the recent unrest Nigeria is probably also the place of greatest concern to many members. Stories abound of attacks on foreigners in the Niger Delta region, including in Port Harcourt. The FCO now advises against all travel there because of the risk of kidnapping, armed robbery and other attacks. ‘In 15 separate incidents since January 2006,’ they say, ‘31 British and over 180 other foreign nationals have been kidnapped in the area and one Briton has been killed. If you stay, you do so at your own risk and should take professional security advice.’
The risk also extends to ships and offshore oil rigs, from where several Brits have been abducted in the past few months. The problem has grown to such a level that Shell has evacuated all dependants from the residential compound in Port Harcourt, and other companies have followed suit and imposed strict travel restrictions. Attacks on foreigners have led to a 25% cut in Nigeria’s oil production, and some reports suggest Shell and other companies have considered moving their headquarters to Lagos.
However, on the very day I write this there may be light at the end of the tunnel. Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the best known militant leader in the Niger Delta region, has just been released on bail on health grounds, after being held on treason charges for two years. His release was a key demand of the militant groups, and the move could be a major development in the new government’s plans to return peace to the region.
Elsewhere in Africa, insurgents may not be your greatest concern. Violent street crime including muggings and car-jackings happen in many countries. Street demonstrations can become violent without warning. And while foreigners may not be specifically targeted in the latter cases, it is always a good idea to keep your wits about you and to avoid large crowds.
Kenya also Shaky
Several East African states, and Kenya in particular, seem particularly vulnerable to terrorism. Memories still linger of the attack on the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, in which 232 people were killed, and there have been several lesser incidents since that involved foreign nationals. Kenya also experiences high levels of violence. Recent clashes between a notorious criminal gang, the Mungiki - once known for dreadlocks and praying to Mount Kenya, but now involved in extortion and murder - and the police have resulted in multiple deaths. But this is unlikely to impact foreigners who avoid the affected areas.
Just to put things in perspective: of the 150,000 Brits who visited Kenya in 2006, the consulate reported just 8 incidents of muggings and a handful of car accidents. So it isn’t always as scary out there as some would have us believe.
Libya back on Radar
In the last few years Libya has appeared more and more on the expat jobs radar. Once off-limits to westerners, the country has opened its doors. The biggest problem here is that besides the official border crossings to Tunisia and Egypt, visitors and residents are not permitted to travel in the interior desert region without specific permission (a “desert pass”). Fortunately the oil companies who operate here provide passes for their employees. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, violent crime is not a major problem, although there are frequent reports of petty crime such as pick-pocketing.
In Egypt the main threat to British nationals arises when tourist resorts are targeted by terrorist organisations. But such incidents are rare, and when you consider that a million of us go there on holiday each year, the danger can be over-stated. And Algeria is only slightly riskier. Terrorist incidents here are usually aimed at security forces, although at least three buses carrying foreign workers have been attacked in the last year, and several British expats injured. Yet again, the biggest dangers really stem from mugging, bag snatching and pick-pocketing.
At the far end of the continent South Africa is a great place to work, although it also suffers from a very high crime rate, including regular reports of rape and murder. It sounds very intimidating, but what the statistics won’t tell you is that most crimes occur in the townships away from expat locations. The local authorities also give high priority to protecting foreigners, and the actual risk is quite low. On the other hand, passport theft is quite common, so stay alert.
One country the FCO doesn’t tell you to avoid is South Africa’s northern neighbour Zimbabwe, which is surprising since bullish statements from deranged President Robert Mugabe suggest that visiting as a Brit would be foolish. However, with the economy at a virtual standstill, and inflation currently running at record levels somewhere north of the 3,700% mark, opportunities for expats are somewhat limited. Out-of-control price rises and 80% unemployment means shops can’t function and people are forced to barter for goods. A recent report issued to aid workers in Zimbabwe warns the country could collapse within six months.
Welcome in West Africa
West African nations like Mali, Ghana and Senegal are said by those who’ve worked there to be extremely welcoming. The problem here is that you need to already be in West Africa to have a chance at securing a job. Employers receive so many false assurances from expats pledging to be on the next flight out that preference is usually given to people they meet in person. Another drawback is that West African nations may have quotas for issuing work visas to foreigners, with some smaller companies only being allowed one at a time. On the other hand, reports suggest that anyone with technical skills such as engineering can expect the bureaucratic mist to miraculously lift.
Ghana is also a draw for expats for a very different reason. As the British colony of Gold Coast it had a dubious history as a centre of the slave trade. Many African Americans and West Indians have roots here, and have made the emotional journey to trace the steps of their ancestors. For most it is a traumatic experience, but increasing numbers feel they have “come home”. Many are buying property, starting a new life and building businesses in the land their relatives were snatched from centuries before.
Is this the future for Africa? For now the continent’s reputation as the wild frontier of expat work remains intact. There may be trouble in paradise, and many countries may not get the opportunity to develop properly until peace is allowed to reign, but there is some hope out there.
Written for Nexus/Expat Network
By Tim Skelton