Africa’s landlocked countries’ perpetual disadvantage

Analysis in brief | Africa’s 17 landlocked countries have built-in geographic disadvantages that contribute to poor performances in economic, social and even political growth. Some landlocked nations have overcome these disadvantages, providing templates for others to follow.

Key points:

  • Transhipment of goods through neighbouring countries with sea access has inhibited landlocked countries’ export growth
  • Botswana and Rwanda have overcome landlocked disadvantages with sound business growth policies
  • African integration that opens borders and allows free-flowing goods and people will assist landlocked countries’ development

In the real estate industry, property values are famously determined by ‘location, location, location’. Among African countries, nations’ economic prospects and even successful governance can be determined by their geographic locations within the continent, specifically their access to the sea. Africa’s landlocked countries are among the lowest scoring nations in IOA’s 2017 Africa Country Benchmark Report (ACBR) overall and in the four quadrants of business, economics, politics and society.(1) Noting the index’s highest scores belong to island nations like Mauritius and Seychelles or countries with long coastlines like South Africa, Nigeria and the Mediterranean nations, there is a temptation to say that the more a nations’ borders are constituted by water, the more successful that nation becomes in all respects. Of course, there are exceptions. Madagascar, with its political crises and struggling economy, is one. Similarly, Botswana is a landlocked nation that is doing relatively well, while landlocked Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia score in the upper half of African countries on the ACBR.

As a rule, landlocked countries are troubled performers in every aspect. These nations surrounded on all sides by other countries, which are sometimes hostile, are among Africa’s most conflict torn. How can their troubled existences be accounted for? Trading restrictions do play a role, as transportation of exports and imports is made cumbersome and expensive by the need to tranship through one or more neighbouring countries to the nearest sea port. This isolation is an economic competitive disadvantage. Because of the cost of bringing in industrial inputs and shipping out finished products, manufacturing is less developed, and the world community is more likely to deal with these countries for their natural resources. Minerals are trucked out but no real development beyond a mining infrastructure is created. The countries become single-commodity economies, such as Zambia’s copper or Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) and Central African Republic’s (CAR) diamonds and gold. Their economies stunted, these countries cannot afford good social amenities for their peoples. Corruption founded on bribery and malfeasance that has always been a part of commercial natural resources exploitation undermines governance and leads to coups d’état and dictatorships.

Statistics derived from Africa Country Benchmark Report (ACBR). Infographic designed by IOA.

Landlocked countries have high failed state records

A country’s landlocked status also creates a profound sense of physical isolation. A country’s people resent dependency on outsiders, often turning inward to become more local rather than international in mindset. Consequently, archaic kingships and chieftaincies rule or hold sway nationally in Swaziland and locally in Uganda, inhibiting social progress. In other landlocked countries, warlords and militia groups are likely to control local populations. The sense of physical isolation could become a psychological boost to make a country self-reliant. However, the ACBR index tabulations show this factor has made governments autocratic and paranoid, as is evident in Burundi. In Ethiopia, an autocratic government cancels out the advantages to its population of East Africa’s best performing economy.

Given the oppressive rule they endure, the peoples of Africa’s landlocked nations generating the bulk of the continent’s refugees is understandable, fleeing conflict in Burundi, CAR, DRC and South Sudan in the tens of millions. While bound on all sides by borders with other nations that can act as inhibitors to trade, landlocked nations can be plagued by militant groups who can cross these same borders easily, unlike having to travel by sea. The landlocked countries of the Sahel – such as Chad, Mali and Niger – have significant security challenges due to the cross-border influx of militant and terrorist groups. The Central African nations of CAR and DRC have been destabilised for decades by the cross-border passage of militants.

Africa has 17 landlocked countries, including Africa’s newest state, South Sudan, which ranks second to the bottom of the ACBR 2017 index at 44 of 45 countries. Burkina Faso ranks 42nd. A majority of these 17 countries rank in the lower half of national performances. Lesotho and Swaziland are anomalies that have managed to escape the status of failed state by their symbiotic relationship with South Africa. A massive, populous country with Africa’s most advanced economy, South Africa sustains Lesotho and Swaziland by means of government income grants(2), trade ties and security. If not for their Big Brother South Africa, these two micro-countries would have long ago descended to failed state status.


Overcoming the landlocked curse

Good governance and a desire to achieve have allowed Botswana to overcome the disadvantages of being a landlocked country. There have been other success stories in the past. Zimbabwe was once ‘the breadbasket of Southern Africa’. Although land reform policies to overturn colonial-era distortions of the economy were required, those promulgated by the government of Robert Mugabe were corrupt and carried out by thugs. Agricultural production was decimated. However, with the restoration of good governance, there is no reason to doubt Zimbabwe’s ability to revive its formerly achieved food production.

Rwanda has come back from the genocide and civil war of the 1990s to rank 23rd on the ACBR index, and Malawi ranks 26th as that nation rises from some of the continent’s most entrenched poverty. Both nations are guided by sound business growth policies. Uganda and Zambia have overcome legacies of dictatorial governance to make economic comebacks, although both nations have progress to make still because of leaders who are either autocratic or showing disturbing autocratic tendencies. Similarly, President Paul Kagame’s hold on power in Rwanda is worrisome. How these governance issues resolve themselves will significantly impact these nations’ ability to overcome the ‘landlocked country curse’.

The below infographic is extracted from the August 2017 edition of the Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). Click here for more information about ACM.

Infographic designed by IOA.

Mitigating isolation through continental integration

The more Africa integrates through regional and continental trade and development communities, the more landlocked countries’ isolation will be broken down. This will occur physically as open borders create a free-flowing movement of people and goods, as well as psychologically as fear of neighbours is replaced by interconnectivity. The process will take time. As witnessed by Egypt and Libya’s decision to join the Saudi Arabian-led boycott of Qatar, an instinct still exists to punish a country with isolation. Border closures are common as crises develop throughout Africa.

Meanwhile, landlocked country success stories like Botswana and Rwanda today, the history of Zambia and Zimbabwe and the inherent potential of all landlocked nations, except Lesotho and Swaziland with their innate limitations, is evidence that self-sustaining nationhood is possible.

(1) The Africa Country Benchmark Report (ACBR) assesses the performance of all 54 African countries in an 800-page infographic-driven report. It is a key resource for any business, government, organisation or institution that will find value in country-specific and comparative assessments of all 54 African countries. The report scores, ranks and insightfully assesses each country holistically, as well as across business, economic, political and social factors. Find out more at: https://www.inonafrica.com/africa-country-benchmark-report-acbr

(2) South Africa channels custom duties it receives to other members of the Southern Africa Customs Union (SACU) in a formula heavily advantageous to smaller countries at the expense of South Africa’s treasury. Swaziland relies on SACU receipts to pay for half of its government budget.