Africa: 10 things to watch closely in 2018
frica is once again set for an eventful year. In the coming months, citizens are expected to gain even more mobility on the continent, defy their leaders through popular protest and rely on greater connectivity to voice concerns. Two major unknowns, however, are how things in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will play out and whether the new coalition against terrorism in the Sahel can make any difference. With new leaders in power in Southern Africa – from Angola to Zimbabwe and likely in Botswana and South Africa – change could be on the cards for this region. Here are 10 things to keep an eye on:
1. Have passport, will travel: free movement gains momentum
African citizens are likely to see more countries allowing free movement across the continent this year. They can now walk into Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mauritius, Benin and the Seychelles (where this has been in place for some time) and get a visa on arrival. Visa fees, however, mostly still apply – the $50 or so per traveler is clearly just too lucrative to let go.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced late last year that this would in future also apply in his country. A protocol on free movement is also expected to be signed at the 30th African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa in late January. It can make a real difference to intra-African trade, security and tourism.
2. New infrastructure promises growth
Projects such as the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway line, which started commercial operations late last year, will give another boost to Ethiopia, Africa’s fastest-growing economy.
Massive rail projects in Tanzania, the start of construction on Abidjan’s new urban tramway in November last year and Dakar’s new airport should all promote economic growth, with an average of 3.2% on the continent expected this year.
Many of these projects are financed and built by China – a trend that is set to continue in 2018 as China gives momentum to its Belt and Road Initiative. On this note, look out for the upcoming summit of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to be held in Johannesburg this year.
3. Social media has leaders running scared
With warnings of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa still hanging over their heads, some African leaders continue to think that cutting off social media will stem popular protests. In Ethiopia, the DRC, Cameroon and elsewhere, the internet and social media sites were periodically shut down during times of crisis last year. Restrictions on freedom of expression and threats against journalists and protesters must continue to be monitored closely this year.
Ironically, this comes as leaders like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame – also criticised for his lack of democratic credentials – are forging ahead to improve access to the internet. Rwanda will again this year host a summit to talk about improving digital connectivity across Africa.
4. The price to pay for keeping African migrants out of Europe
The International Organisation for Migration reports that fewer undocumented migrants risked crossing the Mediterranean in 2017 than in 2016. This is largely because of a strategy to keep migrants from leaving Libya. But the results have been catastrophic.
Despite many warning signs, the African Union and African countries only late last year began the emergency evacuation of stranded migrants maltreated and even forced into slavery in Libya. Several hundred migrants have so far been helped to return to Nigeria, The Gambia, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon and plans are afoot to get 20 000 of them home by February.
5. Elections are not a panacea for states in crisis
Two major war-engulfed states, Libya and South Sudan, are planning elections this year with the support of some in the international community. Would this not be trying to plaster over an open wound? Fighting continues in both countries and it is difficult to see how people could feel safe enough for credible polls to take place. Experience in countries like the Central African Republic (CAR), where presidential elections took place at the end of 2015 and 2016, show that elections are not a guarantee for peace.
Mali, still wrecked by terrorist attacks in the north and centre of the country, is also holding elections in July. The surprise return of former president Amadou Toumani Touré last month, who fled during the 2012 coup d'état, is seen as support for a second mandate for President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita.
6. New brooms to sweep Southern Africa clean
This year could see some important changes in a region stifled for a long time by former liberation movements and their leaders clinging to power. In Angola, the resignation of long-time strongman Eduardo dos Santos last year paved the way for his successor João Lourenço. Analysts say that while many expected him to safeguard the Dos Santos family’s interests, there are signs that Lourenco is trying to be his own man.
In Zimbabwe, after a few days of high drama and military intervention in November last year, the dinosaur of African politics, Robert Mugabe finally stepped down. Commentators have warned however that while his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa might try and revive the economy, elections this year will be the real test of whether the ruling Zanu-PF under Mnangagwa will be just more of the same.
Meanwhile in Botswana, President Ian Khama has announced that he is stepping down in April, more than a year ahead of general elections in 2019. Vice-president Mogweetsi Masisi is his likely successor.
And in South Africa, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa is now the leader of the all-powerful African National Congress. The jury is out on whether the party will recall President Jacob Zuma, currently embroiled in so many court cases and accusations of corruption that it’s difficult to keep track.
7. Who will stem the crisis in the DRC?
The situation in the DRC went from bad to worse in 2017, with President Joseph Kabila prolonging his reign once again despite an earlier agreement, mediated by the Catholic Church, for presidential polls to be held in December 2017. They are now slated for December 2018, with no guarantee yet that Kabila will step down.
The opposition won’t have any of it and at least 12 people were killed last month in violent protests. Meanwhile the situation in the Kasais is growing into a full-blown conflict with more and more refugees streaming to neighbouring Angola. Experts say neither the Southern African Development Community (SADC) nor the AU has made any impact in stemming the conflict. Instead, the SADC seemed to throw its weight behind Kabila. With the United States diplomacy largely out of the picture, the question is: who in the international community can step up to the plate?
8. More women at the helm could make a difference
The recent appointment of Algerian lawyer Leila Zerrougui to head the United Nations (UN) Stabilisation Mission (MONUSCO), the UN’s largest peace mission, is good news for Africa. The former UN special representative for the rights of children in armed conflict will take over the reigns from Maman Sidikou at a time of major crisis in the DRC. It could be a poisoned chalice, but at least it’s a victory for what women’s rights activists have been saying for years: more women in peacekeeping could help women and children, the most vulnerable groups, in times of conflict.
9. Opposition goes for broke or breakaway
Defying a crackdown by security forces, citizens remain on the streets in Togo, demanding the departure of President Faure Gnassingbé. That people are prepared to risk their lives in the tiny country where the Gnassingbés have ruled since 1967 is indicative of the level of frustration with longtime leaders on the continent.
In countries like Cameroon, where President Paul Biya is again standing for elections this year, this popular anger led to calls for secession by the Anglophone southern provinces. These calls could inspire others. So far, little has come of the new Biafra movement in Nigeria but reports in early January of a major attack in Senegal’s Casamance province could be an indication that secessionist rebels in this area are planning something sinister.
10. France’s exit strategy, with a little help from the Saudis
The announcement last month that Saudi Arabia is willing to give $100 million to the G5 Sahel force – an ad hoc military force made up of soldiers from Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger to fight terrorism in the Sahel – was good news for France, which is trying to withdraw some of its troops from the area. The United Arab Emirates is contributing $30 million and with another $50 million from the European Union, the force might just be deployed by mid-2018 as planned.
It remains to be seen, however, if the G5 force can make a difference – close to 15 000 UN troops and 5 000 troops of France’s Operation Barkhane couldn’t stem the jihadist threat in the region.
(Main image: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty)