Africa in 2012 is a very different continent to the one that went into 2011. So much has changed in the intervening year, some for the better, some for the worse and some just for the different. As we head into this new year, it’s worth pausing for a moment and looking around us to take stock of where Africa is, and where it might be going.
Let’s start at the very top. North Africa saw the most momentous changes with revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya upending the political landscape. No more dictators for life. Instead, those three countries are represented respectively by a moderate Islamist government, an all too un-revolutionised military and a ragtag bunch of rebel commanders with limited control over the population. It’s a heady, unpredictable mix, and no one’s quite sure how the new-look countries will fit into the international order. Most likely, Egypt and Libya will eventually catch up with Tunisia and install a moderate Islamist party with real control, which seems to be the popular choice. This could be good news for Turkey, which provides the template for moderate Islamist government, and has also embarked on an ambitious project to expand its international influence.
The rest of the region is still trying to deal with the fallout from the Arab Spring, which has the potential to be severe. The largest threat is that posed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a cross-border militant organisation that is flexing its muscles more and more. AQIM wants to instil Sharia law in the Sahel region where it operates, and it’s not interested in any kind of moderation, Islamic or otherwise. Already, international resources are being mobilised to help the governments of Algeria, Mali and Niger deal with AQIM.
Of course, the more resources are mobilised, the more regional governments have to gain by emphasising the threat. Expect to hear a lot more about AQIM in the months to come. Also in that dangerous Sahel region are plenty of former pro-Gaddafi fighters, many of Tuareg origin, who fled Libya in the wake of Brother Leader’s demise. Although they were in a rush to leave, they had time to pack their weapons – and lots of them, according to very worried regional governments.
Moving further south, West Africa is recovering from a year of momentous elections. Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia went to the polls. Remarkably, all three countries are now led by the people who won those elections, although the process was by no means smooth. In Cote d’Ivoire, it took a bit more than losing an election to unseat the incumbent president, who only gave way after he was hauled out of his presidential palace, wearing only a grubby vest, by militias associated with his opponent Alassane Ouattara. This was after six months of bloody post-election violence, which ended only after support from French troops gave Ouattara the edge. The only problem now is that President Ouattara is hardly a unifying figure, and reconciliation in this divided country seems as far away as ever.
In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan violated an internal party agreement to rotate the presidency between northerners and southerners. Although he won the election, he’s paying the price: two northern members of his own party retaliated (rather misguidedly) by funding the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which caused havoc and hundreds of deaths in a sustained wave of violence across northern Nigeria. This violence is spreading, and there’s a palpable danger that Nigeria could undo all of its excellent economic progress of the last few years and revert to its dark days of civil war. Boko Haram is now emboldened and rumoured to be benefitting from close ties to AQIM. And to make things more difficult, Jonathan has scrapped fuel subsidies, almost doubling the price of transport overnight. This took courage and needed to be done, but the timing is unfortunate. To keep his country together Jonathan needs as much support from his people as he can get. This one move has made it a lot harder for average citizens to rally behind him.
Oddly enough Liberia saw the smoothest election of them all. It wasn’t smooth by normal standards – the opposition boycotted the run-off, the police killed protestors on the eve of the vote – but incumbent and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf retained power and looks to have overcome the opposition protests. It’s her job now to keep her country growing both economically and politically at the staggering pace it has maintained over the last few years.
On to Central Africa where 2011 seemed to bring just more of the same. Political stagnation, slow development and not much international attention. The big exception was the Democratic Republic of Congo, which staged elections in November. They didn’t go that well. President Joseph Kabila pulled whatever strings he needed to get himself re-elected. His inauguration speech could barely be heard over the howls of protest from frustrated opposition who just can’t understand why such blatant vote-rigging is tolerated in the DRC, but not in countries like Cote d’Ivoire. If this seems unfair, it is. And is probably a reflection of how little the DRC matters on the international stage, and how satisfied the international community is with Kabila’s pliability.
The international community is rather more concerned with East Africa, which is gearing up for a potentially explosive showdown later this year. The flashpoint will be Somalia – by far Africa’s least developed state in almost every respect. Towards the end of 2011 Somalia was invaded by Kenya in apparent retaliation for kidnappings of tourists on Kenyan soil by Al Shabaab. Whether Al Shabaab was involved or not remains doubtful, but Kenya needed little convincing (it had been planning the invasion for months) and its army set off across the border to wipe out the Al Shabaab menace. Al Shabaab, in the vein of AQIM and Boko Haram, is an Islamist militant group with links to al Qaeda. Unlike the other two, it actually controls large swathes of the country and will be difficult to destroy. As Kenya is finding. Three months later, it has yet to reach Al Shabaab’s strongholds and can’t navigate its way through the mud. But in the meantime, its unilateral invasion has morphed into something different and altogether more frightening.
Ethiopia joined the fray, sending troops over the border to look after its interests. The African Union sanctioned the invasion, promising to coordinate troops. By the end of January, there will be six African countries with troops in Somalia: Burundi, Uganda, Djibouti and Sierra Leone (under the banner of the African Union Mission in Somalia), alongside Ethiopia and Kenya. The US is apparently providing air support in the form of drone attacks and there have been a few whispers of French involvement. But Al Shabaab won’t go quietly, and it’s not on its own either. Eritrea – although furiously denying it – provides financial support and weapons to the group, and there’s a danger Sudan might get involved as well. This could leave Africa’s newest country, which achieved its independence only last year, particularly vulnerable. South Sudan is already fighting a low-intensity conflict with Sudan along disputed border regions. If Sudan wants to go to war, South Sudan is the obvious target, especially given that its primary allies are none other than Ethiopia and Kenya, the principal aggressors in the Somalia invasion.
Fortunately, as we come closer to home in southern Africa, things are a little quieter. It is worth keeping an eye on both Malawi and Swaziland. Malawi (along with Uganda) was probably the closest Africa came to an Arab Spring-like uprising, although it proved ultimately ineffectual. But tensions there remain high, and the opposition is well organised and broad based. And Swaziland had protests of its own, some stemming from King Mswati III’s dictatorial rule and some from Swaziland’s horrendous financial situation. Neither of these is going away any time soon. The financial woes will only get worse.
However, as usual in southern Africa, Zimbabwe will be the biggest story of 2012. Here’s a prediction: By the end of the year, Robert Mugabe will no longer be president of Zimbabwe. Elections are very tentatively scheduled for March, but should happen sometime this year, and these are elections that Zanu-PF can’t afford to lose. So they won’t, making the chances of electoral fraud exceedingly high. Once power is secured, the hardline faction of Zanu-PF (which controls the security forces) will ask Mugabe to leave, politely or not so politely, and install its own man in power. What might upset this particular plan is if Mugabe were to die prematurely, leaving Zanu-PF to contest the elections without him. Mugabe still commands significant popular support and without him Zanu-PF – even with the best rigging in the world – will struggle to claim a victory that is credible, even in its own eyes. DM
Photo: Robert Mugabe (Reuters).
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