Africa for pessimists: 2012 in review

By Simon Allison 13 December 2012

The air of optimism around Africa’s future is palpable, but there’s been plenty of news this year to keep the cynics happy. If you think Africa is all about coups, conflict and civil war, then 2012 has delivered. SIMON ALLISON rounds up the year’s top five most depressing African news stories.


In January, Mali was a model democracy led by a visionary president (at least on the outside). By December, it had suffered through two coups d’état, a divisive civil war and a humanitarian disaster. Mali’s problems look set to continue with a solution further away than ever before, amid fears that its instability will spread into neighbouring countries. So what went wrong?

Despite appearances, Mali’s development, both democratic and economic, was fragile and uneven. President Amadou Toumani Toure may have been an international darling, but he was considerably less popular at home, seen as soft on rampant corruption and even softer on northern rebels. In the north meanwhile, decades-old resentment against southern rule was festering again. All it needed to explode was a trigger, which was duly provided by the influx of Tuareg fighters returning home from Libya, flush with Gaddafi’s guns and money.

Cue chaos: in the south, a coup in March led by a cabal of junior offices sent the president scurrying into exile in Senegal; in the north, emboldened rebel groups seized control and declared the region’s independence. Since then, political groupings in both sides of the divided country (including, ominously, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the north) have been jostling for position, making it nearly impossible for anyone to know who to negotiate with. A mooted 3,300-troop West African force is yet to get off the ground, amid doubts that it will have any impact anyway.

From model democracy to basket case: it’s been a rough year for Mali, with little to suggest it won’t get rougher in 2013.

Democratic Republic of Congo

From the new problems in Mali to the old ones in the DRC: once again, violence has flared up in the east of the vast country, in an area where the control of the government in Kinshasa is tenuous at best and most often nonexistent. This time the conflict was sparked by a mutiny of rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese army (clearly not very well integrated).

The rebels, calling themselves the March 23 Movement (M23), managed to take control of vast swathes of North Kivu province, including the key town of Goma. An impressive feat. But then M23 weren’t operating alone. Sure enough, as so often in this part of the world, the malign influence of Rwanda was revealed – a United Nations report alleged that the rebellion was being financed and commanded from the defence minister’s office in Kigali. Rwanda has furiously denied these allegations, but the weight of evidence indicating its involvement is too great to be ignored.

The motivations remain opaque: perhaps Rwanda wants to create the buffer state so long dreamed of by President Paul Kagame; perhaps its generals want to safeguard their lucrative hold over the DRC’s lucrative mineral deposits. Either way, it’s not Rwandans that are suffering. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Congolese have been displaced, and “an unthinkable number of women, men, and children have experienced sexual violence or rape at the hands of soldiers and armed groups,” according to US assistant secretary of state Johnny Carson.

The immediate solution to the crisis lies with more negotiations between M23, the DRC and neighbouring countries. These have already produced results, with M23 withdrawing from Goma as a gesture of good faith. But until the root causes of the conflict are addressed – specifically the government’s lack of both will and ability to develop the region, the resulting chronic poverty and underdevelopment, and Rwanda’s continuing and damaging interference – it’s unlikely to disappear completely.

Boko Haram

Even without a domestic terrorist group wreaking havoc, Nigeria’s got lots of problems. But with Boko Haram in the equation, Nigeria’s future looks much darker than its promising economic growth figures might suggest. Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group in the mould of the Taliban or Al Shabaab, which argues that strict Islamic sharia law should be imposed in Nigeria. To make its point, it uses violence – lots of it. Since 2009, more than a thousand people have been killed in the shootings, bomb blasts and grenade attacks that are the group’s hallmark. Tens of thousands have been displaced.

To the Nigerian government’s great discredit, its response to Boko Haram has been just as vicious, with security forces criticised by rights groups for extrajudicial, indiscriminate killings and torture. This just fans the flames, and a refusal to negotiate with the group makes more violence inevitable.

“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” wrote Chinua Achebe in 1984.  Not much has changed.

Egypt’s counter-revolution

The post-revolution transition has been difficult for all the Arab Spring countries, but Egypt has had a particularly tough time of it lately. Things were looking good in May when presidential elections went smoothly and Mohamed Morsi (the Muslim Brotherhood candidate) was elected president. He used his newfound political clout to tell the interim military government to take a hike, but struggled to appoint a parliament and cabinet, stymied for the most part by the conservative judiciary (most of whom were appointed by Mubarak).

Frustrated with the slow pace of change, Morsi decided to go it alone, issuing a series of presidential decrees which essentially concentrated power in his hands. Unfortunately for him, these new powers looked awfully like the powers that Hosni Mubarak gave himself: new pharaoh, same as the old pharaoh. Egypt’s secular revolutionaries were quick to react, organising massive protest demonstrations. Bizarrely, they found themselves aligned with Mubarak-era functionaries who don’t think they have a long future under an Islamist government.

This opposition is now united against Egypt’s new constitution, which is being hurried into a referendum on Saturday. If the constitution is rejected, Egypt can expect many more months of political stalemate as all the various actors wrangle over new terms. If it passes, the country can expect more disruptive protests. In either scenario, no one’s taking care of the failing economy, which might prove in the long-term to be Egypt’s biggest problem.

Presidential mortality

They say that leadership takes its toll, but who knew it was fatal? Four African presidents found the strain of running their countries a little too much for their bodies to cope with this year, migrating instead to the Great Presidential Palace in the Sky. First to go was Guinea’s Malam Bacai Sanha, who died in a military hospital in Paris after a long illness. Then it was the turn of Malawi’s Binguwa Mutharika, victim of a cardiac arrest made worse by his country’s cash-starved medical system. The month of August claimed two victims: Ghana’s John Atta Mills and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi (who was actually a prime minister).

Presidents dying in office is a particularly African phenomenon. Since 2008, 13 heads of state have died worldwide. Ten of these have been in Africa. This is thanks to a combination of factors, particularly Africa’s preference for slightly older leaders, the generally poor life expectancy of many African countries and the lasting effects of childhood poverty.

It’s a disturbing trend. Sudden deaths create power vacuums, and power vacuums all too often create conflict. On a more practical level, the loss of a leader is likely to make it much more difficult for a government to get things done. Not that African leaders are spending too much time worrying about these damaging consequences; they have more immediate concerns, like “who’s next?” DM

  • Feeling a little depressed after this? Watch out for Simon Allison’s ‘Africa for Optimists’, to be published this Friday.

Photo: Displaced Congolese families trek back into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) side of Bunagana after spending a night across the border in Uganda, July 10, 2012. REUTERS/James Akena


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