Africa for pessimists: 2013 in review

By Simon Allison 17 December 2013

As usual, this year threw up its fair share of bad news, disasters and controversies. SIMON ALLISON explains the stories that have him most worried for the continent’s future.

Kenya’s compromised leadership

There was nothing wrong with the Kenyan elections, aside from a few inconsequential quibbles. They were generally considered free and fair, and turnout was excellent (88.6%). The problem came with the result: with a range of candidates to choose from, the majority of Kenyans plumped for the duo of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto – two men united by little except their base pragmatism and their shared experience of being charged with crimes against humanity by the world’s top court.

The pair’s shared infamy comes from their alleged involvement in the post-election violence which devastated Kenya in 2007-2008. Ruto is supposed to have incited supporters of challenger Raila Odinga into the streets, armed with machetes and petrol bombs; Kenyatta is supposed to have done the same for supporters of incumbent Mwai Kibaki. These differences, which at the time proved fatal for more than 1,000 people, seemed to disappear as both politicians realized that the only thing between them and a lengthy stint in a foreign prison could be the power of the Kenyan state. To harness it, they needed to join forces and win the Presidency and Vice-Presidency – and Kenyan voters, in their millions, endorsed their plan.

Having failed to obtain deferments or presidential immunity from the United Nations, Kenyatta and Ruto have quietly run a campaign to discredit the International Criminal Court in Africa. Their biggest success came in October at an extraordinary African Union summit called to discuss the ICC, where the African Union called for immunity for senior officials and the suspension of the trials against Kenyatta and Ruto.

The ICC is a young, imperfect institution. That Africans have been disproportionately targeted by its prosecutors is true, but also symptomatic of many African countries’ struggles to implement justice themselves, and of the oft-overlooked fact that African countries willingly signed up to the ICC (African countries are by far the biggest continental bloc among countries signed up to the Rome Statute which founded the court).

Hollowing out the ICC, as Kenyatta and Ruto are intent on doing, might save their skin in the short term, but it will simultaneously destroy any chance of real justice for thousands of African victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity. That the African Union supports this plan – while failing to offer any real alternative – is a shameful abdication of its responsibilities, which should be to African citizens first and leaders last. Not the other way round.

Read: Oh Kenya, what have you done?, Ruto and Kenyatta stay one step ahead of the ICC and Is there an African alternative to the International Criminal Court?.

Lampedusa and the search for a better life

There is plenty of Afro-optimism going round at the moment, and much of it’s deserved. Speaking very generally, governance is improving, economies are growing and the continent is slowly coming to terms with epidemics of HIV, TB, and malaria. But there’s one statistic that belies this ‘Africa Rising’ narrative: the hundreds of thousands of Africans who risk their life savings, and often their lives, in a desperate attempt to leave their continent in search of a better existence somewhere else.

Photo: The shrouded body of 11-year old Syrian migrant Sayed Mahmoud is lowered into a grave in the graveyard outside the main mosque on the island, in the town of Paola, outside Valletta, November 8, 2013. Two children were among between 50 to 200 Syrian and Palestinian migrants who drowned when their boat capsized 60 miles (97 km) south of Lampedusa in October. (REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi)

Because of the clandestine, often illicit nature of this type of immigration, exact statistics are hard to come by, and the migrants’ stories are rarely told. Until October, when a tragedy of unprecedented scale burst into the headlines. Off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, a boat crammed full of hopeful migrants from Eritrea and Somalia capsized. 360 people were killed and hundreds more injured.

Attention immediately turned to Italy’s immigration policies and whether Italy was doing enough to prepare. This missed the point: the real question is not about where the migrants were going, but about what they were leaving behind; and why they were so desperate to do so. For hundreds of thousands of Africans, their continent is not nearly rising fast enough.

Read: Lampedusa tragedy: We were all Africans once on Daily Maverick.

Central African Republic descends into chaos, but does anyone care?

The United Nations warned two months ago of the risk of genocide in the Central African Republic. Since then, fighting in the country has only intensified – and there has been little in the way of continental or African response. An intervention force from France has arrived in Bangui, but this looks to be too small to be really effective; and plans for an increased African Union operation are still months away from being implemented.

Photo: People displaced by fighting between rival militias take shelter under an old broken airplane at the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, December 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Herve Serefio)

The lack of international interest prompted NGO Doctors Without Borders, which has a substantial presence in CAR, to write a scathing open letter to the United Nations, accusing UN teams in the CAR of actively ignoring people in need and doing nothing but “data collection”.

Meanwhile, some 400,000 people have fled their homes and almost every single one of the country’s 4.5 million inhabitants are thought to be affected by a looming humanitarian disaster. Armed groups, answering to no central authority, are causing havoc in towns and villages, and have been implicated in various human rights abuses including rape, murder and recruiting child soldiers. Worse, the violence is increasingly assuming religious dimensions, as Christians target Muslims and vice versa.

Despite all this, and despite the best efforts of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders to raise awareness of the conflict, it has failed to garner much attention. It’s not clear what the short-term solution to the CAR might be – all we know is that the consequences of doing nothing could be devastating indeed.

Read: CAR: warning bells as state collapses and fears of genocide mount and Intervention encore: France rides to Africa’s rescue, again on Daily Maverick.

Egypt: how people power undid a revolution

There is no denying that President Mohamed Morsi – the first democratically-elected President of Egypt – messed up. Instead of governing for all Egyptians, he governed for the bunch that elected him; instead of forging ahead with reforms, he fell back on old-school habits of censorship and intimidation to push through his agenda.