News and politics rest for no man, not even weary journalists or the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, and while millions of Africans were celebrating the festive season, the continent continued on its merry way. If you were lucky enough to switch off the outside world for a week or two, here’s a round-up of what’s been making headlines to ensure you don’t start the new year on the back foot – and a peek at what’s waiting for Africa in 2015. By SIMON ALLISON.
Thank god that’s over. Despite the Daily Maverick’s valiant attempts to look on the bright side, 2014 was not a great year for Africa. For this, special thanks must go to Ebola, Boko Haram, and South Sudan’s egomaniacal leaders, which together (among plenty of other culprits) conspired to undo decades of good progress in regions that desperately need it.
But that’s all behind us now. It’s a new year, and a new dawn beckons. Surely, surely, we can do better.
Already, there’s been some good news. On 1 January, Egyptian authorities granted a retrial to jailed Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, all of whom were jailed a year ago on spurious charges. The new trial should be fairer than the last, if only because the bar is not high: the prosecution’s “evidence” consisted largely of Greste’s family photographs and seemingly unrelated YouTube clips. There’s also an off chance that Greste and Fahmy, as foreign nationals, could be deported before the new trial begins.
There’s also new optimism on the Ebola front. The current epidemic, which has already taken more than 8,000 lives and counting, will be over by the end of 2015. This isn’t our prediction, but comes from someone who should know. “We are engaged in an epic battle,” said Anthony Banbury, head of the UN team fighting the epidemic. “Going forward it’s going to be extremely hard for us to bring it down to zero [cases], but that is what we will do. I believe we will end Ebola in 2015.”
Elsewhere on the continent, the picture is a little less encouraging. The biggest story of the new year so far is the attempted coup in Gambia, which failed to unseat President Yahya Jammeh (who is entering his third decade in charge of the tiny West African country). Despite himself seizing power in a coup, Jammeh was decidedly unsympathetic towards the plotters. At least three of the alleged ring leaders are dead, and Gambian soldiers are going door-to-door in the capital Banjul looking for others. Rights groups worry that this is a precursor to a wave of arbitrary arrests and intimidation as Jammeh looks to reassert power. With reason: that’s exactly how the president reacted to another failed coup in 2006.
Then there’s Nigeria, where Boko Haram have continued exactly where they left off last year. The Islamist militants have been blamed for the abduction of 40 boys and young men from a rural village in north-east Nigeria. The victims will presumably be press-ganged into fighting for the group. Ominously, Boko Haram is continuing to spread its wings further afield, launching an attack on a bus in northern Cameroon that killed at least 15 people.
Less expected is new violence in Mali, where the interim government – and the international force which props it up – is struggling to keep a lid on tensions. “A string of incidents in recent days have shown the fragility of any gains,” reported Reuters, the most recent being the assassination by unknown gunmen of the mayor of a northern town and his son. For now, the ceasefire holds between the government and rebel groups in the north, but only just.
As the new year unfolds, we’re also keeping a close eye on campaigning in Zambia and Nigeria, scheduled for 20 January and 14 February respectively. Supporters of the late Zambian President Michael Sata will be relieved that his party has finally sorted out internal differences to agree on a single presidential candidate, defence minister Edgar Lungu, although Lungu faces a stiff challenge at the polls from former President Rupiah Banda.
There’s more potential for trouble in Nigeria, where President Goodluck Jonathan for the first time faces a real challenge to his rule. He’s a victim of his own rapidly declining popularity and the emergence of a new and potent opposition coalition, led by perennial runner-up Muhammadu Buhari who might just be thinking that his moment has finally come. No matter what the outcome, it’s bound to be contentious, especially with Africa’s largest economy at stake.
Another potential flashpoint is in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where – surprise, surprise – FDLR rebels missed a 2 January deadline to disarm. The United Nations’ Force Intervention Brigade, which so spectacularly routed M23 rebels in the same area in 2013, is now supposed to go on the offensive. Will South Africa and Tanzania, which provide the bulk of troops and leadership to the force, agree to go to war again? We should find out at a meeting of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region in Angola in late January.
And nearby, in Burundi, we’re keeping an eye on a military offensive against mysterious, unidentified rebels who allegedly entered the country from the DRC. The army claims to have killed more than a hundred of them and “wiped them out”, but it is not the most reliable source.
2015 has barely begun and already it is shaping up to be a momentous year for Africa. While we can’t predict what will happen, we do know it won’t be boring. DM
Photo: A Kenyan activist looks on as she holds up a placard during a demonstration to protest against kidnapping of Nigerian school girls by Nigeria’s Islamist militant group Boko Haram, in Nairobi, Kenya, 15 May 2014. EPA/DAI KUROKAWA