Under the Radar: Spring Edition

Sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 countries rarely receive equal attention. The international media and analysts privilege the region’s biggest economies and troubled spots, neglecting political, economic, and security developments in other countries. With the Covid-19 outbreak, there is even less diversity in coverage. Director Judd Devermont and senior associate Ryan Cummings address this disparity in the CSIS Africa Program’s new series, “Under the Radar,” revealing insights on countries that seldom grab headlines. 

Chad: Shaken by Security Threats

President Idriss Deby’s recent flip-flop on whether to withdraw his troops from regional counterterrorism missions underscores his regime’s growing vulnerability in the face of security challenges.

Following an extremist attack that killed at least 92 Chadian soldiers on March 24, Deby vowed that “no Chadian soldier will take part in an external military operation.” His government later reassured neighbors that the military will continue to participate in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in Nigeria, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

Deby’s wavering position is a reflection of his mounting security challenges. Chad is beset on all sides by instability, from Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province in Nigeria and civil strife in Libya to recurrent unrest in Sudan and the Central African Republic. Deby’s military is also fighting Chadian rebels based in Libya and managing interethnic violence in other parts of the country. In February 2019, France’s Air Force bombed a rebel convoy to “prevent a coup d’etat.”

Deby, who has overcome multiple domestic and foreign security threats during his three decades of power, has few options to relieve the pressure. With an overstretched military and dwindling access to cash due to Covid-19 and the price of oil, he will lean heavily on France and the United States to weather this current challenge.

Guinea-Bissau: ECOWAS Wades In

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in mid-April confirmed Umaro Sissoco Embalo’s election as president of Guinea-Bissau, presaging a tentative peace between the country’s warring political elite.

Embalo, who defeated his main rival in a runoff election in December 2019, had struggled to consolidate control of this small West African country. Despite a court challenge, Embalo proceeded with his inauguration and tasked the country’s military to occupy the grounds of the Supreme Court. His opponents, which control parliament, briefly appointed an interim president in defiance.

ECOWAS’s intervention has defused an escalating crisis, at least for the coming weeks. The opposition expressed “deep sadness” over the decision but probably will regroup before plotting its next move. ECOWAS is influential in Guinea-Bissau, and its engagement has been decisive in staving off political turmoil, including last year when it forced Embalo’s predecessor to rescind his prime minister appointment.

Lesotho: Thabane’s Tumult

Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s last-ditch attempts to cling to power probably will fail, presaging a transfer of power in the coming weeks.

Thabane, who has been charged in connection with the 2017 murder of his ex-wife, has repeatedly retracted his pledges to resign from office by the end of July. Thabane has indicated he is set on maintaining leadership of Lesotho’s ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) party, even after losing to his rival Nqosa Mahao in ABC’s primary elections.

In mid-April, in a bid to prevent a no confidence motion against him, Thabane deployed the military to the streets of the capital Maseru in what was seen as an attempt to secure power through a show of force. The move came after the Constitutional Court ordered a resumption of Parliament, which would allow for Thabane’s impeachment.

However, Thabane’s attempts to co-opt the military faltered. The Lesotho legislature passed constitutional amendments to allow for Thabane’s departure and removed his immunity from prosecution.

Thabane has few cards left to play. Without support from his party, the military, and neighbor South Africa, his days as prime minister are numbered.

Malawi: Votes and Viruses

President Peter Mutharika of Malawi is mulling more desperate measures to retain power, including using the Covid-19 to scupper the court-ordered presidential election rerun, if he expects to lose at the ballot box on July 2.

Following the Constitutional Court’s nullification of the May 2019 presidential poll, Mutharika has used carrots and sticks to strengthen his political position. He reconstituted a new government—incorporating his coalition partners belonging to the United Democratic Front opposition party—and has instituted social welfare programs, including a reduction in fuel and electricity prices.

The president has also repressed key critics, highlighted by the arrest of several anti-government activists who have been charged with conspiring to destabilize his government alongside the political opposition. Mutharika accused these activists of conspiring with his chief rivals, Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima, who entered into a coalition ahead of the ballot.

Mutharika probably fears that an alliance between Chakwera and Chilima—if it holds—is sufficient to best him on election day, judging from their majority share of the vote during last year’s poll. Mutharika may resort to more extreme moves, such as citing the Covid-19 pandemic as reason to delay the vote; in April, his electoral commission head failed in her petition to the court to postpone the election. Mutharika and the Democratic Progressive Party’s maneuvers risk tainting Malawi’s democracy, undercutting a milestone court decision to nullify the previous election. 

Mauritania: Cain versus Abel

Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Ghazouani’s campaign to weaken his predecessor and former ally, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, is unsettling the political landscape in this important U.S. counterterrorism partner.

Ghazouani, who ascended to the presidency in 2019 in the country’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power, had been a close friend of Aziz for four decades, rising up the military ranks and launching several coups together that culminated in Aziz’s putsch in 2008.

Ghazouani has defied expectations that he would defer to his predecessor and permit Aziz to continue to run the country’s affairs as a private citizen. Ghazouani wrestled control of the ruling party and welcomed Aziz’s longtime opponents back to Mauritania while refraining from blocking a parliamentary investigation into Aziz’s finances.

Ghazouani’s gambit, which initially seemed cautious, has set the stage for a dangerous showdown with his formidable predecessor. Ghazouani will have to swiftly consolidate his control over the ruling party and the country’s armed forces before Aziz launches a countermove. The political tension is already high; in November 2019, the defense minister had to publicly deny that there was a risk of a coup in Mauritania.

South Sudan: Guns and Governors

South Sudan president Salva Kiir and the political opposition are at loggerheads over the appointment of regional governors, hindering implementation of the 2018 peace accord that ended South Sudan’s civil war.

On February 22, Kiir formalized the creation of a Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) with Riek Machar in the position of first vice president. The parties, however, have dragged their feet on several outstanding tenets of the peace accord, including appointment of governors to oversee South Sudan’s reconstituted states.

The TGoNU has not indicated when it will appoint the 10 state governors. The lack of governors has resulted in a power and decisionmaking vacuum in South Sudan’s administrative states, which have seen a spate of outbreaks of violence between rival communities. A continued delay to the appointments probably will contribute to low-level insecurity across the country and stain the fragile peace agreement.

Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ryan Cummings is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Africa Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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