Under the Radar: Summer 2021 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. Director Judd Devermont and Senior Associate Ryan Cummings address this disparity in the CSIS Africa Program’s series, “Under the Radar,” revealing insights on countries that seldom grab headlines.

Benin: In the Clutches of Talon

President Patrice Talon’s second term portends further political polarization, anti-democratic practices, and paranoia in a country previously upheld as a democratic stronghold in West Africa. Securing 86 percent of the vote in the April presidential election, Talon’s victory eliminated the need for a second round of voting, which would have been required had none of the presidential candidates secured more than a 50 plus one vote majority.

Although Talon’s electoral haul implies he has the strong backing of the Beninese population, the election process lacked inclusivity and privileged the incumbent. In November 2019, the president used a constitutional reform to promulgate the so-called sponsorship clause, which required presidential and vice-presidential aspirants to be endorsed by at least 16 parliamentarians or mayors to be eligible to compete for executive office. Since no legislative seats are held by the opposition, and only six mayoral offices are occupied by persons outside of Talon’s coalition, it ensured that opposition candidates could not garner the requisite sponsorships unless members of Talon’s parliamentary representation broke rank and endorsed his opponents.

Since the election, the Beninese opposition has accused President Talon of anti-democratic practices, leading the Talon government to arrest several key critics, continuing a trend of repression which pre-dated the polls. These arrests, which have raised concerns among the U.S. Department of State, were followed by reports that unnamed elements may be seeking to destabilize the Talon presidency. In early May, Benin’s interior ministry claimed to have uncovered caches of weapons in Benin and neighboring Togo, which, as per the ministry’s investigations, were to be used in acts of state subversion. While the possibility of an armed threat to the Talon regime has been unsubstantiated, the president is likely to use the supposedly quashed plots to justify further state repression of opposition-led activities.

Photo: Présidence de la République du Bénin/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

eSwatini: The Monarch’s Half-Measures

King Mswati III is betting that limited reforms and a modest international response will enable him to regain control following months of unrest, an approach that may backfire if government crackdowns continue. Following an escalation of violent pro-democracy protests, King Mswati III made a series of concessions at the national “Sibaya” forum—a gathering of the people’s parliament—such as appointing a new prime minister, rebuking his government for preventing Swazis from petitioning their legislators, and committing to provide financial assistance to those who were affected by the unrest.

The king’s actions were a response to months of protests and strikes, starting with students and workers’ demonstrations following the unresolved death of law student Thabani Nkomonye in early May. At the same time, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) union embarked on a strike, demanding the immediate payment of outstanding salaries and allowances, and the employment of more teachers. Similar grievances had been expressed by operators in the country’s transport sector. The government’s decision to declare martial law on June 24 escalated anti-monarchy and pro-democracy sentiments, in addition to uniting previously disparate civil society groups. Opposition movements such as the Communist Party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, and the People’s United Democratic Movement joined the civic agitation, which included riots and looting.

The king’s concessions, as well as an underwhelming mission by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), is almost certainly insufficient to address specific Swazi grievances, including the failure to compensate teachers, as well as broader concerns including widespread unemployment, the banning of political parties, and the monarchy’s refusal to allow the Swazis vote for the country’s prime minister. Activists and civil society groups had called for a boycott of the Sibaya because it was not inclusive enough, and smaller demonstrations and incidents of police brutality have continued throughout July. Another major flareup could plunge the country back into a state of disorder.

Photo: Mary Altaffer-Pool/Getty Images

Ghana: Second-Term Blues

President Nana Akufo-Addo is staring down an opposition-controlled parliament and growing public activism, slowing his momentum toward enacting a second-term agenda. While Akufo-Addo won his reelection bid in December 2020, he secured a million fewer votes than he did in 2016, and his party lost control of the legislature. This marks the first time in Ghana’s history where the two main parties have control of separate branches.

Akufo-Addo has run into problems with Speaker Alban Sumana Bagbin. In January, Akufo-Addo’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) briefly traded punches on the floor of the parliament over Bagbin’s election. The NDC has a razor-thin majority in parliament based on one independent member who is caucusing with the party. While relations between the president and the speaker have been cordial, Bagbin has threatened to reject the president’s budget, delayed ministerial confirmations, and protested inconsistent adherence to legislative processes. He is likely to continue to challenge the government’s activities as long as he remains speaker; Bagbin has tussled with his own detractors within his party and at times claimed he doesn’t represent the NDC.

At the same time, the president is grappling with #FixTheCountry social media movement, which is calling for more jobs, no corruption, fewer taxes, and better education. The government has flirted with several measures to curb the group’s support, including lowering fuel prices and creating a rival social media hashtag. Bagbin quickly jumped on the bandwagon, commending the movement for its leadership.

Akufo-Addo probably will continue to make progress toward reviving the economy and responding to the pandemic, albeit slower than he hopes and in fits and starts. His room for maneuver for decisive action is likely to be more limited, especially on contentious foreign policy issues, Ghana’s growing debt burden, and the jittery power sector.

Photo: Ghana Decides/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Republic of Congo: Succession Sweepstakes

Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso appointed his son Denis-Christel to the cabinet in mid-May, reigniting rumors about a pending handover to another presidential offspring in Central Africa. Sassou, who seized power in 1979 and has been in control for the past 42 years, save a brief period of five years, recently won another seven-year term in March.

Sassou installed his son into the newly formed ministry of international cooperation and public-private partnerships. Denis-Christel had previously served as deputy director-general of SNPC, the national oil company, and earlier as the head of SNPC’s marketing branch. He is also a member of parliament. Denis-Christel and his sister Claudia have been accused of stealing more than $50 million and almost $20 million, respectively, from state coffers. His elevation as a cabinet member has spurred speculation that he is being groomed to replace his 77-year-old father.

Sassou’s appointment of his son is part of a longer trend in the region. Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba, who himself succeeded his father in 2009, named his son Noureddin as the general coordinator of presidential affairs. Equatoguinean president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo elevated his son Teodorín as the first vice president in 2016, which designates him as the president’s constitutional successor. Deceased Chadian president Idriss Deby Itno maneuvered several sons into key governments posts, including Mahamat Idriss Déby, who is now interim head of state. In addition, there is speculation that Cameroonian leader Paul Biya and Ugandan president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni intend to anoint their sons as their heirs.


Senegal: A Corrupted Criminal Code

Senegalese president Macky Sall is attempting to subvert political opponents and silence anti-government critics through changes to the country’s criminal code, leading to protests and condemnation from prominent members of the opposition. On June 25, Senegal’s National Assembly approved amendments to Article 279-1 of the Senegalese Criminal Code, which specifies what criminal acts can be prosecuted as acts of terrorism.

Under the amendment, persons who are perceived by the government as engaging in acts which “seriously threaten public disorder” could be prosecuted as terrorists. Such acts could, among other things, include the planning of anti-government protests, the holding of unsanctioned demonstrations, and engaging in acts of civil unrest. Specifically, this might include the erecting of roadblocks, the vandalism of public property, and engagement in confrontations with police. Persons found to have endorsed any of the aforementioned acts (without necessarily participating in them) could also be prosecuted under the provisions of the modified criminal code, while private or commercial entities reporting on such acts could also face punitive measures.

The passing of the amendments has drawn widespread criticism by civic organizations and the political opposition of President Macky Sall’s administration, which opponents accuse of using legislation as a means of repressing anti-government criticism and key political opponents. Opposition leader Ousmane Sonko—who is facing rape charges that he claims has been contrived by the Sall administration to hobble his political career—asserts these legislative amendments are a precursor to attempts by the incumbent to render himself eligible for a third term in office. The opposition coalition, to which Sonko’s party belongs, urged supporters to demonstrate because “this bill kills our democracy.” Scores of Senegalese held disruptive protests outside the National Assembly during the vote on Article 279-1, foreshadowing additional public and potentially violent moves to defend the country’s hard-earned democratic status.

Photo: DFID - UK Department for International Development/wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Zambia: Lungu’s Lean toward Authoritarianism

President Edgar Lungu is tilting the electoral playing field to ensure he wins a controversial third term in office in the upcoming August general elections, making a mockery of his country’s democratic legacy. Lungu, who came to power following the death of Michael Sata in 2014, won his first election in 2015 and a second full term in 2016. Zambia’s Constitutional Court ruled that he was eligible for another term, despite some legal opinions to the contrary.

Lungu has systematically harassed judges, the media, and the opposition to prevent challenges to his reelection. His government recently accused academic Sishuwa Sishuwa of sedition for penning an opinion piece on the election. It also passed a sweeping cyber law widely believed to be a measure to stifle freedom of speech ahead of the election. In addition, the electoral commission threw out the voters roll that had been in use for over a decade and allocated just 38 days to register more than 8 million people. Lungu’s heavy-handed tactics have spurred many politicians to cynically decamp to the ruling party, even a longstanding rival who decided to rejoin the party after being arrested for xenophobia remarks, slapped with defamation, and ousted from his parliamentary seat.

Lungu’s rule has denigrated Zambia’s record as a democracy, and the upcoming general elections in August are likely to further its devolution into autocracy. Zambians had blocked a third term bid by former president Frederick Chiluba in 2001 and twice voted to defeat incumbent leaders, including the country’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda in 1991. Lungu threatens to buck these trends, presiding over one of the world’s fastest-eroding democracies. His continued control also risks undercutting foreign investment, as he had picked fights with multinational companies, and engendering more sectarian tensions. Perhaps as a result, at least one recent study, has indicated that Zambia has become more politically polarized along ethnic lines since 2016.

Photo: Lighton Phiri/wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)


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 non-resident senior associate 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).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.