Under the Radar: Winter 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.

Angola: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

President João Lourenço is expanding his anticorruption dragnet while protecting close allies and cracking down on protesters, undercutting the positive narrative about his government’s probity and commitment to free speech. Lourenço, who succeeded long-serving president José Eduardo dos Santos in 2017, has won plaudits for quickly removing Dos Santos’s family members from key government parastatals and later charging daughter Isabel with money laundering, influence peddling, harmful management, forgery of documents, and other economic crimes. Isabel’s brother José was also charged with similar offenses and sentenced to five years in prison in August 2020.

Lourenço has widened his net beyond the former ruling family, initiating court proceedings against two high-ranking military officers, General "Kopelipa" and General "Dino," who are accused of participating in large corruption scandals. In September, Angolan authorities arrested Carlos Manuel de São Vicente, a businessman with close links to the ex-president who benefited from insurance contracts sold to the state oil company. Lourenço’s dogged pursuit of beneficiaries of the old regime, however, has not been extended to his own associates, including his chief of staff, Edeltrudes Costa. According to local media, Costa obtained public contracts for his consulting company and invested the proceeds through offshore companies in real estate in Portugal.

Lourenço’s seemingly preferential treatment of Costa has been one factor driving a wave of protests, which the government has tried to stamp out. Protesters have marched against state corruption, police brutality, and the government's failure to create the 500,000 new jobs it had promised. According to Human Rights Watch, the police used live bullets, teargas, and dogs to disperse a peaceful anti-government protest, killing one protester, brutally beating two well-known activists, and arresting a third. While risk of further clashes remains high, Angolan security personnel reversed course during protests on November 21, refraining from the use of force under the minister of interior’s orders.

Photo: Jérémy Barande / Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Burkina Faso: Roch and Roll

President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré won reelection in Burkina Faso’s November 22 polls, securing 58 percent of the 1.6 million votes cast on that day—a voter turnout of just over 50 percent. Although several of the losing candidates conceded defeat to Kaboré, a few of the front-running presidential contenders have formally challenged the electoral outcome via judicial means, claiming that the ballot was subject to fraud. The aggrieved opposition candidates stated they would limit their electoral challenge to the courts and would respect the judicial ruling, which is expected to uphold Kaboré’s victory. The opposition’s approach is indicative of broad-based commitment to a process of national reconciliation by Burkina Faso’s political class, which has the potential to be a defining feature of Kaboré’s second and final term in office. In this regard, Kaboré has pledged to facilitate the return of exiled political leaders, notably former president Blaise Compaoré, while even touting the possibility of exploring dialogue with Islamist extremists whose violent armed campaign continues to expand across the country.

Kaboré’s second term, however, will be complicated by a growing ethnic militancy and economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. Burkina Faso—in addition to France, Burkina Faso’s key patron—remains resistant to negotiations with jihadists. On the economic front, Kaboré announced that he would prioritize Burkina Faso’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, which hinges on Kaboré securing a write off for Burkina Faso’s multilateral- and sovereign-held debt.

Photo: Koch / MSC/Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0 DE)

Burundi: The Ascent of Évariste

President Évariste Ndayishimiye has continued to consolidate political power after replacing late president Pierre Nkurunziza in June. Despite insinuating that he would usher in reform, Ndayishimiye has doubled down on the repressive tactics that came to define the regime of his predecessor. This was highlighted by an October decision by the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR) to extend the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi by one year amid ongoing reports of human rights abuses. A month prior to the OHCHR’s decision, the chairperson of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi called out the continued repression, further accusing Ndayishimiye of appointing Burundian officials sanctioned for their alleged involvement in human rights abuses to senior positions in his government.

Ndayishimiye’s actions have doused optimism that his government would open the narrow democratic space in Burundi and create an inclusive political environment as demanded by the political opposition. Ndayishimiye’s political rivals, such as the Red Tabara opposition group, have requested intervention by the United Nations and East African Community in response to alleged state-sponsored violence against the ruling party’s opponents as well as a burgeoning humanitarian crisis in the country. In the same missive, Red Tabara announced the formal launch of an armed campaign against the Ndayishimiye administration. The group’s belligerency portends that segments of the Burundian opposition will continue to view armed violence as the only means of engagement with the repressive Burundian state.

Photo: Ludovic Courtès/wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Gambia: Constitutional Conundrums

Gambian president Adama Barrow is gearing up to seek reelection in the country’s 2021 presidential polls after ignoring a protest movement that called for him to honor his campaign pledge of serving no more than three years of the country’s five-year presidential term. Barrow affirmed his intention to remain in office for his full term and is setting the stage for his reelection and preservation of strong presidential prerogatives.

Barrow, to many observers’ surprise, opposed the passage of a new constitution to replace the country’s 1997 legal framework. He may have turned against the draft—a key campaign promise—when its authors included a retrogressive clause to count Barrow's first term as part of the two terms he could serve in office. Barrow's supporters may also have balked at the draft constitution’s curbs on presidential power and the establishment of a truth, reconciliation, and reparations committee.

Barrow could still seek to push through amendments of key tenets of the 1997 constitution rather than replace the entire framework. Another possibility is that the constitutional review committee revises some clauses that lawmakers found objectionable and submits the draft constitution to another legislative vote. Either way, Barrow’s failure to pass a more progressive constitution will only add to accusations by his political opponents that he harbors the same autocratic tendencies as his brutal predecessor, Yayha Jammeh, and has abandoned his commitment to support the democratization process and enable the provision of justice for Jammeh’s victims.

Photo: ROMAIN CHANSON/AFP/Getty Images

Niger: A Negative Mark on a Milestone Vote

President Mahamadou Issoufou appears committed to hand over power at the end of his second term next year, a historic decision tainted by the Constitutional Court’s order to disqualify his party’s main opponent. Since independence in 1960, all of Niger’s civilian leaders have been ejected from office by the barrel of the gun instead of the ballot box. Issoufou, who won his first election in 2011, is poised to become the first civilian leader to peacefully retire after two terms and oversee a democratic transition.

This achievement—noteworthy in a region where Guinean and Ivorian leaders have overwritten constitutional terms and exploited constitutional loopholes to retain power—has been partly sullied by the disbarment of Issoufou’s political rival Hama Amadou. Issoufou and Amadou fell out as early as 2013, and in 2014 the government initiated criminal proceedings against Amadou over child trafficking, which most observers viewed as spurious. While authorities permitted Amadou to contest 2016 elections, he campaigned from prison, flew to France for medical treatment, and eventually boycotted the second round. Amadou returned to Niger in 2019 to serve the remainder of his sentence, but the Court decided that he was ineligible due to his criminal conviction.

President Issoufou’s chosen successor, Mohammed Bazoum, faces a large field of 30 contenders in the first round of presidential elections—but none with the political heft of Amadou. While Bazoum has an impressive resume, including stints as foreign minister, interior minister, and party chairman, he will have to contend with deteriorating security situation if elected. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara operates in Tillabery and Tahoua areas of western Niger, while Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province terrorize populations in the southeastern part of the country. According to the Armed Conflict Locations and Event Database (ACLED), there have been 334 incidents of violence since the beginning of 2020, resulting in approximately 1,000 deaths.

Photo: Benhamayemohamed/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Seychelles: New President, Same Challenges

Seychellois opposition leader Wavel Ramkalawan, who in October triumphed over incumbent Danny Faure in the first defeat of the ruling party since 1977, will struggle to match soaring public expectations. Ramkalawan, a former priest who has contested every election since 1998, faces a weakening economy, a legacy of corruption, the scourge of drug addiction, and growing geopolitical tensions.

Ramkalawan owes his victory in part to public disaffection with the ruling party’s history of cronyism and corruption and the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country’s tourism-dependent economy. While Seychelles received a fairly positive score from Transparency International, it has a reputation as a tax haven and hub for money laundering. The economy—starved of its European tourists—remains “extremely fragile,” according to the central bank governor, and is expected to contract by 13.8 percent this year. Moreover, the country also has the world’s worst heroin problem; 10 percent of the working population are addicted to heroin, according to the Agency for the Prevention of Drug Abuse and Rehabilitation in the Seychelles. Ramakalawan’s campaign pledges, including a minimum wage increase, are unlikely to immediately resolve these systemic challenges.

The new president will also encounter several delicate foreign policy challenges, including one of his own making. Seychelles briefly appeared in the Mueller investigation for an alleged secret meeting between Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, and a Russian official close to President Vladi­mir Putin. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned a Seychelles-based entity for its dealings with Iran. However, Ramakalawan’s biggest issue may be his fight with India over a naval base on Assumption Island, located some 1,000 kilometers from Seychelles’ main island Mahé. He led the opposition to the project as early as 2015 and campaigned on the position that no foreign military base would be allowed in Seychelles. As competition between China and India heats up in the Indian Ocean, Ramakalawan may not have the luxury of staying above the fray.

Photo: Simisa/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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 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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