What Africa Experts Are Watching in 2023

The CSIS Africa Program enters 2023 with trepidation and hope. Armed conflicts in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Sahel continue to destabilize countries and regions, exacerbating humanitarian needs and political crises. Democratic backsliding continues, with insurgencies, insecurity, and weak governance having led to military coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Chad, and Sudan in 2022. In all five countries, there is little to no signs of successful democratic transitions in 2023. In southern Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa faces political headwinds as he gears up for his run for a second term, while Filipe Nyusi eyes an unconstitutional third term in office, and Emmerson Mnangagwa continues to chip away at civic freedoms and human rights in Zimbabwe.

Amid such political and security crises, 2023 also carries much promise. Experts remain cautiously hopeful about the peace transition in Ethiopia, and Kenya’s steady emergence as a regional power is promising for peacebuilding in the Horn of Africa and in DRC, and the region’s trade and investment. Private investment in Africa’s digital infrastructure blooms, and negotiations on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) continue at a steady pace, bringing its signatories closer to realizing the enormous potential of the agreement (if fully implemented, the agreement is set to lift at least 50 million people out of extreme poverty by 2035 through job creation and income growth).

To preview some of the top stories in 2023, the CSIS Africa Program presents its annual list of key countries and issues to watch this year. (Read forecasts from 2022 and 2021.)

  1. U.S. support for local human rights advocates is important to counter democratic backsliding in African countries. (Maria Burnett)

The 2022 U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa explicitly commits to collaborating with African partners to “stem the recent tide of authoritarianism and military takeovers,” as well as “respond to democratic backsliding and human rights abuses.” However, democracy and human rights advocates are disappointed with the Biden administration’s approach to Africa. With increased sparring over Chinese and Russian involvement on the continent, questions remain as to if and when the United States will respond more forcefully to corruption and gross human rights abuses.

The administration, for instance, imposed limited consequences on coup leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, and Sudan, and did not label recent events in Chad and Sudan as “coups.” In October 2022, after Chadian security forces killed as many as 100 pro-democracy protesters and arrested and disappeared even more, the Biden administration invited junta leader General Mahamat Déby, among other autocrats, such as Eswatini’s King Mswati III, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, and Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Their presence left enduring questions about the summit as an opportunity to “reinforce the U.S.-Africa commitment to democracy and human rights,” as it was billed by the State Department.

Inconsistent, and at times, contradictory U.S. statements and actions in the face of authoritarianism not only emboldens autocrats; it also risks imperiling local activists who document abuse or corruption and share findings with the public, including U.S. officials, often at great personal risk. As implementation of the new U.S.-Africa Strategy takes shape in 2023, human rights and democracy protections should be more than a rhetorical or moralistic debate. Without at least some increased U.S. action, 2023 is likely another imperiled year for Africa’s defenders of democracy and human rights.

  1. The AfCFTA will continue to make slow but real progress. (Laird Treiber)

During the course of this year, trade negotiators will resolve the few thorny issues remaining (e.g., textiles, agriculture and autos) before beginning full implementation of Phase I of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). Formal negotiations on Phase II will begin in January, including on intellectual property rights and services.

Perhaps even more important than progress on the formal texts of the agreement is the progress made in helping companies understand what it takes to trade across borders and how to get paid. Countries will build on an innovative pilot initiative on “Guided Trade” in goods with eight countries that started in October 2022, which has seen trade take place between countries with little or no previous trade. Practical experience from this pilot initiative will make expansion to other countries easier. It will also pave the way for talks on conducting AfCFTA trade in services, which begin in January.

The African Development Bank is also trying to help companies connect with each other through its private sector directory and make payments easier through the Pan-African Payment and Settlement Services (PAPSS). As cross-border trade grows, these tools will also increase their impact. While progress lags an ambitious pre-Covid-19 target, and significant economic setbacks remain unresolved, African countries are moving steadily towards expanding cross-border and continental trade, which will boost long-term growth prospects (i.e., by up to 7 percent of GDP by 2035) and promote regional value chains, while also boosting competitiveness.

  1. Investing in Africa’s digital infrastructure will have positive, whole-of-society ripple effects. (Mimi Alemayehou)

Enticing, encouraging, and de-risking private investment in Africa’s digital infrastructure has climbed up the development agenda. The case is compelling. Such groundbreaking investments are valuable for their direct and immediate economic impacts. These investments create jobs, fund the purchase of goods and services, enable the construction of buildings, and attract talent.

They also may have transformative ripple effects: catalyzing regulatory reforms; increasing integration among governments, NGOs, businesses, and end users; introducing more secure technology and standards; and creating new possibilities for last-mile servicing of rural communities.

Last year concluded with several developments that could signal exciting progress. Industry figures showed venture capital investment into Africa had remained robust despite repeated shocks to the global economy. The Biden administration’s U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit launched an ambitious, multisector “whole of government” approach to the continent’s long-term development.

There are myriad cases demonstrating the value of private sector investment in African digital infrastructure, and maintaining progress in this area will be critical. Mastercard’s own initiative—Community Pass—is supported by the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and designed to address infrastructure challenges in rural African communities; such initiatives help facilitate faster payments for farmers, easier access to credit, an expanded pool of buyers, and digitized value chains.[i] The execution of these digital infrastructure initiatives offers a rare alignment of policies, programs, and private capital that should be taken advantage of.

  1. President Ruto and Kenya’s regional ambitions continue to grow. (William Mark Bellamy)

Since taking office last September, President William Ruto has quickly moved to elevate Kenya’s diplomatic and security roles in East Africa. Ruto’s avowed goal is to reduce conflict in the Horn of Africa in order to expand regional trade and investment, as well as speed up economic development. Ruto sees this as a tangible deliverable for his Kenyan constituents.

In his first 100 days, Ruto traveled throughout the region, conferring with each of his East African Community (EAC) counterparts. He mended strained relations with Somalia. Building on his predecessor’s initiatives, Ruto positioned Kenya both to mediate the civil war in Ethiopia and lead an ambitious EAC bid to quell the violent conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At Ruto’s urging, former President Uhuru Kenyatta agreed to head both efforts.

Kenya is suited to this role. It has good relations with all EAC states. Its military, contrary to other member states of the EAC, as not been entangled in armed conflicts in the DRC or in the illegal extraction of the DRC’s natural resources. Thanks to Kenya’s domestic stability and smooth transition of power to a new presidency, Ruto now has stature and credibility his regional counterparts mostly lack.

Kenya is also in a relatively strong position economically. Kenya will likely skirt fiscal and sovereign debt crises predicted for 2023 while growing its economy by 5.7 percent.

Thus, Kenya’s regional ambitions are reasonable, but results may be elusive. In the DRC, for example, success requires that other EAC states, notably Uganda and Rwanda, stop trying to control territory, exploit mineral resources, and manipulate guerrilla bands in the context of their own bitter bilateral rivalry. Disciplining his EAC team will be a hard opening act for the new Kenyan president.

  1. The insurgency in Cabo Delgado enters a new phase. (Emilia Columbo)

In 2023, Mozambique will likely face an increasingly complex security picture as the number of armed actors in Cabo Delgado Province grows; the insurgency relies on new tactics to counter this changing landscape; and Maputo faces growing pressure from the business community to crack down on kidnapping for ransom. International actors will likely take on a larger role in the conflict in Cabo Delgado Province as the Mozambican government seeks to counter an adapting and evolving insurgency.

The initial deployment of 1,000 Rwandan military and police personnel in July 2021 had doubled by November 2022 and their area of responsibility expanded to include Ancuabe District, an area that experienced its first insurgent attacks in 2022. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) extended its Mission to Mozambique until at least July 2023, citing ongoing insecurity and the need for peacebuilding measures.

The Islamic State-Mozambique—commonly referred to as al Shabaab domestically—will likely increase its reliance on guerilla tactics to counter a more robust military presence, potentially increasing the use of improvised explosive devices and drones against Mozambican and foreign military units.

The growing number of displaced youth, combined with the ongoing reports of abuses by both Mozambican security forces and government-approved civilian militias, will provide the insurgents with a growing pool of potential new recruits. Outside of Cabo Delgado, the government will also likely face increased pressure from the business community to crackdown on kidnapping for ransom in light of the recent death of a kidnapped businessman and rising concerns over the impact that this tactic’s trend will have on the economy. 

  1. Democratic backsliding and insecurity will grow in the Sahel. (Cameron Hudson)

It is hard to be optimistic about the outlook for the Sahel. Newly released research quantifies it: killings from Islamist groups increased a whopping 63 percent last year, bringing the death toll since 2011 to 8,000—mainly civilians—making the Sahel Africa’s deadliest region.

Against this backdrop, 2022 saw a further hollowing out of state institutions in Mali and Burkina Faso, which are now also both completing their expulsion of French diplomats and generals. In France’s place, Russia, through its Wagner Group proxy, has established a presence—tapping into the existing reservoir of (well-deserved) anti-French sentiment while promising to roll back the jihadist threat and build public trust in the junta’s now in charge there. Both seem unlikely given the group’s spotty performance in other parts of Africa.

Thus far, Wagner and its junta partners have used disinformation campaigns to obscure the rise in human rights abuses and civilian casualties associated with their operations. But with France forced to the sidelines, Washington has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to step into the breach before other states in the region fall. Niger, currently the lone democratic bright spot in the region, is also suffering from the effects of weak institutions, low economic growth and high demands from an exploding population.

Washington says it has a strategy, but 2023 could be a point of no return if it does not act soon to avoid an arc of instability stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

  1. Statesmen in southern Africa continue to face political headwinds. (Ryan Cummings)

In southern Africa, a prominent theme in the region is that of embattled statesmen who are seeking to navigate accusations of economic mismanagement ahead of key general elections. This is most notable in South Africa where President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ambition to secure his reelection and that of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will be blighted by South Africa’s energy crisis and various charges of corruption levied against the president. Ramaphosa’s response to these and other quandaries could ultimately determine whether the ANC can avoid seeing its electoral support dip below the 50 percent mark in the 2024 general election. 

In neighboring Mozambique, President Nyusi similarly faces corruption allegations rooted in the so-called Tuna Bond scandal which occurred during his tenure as defense minister (2008 to 2014). With investigations into the scandal intensifying, Nyusi’s position as Mozambican head of state may provide him with the necessary protection to avoid prosecution. However, with his term ending in 2024, Nyusi could well be lured into seeking an unprecedented third term in office to ensure that he retains immunity—a move which could cause significant consternation within the country’s political landscape. 

In Zimbabwe, President Mnangagwa faces a far less arduous path toward reelection. That said, the statesman’s provision (or lack thereof) of democratic freedoms to the opposition could be a litmus test for the political reform which has long been promised by the statesman and which is deemed intrinsic to Zimbabwe’s accessing of international donor support and the removal of a targeted sanctions regime. 

  1. The fight against M-23 continues and elections near in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Mvemba Phezo Dizolele)

Two main events will determine the course of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2023: the elections and the ongoing fight against the M23. Scheduled for December, the legislative and presidential elections will be critical for President Félix Tshisekedi, who seeks a second five-year term, and for the country. It is crucial that the electoral process, which is underway, be credible to restore the voter’s faith in the system. The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI)’s leadership needs to address civil society concerns, such as the pace of voter enrollment, the quality of voter cards, and the integrity of the voter registry. A credible process remains the only way for winners of the presidential and legislative contests to garner the legitimacy required to address the herculean obstacles that impede the country’s development. These include the mismanagement of natural and mineral resources, inadequate public services delivery, Congo’s regional engagements, and security sector reform.

The fight against M-23, which the government has designated a terrorist organization, and insecurity in eastern provinces pose a threat to the electoral process. If the conflict is not resolved in time, voter enrollment may not happen in those areas, which would exclude and disenfranchise millions of citizens. In 2018, the populations of Yumbi, Beni Ville, Beni Territoire, and Butembo, in Mai-Ndombe and North Kivu provinces respectively did not vote due to conflict and the Ebola outbreak. Whether the enrollment will be delayed in the conflict areas or the vote itself be postponed due to other contingencies as has been the case in previous elections, CENI leadership needs to be forthcoming and proactive in its communication with the populations to reassure the voters. There are no shortcuts to legitimacy and more public discontent can only fuel insecurity.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is director and senior fellow of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Catherine Nzuki is an associate fellow with the CSIS Africa Program. Mark Bellamy is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the CSIS Africa Program. Mimi Alemayehou, Maria Burnett, Emilia Columbo, Ryan Cummings, Cameron Hudson, and Laird Treiber are senior associates (non-resident) with the CSIS Africa Program.

[1] Mimi Alemayehou is currently senior vice president for public-private partnerships at Mastercard.