What to Watch in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2019

2019 will be a crucial year for sub-Saharan Africa. The region will hold presidential elections in at least nine countries, including Nigeria and South Africa. It will remain bogged down in conflicts in the Cameroon, Central African Republic, Mali, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Somalia. It also will attract greater attention from the international partners, which increasingly view the region as a vector for transnational threats, a destination for investment, and an arena for geostrategic competition.

To preview some of the top stories in 2019, the CSIS Africa Program compiled a list of key countries and issues to watch this year.

1. Chaos in the Congo. Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) nears a dangerous inflection point over the contested outcome of its presidential election. President Kabila appears determined to install his successor Emmanuel Ramzani Shadary, despite the judgment of most observers, including the influential Catholic Church, that Shadary lost. The electoral commission, which oversaw a disorganized and shambolic poll, is delaying the release of election results almost certainly to fiddle with the outcome in favor of Kabila’s candidate. With most of the opposition and the broader public firmly behind ex-oil executive and activist Martin Fayulu, 2019 portends significant political turmoil and insecurity. If Kabila succeeds in imposing Shadary as DRC’s leader, Shadary will most likely assume office without a democratic mandate. He will face waves of political protests and intensified militia activity in hot spots, including Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Goma, and Beni. He also will struggle to tame an Ebola outbreak in the Kivus, set to last another five months. Shadary’s weak political position—at least while he is under EU sanctions and Kabila’s shadow—may prompt him to unleash the security services to show who is in control.

For more information, listen to Into Africa podcast episode “Whose Election Is It Anyway?” and Take as Directed podcast episode “Who are the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) who are Attacking Ebola-hit Areas in Eastern Congo?”

2. Nigeria Rocks the Vote. In February, Nigeria will brace itself for its most competitive and arguably most consequential presidential election since its return to civilian rule in 1999.  President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, both of whom are from northern Nigeria, will compete for the country’s highest office. The two contenders offer the electorate contrasting visions on economy, corruption, security, and federalism. However, there are early warning signs that the election will feature some unrest and voter manipulation. Aside from a peace pledge, neither candidate has done enough to curb supporters from participating in violence and buying votes. If the election goes badly, it will paralyze sub-Saharan Africa’s most important country and worsen its considerable economic and security challenges.

For more information, read our recent commentary “Why Aren’t We Paying Attention to Africa’s Most Important Election?” and listen to Into Africa podcast episode “Music is the Weapon of the People.”

3. Ethiopian Stress Test. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s relentless drive to reform his country will come under greater strain this year. Since his ascension in April 2018, he has pursued peace with neighboring Eritrea, welcomed back political dissidents, and shuffled his cabinet to include an equal number of female ministers. While Abiy’s reforms are applauded internationally, at home, they face resistance, chiefly from ethnic Tigrayan elite who previously ruled Ethiopia. He also has failed to quell ethnic violence in the regions; since January 2017, 1.4 million people have been displaced from fighting. When pressed, Abiy has resorted to heavy-handed tactics to disarm his opponents, including arrests and shutting down the internet. In 2019, Abiy will have to confront more dogged resistance to his agenda of change, setting the stage for serious threats to his government.

For more information, listen to Into Africa podcast episode “No Peace to Keep.”

4. U.S.-China Rivalry Intensifies. The United States and China will dispense with diplomacy in 2019, employing more confrontational tactics to advance their respective interests. National security adviser John Bolton’s speech in December served as a warning shot, accusing China of predatory behavior that stunts economic growth. China responded that Bolton should learn not to “blurt things out” about China role’s in Africa, referring to an unsubstantiated accusation that Beijing is poised to take over Zambia’s state power utility. Both sides are likely to indulge in an “us-versus-them” mindset, which will almost certainly alienate African governments and publics. Indeed, African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki has already accused both sides of “infantilizing Africans.” Watch for tensions to flare in Djibouti where China’s first overseas base is just miles away from the U.S. military’s Camp Lemonnier and where China seems poised to take over Djibouti’s commercial port.

For more information, read Program Director Judd Devermont’s testimony to the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Senate subcommittee.

5. Mali’s Center Weakens. Mali’s Islamist insurgency will continue to entrench itself in West Africa, expanding its operations in Mali and into neighboring Burkina Faso. The conflict in central Mali, which noticeably increased in early 2015, is a complex combination of inter- and intra-ethnic violence, banditry, and jihadist operations. The al Qaeda branch in the Sahel, Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), effectively exploits local grievances, especially among the ethnic Peuhl. Along with affiliate Ansaroul Islam, JNIM has carried out numerous attacks in Burkina Faso. An Islamic State aligned splinter faction, driven out of the Mali-Niger border area by French-backed militia operations, may seek safe-havens further south. The insurgents are benefiting from the government of Mali’s inaction and aversion to addressing the underlying drivers of violence. Despite the alleged death of prominent Malian extremist leader Amadou Koufa, the security situation is almost certain to continue to deteriorate.

For more information, listen to Into Africa podcast episode “No Peace to Keep.”

6. South Africa’s Year. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa will face daunting challenges as he works to mend his country’s economy, restore its moral leadership during its stint at the UN Security Council, and guide his party to an election victory. In February 2018, Ramaphosa, a former labor leader and business executive, managed to score some points by simply succeeding his scandal-ridden predecessor Jacob Zuma. However, his honeymoon period—known locally as “Ramaphoria”—has ended, leaving him with few good options to deliver progress in the midst of a recession and a contentious general election. He cannot fully rely on his party, which is divided and wounded by corruption charges, and risks being outflanked by political rivals calling for a radical version of land expropriation without compensation. Ramaphosa is likely to triumph at the ballot box in 2019, but his drive for economic reform may falter in the face of structural obstacles and conflicting political priorities.

For more information, read senior associate Jon Temin and Richard Calland’s commentary “Can South Africa Return to the Global Stage?”

7. Protesting Sudan’s Regime. Sudan’s regime will teeter under widespread protests over rising food costs. Sudan, which has experienced acute economic strain for several years, provoked demonstrations across the country when it removed bread and fuel subsidies. While food and petrol prices have been the proximate causes, much of the protests have included anti-regime rhetoric. President Omar al-Bashir, who has been in power since 1989 and is bidding to amend the constitution another term in office, seems unprepared for the unrest. He does not have as much access to Gulf money to shore up his regime, and so far, he has been hesitant to fully unleash the security services because it would roil rapprochement with the United States. Regime-threatening protests have a rich history in Sudan, ending military rule in 1964 and 1985. Watch for the government to become more desperate and increase its heavy-handed measures, such as disrupting internet access and using live ammunition to tame the crowds. It remains an open question whether these measures will be enough to sap the momentum of these protests.

8. Mozambique’s Insurgency Strengthens. The violence plaguing Mozambique’s oil-rich Cabo Delgado region will expand, terrorizing local communities and disrupting commerce. Since the first attack in October 2017, the insurgents—invariably called al-Shabaab or Ahlu Sunna wa Jama—have conducted some 45 attacks, with 194 dead and 342 injured, and 750 houses sacked or burned in seven districts. Mozambique and neighboring Tanzania have made several arrests, and there is an ongoing secret trial of 189 people. However, the reality is that few understand who is behind this unrest or whether the insurgents have links further up the Swahili coast. Moreover, the affected countries are ill-equipped to address this problem, portending a significant crisis for the region and international community.

9. Burundi Picks Fights with Neighbors and Itself. President Pierre Nkurunziza will escalate his rhetoric and actions against his opponents, raising the risk of more violence in the troubled central African country. Nkurunziza, who won a controversial third term in 2015 and amended the constitution in 2018, has continued to unsettle Burundian politics and its relations with key neighbors. In the last few months, his government issued an arrest warrant for former president Pierre Buyoya, kicked out the UN human rights office, reprimanded the AU, and accused Rwanda of training Burundian rebels. While Nkurunziza has pledged that he will not stand for another term in 2020, his provocations suggest otherwise. Even if he is only seeking to fend off challenges to his authority, there is high potential for miscalculation. If Nkurunziza continues to needle his external and internal rivals, Burundi will experience more serious unrest and ethnic violence.

10. AU Reforms Sputter under al-Sisi. Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s elevation as the African Union Chairperson will undercut a series of important reform and trade initiatives. While the African Union Chair is generally a figurehead position, al-Sisi’s predecessor Paul Kagame of Rwanda used his tenure to advocate for increased coordination, a streamlined bureaucracy, and self-financing. Equally important, he energized initiatives on the free movement of people, a single air transport market, and a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA); as of December 2018, 50 governments have signed the CFTA with Nigeria as the most significant holdout. Though his government says it will continue to promote the CFTA, it is unlikely that al-Sisi will match Kagame’s vigor and commitment. Egypt’s focus on the Middle East and its rivalries with Sudan and Ethiopia over water rights almost certainly will limit its effectiveness.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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