What to Watch in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2020

2020 will be another pivotal year for sub-Saharan Africa. The region will hold presidential or general elections in as many as 11 countries. It will be a make-or-break moment for key transitions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Conflicts will fester in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Sahel, Somalia, and South Sudan. The region’s governments, opposition, and private sector will continue to leverage claims of “great power competition” to exact economic concessions, silence external criticism, and challenge contradictions in U.S. policy toward sub-Saharan Africa.
To preview some of the top stories in 2020, the CSIS Africa Program presents its annual list of key countries and issues to watch this year. (Read last year’s forecasts.)

1. Publics Oppose Third Term Extensions in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire (Jon Temin)

Popular resistance to efforts by Guinean president Alpha Condé and Ivoirian president Alassane Ouattara to extend their terms in office will grow. In both countries, there is considerable public hostility to the idea of third terms. According to Afrobarometer polling, 86 percent of citizens support a two-term limit in Cote d’Ivoire and 84 percent in Guinea—two of the highest figures on the continent. This support for leadership rotation will probably spur protestors to continue to mount rallies in Guinea, where Condé has already unveiled his plan to revise its constitution. Similarly, it could unite a divided opposition in Cote d’Ivoire if Ouattara follows through on his vow to enter the race if his longstanding political rivals run for the presidency. West Africa has long performed relatively well in democratic governance, with leaders showing a commitment to term limits, exemplified by Nigerien president Mahamadou Issoufou and Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s recent pledges to step down in 2021 and 2023, respectively. As democracy activists in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire hit the streets to block third terms bids, they will appeal to the region and broader international community for support.
For more information, listen to Into Africa podcast episodes “Too Good To Die” and “Where’s the ‘Poll’ in U.S. Policy?”

2. Election Deadlines Loom in Ethiopia and Somalia (Judd Devermont)

Ethiopia and Somalia will struggle to conduct key elections scheduled for this year. Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s pledge to hold free and fair elections in May is beset by mounting technical, political, and security challenges. Abiy’s reforms have deepened ethnic and religious rifts and alienated the previously powerful Tigrayan political and military elite. Abiy may have to delay the vote, especially if violence and political strife continue to escalate. In Somalia, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” is under international pressure to enact the necessary reforms for its first one-person, one-vote election in 50 years. The legislature passed a bill in late December to guarantee universal suffrage, without input from the opposition, but failed to enact a 30 percent quota for female representatives in parliament. It is likely that Somalia’s vote will miss its 2020 target, as has been the case in the last election cycles, and fail to fully meet the one-person, one-vote standard.
For more information, listen to Into Africa podcast episode “We Want Our Own Champions” and watch Judd Devermont’s video “What’s Happening in Ethiopia?”

3. Sudanese Prime Minister Bets on the International Community (Richard Downie)

Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok will lean on the international community’s assistance to restore a shattered economy, end decades of internal conflict, and move the country on the path to democratic elections in under three years’ time. Hamdok is in a weak position, navigating an uneasy partnership with the military and leading an inexperienced cabinet. He must manage public expectations, keep spoilers at bay, and show international donors that he can deliver on his reform agenda. Hamdok will push for Sudan’s removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which not only prevents access to U.S. development funds but also effectively locks Sudan out of international financial institutions. He may fret that if the United States and its partners do not move fast to provide robust financial, technical, and diplomatic support, his government could be swept away, along with the hopes of millions of Sudanese for a more prosperous future. A major inflection point comes in the spring when Washington convenes the Friends of Sudan—a group of countries from Africa, Europe, and the Gulf, as well as international organizations—to kickstart Sudanese development and reinforce Hamdok’s efforts to realize his ambitious agenda.

For more information, listen to Into Africa podcast episode “Where’s Your Digital ID” and read Judd Devermont’s critical questions “Bashir’s Removal Is Just the Beginning of the Sudanese Transition”

4. Extremist Violence Surges in the Sahel (Marielle Harris)

Extremist attacks will grow in lethality, sophistication, and scope across the Sahel in 2020. A mounting trend of assaults on Sahelian military bases reached new heights in December 2019 when Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) killed more than 70 Nigerien soldiers using mortars and suicide vehicles at an Inates army outpost on the Malian border. Groups like ISWAP and al-Qaeda’s coalition in the region, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), are likely to exploit grievances among local communities to recruit more fighters, increase the rate of attacks, gain access to advanced weaponry and intelligence, and extend their geographical reach. As the security crisis deepens, international actors will scramble to devise more effective strategies. In early 2020, French president Emmanuel Macron is reevaluating his country’s military involvement, asking leaders of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger to “clarify and formalize” their demands of French military assistance amid growing anti-French sentiment. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is seeking to recalibrate its position from expansion—creating a special envoy and interagency taskforce—to withdrawal, mulling a proposal to pull military officers from the region. These realignments raise crucial questions about the future of international engagement in the Sahel.
For more information, read Judd Devermont’s brief “Politics at the Heart of the Crisis in the Sahel” and watch CSIS Africa Program’s event “The Sahel Summit.”

5. U.S. Policy Toward Africa Set for More Turbulence (Judd Devermont)

The United States will face more challenges to present a coherent policy toward the region following news of future military withdrawals. U.S. policy has made important strides since then-national security advisor John Bolton delivered the White House’s plan in December 2018. Diplomats have stepped back from his hawkish, zero-sum approach to great power competition, admirably threading the needle between the administration’s objectives and realities on the ground. Washington launched an important economic initiative, “Prosper Africa,” to double two-way trade and increase interagency coordination in support of this goal. Finally, U.S. policymakers rounded out 2019 with more actions and words in defense of democracy and human rights; from Nigeria and Kenya to South Sudan and Cameroon, the United States issued statements and imposed sanctions on corrupt officials, election spoilers, and human rights abusers. However, these achievements risk being overshadowed by news that the Pentagon is weighing proposals to draw down U.S. forces, empty newly-built bases, and cut support to allies in West Africa. If the Department of Defense approves these plans, it will have negative effects on U.S. programs and resources overseen by other departments and agencies that work closely with the U.S. military. Moreover, it threatens to revive criticism that the United States does not care about Africa and undercut progress in strengthening U.S. relations with African partners.
For more information, watch Judd Devermont’s testimony before the House Committee on House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security on “U.S. Counterterrorism Priorities and Challenges in Africa,” and read his critical questions “Prosper Africa’s Partial Answer to Promoting U.S. Trade and Investment.”

6. Security Challenges Multiply in Mozambique (Emilia Columbo)

Mozambique will spiral further into a security and humanitarian crisis in its northern and central regions. In the resource-rich Cabo Delgado, the insurgency continues to grow its capacity and outmaneuver government forces. In central Mozambique, the main opposition party RENAMO’s breakaway armed faction has renewed attacks against transportation and economic targets to protest a peace deal with the group’s political leadership and a disputed election. Mozambique’s ill-equipped and poorly trained security forces have proven unequal to the task of addressing these threats, prompting the government to appeal for greater foreign military engagement and flirt with Russian and other mercenaries. Continued violence, especially in Cabo Delgado, will precipitate a humanitarian crisis; thousands have already been displaced in Cabo Delgado since attacks began in 2017, disrupting the farming cycle and creating food insecurity in the province.

For more information, read Emilia Columbo’s report “Northern Mozambique at a Crossroads: Scenarios for Violence in the Resource-rich Cabo Delgado Province” and watch CSIS Africa Program’s event “Understanding Extremism in Northern Mozambique.”

7. Bridge-Building and Politicking in Kenya (Judd Devermont)

Kenyan politics will undergo a critical realignment in 2020. President Uhuru Kenyatta, who teamed up with Deputy President William Ruto to secure power in 2013 and 2017, is flirting with former rival Raila Odinga to form a new partnership. Kenyatta has signaled his support for the “Building Bridges Initiative” (BBI), opening the door for Odinga to possibly return to power as prime minister. This rapprochement has unsettled Ruto’s allies and even some of Kenyatta’s own ethnic Kikuyu backers who fear that Odinga will catapult himself from the premiership to the presidency in 2022. Kenyatta has defended BBI, saying it is about “unity,” not future elections. Ruto has crafted a different narrative, asking the public to support his “hustlers” instead of “dynasties” led by Kenyatta, Odinga, and other sons of former politicians. As questions swirl around BBI’s implementation, watch for power struggles within the ruling party and the opposition coalition to intensify and spawn new political alliances.

For more information, read Richard Downie’s commentary “Kenya under Growing Pressure to Regulate ‘Spiritual Fraudsters.’”

8. A Decisive Year for DRC President Tshisekedi (Mvemba Dizolele)

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is likely to experience more discontent and protests unless President Félix Tshisekedi establishes his independence from his predecessor Joseph Kabila. During Tshisekedi’s first official visit to the United States in 2019, he pledged that he would dismantle the DRC’s corrupt, kleptocratic system. But upon his return to Kinshasa, Kabila’s allies issued a stern communiqué, in which they rebuked the president for making unhelpful, provocative statements overseas and reminded him that it was Joseph Kabila who created the conditions that allowed for the democratic transition. Since then, reports of embezzlements of millions of dollars have received little attention from the Ministry of Justice; the president has often fumbled during press conferences when confronted about impunity and the rule of law. Meanwhile, peace continues to elude the Congolese, particularly in the east, where scores of civilians have been slaughtered by armed groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces and others. If Tshisekedi continues to fail to correct the impression that he is either disconnected from the realities and needs of the populations, or that he is determined to preserve his alliance with Kabila, his second year in office will be beset by protests and a growing consensus that any opportunity for democracy has been squandered.

For more information, listen to Into Africa podcast episode “Updating the Coup Playbook” and watch CSIS Africa Program’s event “Envisioning Congo’s Future: A Conversation with Martin Fayulu.”

9. Civil Society Strikes Back in Nigeria (Judd Devermont)

Nigeria’s journalists, human rights activists, and other stakeholders will ramp up pressure on the government to protect civil liberties and defend democratic practices. With President Buhari experiencing fewer constraints on his rule since his reelection in February 2019, civil society has become bolder in its opposition to abuses of power. Punch, a local newspaper, issued an editorial saying it would start using Buhari’s former military rank instead of president and refer to his administration as a “regime” to protest Buhari’s “contempt of rule of law.” The Sultan of Sokoto, the country’s most senior traditional Muslim leader, obliquely criticized the government for failing to respect a court ruling, saying it is “a recipe for lawlessness and chaos.” Nigerian civil society, with support from U.S. Congress, has raised the alarm over pending antidemocratic legislation—the social media bill and NGO bill—and successfully pressed the government to release a well-known publisher and former presidential candidate. These skirmishes have set the stage for a heated battle this year between government and civil society over the future of Nigeria’s 20-year-old democracy.  
For more information, listen to Into Africa podcast episode “Too Good To Die” and watch Judd Devermont’s video “What is Happening in Nigeria?”

10. Mnangagwa Profits from a Crumbling Zimbabwean Economy (Mark Bellamy)

Zimbabwe will experience severe shortages of foreign currency, food, fuel, medical supplies, and power, even if triple-digit inflation eases in 2020. Zimbabwe’s humanitarian crisis—half the country’s population is now food insecure—will likely worsen, sparking new strikes and protests. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, his military backers, and the leadership of the ruling ZANU-PF have resisted urgently needed political and economic reforms. Though Zimbabwe is essentially bankrupt, these individuals control land, mines, and what is left of a productive economy. In other words, they have no reason to change course. Their strategy, backed by South Africa and other neighbors, has been to blame the West for Zimbabwe’s woes, demand an end to international sanctions, and attract new lending and foreign investment. If Mnangagwa and his allies succeed in extricating themselves from current sanctions and access new sources of finance, they will almost certainly strengthen their stranglehold on politics and over the country’s economy.
For more information, watch CSIS Africa Program’s event “Zimbabwe’s Burgeoning Food Crisis” and listen to Into Africa podcast “Too Good To Die.”
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Marielle Harris is the program manager of the CSIS Africa Program.
Mark Bellamy is a senior adviser (non-resident) to the CSIS Africa Program; Emilia Columbo, Mvemba Dizolele, Richard Downie, and Jon Temin are senior associates (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).
© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved
Jon Temin
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program

Marielle Harris

Richard Downie