What to Watch in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2021

2021 will be a turbulent year for sub-Saharan Africa. Reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic’s negative health and economic effects, the region will struggle to address conflicts in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and the Sahel, while a series of elections portend further democratic retrenchment. Civil society and protest movements, including in Nigeria and Tanzania, will struggle to persevere under the weight of new government crackdowns. The China-Africa relationship will be defined by health diplomacy—particularly vaccine distribution—and limited debt forgiveness. A bright spot will be the potential for African leadership at the UN Security Council and the incoming Biden administration’s vision to repair relations and revive partnerships on climate change, anticorruption, and global health.

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

1. African Economies Struggle to Rebuild after Covid-19 Fallout (Laird Treiber)

African governments will face an uphill task to navigate economic recovery in 2021, hindered by systemic challenges in the continent’s largest economies. Although African countries handled the initial impacts of Covid-19 better than many observers expected, they suffered their first recession in 25 years, with the continent-wide economy shrinking an estimated 3 percent, driving per capita incomes down to 2007 levels and pushing as many as 40 million people back into poverty. While forecasts expect African leaders to prioritize rapid economic recovery, there are significant challenges to achieving that. Africa’s largest economies—Angola, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa—are hobbled by low commodities prices, uncompetitive regulatory and labor regimes, and indebted parastatals. Continued disruptions to the international economy will also limit prospects for sectors that have traditionally helped African countries recover, including tourism, raw material exports, and remittances. The picture is far from bleak, however. The advent of trading under the first phase of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) on January 1, 2021, will foster greater regional trade, boosting job creation and economic growth and making it easier for countries to join global supply chains. African countries are also likely to reach some creative agreements with creditors to facilitate servicing official debt as part of a broader effort to make government finances more sustainable. There will be plenty of space for U.S. companies and the Biden administration to build on Prosper Africa to deepen commercial partnerships between U.S. and African firms and reinforce African governments’ efforts in sectors like energy, trade, and information and communications technology to make their economies more competitive. 

For more information, watch the CSIS Africa Program’s event, “Impossible Choices: The Conundrum Facing African Governments in a Global Pandemic.”

2. The Ethiopian Conflict Further Destabilizes the Horn (Hilary Matfess)

The civil war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region will worsen, sowing instability and displacement throughout the region. In early November, violence broke out between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) political party and Ethiopia’s ruling Prosperity Party, following weeks of tension over the legality of Tigray’s regional elections and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s political agenda. Since the violence erupted, there have been reports of mass killings at the hands of ethnic militias. Approximately 2.2 million people have been displaced within Tigray, with more than 60,000 fleeing to neighboring Sudan. The violence has spurred mass recruitment into ethnic self-defense militias throughout Tigray and Amhara regions, contributing to retaliatory and escalating cycles that result in violence against civilians. The conflict will increasingly threaten regional stability, with reports of the Ethiopian government withdrawing its troops from stabilization efforts in Somalia, forced repatriation of Eritrean refugees by Eritrean military forces aligned with the Ethiopian federal government, and renewed tension between Ethiopia and Sudan over disputed border lands. The conflict will further erode Abiy’s reputation as a peace broker and hinder the country’s democratic transition, casting doubt on the credibility of landmark elections scheduled for this year.

For more information, read Judd Devermont’s critical questions, “The Battle of Mekelle and Its Implications for Ethiopia.”

3. Sahel Set for Further Deterioration (Will Brown)

Security in the Sahel will decline at an alarming rate in 2021, marking the 10th year since the crisis began in northern Mali. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for Mali despite the presence of thousands of international troops. At least 2,754 people were killed, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. A coup in August, which removed Mali’s hapless administration, has added a new layer of uncertainty. Mali’s transitional government has filled governor positions with junta members, and it remains uncertain whether they have the consensus-building skills the country so desperately needs. The situation is just as grim in neighboring Burkina Faso: vast swathes of the country are off limits to humanitarian aid groups and government forces. Many Burkinabe analysts say the state is incapable of protecting people outside major cities and that their country is already a failed state. Worse still, in October, the World Food Programme warned that over 10,000 Burkinabe were “one step short of famine.” A series of massacres and extrajudicial killings by security forces in western Niger in early 2020 shattered any illusion that the country could keep the insecurity at bay. On January 2, at least 100 civilians were killed by suspected Islamists in Niger’s Tillaberi region. It is likely we will see many more attacks—as well as stunted progress toward good governance—as 2021 rolls along.

For more information, read Judd Devermont and Marielle Harris’ brief, “Rethinking Crisis Responses in the Sahel,” and watch the CSIS Africa Program’s event, “The 2nd Annual Sahel Summit”

4. International Partners Intensify Pressure on Mozambique (Emilia Columbo)

Foreign partners will increase their efforts to carve out a role in combating the Mozambican insurgency spreading in the northern Cabo Delgado Province. Jihadist group Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jama (ASWJ), which is aligned with the Islamic State, hit new milestones in 2020, expanding into the maritime domain, launching attacks in southern Tanzania, and inching closer to foreign liquified natural gas operations. The pace of foreign visits and meetings to discuss the security situation increased at the end of 2020 and President Filipe Nyusi in December said his government was weighing assistance offers from all over the world but is wary of entanglements. He stressed that “we need to know how we manage this support at the risk of tomorrow creating a Russian salad of interventions,” using a Portuguese phrase that describes a chaotic condition. Maputo’s caution about foreign involvement, especially regarding terms and timelines, will contribute to increased tension and frustration between a reluctant Maputo and determined foreign governments, further delaying much-needed security capacity building.    

For more information, read Emilia Columbo’s commentary, “Trajectory of Violence in Northern Mozambique Points to Long-term Security Challenge.”

5.Congo’s Tshisekedi Seeks Parliamentary Majority Support (Mvemba Dizolele)

In 2021, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) president Félix Tshisekedi is set to fully emancipate himself from the influence of his predecessor Joseph Kabila and consolidate his power. In the two years since he stepped into power, Tshisekedi has grappled with three main challenges. First, from the outset his legitimacy was contested by Martin Fayulu, who claimed to be the duly elected president. Second, Tshisekedi’s stature was weakened by reports of a shady deal that allowed Kabila control of the National Assembly and disproportionate sway over cabinet ministries as a prerequisite to a coalition between Kabila’s Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC) party and Tshisekedi’s Cap pour le Changement (CACH) party. Third, Tshisekedi’s reform agenda depended on the support of FCC, which successfully blocked it. On December 6, Tshisekedi announced to the country that the FCC-CACH partnership had not served the country and that he would seek a new parliamentary majority. He took advantage of the fragility and weakness of the Kabila parliamentary bloc and the ouster of the unpopular speaker of the National Assembly to build a new majority favorable to him, known as the “Sacred Union”—ensuring that the next government will be aligned with Tshisekedi’s reform agenda. For successful implementation of these reforms, however, Tshisekedi will need to reduce the size of his bloated office and recruit experienced and competent staff, encourage the parliament to fully resume its constitutional functions, revamp the civil service, and restore consultation mechanisms with civil society. It is unclear if backing from the new Sacred Union bloc will be enough to support crucial votes on appointing a new speaker of the National Assembly and a no-confidence vote in the prime minister. In addition, Tshisekedi’s focus on maintaining a parliamentary majority will likely overshadow government reforms, such as reforming the judiciary, securing loans from the International Monetary Fund, and addressing armed violence in the east of the country. But, as he rightly said in his December 6 speech, Tshisekedi cannot get any of these done without a favorable majority.

6. Kenyatta’s Sidelining of his Deputy Escalates Political Tensions in Kenya (Rafiq Raji)

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and former prime minister and opposition leader Raila Odinga are likely to push forward sweeping constitutional amendments through the Building Bridges Initiative. The unlikely pair will also conspire to sideline Deputy President William Ruto, who is displeased by indications that Kenyatta will renege on his promise to support Ruto as his successor in 2022. Ruto is likely to launch his presidential campaign under a different party with the goal of winning or coming in second place to become leader of the opposition. Should Ruto be removed as deputy president, Kenyatta will likely nominate Odinga as a replacement to strengthen the alliance between Kenyatta’s Jubilee party and Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement ahead of the 2022 presidential elections. However, Kenyatta's legacy-building and Big Four agenda—which champions food security, housing, manufacturing, and health care—will stall as focus shifts to the succession.

7. Nigeria’s #EndSARS Revolution Shifts Gears (Yemi Adamolekun)

Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement will evolve in 2021, channeling its energies into more protests, civic education, and political mobilization. What began as protests against a special unit of Nigeria’s Police Force morphed into a larger cry against police brutality. It moved from police brutality to bad governance as it became obvious that police brutality was a symptom of a deeper problem. The hashtag stayed the same, but in conversations and gatherings across the country, something had shifted and there was widespread anger against the government. The resentment was palpable, and the government was afraid, but instead of seeking to solve the problem, it sought to make the symptoms disappear—and that has continued, as bank accounts remain frozen and protesters are arrested. But it is not over. A recall was attempted; protesters have held smaller demonstrations and more will happen; civic education platforms have multiplied; and mobilization toward local, state, and federal elections have begun. In 2021, young Nigerians will speak out, speak up, and speak loudly. In speaking, they must be ready for the associated risks as the demands will be resisted by a repressive government. More importantly, they must take responsibility for defining and articulating the Nigeria they want to see and commit to the hard work of nation building.

For more information, read Bulama Bukarti’s critical questions, “#EndSARSNow Is Just the Beginning of Police Reform in Nigeria” and Hilary Matfess’ commentary, “Why the #EndSARSNow Movement Swept Nigeria’s South.”

8. Tanzania Creeps Deeper into Authoritarianism (Marielle Harris)

In 2021, Tanzanian president John Magufuli will double down on antidemocratic and counterproductive policies, suppressing domestic opponents and codifying nationalist economic policies that alienate foreign businesses. Magufuli was reelected to a second five-year term in October 2020 in what was largely acknowledged as a fraudulent election by international observers. Reports of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation followed years of mounting pressure by the ruling party on Tanzania’s opposition, media, and civil society. Magufuli, nicknamed the “Bulldozer,” has sought to knock down all challengers to his economic agenda, including by nationalizing resources and rolling out mega infrastructure projects, such as a new hydropower dam and railway. His policies almost certainly will dissuade international firms from doing business in the country, repelled by stricter regulations, demands of higher government stakes, and the requirement to pay greater dividends to Dodoma. This is unlikely to bother Magufuli, who has bragged about funding large-scale projects through “improved tax collection” when international lenders have refused to provide loans. Watch for signs of deteriorating press freedom and an increasingly anxious civil society, prompting opponents to leave the country in fear of their lives and everyday citizens to grow quiet under Magufuli’s authoritarian grip.

For more information, read Judd Devermont and Marielle Harris’ critical questions, “A No-Confidence Vote in Tanzania’s Upcoming Elections.”

9. A Challenging Year for Democracy (Jon Temin)

The strength of democratic institutions—and Africans’ belief in democracy and elections as routes to reform—will be tested in 2021. The latter months of 2020 saw several deeply flawed elections, including polls that secured controversial third terms for the presidents of Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. January elections in Uganda will set the tone for 2021, but they already have been marred by violence and uneven enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions. Beyond that, the highest-profile presidential elections will be in Benin, Chad, Djibouti, The Gambia, Republic of Congo, Somalia (an indirect election process), and Zambia—none of which are rated as free in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report.  But even as strongmen manipulate electoral processes to remain in power, protest movements will build on recent successes and continue to innovate as they seek to dismantle authoritarian power structures and create opportunities for new generations to lead. Few analysts saw the recent, successful protests in Malawi and Sudan coming. Predictions of where they will emerge next are dicey; the one certainty is that citizen movements countering authoritarianism will not be scared into submission since the model has proven to work.

10. African Civil Society Groups Combat Misuse of Anti-Money Laundering Laws (Maria Burnett)

Civic groups across Africa will work to counter the weaponization of anti-money laundering and combatting terrorism financing (AML-CTF) laws. In recent years, many African governments have passed new laws or amended legislation on stemming illicit financial flows, prompted at least in part by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) whose ratings can affect access to financial markets, investment, and trade. While there have been amendments to FATF’s much-criticized recommendation regarding nonprofit organizations, some governments have intentionally misapplied these laws to obstruct legitimate democracy and human rights activism on the continent. Activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)in NigeriaTanzaniaUganda, and Kenya have faced criminal charges of money laundering or administrative sanctions such as deregistration and frozen bank accounts—particularly in the lead-up to elections. In 2021, civic groups across the continent will work to increase their understanding of and capacity to fight against the abuse and intentional misapplication of AML-CTF laws that obstruct legitimate activism. Organizations will collaborate to learn from one another about these global standards and carefully document how governments invoke them to violate free expression and association. Timely efforts will lead to formal NGO submissions as part of FATF’s annual country compliance evaluations and the incorporation of such concerns before UN and African regional human rights bodies. Such work will not only lay bare misuse and abuse of AML-CTF frameworks, but also empower the civic sector to avoid self-censorship in the face of government repression. African civil society actors will be also be increasingly well placed to educate the global philanthropic sector about the role it should play to better protect civic space worldwide.

11. China Prioritizes Health and Debt in Africa (Lina Benabdallah)

China-Africa relations in 2021 will be characterized by health diplomacy and economic recovery. In the coming months, African governments will urge China’s state-owned pharmaceutical group SinoPharm to provide an affordable vaccine alternative for African populations. Economic recovery from Covid-19 fallouts will also likely occupy a good deal of China-Africa talks in the coming year. Whether this is through new investment projects, refinancing existing deals, or debt forgiveness, the economy—as well as health diplomacy—will be front and center. The 2021 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is slated to take place in Dakar, Senegal, in September, either virtually or in person. This will be the eighth summit—not counting the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against Covid-19—and it will be an opportunity for China to reiterate its commitment to African partners both in health care cooperation and in post-pandemic investments and aid allocations.

12. African Presidencies Shape Security Council Agenda (Kyle Murphy)

Kenya, Niger, and Tunisia will use their terms on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refocus international attention on the need for multilateral efforts to address worsening security, health, humanitarian, and state fragility challenges on the continent. The current African members of the UNSC are enmeshed in the three most pressing crises on the continent in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and Libya. Tunisia will open the year in the rotating UNSC presidency, Kenya will lead in October just after the General Assembly’s high-level meetings, and Niger will close out 2021 setting the Council’s agenda. Their influence is likely to be enhanced by the presence of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which has been aligned with the African bloc. Tunisia’s plan for January features discussions on the challenges of maintaining peace in fragile contexts, the terrorist threat 20 years after the UNSC’s post-9/11 resolution, and cooperation between the United Nations and regional organizations. Kenya ran for the UNSC on a 10-point agenda that prioritizes multilateralism, peace and security, humanitarian relief, and sustainable development. Niger, judging from its UNSC presidency in 2020, could reprise its focus on humanitarian and security consequences of environmental degradation, the role of regional organizations in peace and security, and post-Covid-19 global governance. The common focus areas and change in U.S. administration present an opportunity to adopt a mechanism for providing sustained UN funding and other support to African-led peace and security missions.

13. President Biden Resets U.S. Policy toward Africa (Judd Devermont)

President Biden will recommit to enduring U.S. priorities toward the region as well as introduce new focus areas as long as resources and senior attention are forthcoming. Biden, as a presidential candidate, signaled that democracy, governance, and human rights would regain prominence in his administration following four years of neglect under his predecessor. He has stressed the importance of engaging with the region in multilateral settings, underscored by his appointment of former U.S. assistant secretary of state to Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The administration will seek to engage African counterparts and civil society on climate change as well as on the pandemic’s negative economic and health effects. Last, Biden is likely to undo harmful Trump immigration policies, which have disproportionately impacted African immigrants, refugees, and students. While these goals are broadly consistent with the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations, President Biden has hinted at new initiatives, including an urbanization program and more consistent engagement with the African diaspora in the United States. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has previewed a more balanced approach to China, promising a “clear-eyed coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values.” In addition, the president’s team wants to rethink U.S. security assistance and military commitments in the region. Biden’s ambitions to lead a new approach, however, may face considerable obstacles, including limited resources, constraints on his time, pressure from China hawks, and trade-offs between human rights and counterterrorism priorities.

For more information, read Judd Devermont’s brief, “A New U.S. Policy Framework for the African Century.”

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 a research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.

Yemi Adamolekun, Lina Benabdallah, Will Brown, Maria E. Burnett, Emilia Columbo, Mvemba Dizolele, Hilary Matfess, Kyle Murphy, Rafiq Raji, Jon Temin, and Laird Treiber 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).

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

Will Brown
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program
Rafiq Raji
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program
Jon Temin
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program

Marielle Harris

Kyle Murphy