What to Watch in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2022

From public health to peace and security to climate change, Africa will face a number of crises that will divert scarce resources from economic development efforts. Omicron variant contingencies will compound the costly health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and delay economic recovery. Continued armed conflicts in the Horn of Africa, Mozambique, the Great Lakes, and the Sahel will further destabilize various sub-regions and exacerbate humanitarian crises. Authoritarianism will continue to rise as political leaders seek to subvert the democratic process and tighten their grip on power. Elections in Senegal, Angola, and Kenya will have an impact on Africa’s democratic outlook. The China-Africa relationship will be defined by an expansion of health diplomacy—with a target delivery of 600 million vaccine doses to African countries. And finally, the United States will strive for fresh engagement with Africa, but continue to prioritize democracy, human rights, climate change, anti-corruption, and global health.

To preview some of the top stories in 2022, the CSIS Africa Program presents its annual list of key countries and issues to watch this year. (Read forecasts from 2021 and 2020.)

1. The Biden Administration to Reset U.S. Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa (Mark Bellamy)

Now that President Biden has reversed the worst practices of his predecessor, creating a distinctive Africa policy of his own will not be easy. Unlike the Trump administration’s view of Africa primarily as a theater of U.S.-China rivalry, Biden’s team extols Africa’s strengths and is proposing U.S.-Africa partnerships on a range of issues. China hardly figures into Biden’s Africa playbook. With these important course corrections, opportunities and challenges loom in equal measure. The main challenge is how to meaningfully connect the United States with Africa’s rapid growth potential. However, whichever big initiatives the Biden administration undertakes, they should be at scale and concentrated rather than scattered in small parcels across the continent. For example, with climate change at the center of the administration’s policy agenda, major investments in Africa’s fast-growing renewable energy sector could both mitigate climate change and foster economic growth. The United States could also double down on its past successes, such as the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), and the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), by investing in upgrades to Africa’s public healthcare infrastructure. Determined to promote democracy and protect human rights, the Biden administration will be tested by elections this year in Senegal, Angola, and Kenya, three states of special importance to the United States. Elections could tilt any of these states in a more authoritarian direction, posing a serious dilemma. Furthermore, the administration will face a number of armed conflicts from the Horn of Africa to Mozambique to the Great Lakes to the Sahel and will confront a complex web of outside powers and non-state actors.

For more information, read “A New U.S. Policy Framework for the African Century.”

2. Issues Raised at FOCAC ’21 Will Drive China-Africa Relations (Hannah Ryder)

China-Africa relations in 2022 will reflect the agreements and resolutions of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that took place in Dakar, Senegal, in late 2021 and will primarily focus on vaccines, trade, and infrastructure and investment.

China’s vaccine diplomacy is expected to rise to new heights, with a target of 600 million vaccines to be donated to African countries—a jump from the approximately 180 million delivered so far. This initiative will also yield signature ceremonies for deals to deliver 400 million locally manufactured doses. China could become Africa’s largest source of vaccines if these two targets are met by the end of 2022.

While the Dakar FOCAC stopped short of proposing a preferential trade agreement with the continent—a proposal that Development Reimagined had recommended prior to the summit—steps toward this objective, known as “green lanes” for agricultural products, were taken. The fresh (excuse the pun) agreement on Kenyan avocados inked within weeks of FOCAC results from this process. An uptick in African exports to China will support economic recovery and increase farmer incomes across the continent.

Finally, while much has been made in the media of an alleged drop in Chinese loans to Africa in favor of “smaller” private sector investment, a more careful reading of FOCAC commitments suggests both will continue. 2022 will likely bring about a number of deals on large cross-regional, green infrastructure projects such as in energy and transport, alongside an announcement of exactly which institution will channel the $10 billion of Chinese Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to African countries.

3. Africa Will Scramble to Not Miss Out on Global Pandemic Recovery (Laird Treiber)

In 2022, Africa will scramble to catch up on Covid-19 vaccinations as the nature of the pandemic continues to shift. With more than 61 percent of the populations vaccinated in the Americas, Asia, and Europe compared to 14 percent in Africa, African countries may not benefit from the global pandemic recovery. To date, only four African countries have fully vaccinated 50 percent or more of their populations: Mauritius, Morocco, Cabo Verde, and Rwanda. Sixteen African countries rank among the world’s 20 least vaccinated countries, with a vaccination rate below 7 percent. Facing high demand for vaccines, tests and treatment, African countries will struggle not only to meet vaccine needs, but also to get shots in arms. Omicron will be a mixed blessing, imposing lighter burdens on health systems than Delta, but threatening to erode vaccination demand—a danger that grows the longer vaccinations take.

Africa will build on what worked the last two years, including integrating health policy and the Africa Medical Supplies Platform, which leveraged Africa’s market power to fill critical gaps, as the continent looks to become more self-sufficient. African countries are courting private sector investments, including vaccine manufacturers, while expanding digital and infrastructure innovations as part of reimagining the health sector. Africa’s partners should support this private sector–led approach, which will accelerate better health for Africans, create jobs, and strengthen global health security. 

4. An Expanding Insurgency in Mozambique Will Create a More Complex Humanitarian Crisis (Emilia Columbo)

The Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jamma insurgency will likely leverage economic and political marginalization in areas beyond coastal Cabo Delgado Province to fuel recruitment and create new safe havens as the group seeks to outlast the government and its allies’ offensive operations. The deployment of Rwandan and Southern African Development Community (SADC) forces into the areas around Palma and Mocimboa da Praia in July and August 2021 displaced the group from its stronghold, but did not diminish its will to carry on the fight judging by the steady rhythm of attacks against civilian targets in recent months, including in areas where the insurgents had not been previously active. Local authorities are already reporting as many as 3,000 civilians displaced in Niassa Province as attacks there increase, a trend that is likely to grow during the year as the insurgents seek new areas to exploit for supplies and relative security. As insecurity increases in new areas, Mozambique’s foreign partners will need to reassess the resources and mission of their deployments as the demand for their support beyond their current area of operations grows.

For more information, read “Centering Civilian Protection in Northern Mozambique.”

5. In the DRC, It Will Be Another Year of High Expectations and Broken Promises (Mvemba Phezo Dizolele)

2022 will be another year of high expectations and broken promises for the populations of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Last year, after President Félix Tshisekedi wrested control of the national assembly and the government from his erstwhile partner and predecessor Joseph Kabila and consolidated his power, the Congolese expected that he would deliver on his promises. Tshisekedi will be evaluated on three high-profile initiatives: an anti-corruption campaign, free education for all, and security in the east of the country. The anti-corruption campaign, which is waged by the Inspection Générale des Finances (IGF), resulted in the conviction and arrest of a number of important personalities, including Vital Kamerhe, Tshisekedi’s former chief staff, for embezzlement millions of dollars of public funds. However, while the IGF’s investigations have produced some arrests, many of the suspects are free and those who were arrested have not returned the millions of dollars they allegedly stole.

In May 2021, Tshisekedi decreed l’état de siège (state of emergency) and appointed military governors in Ituri and North Kivu in an effort to address the armed violence that has plagued the region. But eight months later, the situation in the eastern provinces has not improved. Civil society groups report that in some areas violence has increased due to heightened militia activity, which often results in massacres of civilians. With the presidential and legislative elections expected for 2023, the window of meaningful change is rather limited. The political leaders will be busy preparing for the elections.

6. Rift Widens between Civilian and Military Powers in the Sahel (Marielle Harris)

In 2022, Sahelian states will experience mounting tension between their militaries and those in favor of civilian rule. Growing numbers of Malians will take to the streets to protest the military government’s proposed five-year transition to civilian rule, demanding a speedier return to democracy. Civilian-military friction will also heat up at the regional level if Bamako fails to replace military governors with civilian leaders. In Chad, a schism between the military-led government and pro-civilian actors will also grow. Political events like the January 2022 rally led by the opposition group Transformateurs calling for democratic elections will become more common. The country’s national dialogue following President Idriss Déby’s unexpected death in April 2021 has been anything but inclusive, engaging the military and armed opposition groups but excluding actors in favor of civilian rule. In Burkina Faso, the civilian government will fight off increasing hostilities from some factions of the military, having reportedly averted a coup due to military infighting earlier in January. The civilian government in Niger will also keep its eyes peeled for hostile elements within the military, following a coup attempt ahead of President Mohamed Bazoum’s inauguration in March 2021. The international community will fail to provide coordinated support to those on the frontlines of the fight for democracy. Many Western powers will turn a blind eye to democratic principles in favor of the counterterrorism relationship with military governments, while Mali likely deepens its reliance on Russian mercenaries including the U.S.-sanctioned Wagner group.

For more information, watch The Third Annual Sahel Summit.

7. In Horn of Africa, a Devastating War Will Rumble on with No Clear Way Out (Will Brown)

The horror-strewn military stalemate in Ethiopia will continue to undermine peace and stability in the Horn of Africa in 2022. The conflict, which started in November 2020, has bewildered observers, defying almost all predictions. Now Ethiopia is stuck in a tragic deadlock. The Tigrayan Defense Forces retreated out of striking distance of Addis Ababa to the safety of their home region. Neither the rebel army nor the Ethiopian National Defense Force and its allied militia seem to have the strength needed to beat the other decisively. Instead, the conflict will roll on in ethnic pogroms on both sides and devastating air strikes from Nobel Peace Laureate Abiy Ahmed’s newly acquired drones. Ethiopia is the giant at the heart of the Horn of Africa. Its war is the region’s war. And as long as it continues, the destabilizing effects will be felt from Khartoum to Mogadishu. Aid blockades against the Tigray region mean that millions are in dire straits and hundreds of thousands are in what the United Nations euphemistically calls “famine-like” conditions. It is hard to see how the humanitarian situation will improve in 2022. A ceasefire and peace negotiations are desperately needed but a level of violence and venom has been released that makes it hard to see how Africa's second most populous nation could live peacefully with itself again.

8. Tech Will Enable Better Quality of Life in 2022 (Rafiq Raji)

In 2022, digitization will continue to transform lives in sub-Saharan Africa, from economics to the political landscape. Across the region, electronic voting and electronic transmission of results will lead to more credible elections, and multiple countries such as Kenya and Nigeria will rely on technology to reduce voting fraud. More African governments will acquire relatively inexpensive off-the-shelf online surveillance technologies with negative consequences for democracy and human rights. More drones will be deployed across the continent to deliver blood and medical supplies to hospitals, replicating efforts pioneered by U.S. company Zipline. Cryptocurrencies will continue to facilitate easier cross-border payments despite pushback from African central banks, enabling more remote work opportunities for Africa’s tech talent. Ghana will issue its digital currency in 2022, after Nigeria beat it to the chase last year. A wider adoption of blockchain technology for digital IDs and myriad registries will also unfold in 2022. Africa-focused genomics startups and programs—such as U.S.-funded 54gene in Lagos and the H3Africa Initiative in Cape Town—will record new strides in DNA sequencing. 5G licenses in Nigeria and auctions of additional internet spectrum in South Africa will raise the quality and range of internet services in these key countries in 2022, although fears about 5G risks will remain. Tech regulation will also be in focus in 2022 as more African governments look to tap the huge revenue potential of the sector to boost their strained budgets, with risks to innovation and growth of the sector.

For more information, read “Digital Africa: Leveling Up through Governance and Trade.”

9. An Uncompromising Military Leaves Sudan in a Perpetual State of Turmoil (Ryan Cummings)

Sudan’s political crisis shows no signs of abating in 2022. An October 25 coup d’état by the military component of the Sovereign Council led to the effective dissolution of the transitional body that was mandated to return Sudan to constitutional rule following the April 2019 ouster of Omar al-Bashir. Since the October coup, civic organizations such as the Forces for Freedom and Change (FCC) and Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) have led protests calling for the withdrawal of the military from all political institutions and the immediate instatement of a civilian-led government. These protests have been violently repressed, drawing strong condemnation from key foreign donors such as the United States and European Union, which have used targeted sanctions and the severance of financial aid as a means of influencing the political status quo. Meanwhile, bodies such as the United Nations are attempting to mediate negotiations between the military and Sudan’s key civic stakeholders to reconstitute the Sovereign Council and formulate a consensual roadmap that will allow the country to hold elections scheduled for 2023. However, expected resistance by the Sudanese military to cede political power will derail such conciliatory initiatives, leaving Sudan in a state of sociopolitical and economic tumult. 

For more information, watch Partnering for Peace in Sudan.

10. Digital Disinformation and Democratic Decline in East Africa (Maria Burnett)

In 2022, governments in East Africa will increasingly rely on digital disinformation campaigns, attacks on civic activism, and impunity to consolidate elite political power. These trends are not without precedent. Last year, Twitter announced that it removed content and accounts in Uganda and Tanzania because of state-backed manipulation campaigns. In Kenya, the Mozilla Foundation reported how a coordinated “booming, shadowy industry of Twitter influencers for political hire” attempted to sway public perception of key government initiatives and attack prominent civil society activists. With money and technology, East Africa’s leaders appear to believe they can discredit or mute collective action in support of democracy and human rights protections. But in doing so, they neglect to recognize that their populations tire of corruption, weak state institutions, and poor economic prospects—exacerbated in recent years by Covid-19 restrictions—and will not be trolled into silence in the long term. Independent civic activists in East Africa will have a tough year ahead in battling not only online trolls, but harassing criminal charges and physical violence in retaliation for state criticism as well as highly restrictive regulatory frameworks and global anti-money laundering regimes.

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. Marielle Harris is a research associate with the CSIS Africa Program. Mark Bellamy is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the CSIS Africa Program. Hannah Ryder, Laird Treiber, Emilia Columbo, Will Brown, Rafiq Raji, Ryan Cummings, and Maria Burnett 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).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Hannah Ryder
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program
Will Brown
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program
Rafiq Raji
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program

Marielle Harris