Last year was a year of leadership changes and unprecedented events in a number of sub-Saharan African countries — several that were not predicted for that year.
Regional leaders from the Economic Community of West African States ensured that President Yahya Jammeh obeyed the will of the Gambian people to end his 22-year reign. President Robert Mugabe was forced from office, the only leader independent Zimbabwe has known in its 37 years.
In Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos, also president for 37 years, ended his own tenure, enabling a smooth transition. Somalia’s Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” Mohamed defeated his more established rivals to win the February presidential election, and the Kenyan supreme court made history by declaring the result of the August election void.
Post-conflict Liberia has taken charge of organising its elections without the involvement of the United Nations for the first time, and what challenges there were in the first round were made through the courts and not on the streets, resulting in the first peaceful transfer of civilian presidents since 1944.
Increasing resort to the courts reveals growing trust in and independence of the judiciary, and shows how the entrenchment of the rule of law and stronger institutions can take the heat out of political crises.
But the past year has also seen democratic principles undermined, with mounting state repression in Ethiopia, Zambia, Tanzania and Cameroon, among others, as well as seemingly deadlocked crises in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Presidential elections in 2018 will challenge a number of long-standing leaders and test new ones. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is assured of victory in Egypt; Cameroon’s President Paul Biya is likely to extend his 35 years in office by winning another term in October, as is Mali’s President Ibrahim Keita in August.
Less certain is who will prevail in Sierra Leone’s elections in March as the governing All People’s Congress fields Kandeh Yumkella against Sierra Leone People’s Party repeat candidate Julius Maada Bio.
Uncertainty continues into 2018 over the delayed (since 2016) presidential elections of the DRC. Joseph Kabila has served as president for 16 years and remains reluctant to step down but does not seem strong enough, unlike many of his neighbours in Brazzaville, Kampala and Kigali, to change the Constitution to run again. President Salva Kiir of South Sudan wants to hold an election in July but the UN is arguing that without lasting peace these should not take place. Zimbabwe’s elections in July or August will be closely watched. President Emmerson Mnangagwa will seek a democratic mandate after the removal of Mugabe by the military in November last year. If the elections are peaceful and credible, this could quicken the pace of reforms and result in a more ambitious new government.
Local elections in Mozambique in 2018 will see gains for opposition Renamo. Its ceasefire has lasted a year and negotiations are likely in early 2018 to reach agreement on direct gubernatorial elections in 2019 in exchange for disarmament and reintegration of its armed wing.
Togo will hold national assembly and local elections in June or July and the opposition, emboldened by successful demonstrations in 2017, are likely to do well in these, putting further pressure on President Faure Gnassingbé as he enters his 13th year of rule.
As sub-Saharan Africa’s political trends diverged, so too did its economic development. Although growth increased slightly across the continent on average — to about 2.4%, up from 1.3% in 2016 — this figure masks immense heterogeneity in the experiences of different countries.
Nigeria and South Africa, the former continental powerhouses, went through periods of recession as a result of low global energy and metals prices, but the more dynamic economies, including Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire and Rwanda, managed to sustain growth rates of over 7%.
The year ahead is likely to provide some respite for mineral and oil and gas exporters as the prices for these commodities are rising too. But the hangover from the recent commodity price crash remains. Key areas of concern in 2018 are rising debt levels and debt-servicing costs. There will also be continued pressure by African governments on multinational resource companies to justify their profits — as Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli did in 2017.
This year will also see conflict hotspots resulting in more internally displaced persons.
The DRC will see additional insecurity in the Kivu and Kasai regions. Burundi will remain in crisis as President Pierre Nkurunziza clamps down on all nonviolent means of opposition. South Sudan remains in crisis despite a new ceasefire while rebel leader Riek Machar is still under house arrest in South Africa.
Boko Haram will continue to destabilise northeast Nigeria and over-spill into neighbours — Niger, Chad and Cameroon — and attacks will continue in the Sahel and parts of North Africa.
The African Union will start its drawdown of troops in Somalia, but al-Shabab fighters are far from being a spent force and their attacks will continue in 2018, given that a Somalia National Army is far from operational to replace the AU’s Amisom.
Africa’s insecurity is drawing in other nations. More than 2 500 Chinese troops, police and military experts are deployed to six UN missions in Africa, four of which are in Darfur, the DRC, Mali and South Sudan; there are also smaller contingents in Côte d’Ivoire and Western Sahara. President Xi Jinping pledged $100-million in military aid to the AU in 2015 and China supports African countries’ capacity-building in areas such as counterterrorism.
Since 2008, China has supported counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and, significantly, in August last year, China opened in Djibouti, its first military base abroad to support its naval efforts.
China joins others. In February last year, the United Arab Emirates secured a foreign military base in Somaliland. It opened a military facility in Eritrea in 2015. Saudi Arabia is also planning a military facility in Djibouti. Last year Turkey opened a military training base in Somalia.
France remains the key foreign military power in Africa — 4 000 troops for Operation Barkhane in the Sahel and another 3 000 in its military bases and training facilities of Senegal, Djibouti, Côte d’Ivoire and Chad. Africa remains a key foreign policy priority for France under the Emmanuel Macron presidency.
The United States is also scaling up and 2017 marked the 10th anniversary of US Africa Command. There are roughly 4 000 troops in Djibouti at its Camp Lemonnier — the only official permanent US military installation in Africa — and roughly 800 in Niger. Washington has doubled its military presence in Somalia to 500 over the past six months.
There is talk of the Russians seeking military facilities in Sudan (following a Djibouti rejection) and that India still wants to broaden its Indian Ocean naval footprint, including in the Seychelles.
Africa’s security arrangements, just like its political and economic trends, will continue to diverge in 2018. Countries and regions will themselves diverge as Africa increasingly globalises and becomes more tied to international trade and politics.
Alex Vines is head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, London, and a senior lecturer at Coventry University