Africa heads in different directions: Politically and economically

Jason Burke Correspondent
African leaders will meet in Addis Ababa at the end of January to discuss the good news and the bad across the continent. The 30th summit of the African Union will take place under the slogan “Towards a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa”. The objective is a laudable one, but still distant.

Alex Vines of the London thinktank Chatham House says that the watchwords of 2018 will not be “Africa rising”, now broadly seen as overly optimistic, but “Africa diverging” – politically and economically.

“The different paths that different parts of the continent are taking will be ever more apparent. So you’ll have something pretty hopeless in central Africa and more positive trajectories in southern and western Africa. A general trend is the continued decline of long-standing leaders,” Vines said.

When Yahya Jammeh of Gambia refused to submit to the results of a general election that ended his 21-year rule in 2016, pressure from Senegal, Liberia and Nigeria forced him to step down. The example was noted elsewhere – as was the fall of Robert Mugabe after 37 years and the departure of José Eduardo Dos Santos in Angola after four decades. Many other long-standing rulers are looking increasingly fragile.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where unrest, humanitarian need and economic decline are likely to intensify through 2018, Joseph Kabila, now in his 16th year of power, may be forced to hold elections and even to stand down. One early upset could be the premature end of Jacob Zuma’s second term as president of South Africa.

Theoretically in office until 2019, the election of Cyril Ramaphosa at the end of 2017 as leader of the ruling African National Congress, after a contentious party conference vote, may force him to step down.

On the security front, tens and possibly hundreds of millions of people remain at risk of famine and related diseases such as cholera, while huge numbers are likely to be displaced. The DRC is now one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world.

Rather than bringing stability, the prospect of elections in Libya and South Sudan are expected to exacerbate tensions and fuel violence, according to a recent report by Acaps, a non-profit venture that supports humanitarian aid workers with daily monitoring and analysis of 150 countries.

But even in countries facing massive humanitarian crises, there are places – often towns – that are doing better. The north-east of Nigeria has been devastated by the ongoing insurgency of Boko Haram, the Islamist militant movement. Yet Lagos is booming. A key emerging trend that is likely to be reinforced in 2018 is Africa’s growing status as a frontline in the fight against Islamist extremism.

The US military has ramped up its presence across a swathe of the continent from the Lake Chad basin to the Horn and has intensified operations. These are likely to lead to increased casualties among all involved – US special forces, civilians and the militants.

French troops and tens of thousands operating under the authority of the United Nations or the African Union will also continue operations that at best are just about containing the spread of groups linked both to al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

Few are optimistic that such efforts will dramatically improve the situation. Political and ethnic as well as religious violence across the continent have been rising since historic lows several years ago. Not all is linked to extremist religious ideologies. Conflict between pastoralists and sedentary communities is likely to continue to intensify, exacerbated by climate change.

East Africa is likely to suffer from extreme weather events, notably drought. The flow of migrants within Africa, or towards Europe, is unlikely to slow. There will be divergence, too, on the economic front. Growth in sub-Saharan Africa overall is forecast to rise to 3,4 percent in 2018, but with wide variations.

Political uncertainty has held growth back in the biggest economies on the continent. Ghana is tipped by the World Bank as the fastest growing economy in Africa next year, followed by Ethiopia and Tanzania. A final divergence may be in relations with external powers. Washington’s interest in Africa is minimal, with scores of top official policy-making and ambassadorial posts still unfilled.

China, though its attitudes and interventions are frequently misrepresented, retains a strong focus on the continent. France is likely to try to expand outside its traditional sphere of influence – as signalled by President Emmanuel Macron in November.

The UK will look to historic ties in places like Zimbabwe or Nigeria to project influence post-Brexit, though it may find imperial nostalgia or the advantages of the anglosphere have less attraction in Bulawayo or Abuja than in Tunbridge Wells. – The Guardian.

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