Africa for pessimists and optimists: 2018 in review
Intractable conflicts, terrible presidents, climate change ... if you are looking for bad news from Africa, this year has provided it, but there are many good news stories from the continent, writes Simon Allison
The forever wars
Civil wars rage in Africa. In South Sudan since 2011. In the Central African Republic since 2013. In Libya since 2011. In northern Mali since 2012. In northern Nigeria since 2009. In northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo since at least 2012.
So entrenched have these conflicts become, so intractable, that they barely make the news, despite the devastating effect on tens of millions of people.
The international community has run out of ideas for how to end these conflicts. Countless mediation efforts and peace talks have failed to make meaningful progress towards a long-lasting solution, and humanitarian agencies are struggling to raise the funds necessary to at least alleviate the suffering of the affected populations. It doesn’t help that most of these countries are especially vulnerable to climate change.
Is it time to try something new? In South Sudan and the Central African Republic, there have been whispers of establishing an international trusteeship — in effect handing the country over to the United Nations. This seems like a solution that may cause more trouble than it is worth. Nonetheless, that is the kind of radical thinking needed to turn things around — and besides, can it really be worse than the status quo?
When civil society activists in Tanzania speak to journalists about John Magufuli’s crackdown on basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of the press, they will only speak off the record: they are afraid, and with reason.
This year, critics of the president — nicknamed “the Bulldozer” for his ability to get things done — have been arrested and threatened, and his administration is doing everything in its power to shut down civil society space: bloggers must pay a staggering $930 registration fee for the privilege of posting online, for example, and prohibitively expensive accreditation fees for journalists are being enforced for the first time in years.
At the same time, the president is eagerly pursuing populist policies, such as the increasingly nasty campaign targeting the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, and an aggressively antagonistic attitude towards foreign mining companies. (The mining companies might deserve it, but analysts fear that this attitude may deter foreign investment from anyone).
As Mail & Guardian columnist Nic Cheeseman observed: “Bulldozers can smash through powerful barriers, but they tend to leave a mess in their wake. Magufuli, and his particular brand of Tanzanian populism, is no different.”
Cameroon’s terrible leader
There is not a lot going right in Cameroon. In the capital, Yaoundé, Paul Biya has just entered his 37th year in power, after disputed elections in October. Despite his dedication to the trappings of the presidency, Biya seems uninterested in actually governing — he spends most of his time outside the country, living instead in a luxury hotel suite in Switzerland.
A protest movement in the historically marginalised English-speaking regions of the country has morphed into a full-blown insurrection. Government forces and armed separatists have committed atrocities, forcing at least 180 00 people from their homes. The Anglophone conflict comes in addition to the existing tensions with Boko Haram in the far north: although these have diminished in intensity, the situation remains precarious.
The common denominator in Cameroon’s unrest is Biya. Having been in power for so long, he cannot claim to be the victim of circumstance, or to not have the necessary experience. He is, simply put, a terrible leader, and Cameroonians are paying the price.
When Robert Mugabe was forced to resign at the end of last year, Zimbabwe was filled with a palpable sense of hope: hope that things would be different now, that things would be better, that the country could finally achieve its true potential.
Hope is a powerful emotion. Fuelled by hope, many Zimbabweans were prepared to overlook the fact that Zanu-PF was still in power, and that the new president was Mugabe’s right-hand man. They were prepared to gloss over the fact that change in Zimbabwe came not through a popular revolution, but by a military coup, and that the generals who promised to rescue the economy were from the same cabal that had wrecked it.
Increasingly, that hope seems misplaced. President Emmerson Mnangagwa won an election that was always tilted in his favour, aided by almost farcical incompetence from the main opposition party. But his army shot and killed six unarmed protesters in the immediate aftermath of the vote, revealing the president’s true colours and scaring off the foreign investors who were lining up to invest in the “new Zimbabwe”. Now the economy is in free fall and civil unrest is on the rise: doctors went on strike in November and teachers and nurses have threatened to join them if their salaries are not paid in American dollars.
It is worth remembering that these are still early days in the Mnangagwa administration, and perhaps it is not too late for the president to turn things around. But he has made the worst possible start.
When veteran Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama died last year, Mozambique’s government breathed a sigh of relief. They thought his death would signal the beginning of the end of the on-again, off-again conflict that prevailed for decades in central Mozambique. And they may have been right: since the death of the iconic rebel leader, the Renamo conflict has lessened in intensity.
Unfortunately, a new conflict has sprung up to take its place. This one is centred in northern Mozambique. Coincidentally — or not — it is in the same area where huge deposits of natural gas have been discovered. Since October last year, an armed group has been responsible for 49 deadly attacks in the area.
The group is shrouded in mystery. No one is quite sure what its aims are or even what it is called: the names “al-Shabab”, “Ansar al-Sunnah” and “Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamo” are used almost interchangeably. The group has been linked to extremist Islam, but also to organised crime syndicates.
If Mozambique wants to avoid another decades-long insurgency, it will have to act carefully.
“The militants are still militarily weak and the violence could still be contained. But if it is handled clumsily, the situation could develop in a direction that sees northern Mozambique become a zone for launching assaults and furthering the aims of criminal networks across the region,” said researcher Simone Haysom in a report for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
On October 10, several hundred disgruntled soldiers marched on the presidential compound in Addis Ababa. They were armed. The protest was ostensibly over pay, but may have had more sinister intentions. Ethiopia is no stranger to military coups, after all.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed invited the soldiers into the compound and then addressed their concerns. He then challenged the soldiers to a push-up competition in which he participated. By the time he had finished, the soldiers were smiling and laughing, and returned peacefully to their barracks.
If any one moment can encapsulate just how much Ethiopia has changed over the past year, this is it.
He has already accomplished so much that it is easy to forget that Abiy has only been in power since the beginning of April. He has ended the state of emergency, freed thousands of political prisoners, re-established diplomatic relations with Eritrea, streamlined a bloated Cabinet, appointed an opposition leader as head of election planning, tackled corruption in the military and placed the security services under civilian control. Just a year ago, each of these reforms would have been unthinkable.
As the world becomes more authoritarian and populist leaders grow in strength, Abiy is a remarkable exception. If he gets it right, he will have forged a new template for progressive leadership everywhere.
South Africa’s uncapturing
Few appreciated just how bad the Jacob Zuma years were in South Africa — until he was gone. Yes, we knew that corruption allegations swirled around his administration. Yes, we knew that the Gupta family had somehow got its tentacles deep into the state. Yes, we knew that state-owned enterprises were rotting from the inside and that government departments were stagnating.
But the full extent of the rot is becoming clear now that a new administration is in place. The commission of inquiry led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, in particular, is delivering revelation after revelation that detail how the state was captured and to what extent it was fleeced.
Under President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa has begun the long and painful process of rebuilding what was lost. It is a daunting challenge, but Ramaphosa’s new broom offers the hope that South Africa can turn things around. And a healthy, prosperous South Africa can only be good news for the rest of the African continent.
Africa’s incredible inventors
A machine that harvests water from the air. A fully automated chicken coop. Electronic gloves that can translate sign language into speech in real time. These are just a few of the extraordinary inventions shortlisted for the 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. The award recognises Africa’s most exciting new engineers and ideas, and proves that, for innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, this continent can compete with the very best.
A necessary caveat, however, is that the opportunity for innovation is not spread evenly throughout Africa. Kenya boasts an impressive six entries and Nigeria four, with two apiece for South Africa and Uganda. Other countries are failing to develop the talent at their disposal. Who knows what groundbreaking discoveries we are missing out on as a result?
African Union’s gender rights
While Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was chairperson of the African Union Commission, she made gender equality a priority of the continental organisation. In speeches and policy documents, most notably her long-term blueprint, Agenda 2063, she made it clear that she was coming for the patriarchy.
But behind closed doors, in the commission itself, a very different story was playing out. Women were being sidelined for top appointments and frozen out of key decision-making processes. Sexual harassment was rife and women who spoke out faced threats and intimidation. These trends got worse when Dlamini-Zuma was replaced by Moussa Faki Mahamat.
Eventually, enough was enough. Some 37 women signed a petition complaining about the “gender apartheid” in the organisation, and submitted it to Faki’s office. It was ignored. Only after a whistle-blower contacted the Mail & Guardian, and the newspaper published an investigation into the subject, did the chairperson’s office respond.
An independent investigation was constituted to look into the allegations. Many of the women who had spoken out were sceptical, expecting a whitewash. But, to its credit, the investigating panel took its job seriously and delivered a scathing report, finding that sexual harassment and gender discrimination were far worse than the newspaper had reported. Some 40 specific cases were identified for further investigation, covering allegations of fraud, nepotism, corruption, irregular human resources practices, sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Credit where credit is due: there are few international organisations that would be similarly transparent in responding to allegations of this nature. Indeed, this is ground-breaking for the African Union itself, which has historically been slow to admit fault. This must be applauded. But the job is only half done; specific cases now need to be properly investigated and perpetrators punished and removed from office. Reparations are due to the women who have been victimised. Only then can the African Union reasonably claim to be doing justice to its lofty rhetoric on gender equality.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has outwitted more than his fair share of political opponents since assuming power in 1986. Nonetheless, he is running scared of Bobi Wine.
The rapper-turned-politician has used his celebrity to preach a simple message of change, and it resonates with disaffected urban populations. He was elected to Parliament last year, and two independent candidates achieved unlikely by-election wins after receiving his endorsement.
It was ahead of one such victory that Ugandan security forces pounced, arresting Wine and several of his supporters during a march. In custody, Wine was tortured and charged with treason. He was eventually released on bail, and the case has been adjourned until January.
Wine is part of a new generation of young, charismatic, social media-savvy African leaders who are taking on the old guard. Others include Evan Mawarire in Zimbabwe and Boniface Mwangi in Kenya. They work outside the established political system — rejecting both ruling and opposition parties alike — and are running on platforms that centre on good governance and human rights. Because African populations are projected to get even younger, it is no wonder that dinosaurs like Museveni are getting nervous.