AFRICA FOR OPTIMISTS
On February 6, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his intention to seek a fifth term in office. He had been in power since 1999. Less than two months later, his generals told him that he had no choice but to resign.
In the interim, Algerians had taken to the streets in their millions to demand his exit. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, but they were relentless. The people made it clear that they had had enough of Bouteflika’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, and the generals — fearful for their own futures — had no choice but to obey.
It took the people of Sudan just a couple of months longer to get rid of President Omar al-Bashir, who had been in charge for a decade longer than Bouteflika. Protests against a rise in the fuel price in December 2018 morphed into a nationwide revolt against his rule. So deep was the public anger that al-Bashir’s generals, too, forced him to step down.
But the protesters did not stop there. Even in the face of horrific violence perpetrated by Sudanese armed forces, and specifically the Rapid Support Forces, they demanded substantive civilian representation in a transitional government. With the appointment of technocrat Abdalla Hamdok in August, they got what they wanted.
Neither the Algerian nor Sudanese revolutions are yet secured, and both countries only have to look to nearby Egypt to see how easily new dawns can be hijacked. So far, however, this new generation of activists and civil society leaders have shown they are wise to the tricks of the old guard who would subvert their will — and unafraid to return to the streets to reassert themselves. Activists everywhere else are taking note.
Strength in symbolic unity
The agreement to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area has been widely misunderstood. This is a trade deal in theory only; a statement of intent from African leaders that yes, one day, a tariff-free Africa would be a good idea. Few business leaders expect any practical changes in the trading environment within the next decade.
Although the agreement came into force on May 30 this year, with signatures from 54 African countries, there are few binding obligations and the really thorny subjects have yet to be negotiated. As the Mail & Guardian reported: “The protocols on competition policy and intellectual policy have yet to be agreed; nor is there any accord on rules of origin, the criteria to determine where a product is actually from. These are usually among the most contentious areas of any free trade negotiation, so expect plenty of contention to come.”
Yet despite its clear shortcomings, there is still plenty to celebrate in the passing of the agreement. Even at a symbolic level, it is significant that African leaders are pushing for greater integration — especially at a time when the rest of the world seems to be moving towards greater isolationism. For some leaders, this commitment came at a political cost. In Nigeria, for example, President Muhammadu Buhari had to expend serious political capital to overrule the objections of powerful unions before signing.
It is also significant that African leaders were able to present such a united front. It is difficult to get 54 countries to agree on anything, let alone something as potentially divisive as a free trade area. This bodes well for how the continent will be able to address some of the grave cross-border problems — migration, climate change and conflict — that it is facing.
A divisive Nobel Peace Prize
When the Nobel committee awarded its peace prize to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, it cited “his efforts to achieve peace and international co-operation, and in particular, his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”.
Critics said the award came too early. For all Abiy’s spectacular, headline-grabbing reforms — freeing political prisoners, abolishing controls on independent media, opening the borders with Eritrea — he is young and untested and his time in office has been characterised by high levels of violence. It is far too early to know if his reforms will work.
These are valid arguments. Nonetheless, Abiy is offering something different to any other leader on the African continent, and possibly even the world. His dramatic rollback of aspects of Ethiopia’s authoritarian state will define his country for generations to come; and his reforms are, broadly, trending towards greater openness and democratisation. In a world that appears to be moving towards closed borders and greater autocracy, this is worth applauding.
Give a tree a hug
For nearly a decade, Alfred Brownell has been in exile in the United States. The Liberian lawyer made an enemy of his government — and powerful corporations — when he fought against plans to replace invaluable rainforest with palm oil plantations. He took that fight all the way to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an international body that offers a fair trade-like certification for palm oil companies. In 2010, he won, saving some 208 000 hectares from deforestation, but was forced to flee the country shortly afterwards.
For Brownell, protecting forests is common sense. “When you go to bed and are asleep, what is keeping you alive when you breathe in and out? It’s the oxygen from these trees. They are actually giving us life. We have to protect them. The next time you step out of your house, please give a tree a tender hug and remember this,” he said.
This year, Brownell was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, which is given to people who show exceptional bravery in defence of the natural world. He is planning to keep fighting for forests that cannot fight for themselves. As the effect of the climate emergency makes itself felt, he is the kind of hero that the continent needs.
We are the champions
On October 12, a human being, powered by nothing other than his own body, ran 42.2km in a time of 1:59:40. The name of the person responsible for this, one of history’s most remarkable feats of athleticism, is Eliud Kipchoge. He was born in a village in western Kenya and did not start running seriously until he had left school.
On October 14, at the Chicago Marathon, a Kenyan woman ran that same distance faster than any other woman in history. Her name is Brigid Kosgei, and she finished the distance in 2:14:04. She has now set her sights on breaking the 2:10:00 barrier. Few would bet against her.
This has been another extraordinary year for African sporting accomplishment. Some other highlights: South Africa’s national rugby team won the World Cup final in dominant fashion, brushing aside the strongest English team in a generation; the two best players in the world’s best football team on current form, Liverpool, are African (Egypt’s Mo Salah and Senegal’s Sadio Mané); the Toronto Raptors basketball team, with its Senegalese president and core of African players, surprised everyone to become the first non-American team to win the NBA Championship; and Zozibini Tunzi from South Africa was crowned Miss Universe 2019.
Yes, we know that sport is never going to solve deeper societal problems (no matter what the makers of Invictus would have us believe). But, damn, it feels good to win.
AFRICA FOR PESSIMISTS
Climate change is here
During South Africa’s general elections in May, the climate crisis was notable for its almost total absence from public debate. Leaders were not talking about it, and voters were not raising concerns. This silence was almost unfathomable, given the considerable effect that extreme weather is having on the region.
The highest-profile extreme weather event was Cyclone Idai, which, at the time, was the most severe tropical storm to make landfall in Mozambique. More than 1 000 people were killed in three countries: Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The United Nations described it as perhaps the worst natural disaster in the history of the Southern Africa.
It was followed, just a month later, by Cyclone Kenneth, which, although it caused fewer fatalities, was an even stronger storm.
What the twin cyclones demonstrated is how unprepared Southern African governments are to deal with extreme weather. Relief efforts were largely left to international organisations and to local people themselves. Basic services in major cities such as Beira disappeared overnight and took months to restore, if at all.
Across the continent, meteorologists are recording increases in floods and droughts, with a corresponding negative effect on food production and power generation. Biologists are warning that plant and animal species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate and rapid desertification is making more and more of Africa’s land uninhabitable, forcing people to move into other areas where they are rarely welcomed.
None of this is unique to Africa. But what is unique is that the continent does not yet have the resources or skills in place to bounce back from climate-related catastrophe. This must change, and fast. Under current projections of temperature increases — a 4°C rise — most of the continent will be an uninhabitable desert, says the New Scientist. Which makes it clear that we do not have time to waste.
Opening Ethiopia’s Pandora’s Box
In the space of a single week in late October, at least 67 people were killed during widespread anti-government protests in Ethiopia. The violence came at an awkward time for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: it was just weeks after he had been announced as winner of the 2019 Nobel peace prize.
This is the central contradiction of Abiy’s rule. He has been praised for opening up political space, for releasing the shackles from a historically authoritarian state. He has done most of the things that rights groups and pro-democracy campaigners could have wanted, from freeing political prisoners and overhauling the security sector to lifting restrictions on independent media. And yet, despite all these laudable reforms, Ethiopia is more unstable and more violent than it was prior to him taking office.
Ethiopia feels like it is at an inflection point. Can Abiy calm the tensions that his reforms have unleashed? Or, will Ethiopia, in the absence of the state’s heavy hand, fracture into its multiplicity of constituent parts?
The answer to this question will reverberate far beyond the country’s borders. For one thing, Ethiopian stability is central to stability in the Horn of Africa. For another, should Abiy fail, then it will strengthen the argument of those who believe that the values he professes, such as democratisation and political freedoms, are not applicable in an African context.
Ebola and the absence of trust
Ebola is not a mysterious illness. Scientists know how the virus works, and how to prevent it from spreading. There is even a vaccine, which has been widely distributed during the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Despite all this knowledge, however, the outbreak has not been contained. Since August 1 last year, there have been a total of 3 324 cases recorded, including 2 206 deaths and 1 087 survivors. Seven new cases were recorded in the week of November 18 to 24, which is the latest available data.
The World Health Organisation’s situation report for that week says: “Violence and civil unrest in the week have led to the suspension of Ebola response activities in some areas of Beni, Butembo and Oicha health zones ... The disruptions to the response and the lack of access to Ebola-affected communities are threatening to reverse recent progress.”
Some of this violence has been targeted at health facilities and medical personnel — the very people who are supposed to be helping. Some local people are suspicious of their motives, and feel that they can trust neither their own government nor the international organisations. Who can blame them, after decades, if not centuries, of exploitation, abuse and misrule?
In the absence of trust, it does not matter how effective the ebola vaccine is. And once lost, how can authorities regain this trust?
Conflict on the rise
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project maintains the most comprehensive database of conflict incidents around the world. Its figures for the African continent show a disturbing increase in the number of conflict incidents on the continent.
As of December 7 this year, there were 22 063 recorded incidents. For the same period in 2018, that number stood at 16 314 incidents. That is an increase of 5 749 incidents.
It is not hard to see which situations may account for the rise. It has been a bad year for Burkina Faso, where Islamist armed groups have increased their activity this year; and for Mozambique, where the insurgency in Cabo Delgado shows no sign of slowing down (and still no one is entirely sure who is driving the violence). Conflict has continued in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the DRC, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan.
Reflecting on this trend, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Africa director, Patricia Danzi, observed recently: “Conflicts last and they don’t stop. And more are added.”
The power of shutting down the internet
In January, when it was in the midst of a brutal and wide-ranging crackdown against all forms of opposition, the Zimbabwean government shut down the internet. With a flick of a switch, all electronic communications — with the exception of voice calls — were suspended.
The shutdown had two major consequences. The first was that it became much harder to organise resistance. The second was that news of what was going on in Zimbabwe — perhaps the worst bout of violence in a decade — filtered out slowly and without much urgency. It certainly did not receive the attention it deserved, and that is because most of the people who would usually raise the alarm were silenced.
In other words, the internet shutdown worked. Other countries that have experimented with switching off the internet this year include Cameroon, Chad, the DRC, Ethiopia, Gabon and Sudan. Expect this number to increase as authoritarian leaders realise that the relative anarchy of the online world can be tamed.