A boost for continental trade and radical change in the Horn
Radical political change and peace-making in Ethiopia, together with the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, lifted spirits in Africa as other regions became embroiled in trade wars and a wave of nationalism in 2018.
But many of the biggest questions about political power and economic strategy in Africa remain stubbornly unresolved. Controversy is welling over the disputed elections in Congo-Kinshasa on 30 December, the effects of which will spill over into the new year.
Three of Africa's biggest economies – Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa – have been chugging along in 2018, all underpowered in terms of their capacity to create jobs and sustain growth. All three are to choose new political leaders in 2019 but the candidates and campaigns have yet to inspire a new generation of voters and activists.
Rebellion and dissent in Cameroon and Sudan, fizzing for years under repressive and dysfunctional regimes, was revving up in both countries, with many protestors mown down by government forces in the final days of the year.
Two big economic stories from last year – Africa's ballooning debt obligations and intensifying competition between China and the United States for continental influence – will assume still more importance in 2019.
Finally, Africa Confidential wants to say farewell to three figures – a diplomat, an economist and a writer – who passed away during the year having made their marks on Africa in many different ways.*
ETHIOPIA: A perpetual motion prime minister keeps up the pace
Without question, the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in March was the political story of the year on the continent. After outmanoeuvring his rivals in the ruling coalition Abiy embarked on a quick-fire programme of reforms, freeing political prisoners, encouraging excited oppositionists and most spectacular of all, calling a formal end to the war with Eritrea and re-establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Abiy's appointment of a cabinet with women in half the posts, as well as a female President and female Chief Justice, earned him still more reform credibility. Ethiopians held their breath, expecting pushback or much worse from the security forces. So far, Abiy has dealt with rumblings from his opponents who have been caught off-guard by the speed of the change and the build-up of popular support for his moves. Some are advising Abiy to consolidate but he shows no sign of slackening the pace.
CONGO-KINSHASA: Outcome of an electoral system built to fail
The earliest reports about the 30 December elections confirmed what many had feared – that they would lack credibility and risk throwing the country into a new round of instability.
Within hours of the start of voting, the main election monitoring bodies were reporting multiple failures of the high-tech voting machines, a lack of voter registration lists and other vital electoral materials together with the expulsion of accredited observers from polling stations and widespread vote-buying. That is apart from the suspension of elections for three months in Beni and Butembo areas, which have about 1.3 million registered voters, ostensibly because of an Ebola outbreak and militia violence.
The electoral commission promises to announce provisional results within a week and the official figures by 15 January. But the government delayed these elections by over two years, and many Congolese are ready to challenge on the street what they say has been a deliberately mismanaged vote.
NIGERIA: Voter turnout will be the key in February
Presidential and state elections in Africa's most populous country and biggest economy should have caused more of a stir given the challenges the country is facing. One clear message is that none of the main candidates have impressed younger voters.
Voter apathy threatens the two main parties but the opposition will be more vulnerable if the turnout is low. In the last few weeks of 2018, rival politicians stepped up allegations of historic corruption. The claimed involvement of key business and political figures in the scandal over the OPL 245 oil block, as heard in an Italian court, is fuelling rhetoric on both sides.
Security concerns may also tilt the election. The opposition accused the government of incompetence in losing the initiative in the fight against Boko Haram in the wake of several attacks in the north-east.
SOUTH AFRICA: Ramaphosa's critical test – his own man at his own pace
A lifelong veteran of the African National Congress, President Cyril Ramaphosa is unfazed by his country's rapidly changing political winds. With a small band of advisors and tacticians, he has been working out the best way to dig out the corruption in the party and government that has been stalling the economy.
But his painstaking progress is inadequate for many and not radical enough – on issues such as land reform – for still more South Africans. The earlier enthusiasm known as Ramaphoria has dissipated.
Ramaphosa has to do much more than fight off his political rivals in the system. He has to spark a new grassroots enthusiasm for the ANC well ahead of the elections in May. His first chance to set out his stall will be at the party's annual conference, to be held in Durban on 10-13 January.
SUDAN: Protests gather steam, targeting Beshir's regime
The chronic failure of the National Congress Party regime in Khartoum to address deepening poverty and hardship has fuelled a wave of discontent that has parallels with the 'Arab Spring' revolts that spread across North Africa in 2011. Initially about the price of bread and fuel, the protests have escalated into widespread calls for President Omer Hassan el Beshir to step down.
An important difference between the current dissent and earlier protests in Sudan has been the national reach of the opposition activists who have organised demonstrations across the country.
Aware of the threat, the regime has doubled down on security. Amnesty International says government forces have killed at least 37 oppositionists in the past week, with army snipers in the capital picking off marchers in demonstrations. Such mass slaughter has already drawn attention at the United Nations and criticism from Western diplomats. It may also freeze efforts by the regime to unpick sanctions by the United States.
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