In the first of two special issues our correspondents look at the most critical political and economic developments in the year ahead
Campaigners, politicians and plotters have started the year with a flurry of activity: protests about electoral shenanigans in Congo-Kinshasa; demonstrations demanding the exit of Sudan's President Omer Hassan el Beshir; the governing Jubilee party in Kenya has started to splinter after top officials quit in protest at Vice-President William Ruto's plans to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta; and security forces killed two soldiers and arrested seven more after a failed putsch in Gabon.
And that is before the election campaign heats up in Nigeria and South Africa's ANC holds its annual conference to map out its policies on land reform and plan its strategy for national elections in May. Across the continent there is mounting for pressure for change, especially from the youth and women who make up the majority of voters but are chronically under-represented in current political structures.
Oppositionists are railing against the litany of election disappointments last year from Zimbabwe to Cameroon and Egypt where the victorious incumbents are failing to address economic inequities and political dysfunction. Much of the opposition anger was directed at the national authorities for running what they considered as fraudulent elections, followed by further crackdowns on those questioning the official results.
Like trade and digital innovation, protest is globalising. France's Gilets jaunes ('yellow jackets') movement, with its spontaneity and initially leaderless structure, together with its power to force concessions from the government, sparked great interest in Africa.
When middle-class activists in Cairo started to organise along similar lines against new economic policies and the security forces' vested interests, President Abdel Fattah el Sisi banned the wearing of yellow jackets. Days later, Sisi was acutely embarrassed when the United States CBS television network refused to suppress an interview it had recorded with him in which he spoke of close cooperation with Israel in fighting jihadists in the region. This public relations disaster for Sisi, whose government receives over US$1.5 billion aid from the US with limited accountability raises questions about the political economy of foreign aid. Egypt (population 100 million) gets more US aid than any other country bar Israel (population 9m) which has been allocated over $3bn in 2019. Africa (population 1.2bn) gets around $8bn, not counting Egypt's allocation.
After President Donald Trump's government, which counts Egypt and Israel among its closest allies, announced in 2017 that it would cut aid to Africa by 30% and shut down agencies dealing with foreign assistance, either for governments or business, it has had second thoughts. Prompted by concerns that the US has lost ground to China in terms of market and diplomatic influence in Africa, the Trump administration is stepping up its critique of Beijing's trade and debt policies. And it has approved a new infrastructure fund intended for Africa.
While China and the US compete for influence in Africa, rising powers such as India, Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Qatar and Turkey are strengthening ties on the continent. Most of these are government-to-government relations, and have boosted authoritarian regimes.
Race for influence
Africa's demographics – it is projected to have a population of 2bn by 2050, of whom 1.25bn will be of working age – and its cornucopia of resources are driving this new race for power and influence on the continent. How governments manage this new crop of relations could shape developments for decades.
This year the focus will be on money and security. Against the lure of Africa's demographics are the economic risks of rising debt, stalling markets and lacklustre growth in some of the biggest economies.
Mali hosts the most dangerous United Nations peacekeeping mission, pointing to the wider band of instability across the Sahel. That takes in the failure of the European Union's aid-driven anti-migration initiatives in the region as the growing power of the Islamic State's affiliated jihadist groups operating in Mali, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and northern Nigeria. All require the kind of regional African coordination which is made still more difficult with a multiplicity of foreign players.
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