Africa’s year of revolution?
This month marks a decade since the start of the “Afro-Arab Spring.” Led by technology-wielding youths. These revolutions toppled mummified dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The dry harmattan winds of this North African spring blew across the Sahara desert three years later to topple the 27-year autocracy of Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré in another popular youth-dominated revolution. About 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25, and the future belongs to them despite the obstinate refusal of geriatric rulers to leave the political stage.
Youth-led street protests helped oust ossified regimes in Sudan and Algeria; young people are on the march from Zimbabwe to Uganda to Mali and Angola; while the digital-led #EndSARS countrywide campaign by Nigerian youths shook a complacent politico-military establishment to its very foundations last year. A harmattan of discontent could spread across the continent, with many Leviathans unable to maintain a monopoly of armed force over their territories. These events are occurring amidst a global pandemic that has devastated local economies and triggered widespread indebtedness and joblessness: Africa’s economies are set to decline by 3% this year. This triple crisis of debt, disease, and dictatorship is occurring even as an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) has euphorically been declared into existence. Africa’s political alchemists are, however, yet to build viable nation states and strong sub-regional pillars, while massive infrastructural deficits and restrictions on the free movement of people and goods remain ubiquitous. “Quo vadis, Africa”?
In assessing Africa’s prospects in 2021, we must embark on an arduous voyage from Cotonou to Casablanca. In West Africa, Nigeria accounts for 64% of the sub-regional economy. However, anarchy has spread across the entire country with a rudderless leadership helplessly observing terrorist attacks, murderous herdsmen, ransom-seeking kidnappings, and lawless lynch mobs. Nigeria will remain no longer at ease in 2021, and could face more youth-led protests as a season of anomie continues to deepen. Abuja’s inability to maintain domestic peace will weaken its past noble peacekeeping efforts. Sub-regional security will further be compromised by the continuing instability triggered by Islamic militants in Mali, and the one million internally displaced population in Burkina Faso. West Africa’s messianic marabouts in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo will also continue to fuel instability, having extended their presidential tenures beyond two terms. Widespread indebtedness also blights this sub-region with Nigeria – burdened by an $85 billion debt – struggling to pay civil servants, and Ghana’s debt rising to over 70% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
In Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Cameroon account for about 63% of the sub-region’s economy, but both are wracked by conflicts. The Congo’s two-decade war in the East shows no signs of abating in a conflict that has seen over 3 million fatalities and 6 million displaced in two decades. This situation will be further exacerbated by the continuing political squabbling between president Félix Tshisekedi and his predecessor, Joseph Kabila. More positively, as new African Union (AU) chair, Tshisekedi will continue efforts with Luanda to improve ties between Kigali and Kampala. In Cameroon, one million citizens have been internally displaced, while 60,000 refugees have spilled into Nigeria. If care is not taken, the secessionist Anglophone movement in Western Cameroon could culminate in civil conflict. In neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR), president Faustin-Archange Touadéra looks more like “the Mayor of Bangui,” as a plethora of armed militia roam across much of his country, resulting in over 1.2 million displaced persons. Serious questions must be raised about holding legislative elections in 2021 under such circumstances. The 5,000-strong French force in the Sahel has utterly failed to establish a Pax Gallica, as the armies of Chad and Niger continue to act as cannon fodder, suffering hundreds of casualties against jihadis. The neo-colonial gendarme has proved to be an invalid in stabilizing the Sahel.
In Eastern Africa, regional powers, Ethiopia and Kenya, account for 60% of the sub-regional economy. Ethiopia’s prime minister and Nobel peace laureate, Abiy Ahmed, has gone to war to pacify the Tigray region. Maintaining social peace among the country’s various feuding regions will remain a major challenge in 2021. The tried and tested tools of brutal repression seem destined to continue. The Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam could also result in further tensions with Egypt and Sudan over the waters of the Nile. Kenya has recently assumed a two-year seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, with its troops active in the 20,000-strong AU peacekeeping force in acephalous Somalia. Kenya’s debt is, however, over 65% of its GDP, and the government is struggling to repay Chinese loans on its prestigious $3.5 billion Mombasa-Nairobi railway.
In Rwanda and Uganda, long-ruling Western-backed autocrats will continue to repress media freedom and human rights. The 76-year old Yoweri Museveni is increasingly resembling former Zairean dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, in identifying his survival with that of the Ugandan state. The visibly aging leader has become a caricature of the archetypal African autocrat he frequently criticised at the start of his 34-year rule. Further afield, 230 refugees were killed in Darfur last month even as the UN continues to withdraw its peacekeepers, while over 4 million people have been displaced in South Sudan.
South Africa accounts for 60% of the Southern African economy, and when the hegemon sneezes, the rest of the sub-region catches a cold. Tshwane’s (Pretoria) leadership of the COVID crisis will thus be closely watched this year, even as it struggles to rein in massive public debt that has reached 70% of GDP, and to restructure hollowed-out state enterprises.
Angola’s government debt of $6 billion represents over 100% of its GDP, even as street protests continue, and president João Lourenço, will continue to be accused of pursuing corruption selectively. In neighbouring Mozambique, a three-year Islamist insurgency will continue to rage in the country’s gas-rich Northern province of Cabo Delgado. These attacks have resulted in over 250,000 internally displaced people, and spread as far as Tanzania. Like Angola, Maputo’s debt represents 100% of its GDP. Zimbabwe’s downward spiral continues following a 2017 coup d’état that entrenched military brass hats in power under a security-business complex. Civil society, civil servants, teachers, and nurses will continue to protest the impact of an economy in free-fall.
Returning to the North African cradle of the Afro-Arab Spring, only in Tunisia has a functioning, though fragile, democracy been established. Egypt – accounting for 50% of the sub-regional economy – continues to be led by an autocratic Pharaoh in Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, while Libya remains divided by cantankerous warlords and foreign meddlers following the pernicious NATO-led military intervention that toppled Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Street protests will doubtless continue this year in Algeria: historically revered as “the Mecca of Revolutionaries.”
Given these trends, it is important to probe the extent to which the harmattan winds of discontent will damage Africa’s prospects for socio-economic development in 2021. The continent’s youth are on an unstoppable march towards the future. Will they make this Africa’s “Year of Revolution”?
Professor Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.
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