• Elections were resolved peacefully in the Gambia, but may get ugly in Kenya
  • Chaotic transitions and violence could grip the DRC, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe
  • Somalia may slide back into anarchy, and genocide is possible in South Sudan

In 2017 political instability will be the norm rather than the exception in sub-Saharan Africa. The region will experience several political crises, ranging from rocky political transitions to popular protests, state repression, electoral violence and – under a worst-case scenario – even genocide. Countries in the region will be facing these challenges in a changing international context that will see liberalism replaced, in many cases, by realpolitik.

August elections

There is not necessarily much to fear from elections next August in Rwanda and Angola. Paul Kagame will no doubt be elected for a third term as Rwanda’s president. Popular protests can be expected in Angola, but in the absence of a well-organized and effective political opposition, the ruling MPLA party should manage a smooth handoff from President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been head of state since 1979, to his designated successor, Defense Minister and MPLA Vice President Joao Lourenco.

Kenya, a young democracy with a history of raucous elections, is another matter. Despite its solid economic performance, fears of ethnic polarization and electoral violence have raised doubts about the country’s prospects for stability and growth.

The opposition, led by presidential candidate Raila Odinga, can be expected to contest the outcome of the general election, which will also be held in August. Mr. Odinga narrowly lost the 2007 and 2013 presidential races amid charges of voting fraud, and accused current President Uhuru Kenyatta of crimes against humanity after post-election rioting in 2007-2008 killed as many as 1,500 people, including several members of parliament.

Kenyans’ longstanding feelings of distrust toward the voting system could undermine the credibility of this year’s ballot and touch off a potential rerun of the 2007-2008 crisis. Under a worst case scenario, street protests could explode into a full-blown ethnic conflict between the Luo and the Kikuyu.

Rocky transitions

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), President Joseph Kabila’s efforts to stay in power have triggered nationwide protests. Mediation by the Catholic Church led to an accord between the government and the opposition, which stipulates a transitional government rule until elections are held by the end this year. While the deal allows Mr. Kabila to cling to power for now, it requires him to appoint an interim prime minister from the opposition and to step down after the next election.

In the DRC, a long, rocky and potentially bloody transition looks likely

For several reasons, this looks likely to be a long, rocky and potentially bloody transition. Firstly, the government’s main motivation to sign the December 31 accord was to buy time and wait for favorable developments in the regional and international context. Secondly, President Kabila will continue to control the security forces, which gives him a substantial advantage over the opposition. Finally, popular mobilization against the government is expected to intensify, triggering repressions and a further spiral of violence.

In Gambia, a combination of negotiations and military pressure applied by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) proved effective in removing President Yahya Jammeh from power. Perhaps the decisive moment was the Gambian army’s refusal to support Mr. Jammeh. While the former president left the country for exile in Equatorial Guinea, regional leaders have not granted him immunity.

The European Parliament is calling for severe and immediate sanctions on the former dictator, who is accused of violating human rights and looting the impoverished country’s treasury during more than two decades in power. Bringing Jammeh to international justice may have a chilling effect elsewhere, as it will likely be a disincentive for other long-serving Africa leaders to give up power.

Street politics

Protest cycles are also under way in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. They can be expected to continue, despite heightened repression. In Ethiopia, political uncertainty will keep discouraging foreign investment, even as the economy posts some of Africa’s fastest growth rates. Companies operating in the country are anxious about outbreaks of violence and looting, while also suffering from the periodic internet shutdowns that the government uses to contain dissent.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has bought time by imposing a six-month nationwide state of emergency, which is due to end in March. However, protests against the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) reflect deep ethnic and regional grievances that can only be addressed through political reforms. In the long term, despite economic progress, the most probable scenario is an implosion of the EPRDF’s authoritarian development model.

Zimbabwe is headed for political turmoil and economic crisis

Zimbabwe is headed for political turmoil and economic crisis in the run-up to the 2018 elections. The ruling ZANU-PF has split into factional infighting over the successor to its elderly leader, President Robert Mugabe, while the even more fragmented opposition can agree on just one thing: the 92-year-old patriarch must go.

In this context, three scenarios seem plausible. The first scenario would be “business as usual” – an orderly transition in which Mr. Mugabe would step down in favor of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, an experienced politician with backing from the military and security apparatus. There could also be a more fundamental political transition, in which the opposition unites in a coalition broad enough to defeat the ZANU-PF in next year’s elections. In the worst case, political change would come violently from the bottom up, perhaps exploding into civil war. Fortunately, this appears to be the least likely scenario.

Unstable arc

The security situation in Somalia is expected to deteriorate with the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in May 2017 and the impending withdrawal of the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) and its 22,000 troops.

AMISOM’s military component is largely made up of contigents from Uganda, Burundi and Ethiopia – three countries undergoing severe political crises whose leaders depend on their security forces to stay in power. Ethiopian troops left the mission in 2016, while Uganda announced it would begin to withdraw its soldiers by the end of 2017. To make matters worse, AMISOM’s funding has been drastically reduced.

Chad’s foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat, was elected chairman of the African Union
The African Union’s new chairman, former Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat from Chad, has to contend with an international community that no longer sees Africa as a priority (source: dpa)

The security situation will be further undermined by the closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, which now houses 261,000 Somali refugees. Without regional and international support, it is unlikely that Somalia will be able to provide even minimal security for its people or neutralize jihadist terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab.

Criminal networks and terrorist groups will also continue to take advantage of ungoverned territories around the Lake Chad Basin, compromising security in Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon. The number of displaced people from this region – now estimated at 2.4 million – is expected to rise.

Another Rwanda?

The most pressing challenge in sub-Saharan Africa is the risk of genocide in South Sudan. The ongoing civil war, pitting President Salva Kiir against his former deputy Riek Machar, has reignited the old conflict between the Dinka and the Nuer – two ethnic groups that compete over land, oil and water.

Even though President Kiir recently appointed Mr. Machar as the country’s vice president under the provisions of the 2015 peace deal, the fragility of state institutions suggests that violent clashes will continue throughout 2017. Ethnic targeting, the arming of civilians, hate speech and restrictions on NGOs and the media are warning signs that closely resemble the situation immediately preceding the mass killings in Rwanda in 1994.

The United Nations peacekeepers in South Sudan lack the operational capacity to perform their mission

In another disturbing echo of that genocide, the United Nations peacekeepers in South Sudan lack the operational capacity to perform their mission, while China and Russia are focused on a political solution. The UN Security Council’s recent rejection of an arms embargo drafted by the United States, along with an unfavorable international context, make a humanitarian intervention highly unlikely.

Refugees and big men

The prevalence of political uncertainty in sub-Saharan Africa will compromise security and economic growth. Increasing violence and instability will also multiply the numbers of displaced persons and refugees. Most will stay in the region, which already contains more than a quarter of the global refugee population. Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the DRC and Chad are among the world’s top 10 host nations, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Sub-Saharan Africa’s second pressing problem is how to manage the transition from longtime leaders. Countries like the DRC, Gambia and Zimbabwe will have to decide whether their “big men” stay in power and what to do with them once they step down or are removed.

Failed states and countries in the grip of civil war will suffer the most. Somalia, South Sudan, Chad and Niger can expect to see an upsurge in terrorism and refugee flows, which will have regional and international consequences.

New realism

The African Union elected Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chad’s foreign minister, as its new chairman on January 30. His selection is important, because African issues will not be a priority for the international community, putting the onus on regional organizations.

Mr. Moussa Faki has been playing a key role in the fight against terrorism in Mali, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. While he will be intent on honoring the principle of African solutions to African problems, the new AU chairman can also be expected to strengthen ties with France and the U.S. on security matters.

His unexpected election win over the front-runner, Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed, could also represent a second chance for the International Criminal Court, from which African countries accounting for 34 of the Rome Statute’s original 122 signatories had been considering a withdrawal. Should that happen, it would represent a major defeat for international liberalism.

National interests and power politics are displacing value-driven policies and multilateral cooperation

The same process can be observed worldwide as we enter 2017. National interests, power politics and bilateral diplomacy are displacing value-driven policies and multilateral cooperation. An “America first” approach from the new U.S. administration, Brexit and the internal challenges to European cohesion indicate that the developed countries of the “free world” will be less devoted to promoting and expanding democracy.

Migration has become a matter of overwhelming importance for the European Union, both in terms of internal politics and external security. Under its new Migration Policy, Brussels will be negotiating with key origin and transit countries in Africa, especially Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mali, Niger and Sudan. In return for cooperation on turning back, settling and repatriating migrants, the EU is offering aid, investment and preferential trade mechanisms. It is also likely to be more tolerant of authoritarian regimes that can maintain order.

The UN Security Council may have a critical role to play in 2017 as parts of Africa are gripped by turmoil, particularly in the DRC and South Sudan. Across the arc of instability in the Sahel, security cooperation between France and the U.S. will be vital.

Amid tectonic shifts in global politics, including the onset of President Donald Trump’s new administration, a more assertive Russia, a retrenchment of the United Kingdom after Brexit, and a possible lurch to the right in France, we can expect decisions by global players to be grounded more in realist principles than liberal ideals.

An international context shaped by realism is not necessarily bad news for Africa. But that would require policymakers to recognize that in an interconnected world, local and regional crises often escalate into global problems.

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