Continental drift

The “Africa rising” narrative still prevails, but there are pitfalls ahead

Mon Nov 02 2015


Viewed since the turn of the century, Africa remains far more hopeful on a range of indices than it was during the preceding post-colonial decades. Despite swathes of chaos, corruption and dictatorship, democracy and economic growth are the norm in a fair chunk of its 49 countries south of the Sahara: a far better record than in the neighbouring Arab world. And though the rate of growth in 2016 will plateau or even decline, because of the fall in commodity prices precipitated by lessening demand in China for raw materials, African economies on average will still outpace most of the rest of the world. Western investors will still keenly sniff around.

Western governments, however, will in the year ahead put much of their energy into seeking to contain the spread of terrorism across a vast stretch of Africa’s Sahelian belt. It runs from Mali in the west, through northern Nigeria, eastwards along the faultline dividing the rump state of Sudan and the dismal new state of South Sudan, and right across to Somalia. There is no reason to believe that, in the round, the situation will worsen. But nor is it certain to improve.

France and its African allies will not allow jihadists and separatists again to threaten Bamako, Mali’s capital. The government of Nigeria under President Muhammadu Buhari will gain ground against the maniacs of Boko Haram in the country’s north-east. The UN, again with France to the fore, should hold the ring in the strife-ridden Central African Republic, where Muslim-Christian animosity will remain high. And the African Union, aided by Western mediators, will strive to heal the hideously bloody divisions, to a large degree ethnic, that have blighted the new state of South Sudan. The jihadists of the Shabab in Somalia will not disappear, though they will be contained. They will hobble tourism in neighbouring Kenya, which will nonetheless remain the all-purpose hub of eastern Africa.

But in most of the rest of Africa, economic and political progress will march on with the odd stumble. The two beefiest powers in the continent, Nigeria and South Africa, will see the balance of their relative strengths tip further Nigeria’s way, as its higgledy-piggledy economy swells while South Africa’s, though still far more sophisticated, will mark time. Much will depend on Mr Buhari, a former general, maintaining the momentum that followed his election in mid-2015. By contrast South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma will flounder. Indeed, if the liberal opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, makes headway in local elections in mid-2016, perhaps even preventing the ruling African National Congress from having an outright majority in Tshwane or Johannesburg, the two municipalities in the country’s industrial heartland, a head of steam may rise within the party to oust Mr Zuma before the end of his term, as happened to a predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.

Elsewhere, the argument will remain unresolved between those who think authoritarian but economically dynamic governments, such as those led by Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Hailemariam Desalegn in Ethiopia, improve lives across a range of measures for ordinary people faster than those that remain more democratic and full of vitality but messier and more corrupt, such as Kenya or Ghana. Ethiopia, the second-most-populous country in Africa, will see more foreign investors than in 2015, especially if its economy loosens up.

Believers in democracy will be hoping that elections in Zambia (in September) and Ghana (in December), both countries where democracy has looked well entrenched of late, will go smoothly. In Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, having changed the constitution to let himself run yet again after 30 years in power, will probably be re-elected, though a rebel from within his own party, Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister, will try to give him a run for his money.

To stay or to Congo?

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, always one of Africa’s least governable countries, Joseph Kabila may perhaps submit to pressure at home and abroad by standing down in November as his constitution requires. José Eduardo dos Santos, who has presided over Angola since 1979, faces no such constitutional qualms, but will hear louder-than-usual grumbles as his oil-dependent economy groans; his daughter Isobel should retain top spot as Africa’s richest woman.

In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, 92 in February and increasingly ga-ga, may at last—even if he stays alive—have to give way to one of the hard men around him, probably Emmerson Mnangagwa, rather than pass the baton to his ambitious wife Grace, his junior by 41 years. But at least African progressives can draw comfort from the fact that in 2016 the likes of Mr Mugabe will be the exception rather than the rule.

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