1 + 2 trends to watch out for in African politics in 2012

The (by now not so much) new year always provides a good opportunity to lift our eyes from the detailed aspects of our day to day and embark on broader analysis, general reflections and compilations of what will be important for the starting year – both personally and professionally. In many ways this is a totally arbitrary decision for in fact dynamics, movements and trends do not know anything about calendar years, and what was important a few months back will in all likelihood continue without disruption. So, taking the time to reflect on what may be important in 2012 is in fact partly taking note of what has been recently happening and is likely to continue.

On this line, without a doubt in 2012 the instability that characterized 2011 in large parts of the world will continue (for ODI’s Alison Evans this “uncertainty” will be the only certainty this year – something, I think, it’s nearly impossible to disagree with). Taking a step back, one can trace the origins of this uncertainty or instability lay in the global reordering and tectonic shifts currently taking place in the global economy, as a result of the 2008-09 financial crisis and the more recent European debt crisis (fuelled partly by the austerity measures adopted that threaten to push the Euro economies back into recession). The “Great Recession”, as it has begun to be labeled, has its centre within the Euro-Atlantic area, but its impact is global. For one, the “emerged” economies of Brazil, India and China – alongside smaller but economically healthy (or at least with access to liquidity) countries such as the Gulf states and other resource-rich economies – are seeing their relative weight increase rapidly not only on economic terms, but also politically.We have seen an economic global shift that is now having a political impact in many parts of the world.
One cannot talk of a single political impact – or even many working on the same direction – of this reordering in Africa, but rather multiple ones, shaped by local social and political forces and geographical considerations. Back to our original question, we need to ask then what will be the dominant political dynamics across the African continent in 2012? There are numerous ones, but I will highlight just two, very broad ones, which are a direct result of the global reordering and, which despite being already at work, will possible increase in importance:

One: Growing disengagement between citizens and their government

Occupy Nigeria rally, Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota Photo: Temi KOGBE

2011 started with the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, and subsequently it was often asked asked whether this “North African spring” would travel South. Analysts were quick to note the important differences between both regions, which made difficult a straight expansion of these dynamics south of the Sahara. However, the – in my opinion – deeper reason behind the political turmoil in the Arab countries is a global one: the growing distance between a globally connected and increasingly informed citizenship undergoing economic hardship, whilst simultaneously witnessing segments of the population benefitting (with political support) from this situation. This basic idea then translates into very different events depending on the political context – from camping against the politicians and bankers that make the 99% in Europe and the US, to the outright rejection of a political class so corrupt whose only possibility was to leave. This discontent has been expressed across Africa all through 2011 – under different pretexts, but with the same underlying message. The “walk-to-work” protests in Uganda, the demonstrations against Wade’s political maneuvering in Senegal, the “enough is enough”, and now “occupy” movements in Nigeria, the July protests in Malawi, which left 18 deaths, and even the first political protests in a totally controlled regime such as Angola; and this just citing the most visible ones. Protests which will no doubt continue to affect various African countries propelled by the political and/or economic situation.
Pay attention to: It’s difficult to single out few countries, but some of those that spring to mind are those with scheduled elections (Senegal, Angola, Ghana) and/or where turmoil has already began (Nigeria, Uganda). Also South Africa could see increased protest on the face of worsening economic situation; and Kenya’s (pre-)election year (poll could be delayed until 2013) could also be tumultuous.

Two: Heightened importance of the geopolitical and military dimension

Dai Kurokawa/European Pressphoto Agency

Alongside the internal implications of the global economic reordering, there are also important cross-national, regional and global trends that will affect Africa’s outlook in 2012. In exploring this, and specially when it comes to security and military aspects, we must take as reference not only the actions of African actors, but also those of external players – of which the US is still the most important one. Here, global geopolitical and security concerns intersect with local and regional dynamics defining areas which appear as requiring attention from a military perspective, or which present a security concern. The most important elements fuelling this type of attention include: the presence of armed and terrorist groups, the existence of natural resources, and the geostrategic position of the areas.
Pay attention to: Again, it is difficult to point out new trends which may emerge, but judging from the dynamics already at play, three critical areas within Africa are: the Sahel region – AQIM and break-away groups are in operation there, alongside transnational traffickers and criminal networks; Mali and Niger are among the poorest and most fragile countries (and Mali faces an election year); and it is far from clear that the Libyan post-war will be peaceful. The Horn of Africa – not only is there a multinational military presence off the Somali coast to stop pirate attacks, but Kenyan (followed by Ethiopian) troops entered last October the southern part of Somalia. And the AU troops are still there. And Central-East Africa – the unstable region is still key and conflict could come from long-time spoilers such as the LRA (the US deployed military advisors to Uganda late last year), militias on the Eastern DRC, as well as the new factor that constitutes South Sudan – where 2012 has began with a spike of internal fighting and a dispute with its northern neighbor.

Three: Big guys’ time to shine

These are, in my humble opinion and in very broad terms, the forces most likely to dominate African politics from a macro-perspective. Now, the extra dimension that should not be ignored is that, if these are powerful trends by themselves, wherever they cross, something is bound to happen. And if this happens in a large country (or one with key regional role), then the consequences will be important. Libya was the case in point in 2011.
And in 2012? I do not attempt to look into any crystal ball, but if a country such as Sudan, DRC, Algeria or Nigeria were to be deeply destabilized, the regional impact of this fallout would be massive. Conversely, if these countries, or, perhaps other equally important ones such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola or South Africa, manage to overcome the existing threats, their sheer size and international clout could work to improve the political situation within their region.

So, what are your views?

Are you optimistic that Kenya and Ethiopia can contribute to a durable African solution for Somalia? Or that South Africa will finally put real pressure on Zimbabwe? Or by contrast, do you have fears that the security situation will get worse in Sudan/South Sudan? What about Nigeria – will the security situation deteriorate, or will the protesters help the government get serious with the governance reforms?
Would love to hear your thoughts!

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