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As Africa enters its third year of COVID-19, the long-predicted ripple effects of the pandemic are coming to bear on its political structures. The myriad impacts – including peaks in the cost of living and unemployment – will fundamentally alter the political landscape across the continent over 2022.
At AML, we will be closely monitoring four key strands for this year. First, key electoral challenges in Kenya and Angola, due at the polls in August, and Nigeria, in early 2023. Second, ongoing trouble in the Horn. Where the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia has settled, entrenched divisions over ethno-federalism show no signs of abating. In Sudan, military rule has been confirmed with the resignation of its prime minister, and Somalian president Farmaajo will likely further delay elections to keep his grip on power. Third, the West African regional bloc is under intense pressure to act in the face of another coup d’état among its members, with Burkina Faso’s president falling to the military this month. Finally, southern Africa is facing acute political crises in eSwatini and Malawi. In South Africa, President Ramaphosa has a long year ahead of him as he attempts to maintain his grip on the ruling party before a leadership election in December.
Election cycles heating up in Kenya, Angola, and Nigeria
The electoral season is well underway ahead of presidential polls in Kenya and Angola in August, and in Nigeria in February next year. AML expects intense wrangling over allies and electoral rules, and in two of the three, a contested result.
In Kenya and Nigeria, the incumbents will not run again, and all sides face a busy year of horse-trading with potential allies. Kenya already has clear frontrunners in Raila Odinga – an elite-backed old hand – and William Ruto – perceived by some as an upstart and a man of the people. In Nigeria, speculation is rife over candidate selection, and dozens of potential matchups are in play. Most contenders are from a generation of politicians who do not personally have roots in military rule. But a select few are known quantities who served the last of the old guard – such as Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar. These contrast with fresher but untested prospects like Nyesom Wike, Orji Kalu, or Kayode Fayemi.
In Angola, the incumbent – João Lourenço – is running again. But he faces a tough opposition from a tripartite coalition. Though Lourenço has undone some of the rabid kleptocracy of his predecessor, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) has ruled Angola since its independence. The new coalition has a real chance of ending that run, especially since aggrieved members of the MPLA old guard put their weight behind it. Economic troubles give the opposition plenty of ammunition.
In all three countries, there are already fights over electoral rules. In Nigeria, a bill forcing parties to let all card-carrying members choose candidates was passed but was vetoed by the president. It is back for review and could pass again. In Kenya, parliamentarians brawled in late December over new rules on parties and coalitions. In Angola, the MPLA pushed through an amendment to the electoral law. It gives more scope for the incumbent to rig the polls, limit opposition resources, and keep observers away.
In Kenya and Angola, the losing side is unlikely to roll over, though the race in Nigeria looks more promising. In Kenya, there is precedent for challenges to work: 2017’s election result was overturned by the courts. At least street violence is improbable. This will be its first election since 1992 without a major candidate from Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. Coalition formation and class dynamics have become more important, and ethnic rifts less stark. In Angola, contestation of some kind is highly likely. The MPLA’s machinery has begun intimidating the opposition and has used the force of the state to hamper local elections and suppress protests. Nigeria stands out. Its result is likely to be accepted, though there is some history of violent voter intimidation.
Ongoing trouble in the Horn
In Ethiopia, hopes are high that the first talks between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) could be around the corner. Both sides have now shown some interest in negotiating by stalling or withdrawing troops, releasing prisoners, and making obliquely promising statements. The state of emergency has been lifted, and whispers from closed-door meetings suggest the prime minister is ready to talk. International partners have jumped to capitalise on the opportunity. Some ears will be ready to listen, tired with conflict and seeing only stalemate ahead. Still, not all is rosy, and peace is a long way off. Certain officials still bang the drums of war, and airstrikes continue. Current plans for dialogue cut out Tigray. A mutual sense of threat, distrust and grievance remains deep. Even if a ceasefire agreement is secured, it will do little to solve the ongoing contention over the structure of Ethiopia’s federal state.
In Sudan, the transitional government is now firmly in the hands of the military, after the resignation of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on 2 January. Mass protests, calling for the complete withdrawal of the military from power, have rocked the country, and turned violent. The military began meeting with civil society to discuss a way through the crisis, but progress seems a long way off. Hamdok left his post in frustration at lack of progress. His departure is unlikely to bring any new life to the situation. The military has worked hard to regain control of the state, and of the business networks it protects. For their part, Sudanese civilians continue to suffer the bite of economic difficulty, and a new budget – full of high taxes – looks to make their lives worse. Ultimately, the revolution of 2019 brought hope for release from hardship and for political inclusion. That hope will die hard, as much as the military will try to snuff it out.
Somalia is also at sea. President Farmaajo looks to be planning to stay in power indefinitely. The past 18 months, he has unilaterally extended his mandate, caused legislative and presidential elections to be delayed, and attempted to arrest his prime minister, Mohamed Hussein Roble. Elections have now been promised for late February, but it is very likely that Farmaajo will use old tricks to try to stay in power. He is likely to see pushback, especially from Roble and his loyalists – clashes between the two factions have already taken place. Somalia’s federal member states – Jubaland and Puntland in particular – are not going to take Farmaajo’s games lying down and will start flexing their muscles. With Mogadishu in knots, al Shabaab is on the rise. AML expects the Islamists to capitalize on the crisis by staging terror attacks and perhaps gaining territory. Somalia has no shortages of challenges and divisions, and for many years the federal government was able to paper over some of these cracks, as much as it was venal and inept. Now Mogadishu is the source of as many of Somalia’s problems as it is of solutions.
West African regional bloc under pressure in the face of multiple coup d’états
The first month of 2022 has hailed the sixth coup in sub-Saharan Africa since August 2020, when putschists led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba seized control of Ouagadougou, arresting Burkina Faso’s president, Christian Roch Kaboré. With four of the six coups taking place in West Africa – Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, Guinea in September 2021, and Burkina Faso this month – the region’s political and economic alliance is struggling to stem the tide on a developing trend.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its fifteen members have acted strongly in the wake of the overthrows – but their measures remain toothless at prevention. Even the punitive sanctions imposed on Mali on 10 January, after the junta delayed polls due in February 2022 by five years, have not proven a deterrent to elements of the military in Burkina Faso.
ECOWAS has thus far failed at preventative methods to build peace and security in its member states. The strengthening of its governance and security institutions would serve as a pre-warning system for events of this kind. The bloc has launched only futile attempts to foster national dialogue in the wake of Mali’s coup and is failing in its peacebuilding efforts.
So, what now? With ECOWAS unable to halt a democratic backsliding in the region, a fact that is stymying international investment, it seems inevitable that another coup will unfold in the region. The reasons behind this proliferation of coups varies, but without concerted efforts from ECOWAS to shore up existing peacebuilding mechanisms, Guinea-Bissau or Niger could be next.
In Southern Africa, reductions in purchasing power can force political change this year
Knock-on effects of the pandemic and burgeoning socioeconomic malaise brought protestors to the streets across eSwatini, Malawi, and South Africa in 2021. It started most acutely in South Africa, where eight days of protests in July 2021 killed over 300 people in the most devastating civil unrest event since the end of apartheid in 1994. Former president Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment for graft was the immediate trigger, but the root causes were far more entrenched. As an indication of the simmering discontent at the time, youth unemployment had hit nearly 75 percent.
A recent World Bank grant of USD 750 million to support the government’s COVID-relief agenda will go some way to allowing President Ramaphosa to counter the malaise. He plans to extend his vaunted policy recommendation – the social relief grant, due to expire in March 2022. Some ministers have proposed the introduction of a permanent basic income grant, and the World Bank loan presents the best opportunity that Pretoria will have to pay for it. Yet with the indebted state utility Eskom raising its prices significantly in 2022, it seems unlikely that this will be enough to return purchasing power lost by the pandemic.
With the Zuma faction circling, infighting in the ruling party, and an impending leadership contest in December 2022, President Ramaphosa has his work cut out to maintain his primacy this year. His safest bet is to maintain a stable population and kick the can down the road, buying the government enough time to instigate much needed reforms where possible.
eSwatini’s King Mswati III will return from his annual three-month retreat at the beginning of February to a changed country. Violent protests have been calling for democratic reform since June 2021, as the population became fired up by widening inequality exacerbated by COVID-19. The crowds settled slightly when, at the behest of regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) partners, King Mswati promised a national dialogue to resolve the political crisis. We expect the political intervention by SADC will be largely ineffectual. Yet by the end of 2022, we anticipate King Mswati to have made some concessions to his detractors, though it is unlikely to engender an end to the absolutist monarchy.
Nowhere is the link between the pandemic and socio-economic downturn more evident than in Malawi. Over the past year, fuel and food prices have risen dramatically, amid a wider worsening economic crisis. Relatively loose monetary policy has meant that public debt has risen to about 54 percent of GDP, and inflation is surging, to an estimated 9 percent in 2021. Thousands of Malawians have taken to the streets of major cities to protest the rising prices and the government’s ineffective response in the face of rampant corruption.
In a bid to shore up his support, Chakwera started 2022 by dismissing his cabinet, using a tried and tested distraction technique, and harking back to a campaign promise to fight endemic corruption. If Chakwera’s public support continues to dwindle, he will lose the backing of his party, slowing down policymaking progress and risking Chakwera’s chances of winning a second term in 2024. While there remain no immediate solutions for rising prices on hand for the new administration – negotiations for an IMF programme continue to stall – protests across Malawi will continue.
Overall, the stage is set for a tumultuous year. Aftershocks of the pandemic continue to be complicated, and we are facing a busy year ahead with a lot in play for the future of the continent.