The Nordic Africa Institute


10 reasons to keep your eyes on Africa in 2019

Two men holding a flag

Photo: Mulugeta Ayene/AP photo.

Date • 21 Dec 2018

A trade deal in Kigali, a tarnished victory in Harare, and rocket-speed reforms in Addis made global headlines in 2018. But what’s on the plate for 2019? We list ten issues, 10 trends to keep track of in the year to come.

1. Ethiopia leading the way

How will Ethiopia and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed continue along the reform path in 2019? Is there a chance that peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea could spill over into other conflicts in the Horn of Africa, such as those in Somalia and South Sudan? Abiy’s new policy has been met with almost euphoric reception, but there is also visible resistance to further reforms. An assassination attempt on the prime minister and a foiled military coup bear witness to this. “While all his achievements are laudable, some are concerned that Abiy is making too many promises. Expectations from millions of unemployed might be difficult to meet”, NAI director Iina Soiri says.

It is crucial to address ethnic conflicts that ravage the county, as well as to ease relations between the federal government and the Tigray regional government, according to NAI researcher Redie Bereketeab. “If Abiy succeeds with these two issues, he is on the right path to pursue further reforms. However, when it comes to the fragile EPRDF [Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Front] coalition in power, observers agree that it will end soon because regional parties are asserting themselves and have become much more popular than the ruling parties”.

Since Abiy was appointed prime minister in April, several democratic developments have occurred. Thousands of political prisoners have been released and the Ethiopian people are allowed to organise politically for upcoming elections in 2020. Media organisations, which the state had shut down, were re-opened and journalists have been free to work again. A two-year state of emergency has been suspended, as well as an anti-terrorist act that had been used arbitrarily against opposition parties. Moreover, Abiy has reached out and made peace with the old enemy Eritrea. The neighbours had been in a state of mainly low-intensity conflict since 1998, which began with a two-year war and tens of thousands of casualties. For the first time in over 20 years, family members divided by the border have been reunited.

2. Judgement day for the ANC?

During the first half of 2019, Nigeria and South Africa will hold elections. The respective incumbents, Muhammadu Buhari and Cyril Ramaphosa, are both running, but face challenges. Nigeria’s military is still engaged in the fight against Islamist insurgency Boko Haram, but the country also has to address the factors that lead to radicalisation, such as great poverty combined with skewed regional distribution of resources. “In addition, President Buhari created powerful enemies when he launched a war on corruption. Now, corruption is fighting back”, NAI Head of Research Victor Adetula says.

In South Africa, it is no longer obvious that the ANC [African National Congress party] will win the election, as it has done every time since Nelson Mandela's presidency. The ruling party is divided between those who want radical changes that favour marginalised people and those who believe economic growth will trickle down. “The legacy of president Jacob Zuma, who was forced to resign in early 2018 after several corruption scandals, has knocked the South African people´s confidence in politicians”, NAI researcher Henning Melber remarks.

The elections in Nigeria and South Africa have more than just domestic political significance. The two countries are the largest economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. They play a particular role in the continent's free trade agreements and will be influential in the continued reform of the African Union, as well as in what are expected to be tough negotiations with the European Union in reaching a trade deal to replace the outgoing Cotonou Agreement.

3. Free and fair trade

With the Cotonou Agreement – Europe's trade framework with African, Caribbean and Pacific states – set to expire in February 2020, a new deal will be negotiated in 2019. The long-term objectives of the agreement have been to eradicate poverty and integrate poor countries into the world economy. However, trade conditions have remained uneven, according to NAI Head of Research Victor Adetula, who fears that Europe will enter the 2019 negotiations with only anti-immigration and anti-terrorism policies on the agenda, instead of making trade fair.

"It would be unfortunate because equity in trade may actually reduce both migration and radicalisation." Since the Cotonou Agreement was established, an important factor has been added. Today, the so-called BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have offered African countries trade alternatives. "Europe should ask why China appears to be an attractive partner to Africa. Perhaps it says something about the asymmetric relationship between Europe and Africa”, Adetula notes.

Free trade on the African continent will be another key issue in 2019. Out of 55 states, 49 have signed the African Union’s African Continental Free Trade Agreement to promote trade between African countries, which currently only accounts for ten percent of Africa's total trade. Critics claim that Africa is not ready for free trade because inequality between countries is too great. They fear the risk of Africa's major economies swallowing the smaller ones. "Another problem is that many countries produce only raw products for export and processing outside the continent. In addition, in many cases African countries compete with the same commodities”, Adetula says.

4. A climate for change

A large share of African financial resources that should be dedicated to education, healthcare, infrastructure, service delivery and employment instead has to meet disaster recovery costs and food insecurity related to climate change. However, mitigating climate change effects in Africa is not about reducing emissions: it is about development without taking a carbon-intensive path. “Investments in renewable energy and green technology will continue in African countries. However, at the same time many countries are building infrastructure to explore recently discovered fossil fuel reserves”, NAI Director Iina Soiri says.

In 2019, global competition for access to minerals used in renewable energy, such as cobalt and nickel, will further increase. Cobalt is a vital ingredient in rechargeable batteries, and almost 70 percent of global reserves are in the Copperbelt that runs through the DRC and Zambia. “As global demand grows, African countries will have the opportunity to negotiate taxes on extracted minerals. It could mean substantial revenues, and if wisely used could reduce and mitigate negative effects of climate change”, NAI researcher Patience Mususa says.

5. Looming debt crisis

In 4-5 years, several African countries may face liquidity problems when eurobonds for infrastructure projects expire, NAI development economist Jörgen Levin says. “It is likely countries will have to spend a large part of their tax revenues to pay the debt, and then there will be less resources left to achieve what they promised to do in the context of Agenda 2030 and the global sustainability goals”.

African countries have borrowed large amounts to finance investments in infrastructure. Unlike previous loans, a larger proportion is made up of state bonds in euros, which are more expensive and have shorter terms than loans from the World Bank and IMF. On the other hand, the investments are long term, which means effects on economic growth will come much later. China has of late also offered considerable loans and credit, making the country’s influence on the continent even stronger.

6. The lay of the land

In many African countries, land remains a burning issue. In Namibia and South Africa, a white minority continue to own a disproportionate share of private land. Fast-track land reform in Zimbabwe since the turn of the century has triggered the total collapse of the economy. The governments of Namibia and South Africa are cautious to find a way of redistributing land in compliance with their constitutional principles and the rule of law. But it will be a much debated and emotionally loaded topic, putting pressure on the governments to deliver. “As long as the disproportionate white ownership of land continues”, says NAI researcher Henning Melber, “for many among the ordinary citizens, colonialism remains alive”.

In other countries on the continent, so-called land grabbing of cultivable land is constantly increasing and ever more people are being deprived of the land they have always used. Rural livelihoods of small-scale peasants are under threat, causing an increase in rural-urban migration. According to NAI researcher Prince Adjei, “cases and experiences of land grabbing in northern Ghana have weakened the asset base of affected farmers and their capacity to create wealth and sustain their livelihoods, which consequently triggers the out-migration of these farmers to seek greener pastures elsewhere”.

7. Compensating old crimes

“In 2019, leaders in the UK, France, Portugal and other European states will be nervously watching how Germany handles the consequences of crimes committed during the colonial past", NAI researcher Henning Melber says.

Three years ago, Germany admitted that its colonial warfare in South West Africa – present-day Namibia – resulted in genocide committed against the Herero and Nama peoples in the early twentieth century. Since then, German-Namibian bilateral negotiations have taken place over how to come to terms with the past in the present. However, Germany has never officially apologised or been willing to recognise claims for compensation. "If Germany agrees to pay compensation, it paves the way for raising other abuses committed during the colonial era”.

Meanwhile, France's President Emmanuel Macron has been widely acknowledged for taking the initiative to investigate how best to identify and return artefacts and other cultural items in French institutions that were stolen from African countries. Restitution has also become a contested matter in other European countries. If the trend during 2019 leads to meaningful initiatives beyond lip service, many more countries will have to admit their guilt and return looted artefacts to where they belong.

8. Freedoms under attack

A worrying trend is the shrinking of democratic space in East Africa. In Kenya, the government has shut down television stations. Journalists in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are working under threat of violence and some have also been detained. But it is more than press freedom under attack. In Uganda, clampdowns on LGBTQI people are continuing. Pride and other festivals have been banned for promoting homosexuality. “This corresponds to a broader political nervousness. Opposition protests often end in police violence – like when politician and singer Bobi Wine was arrested in August 2018”, NAI researcher Anna Baral says.

In Tanzania, homophobic statements from politicians seem to be part of a broader moral crusade, which also involves expelling pregnant girls from school. “In some cases, denouncing LGBTQI rights is used to distinguish ‘African culture’, as well as independence from donor countries in the global North”, NAI researcher Diana Højlund Madsen says. “While withdrawing aid may seem a proper response, it would have serious consequences. It would put even more blame on the already vulnerable LGBTQI communities, as they would be held responsible for withheld aid and contributing to a neo-colonial agenda”.

9. Women’s walk to power

Female representatives' share of formal political power is increasing in many African countries. Yet numbers of female parliamentarians are very uneven, ranging from highest proportion in the world in Rwanda, at 61.3 percent, to only 5.6 percent in Nigeria. A number of countries, especially in eastern and southern Africa, are fast-tracking women’s political representation by adopting quotas. Elsewhere, greater female representation has been brought about through broader constitutional reforms and the role of women’s movements.

“To ensure substantive and not just descriptive representation, there have to be linkages between the female parliamentarians and their women’s constituencies”, NAI researcher Diana Højlund Madsen says. “It is important to reflect on whether the quota has been put in place to support the dominant party or a pro-women agenda,” she continues. “Potentially, a number of motives exist for adopting quotas in semi-authoritarian states: to divert attention away from human rights abuses, gives legitimacy to the regime and attracting the support of donors”.

10. Focus on refugees

A global compact for refugees will be negotiated in 2019 within the UN framework, complementing if not actually building on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which was announced in December 2018. Migration researchers normally find it problematic to categorically distinguish between refugees and migrants; for example, because they all need safe routes and respect for human rights. But NAI researcher Jesper Bjarnesen hopes that an agreement, for all its weaknesses, could create more awareness about internally displaced people on the African continent. “The global compact for refugees could serve as a reminder that developing countries host the vast majority of the world’s refugees. The European refugee crisis in 2015 received a lot of attention, but there are many other refugee crises around the world that deserve the same kind of attention, including refugee situations on the African continent”.

The global compact for migration received much undeserved negative attention because of misunderstandings and disinformation about its mandate and purpose. The compact does not encourage increased south-north migration and does not interfere with the sovereignty of individual states. Its main focus is to improve global coordination around migration issues, and to ensure respect for the human rights of all migrants. “Despite the unwarranted critique, the agreement gives the African Union support in what it has long emphasised: creating safe, orderly and regular migrant routes and facilitating the transfer of remittances”, Bjarnesen says.

TEXT: Johan Sävström