As 2018 draws to a close, protesters in Sudan are mounting one of the sturdiest challenges yet against Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s 29-year rule, rounding off a year in which, across Africa, the leadership of old men has come under increasing scrutiny.
This year, the continent lost two giants: Kofi Annan, the first black African to head the United Nations, and Winnie Mandela, whose significance in South Africa’s liberation is hard to overstate (if easy to malign). But it gained at least two more: Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister whose whirlwind political opening in Africa’s second most populous country has electrified the continent, and Denis Mukwege, the Congolese surgeon whose treatment of rape victims earned him the Nobel Peace prize alongside Iraqi human rights activist Nadia Murad.
Average growth on the continent of 2.7 per cent has been dispiriting, diluted by the pallid performance of two heavyweights, Nigeria and South Africa. But in numbers breathlessly cited by manufacturers of beer to medical equipment, six of the fastest-growing countries in the world are again likely to be African: Ghana, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Senegal and Tanzania.
Africa is so vast and varied that, whatever is true about it, is also untrue. In a continent that is increasingly peaceful, Cameroon continued to slide towards civil war, and in one that is increasingly healthy, the second worst outbreak of Ebola in history raged in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where a promising vaccine is being tested.
In what is bound to be a subjective — not to say random — exercise in a continent of 54 countries, here are five of the most significant events this year.
The African Continental Free Trade Area: In March, 40-plus nations signed a free trade agreement with the potential to lift Africa’s economic potential. Colonialism bequeathed a Balkanised continent of sub-scale states, 16 of them landlocked. Inter-regional trade is a paltry 15 per cent.
By trading with each other, African countries can raise value-added content and stop simply shipping raw materials abroad. Bigger markets will attract more foreign investment. The free trade area is a baby step. And Nigeria has not yet committed to it. Tariff barriers pale beside treacherous roads as barriers to trade. But it is a baby step in the right direction.
China debt scare: This was the year African nations — and western propagandists— woke up to the pitfalls of Chinese financing. China contributes a sixth of all lending to Africa and countries from Djibouti to Zambia are becoming more beholden to Beijing.
It is fashionable to talk of China’s “debt trap diplomacy”, though some 40 African leaders rushed to Beijing for the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation to load up on more. But hyperbole about China’s influence ignores the positive effects that its infrastructure will bring and the fact that Africa benefits from having options.
Zimbabwe’s flawed election: After the ousting of Robert Mugabe in a military coup in 2017, there was widespread hope that the elections of July 2018 could consolidate change. They could not. The ruling Zanu-PF pulled out all the tricks of incumbency to ensure victory for President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Demonstrators protesting against the process were shot as the count came in. Zanu-PF has since descended into infighting and the economy into further chaos. One day, Zimbabwe will emerge from this mess. But not yet.
Bobi Wine: It took Ugandan rapper, parliamentarian and “Ghetto President” Bobi Wine to challenge the authority of Yoweri Museveni, one of a shrinking number of African autocrats clinging to power long past their sell-by date. Mr Wine has struck a nerve. Authorities beat him to within an inch of his life. A Boxing Day performance has been stopped. He could yet challenge Mr Museveni for the presidency in 2021. More important, he represents a stirring of youth across a continent whose average age is 19.
“Abiymania”: With the possible exception of Joao Lourenço, the Angolan president who has been busy dismantling the kleptocratic empire of his predecessor, no one has done more to turn their country upside down than Abiy Ahmed. At 42, he is the youngest leader in Africa. Since he was elected prime minister in March, he has concluded peace with Eritrea, emptied jails of political prisoners, challenged the economic stranglehold of corrupt state-owned entities and appointed women to half the positions in his cabinet. He has survived an assassination plot and what looked like an attempted coup. If 2019 is half as exciting, Ethiopia will remain a country to watch, not only for Africa but for the world.
Source: The FT, an English-language international daily newspaper owned by Nikkei Inc, headquartered in London