2016 in review: Africa for Optimists… and Pessimists

Amid all the doom and gloom of this year, there have been a few good news stories. But 2016 has been a pretty bad year for the world, and Africa is no exception. Simon Allison, Africa Correspondent for Daily Maverick, looks at what has gone wrong and right on the continent.

South Sudan descends into the abyss

When the South Sudanese peace deal was signed in Addis Ababa last year, few were convinced that it would last. Even President Salva Kiir had its doubts, listing his reservations on the official document. Nonetheless, rebel leader Riek Machar returned to Juba to take up his position as vice-president, and a tentative calm descended on the country.

That calm was shattered on a July afternoon, when fighting suddenly erupted in Juba. Machar’s guards fought running battles with Kiir’s elite presidential guard, eventually spiriting Machar out of the city. Dozens of people were killed in days of unrest that followed, with the United Nations peacekeeping force failing to leave their barracks – even when a compound popular with foreign humanitarian workers was attacked.

Since then, the fighting has moved around the country, while ethnic divisions have intensified. Things have got so bad that the United Nations is officially warning of the threat of genocide, as Kiir’s Dinka militias hunt Nuer perceived to be loyal to Machar.

Meanwhile, the country starves. Drought and conflict have pushed more than a million out of their homes, while five-million are at risk of starving as humanitarian organisations struggle to provide food and basic healthcare.

Kiir remains in power in Juba, while Machar has fled into exile in South Africa. It is becoming increasingly obvious that no lasting solution can involve either man – although, equally, no deal at all is possible without their co-operation.

Where to now for the world’s newest country? The future looks bleak.

Interview with Riek Machar: ‘I am a hero. I am a victim’

The International Criminal Court’s African blues

October was a bad month for the International Criminal Court, perhaps the worst since its establishment in 2002. First, Burundi announced that it would be withdrawing from the Rome Statute which established the court. This was swiftly followed by similar announcements from South Africa and the Gambia.

South Africa’s withdrawal hurt the most. The continental superpower used to be one of the ICC’s loudest cheerleaders, and a major factor in why so many African countries (34) signed up to the Rome Statute in the first place.

Although a further African exodus never happened, there is no doubt that the triple withdrawal dealt the ICC’s credibility a grave blow. This is bad news for the court, but worse news for victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity, for whom the ICC – even with its flaws – remains the only viable opportunity for justice to be done.

After a bruising year, the ICC plots a road to redemption

Ethiopia’s bloody crackdown

For the last decade, Ethiopia has delivered consistently excellent economic growth. It has, very consciously, done so at the expense of civil and political rights. There is no freedom of speech in Ethiopia, there is no independent civil society, there are no genuine opposition parties. The ruling party maintains a tight grip on power, and justifies its excesses by pointing to its incredible development gains: this many hospitals built, this many schools opened, this many million people lifted out of poverty.

And perhaps such an approach can be maintained when the economy keeps growing at record levels, and money keeps flowing into the country. But that’s not what’s happening. As Ethiopia’s economic growth has stalled, thanks largely to the global slowdown, so its societal inequalities become ever more glaring.

What started as protests by Oromo villages threatened by the expansion of Addis Ababa has turned into something far more significant – and far more dangerous for the regime. Long marginalised and excluded groups in Ethiopia are finding their voice, and demanding access to decision-making, power and wealth.

But instead of acknowledging these problems, and attempting to address them, the regime has reverted to brutal, bloody crackdowns against anyone who it perceives as a threat. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have already died (it’s hard to tell exact numbers, as information coming out of the country is tightly controlled). Unless the ruling party changes its mindset, and quickly, more blood will be spilled.

Analysis: The Ethiopian model is breaking, but it’s not too late to fix it

Buhari’s stuttering start

When Muhammadu Buhari was elected as President of Nigeria last year, it was cause for celebration. Not only had Nigeria successfully achieved a peaceful transition of power via the ballot box, but Buhari had big plans and grand ideas to turn around the Nigerian economy.

It hasn’t gone well. Things have got so bad, in fact, that even his wife said that she will not vote for him again unless something changes. “He is yet to tell me but I have decided, as his wife, that if things continue like this up to 2019, I will not go out and campaign again and ask any woman to vote like I did before,” said Aisha Buhari. To which the tone-deaf president responded that his wife “belongs to my kitchen”.

Buhari’s list of problems – some, although not all, of his own making – is lengthy. There’s the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency, which has also precipitated a humanitarian disaster in the country’s north-eastern states. There’s the return of conflict in the Niger Delta, which has also severely disrupted oil production. There is Buhari’s bloated cabinet, only appointed six months into his tenure, that seems to do more infighting than actual governing. There is the collapse in the value of the naira, which coupled with the collapse in the price of crude oil has crippled economic growth. There is the rising unemployment. There is the failure to meaningfully address corruption, and the lurch towards the authoritarian tendencies which marked Buhari’s last stint in the presidency, as a military dictator.

As Ameto Akpe concluded in Foreign Policy: “The man who claimed in the campaign to be a ‘reformed democrat’ has proved to be the same old authoritarian showman who ruled Nigeria in the early 1980s.”

Buhari’s first year: Mixed results for Nigeria’s ‘Baba Go Slow’

Tuna fishing in Mozambique

In 2013, Mozambique’s government borrowed $850-million to help turn around its struggling tuna fishing industry. By 2016, that money had mostly disappeared, with nothing to show for it but a few new boats, which are slowly rusting from disuse in Maputo’s harbour.

The discovery of serious deposits of natural gas in the waters off northern Mozambique was supposed to lift that country out of poverty. Instead, the find has been a licence for the government to take on huge amounts of debt. This year, the extent of Mozambique’s indebtedness was finally revealed, despite attempts to hide the information from investors.

So where did the money go? Well, let’s just say that it is a very good time be a senior government or ruling party official. Even though Mozambique is yet to start pumping natural gas in serious quantities, they have already squandered a fair chunk of the gas wealth.

Has Mozambique already squandered its natural gas bonanza?

Genocide watch in Burundi

Even though it has largely disappeared from the headlines, violence in Burundi has continued unabated as President Pierre Nkurunziza seeks to consolidate his power. Rights groups estimate that more than 1,000 people have been killed, more than 8,000 are being held for political reasons and more than 300,000 have been forced to flee the country.

There are ominous ethnic dimensions to this violence. “All the criteria and conditions for the perpetrating of genocide are in place,” said the International Federation for Human Rights in a report, specifically citing “ideology, intent, security institutions… identifying populations to be eliminated, and the using of historical justifications.”

This part of the world is no stranger to genocides. Without anyone really paying attention any more, Burundi might be heading towards another one.

Click here to read the good stories.

By Simon Allison

Picture credit: Edoardo Soteras/Getty Images