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Chronic Challenges

Six trends governing Africa's reality in 2023

23 January 2023

Despite the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Africa will likely be spared a severe economic slowdown in 2023 with a growth rate of 3% in North and sub-Saharan countries. But major concerns continue to prevail and emanate from the heavy burden of debt service, instability associated with elections, violent conflicts and terrorism, and the general threat posed by food insecurity resulting from conflicts and bad climate and weather conditions. 

This article seeks to identify Africa's horizons in 2023, analyzing six significant trends shaping the continent's economic, political and geopolitical profiles. 

Elections Reinstating Democratic Transition

Seventeen African countries will hold presidential or parliamentary elections in 2023, while 13 others will hold elections in 2024. Preparations and campaigns are underway in these countries. The elections are likely to have an intense impact on the political landscape across the continent and can trigger political turmoil in involved countries and growing protests and mass demonstrations. Additionally, a potential relapse into coups d'etat continues to pose a serious threat. Two coups occurred in 2022 in Burkina Faso alone, while two failed coup attempts occurred in Sao Tome, Principe and Gambia. The question then is whether 2023 will see a break with the wave of coups that hit some African countries in previous years or will reinstate the military's pivotal role in the political development of involved countries. 

All eyes are now on elections scheduled for February 2023 in Nigeria, one of Africa's largest economies, which is still suffering from highly complicated security issues. Moreover, in the country known as Africa's sleeping giant and its most populous nation (217 million people), the political atmosphere is highly strained. President Muhammadu Buhari says he will not seek a third term in office, which makes the coming elections a crucial tool for change. Young voters, who account for 84% of the total number of voters, have rising expectations about changing the balance of power between major political parties in one way or another. 

In any case, the Nigerian president has a long and complicated list of crises that need to be managed, including rising unemployment, violent armed groups, separatists, jihadis, corruption, and lack of accountability at government institutions. Nigeria, the largest oil producer in Africa, failed to make gains from the soaring energy prices partially because of large-scale oil theft and failure to preserve the pipeline infrastructure. Because it has too few oil refineries, Nigeria now relies on imports to meet domestic demand for oil derivatives. 

Likewise, in 2023, presidential elections will likely turn the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Zimbabwe into political hotspots. This means that Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi, who assumed office after winning the 2018 elections that were marred by allegations of rigging, will have to fight to stay in office amid violence perpetrated by armed groups. 

Moreover, in Zimbabwe, the ruling party was busy jailing its opponents. The administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who announced that he would run in the coming elections, jailed prominent figures of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), an opposition party. 

Overall, Africans will vote for change even though they might not get it. 

Geostrategic Concerns Prevailing in the Horn of Africa

Three major regional trends that are shaping the geostrategic landscape in the Horn of Africa in 2023 can be identified as follows: 

1. The elusive peace process in Ethiopia:

In November 2022, Ethiopia's federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in Pretoria, South Africa. Although the fighting stopped, obstacles continued to prevent the establishment of a permanent end to the two-year civil war. The withdrawal of Eritrea from the Tigray region was not part of the landmark deal. Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki appears to be seeking to eliminate the TPLF which led Ethiopia to a cross-border war against Eritrea between 1985 and 2000. Moreover, hostilities are ongoing in Oromia, the birthplace of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiye Ahmed, where the Oromo Liberation Army is accused of killing hundreds of civilians, including many of the Amhara ethnic group. On top of this highly complicated and entangled situation, the Amhara militias, which fought as part of the Ethiopian army in the Tigray region, are accused of committing war crimes in regional conflicts. 

Despite this, there are still positive signs of reconciliation as Ethiopia began to address the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region. The dialogue about regional demands and the issue of administering the region is likely to top the priorities of Prime Minister Abiye Ahmed throughout 2023. But reconstruction remains the biggest challenge. While official statistics show that Ethiopia needs $3.6 billion to launch the process, the actual cost of reconstruction can be much more significant. In the meantime, food inflation rose to as high as 40%.

2. Three crises: climate, corruption and the conflict in Somalia:

Despite gains made by the federal government in its war with the al-Qaeda-allied al-Shabab terror group, two years of drought and a prolonged war of attrition between the two sides, Somalia continues to be a standard "failed state". While people are starving, the ruling political elite elected according to tribal traditions is mired in corruption and fails to live up to the aspirations of the broad popular base. 

The situation became even more complicated because of Russia's war on Ukraine. Before this war, Somalia imported 90% of its total wheat consumption from the two warring countries. But when supply chains were disrupted, relief aid carried to Somalia was insufficient to close the gap amid climate change crises and intensifying armed conflicts. The ongoing crisis in Somalia, which used to be a flourishing economy thanks to its rich fishing resources, is likely to drag Somaliland, unilaterally declared its independence in 1991, into an abyss. However, it represents a state-building success story that completely contrasts Mogadishu. 

3. Eritrea becoming a "black box":

While the dynamics shaping the future of Somalia and Ethiopia over the coming year are relatively evident, Eritrea, labelled as "the North Korea of Africa", remains out of the reach of assessments of the future. Despite the geostrategic importance of this country bordering the Red Sea, Eritrea is viewed as a "black box" with no statistics on hunger and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. What is certain, however, is that its old leader Isaias Afwerki will, in the implementation of his policies, continue to wreak havoc in 2023 across the region. 

Africa's Characteristic Features in 2023

1. Rwanda's growing military diplomacy:

Unlike some of its neighbours, Rwanda is a small, landlocked, highly densely populated country with limited resources. But it followed an excellent course towards economic development in the wake of the 1994 genocide and managed to reduce poverty while promoting public security and safety. Despite its negative record of human rights, Rwanda, under the administration of Rwandan president Paul Kagame, continues to be the fifth largest contributor of troops to United Nations peace missions worldwide, which impacts its global image. Kigali's diplomacy enabled it to broker deals with other African countries to diversify its economy and improve self-sufficiency. It is also working on mobilizing its significant assets, i.e. military professionals, political stability and its own trademark, in favour of its foreign policy. Accordingly, the deployment of troops in the Central African Republic and Mozambique is viewed as military diplomacy backing the country's economic ambitions that fuel its soft power. Rwanda is aware that it is the West's reliable proxy in the region thanks to its foreign activity and support to security across Africa. At the same time, Rwanda continues to manufacture vaccines domestically, while President Kagame wants to transform the country into a regional leader in civilian nuclear energy and a destination for immigrants repatriated from Europe. But escalating tensions with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will impact regional stability in the African Great Lakes. That is, Rwanda continues to back attacks carried out by the rebel March 23 Movement in the eastern parts of DRC. During his participation in the second U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, Kagame insisted that "Rwanda did not create the problem, and it is not Rwanda's problem. It is Congo's problem."


2. Escalating conflicts in Western and Central Africa:

Western and Central Africa are characterized by growing instability and the spread of violent extremism. Some countries such as Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea were hit by military coups, a sign of underlying uncertainty about a political transition in these states. The same situation continues to be a source of concern in Cameroon and Nigeria, where insecurity is rampant. Moreover, northern Mozambique remains a significant source of serious concern where violent jihadism is displacing people. Eastern DRC, too became a hotbed for turmoil where more than 100 armed groups were fighting to seize control of the region, sparking a crisis that continued for decades. Citizens are often the target of this violence. After a decade of tranquillity, the March 23 Movement carried out a fresh attack in 2022, forcing families to leave homes and disrupting humanitarian aid operations. 

That is why the situation in Burkina Faso is likely to worsen because armed groups are intensifying attacks and seizing lands. Tensions between political factions caused instability, leading the army to take power twice in 2022. The growing number of these armed groups is likely to exacerbate political instability, especially because armed groups control some 40% of the country. Moreover, several cities in northern Burkina Faso are entirely isolated, where food prices went up 30%, one of the highest food inflation rates in the world. 

Persistent Economic Crises and Social Grievances

The worsening economic situation fuels social grievances across Africa. All African countries are likely to face the issues of food insecurity, humanitarian emergencies, declining government subsidies, and rising unemployment, all of which are caused by growing debts, resulting in political volatility and instability. 

A global economic recession will cause a growing risk of sovereign defaults across the continent, i.e. the inability to repay debts. The prospects for economic recovery in countries that default on their debts, such as Chad and Zambia, will be bad. Moreover, deteriorating economies are likely to fuel prolonged grievances over issues such as unemployment, inequality and food insecurity. But governments are not expected to succeed in quelling resentment by increasing public spending without increasing the burden of debts. However, economic hardships coupled with social crises and failure of states will likely trigger popular protests demanding government measures in many countries such as the DRC, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe. These dynamics might lead to political instability as ruling elites try to blame the failure on political scapegoats, while opposition parties will try to capitalize on a decline in the popularity of ruling parties. In a situation of political uncertainty, military commanders might attempt to benefit from widespread anger and economic hardships to stage coups against governments, especially in the Sahel and Western Africa. 

Despite the pessimistic macroeconomic outlook, the International Monetary Fund, IMF, forecast that four sub-Saharan countries i.e. Senegal, DRC, Rwanda and Niger, will be among the world's ten fastest-growing economies in 2023. On average, these economies will grow at an average rate higher than in the pre-Covid-19 pandemic. Accordingly, investors would better consider African markets in 2023 as promising destinations for their investments. The IMF says that the economies of the Middle East and Central Asia are set to expand by 3.7% in the Middle East and Central Asia by 3.6%.  

A Worsening Climate Change Imposes Adaptive Policies

The worst drought in four decades in the Horn of Africa in the east, floods and water shortage in the Sahel in the West exposed some 76 million people to food insecurity. It was not surprising that Somalia, along with other countries, topped the 2023 International Rescue Committee's Emergency Watchlist of countries most at risk of deteriorating humanitarian crises in 2023. The list highlights the 20 countries most at risk of deteriorating humanitarian crises in 2023. The Horn of Africa is witnessing the worst drought in 40 years, where Somalia is in the midst of its fifth consecutive failed rainy season. By mid-2023, 8.3 million people—nearly half of the population—will be living through crisis levels of food insecurity as the country faces an impending famine. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud expressed concern that declaring famine would impact the government's priorities, including the fight against the al-Shabab terror group. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, famine is already present and killing tens of thousands silently in Somalia. What further complicates the situation is that the crisis in Somalia is multi-faceted: the intensifying armed violence of al-Qaeda allied al-Shabab group is coupled with harsh drought, which might exacerbate the violent conflict.

In the Sahel, which includes nations such as Mali and Niger, malnutrition levels are 60% higher than they were in 2018. According to the World Health Organization, WHO, about 1.4 million children under the age of five are experiencing severe wasting, which is caused by acute malnutrition and results in diarrhoea and a compromised immune system. "There's no reason to believe that the weather next year is going to be any better than the weather this year," Soni said. "What you're seeing is year-on-year things getting worse", Bloomberg cited the WHO Foundation's chief executive officer as saying. The situation mandates effective government policies to adapt to climate change. 

In conclusion, climate-driven weather disasters and challenges posed by violent conflicts are likely to persist and impede the achievement of Africa's development goals. However, the heavy burden of debt service will become even more problematic, where the need to secure funds at a time when the cost of domestic and foreign borrowing is increasing and will severely impact some involved countries in 2023. The situation can worsen in 2024 when debt repayments become due. 

On the other hand, elections might be held amid instability across Africa. The 2023-2024 cycle will be different because of the high risks of political protests, mass demonstrations and strikes in certain countries. The question is: Can the catchall phrase "African solutions to African problems", which many African politicians believe, counter these challenges in 2023?