Africa: Five Stories to Watch in 2012

Yesterday I looked back at some of the major events of 2011, and today I’d like to look forward to 2012. Predictions are a fool’s game, and I expect that this year will hold a number of surprises, but here are five stories I’ll be watching:

1. Struggles over Democracy in West Africa

Two important elections this year in Africa will be those in Senegal (first round February 26) and Mali (first round April 29). The two contests will be quite different: in Senegal, a two-term octogenarian incumbent will face off against a divided but passionate opposition. Should current President Abdoulaye Wade win, especially if major violence or fraud occurs, pessimism about Senegalese democracy will likely grow internationally, and tensions could linger for some time to come, especially as the country nervously wonders whether Wade will attempt to engineer the succession of his son Karim. In Mali, meanwhile, the open elections could either symbolize the continued consolidation of Malian democracy or bring to light the country’s underdevelopment and showcase the security challenges it faces. What these two elections have in common is their significant for the future of West African democracy in general: both countries have been touted as models of democratic progress in the region, and both will be tested in the coming months.

2. Interreligious Conflict in Nigeria

The bomb attacks, armed raids, and targeted killings that the Muslim rebel group Boko Haram conducts in northeastern Nigeria have long been a major security concern for the Nigerian government. Given that Boko Haram’s violence has escalated and spread over 2011, however, a potentially even bigger issue looms: will the sect’s attacks touch off or intersect with broader waves of Muslim-Christian conflict in Africa’s most populous country? Boko Haram’s Christmas Day attacks on churches have prompted some Nigerian Christian groups to warn of retaliation, and Boko Haram’s rumored presence in Jos, a center of religious violence, could be a bad sign for the trajectory of community relations in that city and elsewhere in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt.” In 2012, then, Nigerian authorities will face the challenge not only of stamping out Boko Haram in the northeast, but also of preventing interreligious violence from escalating elsewhere in the country.

3. The Stability of the Sudans

The secession of South Sudan from Sudan in July 2011 did not result, as some had feared, in civil war, but that does not mean that the world’s newest country – or the remaining (North) Sudan – are out of the woods yet. At the level of bilateral relations, outstanding issues such as oil revenue sharing and border demarcation continue to cause tensions, while violence in the border areas threatens to draw the armies of the two countries into further conflict. Within each country there are also problems. South Sudan is plagued by rebel movements and ethnic conflict, along with persistent complaints about corruption and a lack of political freedom. (North) Sudan, meanwhile, is struggling to right its economy and find a new political equilibrium. Violence in the border areas, continued rebellion in Darfur, and protests in Khartoum and elsewhere are challenging the regime’s control. 2012, then, will test the stability of both Sudans, with potential repercussions for East Africa as a whole.

4. Political Stability in Somalia

With presidential elections scheduled for August, the legal footing of its Transitional Federal Government (TFG) increasingly shaky, Kenyan troops occupying a sizable portion of territory in the south, and Ethiopian troops present in the west, Somalia enters 2012 with its politics a mess. The rebel movement al Shabab took a number of hits in 2011 – it withdrew from Mogadishu and it lost substantial territory elsewhere to Kenyan forces, for starters – but it continues to control some areas, and is undoubtedly searching for a path to resurgence in the year ahead. For the TFG, its allies, and its opponents, sorting out who controls what, both de jure and de facto, will take time, and will create further opportunities for dysfunction at the local, national, and international levels. Perhaps this pessimism is exaggerated – but with so many contenders for power in Somalia and so little stability, it is hard for me to see how 2012 will bring a resolution to the country’s long-running civil war. As is usually the case, it seems Somali civilians will suffer the most.

5. Regional Politics and Security in the Western Sahel

Kidnappings of Europeans in Mali and Algeria in November and December offered a grim reminder at year’s end of the security challenges countries in the Western Sahel face. There is not only the problem of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other criminal and jjihadist organizations in the region, there is also the question of how the continued political fallout from Libya’s civil war – including the return of fighters from Libya to Sahelian countries, the effect of Qadhafi’s fall on Tuareg decisionmaking, and the issue of missing Libyan weapons – will affect the region. Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and other countries in the region have been working for years to develop cooperative military and political frameworks that will help increase security, but these efforts often seem to be hampered by political differences and lack of capacity. 2012 will undoubtedly bring more efforts at cooperation, but this year will also likely bring more attacks and kidnappings.

This list is far from exhaustive. Other stories worth watching include how new oil production will affect the economies and politics of countries like Niger, Ghana, and Uganda. Mali and Senegal are not the only African countries holding elections this year – a number of other countries will go to the polls, including heavyweights like Kenya and Zimbabwe. South Sudan and its northern neighbor are also not the only countries adjusting to new political realities – Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Democratic Republic of Congo are all worth watching to see how regimes new and old behave in a new year. Finally, there are the many stories that I, at least, cannot foresee. If 2012 is anything like 2011, it will be a bumpy ride.

What stories and trends are you watching in this new year? And is my list too negative? What positive things do you expect to happen in 2012?

10 thoughts on “Africa: Five Stories to Watch in 2012

  1. Pingback: Conflict Prevention and Civilian Protection: Three Lists for 2012 « Peace of the Blogosphere

  2. To be honest there isn’t much good that I can see. I’m desperately hoping that Tunisia and Egypt will have successful democratic transitions and no reversion to authoritarianism, but I can’t believe that.
    I hope that the center can hold in Nigeria, but historically it’s incredibly easy to slide into partisan violence. If they aren’t socially and legally stopped it wouldn’t take Christian radicals long to learn the same tactics as Boko Haram, especially if police and soldiers act on regional and religious backgrounds.
    South Sudan is close to what I feared it would be and I’m just hoping that it gets a strong government capable of crushing militant groups*. I’d settle even for an authoritarian one over what they currently have.
    Libya, well I’ll just settle for it not crumbling into something like South Sudan.
    Algeria at least seems better than a decade ago. It’s still not close to what I’d like but at least there’s no major fighting.
    I’m interested in seeing whether the Tuareg and in general Berbers get more academic attention. I doubt they’ll get the recognition in popular writing as the Kurds did, but a few decent books would be nice.
    Of course all of this isn’t for specifically 2012. I’m expecting it to be more over five to ten years perhaps, barring sudden and violent shifts.

    *In the same kind of problem that appears across the world, leaders are torn between guarding the border of an external enemy and fighting the internal one. See Pakistan, India, South Vietnam, Ethiopia and others.

  3. Nigeria will give the World the first taste of what conflict looks like in a 50-50 (Muslim – Christian) divide. It will serve as a salutary lesson for all budding Islamic terrorists.

  4. Debates on potential changes to article 37 of the constitution of Burkina Faso are heated after the military mutinies and student protests of 2011. Article 37 deals with the limitations of terms of the president. We will see how things evolve – but it is certainly a story I am following.

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