2012 ends, for the regions of Africa this blog covers, with considerable uncertainty and tragedy for some countries, and cause for cautious optimism in others.
We do not have to look far to find chaos. Mali’s trajectory, whether in terms of political arrangements in the south, the future of the north, or the future role of external actors in reuniting the country by force, remains unclear. Violence in northern Nigeria continues, not only in the form of attacks by Boko Haram but also in intercommunal conflicts and abuses by security forces. Fighting continues along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. The rebellion in the Central African Republic may end with the formation of a coalition government, or perhaps rebels will take the capital. In Somalia, recent attacks in Puntland hint that al Shabab, while weakened by losses of territory in the south, will remain a source of violence.
Yet we also do not have to look far to find causes for hope. Senegal experienced a democratic transition from one party to another earlier this year. On December 21, the Lagos-Kano railway reopened in Nigeria. Somalia completed a political transition and has a new government. There are always reasons to feel gloomy – perhaps Senegal’s new President Macky Sall will prove incapable of dealing with the country’s problems, and Nigerian society will fragment further, and the tenuous political and territorial gains by Somalia’s government will vanish – but it is worth thinking about what went right this year in various places. About the institutions that endured, the plans that worked, the macro and micro changes that improved or protected people’s lives.
It is also crucial to go beyond reductionist paradigms of African tragedies on the one hand and African “success stories” on the other. Writing the above paragraphs reminded me how easy it is to fall into the superficial trap of juxtaposing the positive with the negative and calling that complexity, or calling that “Africa.” The real complexity is all the stories that don’t fit into neat categories of tragedy or triumph. Thus as Sall turns to the task of governing Senegal, we find him struggling to resolve a conflict with a religious leader and his partisans. In Nigeria, we see a state attempting to balance religious and political constituencies in the wake of a governor’s unexpected death. In what some consider unmitigated tragedy we also find complexity – one brother who was sentenced to have his hand amputated for taking up arms against Islamists in northern Mali and another brother who, seeming to endorse the Islamists’ vision of a religiously pure society, carried out the sentence of amputation himself. We can always find heroes and villains in events if we choose; but sometimes we can’t grasp the complexity of a situation until we stop looking for heroes and villains, and just look for people.
So 2012 has given analysts of the Sahel and the Horn a lot of material to digest. Events this year certainly surprised me in various ways. I was surprised by how rapidly the situation in Mali deteriorated, especially between January and April. But I was also surprised to see Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade step down amid relative calm after months of tension around his bid for a third term of questionable constitutionality, and what at times had looked like his willingness to secure that third term at great cost. These surprises encourage us to question received narratives, like that of Mali as a “democratic poster child,” or the idea that an “African strongman” can always cling to power. The surprises also encourage us to remember that events are fluid and contingent. Sometimes events are shaped, to a shocking extent, by chance. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was shot in October, but lived – had the bullets killed him, who can say what the repercussions might have been for Mauritania, for Mali, for the Sahel? It is strange to think that one low-ranking soldier’s aim could influence outcomes for a whole country, even for a whole region.
I listed five “stories to watch” at the beginning of this year. The ideas were safe enough, and broad enough, that they all did prove relevant to the course of events, though not always in the ways I might have expected – for starters, Mali’s democracy certainly underwent a severe test, but not at the ballot box. But the value in comparing the perspective looking forward in January 2012 with the perspective looking backward in December 2012 is not primarily in asking who got what right, but in determining what changed and how analysts can do better in grasping the causes and effects of those changes. The methods I use for this blog – aggregating and synthesizing news in the hope that what emerges is more than just the sum of its sources – will remain basically the same in the coming year. But 2012 reminds me to ask a broad array of questions, to look beyond politicking in Bamako or Dakar or Khartoum or Mogadishu. To think about the potential of so-called “marginal” actors to affect an entire country’s trajectory (and not to forget ethnic, religious, or political minorities in a rush to analyze “Tuareg rebellions” or a “Muslim Northern Nigeria”). To think about the webs of relationships – between individuals, between communities, between countries – that are activated, and reshaped, in the course of conflict and cooperation.
I plan to post a look forward at 2013 tomorrow. I’m thinking I’ll go more with the idea of “themes to consider” rather than “stories to watch.” In the meantime, what struck you the most in 2012 about the Sahel or the Horn? What was expected and unexpected about how this year played out?