What will 2013 hold for the Sahel region and the Greater Horn of Africa?
For the Sahel, the year begins with intense concern about northern Mali and northern Nigeria. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC)’s resolution of December 20 greatly strengthens the prospect of an external military intervention in Mali, in the form of the “deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) for an initial period of one year.” The UN, the United States, and others are also placing pressure on Malian leaders to, in the UNSC’s words, hold “elections by April 2013 or as soon as technically possible.” Holding credible and inclusive elections, as well as retaking the north by force, may prove difficult to achieve in the time frame allotted. The anniversary of the northern rebellion’s launch, which will come on January 17, reminds us that Mali’s conflicts have lasted longer, and worsened further, than many initially expected – and may last for quite some time still.
In northern Nigeria, meanwhile, recent attacks by Boko Haram and battles between sect members and authorities suggest that instability in that region will continue in the new year. If last year’s trends are any indication, the combination of mistrust between the government and the sect, human rights violations on both sides, and the shifting nature of the sect’s tactics may make the conflict difficult to resolve either politically or militarily.
One challenge for analysts and policymakers in 2013 will be to consider interconnections between crises and conflicts in the Sahel without falling into simplistic narratives depicting the region as an “arc of instability.” So for example while Niger is not Mali, what happens in Mali affects Niger, and vice versa. At the country level, I would urge analysts and policymakers to avoid suggesting that complex problems can be solved with variants of the “vote, then shoot” or “shoot, then vote” models. So, for example, would holding elections in Mali just three or four months from now really produce a legitimate and inclusive government? Or would elections turn out to be deeply flawed, and risk generating further discontent?
The crises in Mali and Nigeria, moreover, should not overshadow other challenges and important trends in the Sahel. In the category of challenges, there is first and foremost the looming threat of renewed hunger. IRIN tells us, “Despite good rains across much of the Sahel this year, 1.4 million children are expected to be malnourished – up from one million in 2012, according to the 2013 Sahel regional strategy.” The numbers are grim, and the problem of food insecurity a long-term one – a challenge that requires more than just reactive, year-by-year responses. While men with guns battle for control of territory, drought and starvation will be claiming lives by the thousands.
Turning to the Greater Horn (for which I use quite a broad definition), four areas I’ll be watching are: (1) the efforts of the new government in southern Somalia to consolidate military and political control, with help from African and other partners; (2) the status of negotiations over border demarcation, security, oil, and other issues between Sudan and South Sudan (as well as the trajectory of rebel and protest movements within each country); (3) the shape of the ongoing political transition in Ethiopia in the wake of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death last year, and the shape of relations between the state and the Ethiopian Muslim community, which has been protesting alleged government interference in Muslim affairs since late 2011; and (4) the Kenyan elections of March 4. If one broad theme connects these cases, it is the interactions between transitions taking place in the realm of formal politics (elections, successions, agreements) and forms of dissent and contestation (rebellions, protests, ethnic violence) occurring alongside these transitions.
I have no predictions to offer beyond my warning about the risks in holding premature elections in Mali. I should also reiterate what I wrote yesterday about the shocking capacity of chance to affect larger trajectories, and the ways in which the effects of small actions can escalate beyond their authors’ intentions. None of us can tell what the future holds for the Sahel and the Horn, but I do think it will be an eventful year, including in ways we might never have guessed. Here’s hoping that one surprise will be less tragedy and bloodshed than expected, greater opportunities for peace, and successful transitions for countries from Senegal to Kenya.