What Security Challenges Face Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015?

SADC leaders pictured during the 34th SADC Ordinary Summit in Victoria Falls, 17 August, 2014 (Flickr/GCIS/GovernmentZA)

2014 proved to be a tumultuous year for sub-Saharan Africa. Conflict and insecurity flared up across the continent, with the situation particularly precarious in the Sahel region, as well as parts of West and Central Africa, where weak to non-existent state authority precipitated intra-state conflicts with dire humanitarian consequences. This was most evident in South Sudan and neighboring Central African Republic (CAR), where violence between disparate and ethnically oriented armed groups cumulatively resulted in at least 15,000 fatalities and the displacement of close to 2 million others since 2012.

With limited options for finding a binding resolution to both conflicts, South Sudan and CAR will likely continue to experience intermittent but severe levels of violence in 2015. The coming year will also likely see a resumption of counterinsurgency operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s restive northeast. After successfully nullifying the threat of the Tutsi-dominated and supposedly Rwandan-sponsored M23 movement, the United Nation’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) is now setting its sights to two other non-state groups active in the region—the Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The FIB will be under particular pressure to counter the FDLR, which has failed to meet two separate deadlines to disarm. Apart from catalyzing an uptick in conflict in the DRC’s rebel-embattled northeast, the resumption of counterinsurgent operations by the FIB will revive discourse surrounding the legal implications of the brigade’s offensive mandate and its possible ramifications for future UN-sponsored peacekeeping missions.

In the Sahel region of western Africa, insecurity will likely continue to be driven by Islamist extremist groups seeking to displace secular state authority with their brutal interpretation of Islamic doctrine. In Mali’s desert north, the achievements of the French-led Operation Serval seem to have been short-lived. Islamist fighters, who were thought to have been pushed to the periphery of Mali’s vast desert expanse, have announced their bloody return in a spate of armed attacks which killed more than 30 UN peacekeepers in 2014 alone. This violent trend is expected to continue in the absence of greater international support of the under-resourced United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), in addition to the demonstration of greater political will by the Malian government.

However, the impact of Islamist militancy is nowhere more pronounced on the African continent than in Nigeria. Not only was 2014 the bloodiest year of Boko Haram’s decade-long insurgency, but it also saw the Islamist extremist sect capture and hold large swathes of territory in Nigeria’s northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. Ill-equipped and under-staffed, the Nigerian military has struggled, and will likely continue to struggle, to stem the burgeoning violence. However, of particular concern is the impact that the Boko Haram insurgency could have on Nigeria’s February 2015 presidential elections. In this regard, Boko Haram is anticipated to increase both its urban and rural armed campaign as a means of disrupting, and thus undermining, the electoral process. By creating conditions which would challenge the perceived inclusiveness of the ballot, Boko Haram may be seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the government elected—a move which could foster far-reaching instability which the sect could readily exploit to its advantage.

Islamist militants are also likely to influence political developments across the east coast of Africa in the coming year. This is particularly true in Kenya, where the al-Shabaab Islamist extremist movement is increasingly shifting its insurgency south of the Somali border. 2014 saw a discernible shift in al-Shabaab’s Kenyan-based operations with the group becoming more discriminate in its attacks, specifically targeting Christians in acts of mass violence in the country’s predominantly Muslim coast. Al-Shabaab’s stratagem in this regard seems to be focused on widening already deep-rooted ethno-religious cleavages in Kenyan society which it can manipulate to its own advantage. The group’s trend of targeting victims due to their religious orientation will likely continue in 2015, particularly if the Kenyan government continues to adopt a counterterrorism policy which is itself discriminatory toward the country’s ethnic Muslim population.

Across much of the continent, geopolitical stability is set to be influenced by two very dissimilar but equally influential factors. First, in 2014, an outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever destabilized an already tenuous socio-economic and political equilibrium which existed in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Due to its dynamic nature, it remains difficult to forecast the progression of the outbreak in the short to medium term. However, what can be said with certainty is that the adverse impacts of the disease will be felt in the aforementioned countries in 2015 and beyond.

Second, the unravelling of the 27-year reign of Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaoré, has and continues to send shockwaves across the African continent. The reverberations would have been particularly palpable in those countries where other long-serving presidents like Compaoré are seeking to extend their constitutional rule. These include the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Joseph Kabila, the Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, Benin’s Yayi Boni, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, as well as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. Concerns regarding the contagion effect of the Burkinabe revolution would also likely have been felt by other long-serving African presidents who, in the absence of being vexed by the issue of presidential term limits, were facing increasing calls for political reform; the most glaring examples include Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Angola’s José Eduardo Dos Santos. Whether similar political change can be fermented in any of these countries will, however, be dependent on a number of factors. These include the ability of opposition movements to co-opt the very militaries oppressing them, in addition to harnessing the influence of growingly powerful civil society movements.

In the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region of the continent, all eyes will focus on a presidential by-election which is scheduled to be held in Zambia on January 20, 2015. The October 2014 passing of the late President Michael Sata has catalyzed a heated succession battle which has fermented a factional split in the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party. A December 2014 national conference organized to elect the party’s presidential candidate ended violently with each PF faction nominating its own candidate. In this regard, Defense Minister Edgar Lungu and National Assembly lawmaker Miles Sampa have emerged as the favored nominees among their rival contingents. Although a High Court ruling has since validated Lungu as the rightful PF candidate, the political infighting could see the ruling party usurped at the polls and losing its monopoly of political power—a development which could foster further socio-political strife in one of the region’s most stable democracies.