What Challenges Does 2016 Hold for Sub-Saharan Africa?

Malian soldiers secure an area between the towns of Goundam and Timbuktu. Northern Mali, June 2, 2015. (Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images)

Akin to its physical landscape, the political environment of Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 varied greatly from country to country. On a positive note, elections in politically polarized countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire concluded relatively peacefully, despite the shadow of political violence looming large. Burkina Faso, which entered the year in political limbo following the ousting of long-serving president Blaise Compaoré, also elected its first democratic government, thwarting a coup attempt by the deposed leader’s presidential guard in the process.

In another encouraging development, 2015 also marked the nadir of the West African Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 11,000 people since the virus was first reported in the region in early 2012. Just today, the World Health Organization declared Liberia—the last affected country—Ebola-free.

However, while last year saw Sub-Saharan Africa overcome a number of important challenges, it also saw the continuation and often the creation of social, political, and economic obstacles that will define the continent’s security outlook in 2016.

In West Africa, 2015 saw the threat posed by Islamist extremist groups both evolve and expand across the region. This was best exemplified by developments linked to Boko Haram, which not only pledged its allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS)—becoming that group’s largest affiliate in the process—but also exported its insurgency outside of Nigeria’s borders. With punitive measures by Nigeria and its Lake Chad Basin neighbors expected to continue in the coming year, retaliatory attacks in the form of suicide bombings, kidnappings, and armed raids will likely persist, if not increase, in parts of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger in 2016.

Of particular concern is the possibility that Boko Haram will attempt to adopt the operating protocols of ISIS-affiliates elsewhere, targeting Western interests in the respective areas of operation. This year may also see groups affiliated with al-Qaeda continue to demonstrate their relevance in the international jihadi fraternity now dominated by ISIS and its various wilayats, or provinces. Mali’s desert north will likely remain the primary operational theater for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates, for example. As demonstrated in 2015, further devastating attacks in the south of the country, including Bamako, are also possible, as is the expansion of militant activity to neighboring countries such as Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

Islamist extremism is also expected to remain a feature of East Africa’s security environment. However, the coming year may see the primary driver of that threat, al-Shabaab, being as much at war with itself as with its primary adversaries, namely the governments of Somalia, Kenya, and their African Union (AU) allies. A tug-of-war between ISIS and al-Qaeda for control of al-Shabaab leadership could see the movement fracture, pitting opposing factions against each other in a war for ideological and territorial supremacy. While this could potentially weaken al-Shabaab, it could also make the group deadlier, with opposing factions using acts of violence as a yardstick for gaining pre-eminence.

In Central Africa, 2015 concluded with a fragile peace being forged in the conflict-ridden nations of South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). In both of these, warring factions have committed to ceasefires and democratic processes aimed at finding a binding peace. However, the disparate and decentralized nature of their primary actors raises concerns as to the willingness to adhere to these processes. Furthermore, the devastating socioeconomic impacts of the wars could themselves serve as catalysts for chronic political instability and associated insecurity in 2016.

While conflict may have declined by the end of the year in South Sudan and CAR, they certainly increased in Burundi. Pierre Nkurunziza’s re-election to an unprecedented third successive presidential term continues to incite violence against and in support of his regime. This unrest has killed 400 people, and displaced 220,000 others, since April 2015. With concerns that the country may be regressing to a civil war fought along ethnic and political lines, the AU has pledged to deploy a peacekeeping force mandated to protect civilians. This proposal has been vehemently rejected by Nkurunziza, who will likely persist in suppressing both opposition to his regime.

In the Great Lakes, 2016 will more than likely be shaped by elections to be held in several states. The first poll is set for Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni will face the greatest challenge to his near three-decade long rule on February 18th. The incumbent will find an opponent of equal political and financial clout in prominent businessman and fellow National Resistance Movement stalwart Amama Mbabazi, whom Museveni removed as prime minister in September 2014. Both camps have already accused the other of sponsoring militias to incite violence in the lead-up to the election. There are credible concerns that a win for either leader could have violent repercussions for Uganda.

Landmark elections are also scheduled to take place in both the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and neighboring Republic of the Congo. While the outcome of these polls has the potential to shift the political trajectories of both countries, the period leading up to the elections will be equally defining, with Joseph Kabila in the DRC and Denis Sassou-Nguesso in the Republic of the Congo both seeking contentious third terms that will require constitutional amendments. Attempts to facilitate this have already seen, and will likely continue to see, both leaders face widespread and violent opposition.

In southern Africa, faltering economic conditions brought about by dwindling oil prices, environmental conditions, and infrastructure carry the potential to catalyze civil unrest. Angola, whose peacetime economy was rebuilt almost solely off oil revenue, is facing rising inflation, a depreciating currency, and burgeoning unemployment as a result of the falling prices. The Angolan government, already beset by accusations of corruption, maladministration, and repression, may find it difficult to placate an increasingly vocal and frustrated citizenry should the economic downturn persist.

In South Africa, finally, a combination of water and power shortages could also restrict economic growth, cut food production, and lead to job losses in sectors dependent on the provision of these resources. Apart from leading to an uptick in protest activity and increasing already substantial crime rates, the prevailing economic conditions could influence voting behavior in the country’s forthcoming municipal elections. Some analysts believe that a poor showing for the ruling African National Congress in the local elections could lead to the recalling of controversial president Jacob Zuma—a move which itself could see violent reprisals by his supporters.