Elections and Economics Add to Africa’s 2017 Security Challenges

A boy maintains a spot in line to receive free water, amid southern Africa's prolonged drought. Senekal, South Africa, January 7, 2016. (Denis Farrell/Associated Press)

As always, there were mixed sociopolitical fortunes across the vast landscape of sub-Saharan Africa in 2016. On a positive note, the year saw relatively peaceful elections take place in Benin, the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Uganda, and Zambia, despite concerns that these voting cycles could be subject to significant levels of violence. From an economic perspective, Africa also boasted three of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies  in Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, and Senegal. Justice was meted out to former Chadian President Hissène Habré, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity in Senegal. In another legal first, the International Criminal Court convicted Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for war crimes in destroying religious and historical monuments in Timbuktu during the town’s 2012 occupation by Islamist extremists.

These successes, however, were counterbalanced by a number of sociopolitical and economic grievances that will continue to afflict the continent in 2017. In West Africa, terrorism and political instability will particularly shape the security environment. The terrorist threat in West Africa primarily stems from a single politically fragile country: Mali. Weak state institutions, alleged maladministration, and ill-equipped pro-government forces—conditions which are eerily similar to that which precipitated a coup in 2012—have seen al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) reassert itself. The group has purportedly used a strategy of breeding offshoots with distinct ethno-political identities to branch out of Mali’s Arab-dominant northern regions into the country’s multi-ethnic and populated central regions. The central Mopti, Koulikoro, and Segou regions experienced higher levels of militant activity in 2016 and this is expected to continue into 2017. It also inevitably places the capital, Bamako, at a higher threat of terrorist infiltration.

The AQIM contagion also spread into neighboring countries. In the first quarter of 2016, AQIM’s al-Mourabitoun affiliate claimed its first attacks in Burkina Faso’s bustling capital, Ouagadougou, and Cote d’Ivoire’s resort town of Grand Bassam. Both attacks targeted facilities popular with foreign, particularly French, interests and were cited as reprisals for France’s ongoing counterterrorism operations in Mali. France’s spearheading of anti-AQIM operations in the Sahel region will likely continue to incite acts of violence against its interests and citizens across much of Francophone Africa. The threat will be most elevated in countries assisting French-led military operations, particularly those bordering Mali. In this regard, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Senegal will all enter 2017 amid a heightened threat of violence.

While AQIM enters 2017 resurgent, West Africa’s other major militant movement, Boko Haram, does so on the back foot. Relentless and multinational counterterrorism operations against the group’s stronghold in northeastern Nigeria have culminated in the arrest of hundreds of insurgents and the liberation of thousands of hostages, including some of the famed Chibok girls. While the frequency and geographical expanse of Boko Haram activity contracted in Nigeria in 2016, the sect continued to orchestrate mass casualty attacks in neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. With the multi-pronged military operations against the group ongoing, in addition to the movement fracturing amid a leadership struggle, a decline in Boko Haram violence is anticipated in 2017. However, a notable trend in the latter part of last year was the militant group’s propensity to launch attacks against internally displaced persons camps and humanitarian agencies operating within. With the region experiencing an unprecedented famine, prompting the intensification of humanitarian initiatives, Boko Haram attacks on relief personnel and interests could become a defining feature of its 2017 insurgency.

Nigeria was also afflicted by a return of militancy to the country’s southern regions, where groups such as the Niger Delta Avengers have emerged, demanding socioeconomic reforms in the key oil-producing region. Their attacks against oil interests cut Nigeria’s production significantly in 2016 and have constrained the country’s foreign earnings and public spending. This promoted the administration of President Muhammudu Buhari to engage major agitators in negotiations that will likely see access to state patronage being exchanged for peace. The strategy of rewarding violence will, however, continue to incentivize smaller groups outside of the concession table to orchestrate attacks and disruption to reap similar benefits.

Quelling violence with financial reward was also a strategy adopted by the government of Cote d’Ivoire in response to a mutiny by former rebels integrated into the country army. While authorities agreeing to pay financial benefits to the mutineers was seen as successful, the incident shows that Cote d’Ivoire’s economic prosperity alone will not mitigate the country’s susceptibility to political instability, particularly if economic growth does not yield tangible benefits for all sectors of society.

Elsewhere in West Africa, the political environment is anticipated to remain relatively stable in the coming year, though secretive military machinations remain a threat. One country whose democracy will be tested is Liberia, which will hold general elections in October 2017. The ballot will mark the nadir of the reign of Ellen Joseph Sirleaf, whose government has been hailed for ensuring Liberia’s stability—and will also be the first to be held following the drawdown of the United Nations mission in the country.

In central Africa, weak state institutions and socioeconomic strife will likely continue to fuel intrastate conflicts in Burundi, CAR, and South Sudan, worsening already burgeoning humanitarian crises. The situations in CAR and South Sudan both come after a resurgence in violence in 2016 following apparent progress of a democratic election in the former and the establishment of a government of national unity in the latter. In both instances, under-resourced and under-fire UN peacekeeping missions will be mandated to protect hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.

In Burundi, it appears that President Pierre Nkurunziza’s strategy of purging dissenters from all facets of Burundian society has secured his political longevity. Indeed, Nkurunziza appears to be so secure that he recently announced his intention to seek a fourth consecutive term at the country’s 2019 elections. However, targeted assassinations of high ranking and highly secured government ministers suggests that opponents may still exist within the president’s inner circle and could still catalyze an unconstitutional change of an otherwise unconstitutional government.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Joseph Kabila will be obliged to relinquish the country’s presidency at the end of year per an agreement brokered between his administration and a powerful opposition coalition. At the time of writing, Kabila has yet to officially ratify the accord, which will further raise suspicions regarding his commitment to the country’s stability.

In East Africa, all eyes will be on Kenya, which will hold general elections in August. The pre-election period has already been marked by heightened tensions. The opposition coalition, headed by long-serving opposition leader Raila Odinga, has claimed that the ruling Jubilee coalition has undue influence over the electoral commission that will oversee the vote. There are concerns that allegations of a predetermined electoral outcome could manifest in unrest comparable to Kenya’s 2007 post-election crisis. While the possibility of violence cannot be discounted, several of the key catalysts of the 2007 political violence have been addressed, while the threat of prosecution and Kenya’s vibrant civil society will mitigate the propensity of politicians to mobilize violence.

Terrorism will also likely remain a threat in East Africa in 2016 with al-Shabaab continuing a trend of retributive violence against Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, which continue to deploy force against the group in Somalia. The al-Shabaab threat may also extend to Tanzania should the country accept a proposal by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to deploy its troops to Somalia in 2017. In addition to al-Shabaab, a nascent terrorism threat will be posed by ISIS persisting in its bid for a foothold in East Africa’s jihadist theater. Although an ISIS-aligned breakaway faction of al-Shabaab will remain constrained in operating outside of Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region, self-radicalized supporters already orchestrated two attacks in the Kenyan cities of Nairobi and Mombasa in 2016. Further attacks by sympathizers should be expected in in the coming year.

In southern Africa, a regional drought and a slump in global commodity prices are likely to place further pressure on several governments already facing claims of maladministration. This is particularly the case in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe will remain the target of a reinvigorated protest movement. However, the greater threat to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front stems from a leadership struggle over who will eventually succeed him. Mugabe has still been put forward as candidate for the forthcoming 2018 presidential elections, with the party’s leadership arguing that any discussions regarding his successor remain both presumptuous and premature, yet he is set to turn 93 in February this year and his health is claimed to be faltering. A failure to address the issue of succession carries the potential to unravel both the party and Zimbabwe.

In Mozambique, low-level conflict between the Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) and Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) will continue to simmer. While 2017 commenced with the warring parties assenting to a ceasefire, periods of conciliation have often seen a spike in violence as both parties have sought to gain the ascendancy at the negotiation table. In 2016, Renamo increasingly pursued the tactic of attacking commercial interests along the country’s national highways and freight rail network, which could lead to disinvestment in the country should it continue. Mozambique has already seen inflation and the government is seeking a stabilization package from the International Monetary Fund.

Reduced growth rates on the back of a possible disinvestment due to a junk status rating could also have a significant impact on the South African economy. In addition to a depreciating rand and increasing living costs, South Africa could fail to achieve the economic growth required to stimulate necessary new jobs. The country had an estimated 27% unemployment rate in November 2016.  With unemployed youth accounting for the demographic spearheading South Africa’s high rates of protest activity and crime, a further uptick in both of these social risks should be expected in 2017. A resumption of unrest by tertiary education students calling for free education and associated reforms should also be expected, with violence again likely to spread beyond university campuses to surrounding commercial districts.