Africa 2012: A year of opportunities and threats

Keith Somerville

A week into 2012 is a good point at which to stop and consider what the year is likely to hold for Africa, with of course the caveat that what holds for one state or region does not automatically hold for another state or region.

The continuing political evolution in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia may encourage popular movements in other north or sub-Saharan states, as people bereft of control over their futures and with detatched, distant, unresponsive and often rapacious governments decide that they too can bring about change.  Though as is developing in Egypt, that change may not be what protestors thought they had brought about or is more long-drawn out and violent than they hoped at the start of their “spring”.

In 1989 and the early 1990s, there was, to steal from Harold Macmillan, a new wind of change blowing through Africa – brought about b y many factors including the end of the cold war, the withdrawal of aid from socialist or western countries or the loss of strategic salience for some areas, and also a result of a slow build-up of anger among populations at the excesses and inadequacies of their leaders.

The results of that wave of change in Africa were patchy.  The USA and EU, often using aid or the threat of its withdrawal as a lever, sought above all else to encourage free market economic reforms and the holding of Western-style elections on timetables that were unrealistic and favoured incumbents who still had their hands on the levers of power.  President Omar Bongo of Gabon said in 1990 that the ‘wind from the east is shaking the coconut trees’.  He bent with the wind a little and survived with his auocratic rule intact – it is is still intact following his detah with his son in power and able to ensure victory in elections through his entrenched power, control of key media and immense powers of patronage.

But in other areas of Africa more change continues – Ghana holds regular, fiercely contested but generally fair and trusted elections.  Senegal is approaching elections with the prospect of a serious and popular challenge to President Wade.  Zambia saw elections in which a fierce critic of corruption, Michael Sata, came to power and set about rotting out corruption and challenging some of the excesses of Africa’s new best friend, China, in its unbalanced relations with African partners.

Effective political processes like those are needed rather than what we’ve seen in recent months in DR Congo, Cameroon and other states, where the popular will is not seriously reflected through votes – either through outright fraud or use of state power, wealth and political clientism to ensure the victory of the sitting leader.

There will be crucial elections, though, this year elsewhere in Africa.  Kenya‘s, due in December, could be key to the country’s ability to escape from political corruption, cronyism and the use of communal violence for political ends.  The last vote there, in 2007, was not fair and EU and other observers found that Kibaki’s victory was not a true reflection of the voting.  Violence on a huge scale followed the annoucement of the “results” and the indecently fast swearing-in of Kibaki.

Much of the evidence available from commissions of inquiry (Wako and Krielger) and from human rights groups shows that elements on the governing PNU side and in the opposition ODM, had no great faith in elections to ensure their access to power and had planned violence prior to the announcement of the result.  groups within the ODM had plans in place to make areas of Kenya ungovernable if Raila Odinga did not win.  PNU leaders had co-opted the Mungiki gang/sect on to their side and were ready for violence.  The police and security forces were used initially to crush with extreme violence the first demonstrations by ODM supporters.

What followed was political gangsterism that took on the appearance of ethnic violence, as pro-ODM Kalenjin in the Rift attacked Kikuyu and Kisii, and Kikuyu attacked Luo and carried out revenge raids against Kalenjin.  This was violence led by politicians greedy for power and the wealth that flows from it at all costs – it was not, as it was too often depicted in the Western media, an ethnic war fueled by long-held, primeval “tribal” hatred.

Six key figures accused of fomenting that violence (three from the PNU headed by Uhuru Kenyatta) and three from the old ODM alliance (chief among them William Ruto) will hear within three weeks whether they are to be tried.  The six are charged with a number of crimes including murder, forcible transfer (effectively ethnic cleansing), persecution and rape.  None are personally acussed of committing these crimes but of planning and implementing violent political cmpaigns using these crimes as instruments. They all deny the charges.

The ICC cases will have a huge effect on Kenyan politics.  Ruto and Kenyatta both intend to run for the presidency in 2012.  If they are on trial in the Hague they can hardly campaign strenuously or hold together coalitions of diverse groups and interests.  Their influence over Kenyan politics will be considerably reduced during the key election year and they may be taken out of the equation altogether.  Some feel this will lay the field open for Raila Odinga to beat whoever becomes the candidate for the Kibaki camp – as Kibaki cannot stand for another term.

Much will depend on whether Kenyatta and Ruto can exert influence and patronage from afar, what sort of alliances among individuals and communities emerge.  Manoeuvring is already underway, with the key Masaai leader William Ole Ntimama, throwing his weight (initially and possibly for tactical/bargaining reasons), behind a leading Masaai figure, Education Permanent Secretary James ole Kiyiapi.  He has standing among his community but hardly the stature of an Odinga, Musyoka or Kenyatta.

Personalities and the ability of rich and powerful individuals to put together strong but short-term coalitions have been at the heart of Kenyan election politics.  The ICC trials could break this mould or at least change the balance of power to weaken the power of individuals who have dominated the political scene for decades.  It is unrealistic to hope that the light the ICC could shed on the role power, wealth, corruption and violence in Kenyan politics will lead to permanent change on its own, but it is an opportunity for Kenyans to seize the initiative from the rich and powerful few who have used government as their personal playground since independence.

In South Africa, there is not a national election but there will be conferences and internal ANC elections that are just as important. The ANC holds a major policy conference in June, followed by its five-yearly elective congress in December.  The latter conference will choose the ANC’s leadership for the next five years and decide who runs for president on behalf of the movement in April 2014.

This year will see an intensification of the battle for the leadership and the soul of the ANC.  President Jacob Zuma – himself gaining power after a bitter fight with incumbent Thabo Mbeki in which dirty tactics and party factionalism were used by each to undermine the other – is fighting for his political life.  Always on the backfoot as a president personally because of the rape trial and corruption investigations, he rapidly came into conflict with his important support base in the Youth League as the league’s loose cannon, Julius Malema, tried to carve out  his own power base.  When Zuma tried to keep him in order they became bitter enemies with Malema repteadly embarrassing the government domestically and internationally and mocking Zuma personally.

Malema is still fighting to overturn his suspension from thr party and showed there is residual support for him, when he was elected to the ANC  provincial executive committee in Limpopo province.  He is unlikely to lie down and be quiet in such a key year for the ANC.  The question  is whether he can still command populist support and win g blocks of votes in the leadership contest, as his stature and credibility have been damaged.

Malema and his supporters in the Youth League are likely to fight Zuma tooth and nail and appear to favour the candidacy of  Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula.  Motlanthe is a likely alternative to Zuma but doesn’t seem to want at this stage an open fight with Zuma, mirroring the one at the ANC Polokwane leadership election conference at which Zuma outflanked Mbeki with support from the Youth League.

An interesting political figure in the leadership struggle is Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale.  He is an  astute politician with a history of leadership in the Johannesburg townships, authority and respect within the ANC, and  experience as a successful businessman.  He was critical of the ANC over the Malema affair and called on the movement not to use disciplinary measures to settle political scores.  He could use his position to act as a peacemaker and kingmaker or could even emerge as an acceptable alternative to Zuma and Motlanthe.

However the factionalism and personality struggle pan out, it will be a fascinating but vital year from South Africa and the ANC.

Somalia is facing a tough year with the conflict between the transitional government and al Shabab now involving not just an AU force but also the Kenyan incursion (seemingly bogged down in the south and lacking a clear objective) and Ethiopian forces in the Ogaden.  As Mary Harper makes clear in her forthcoming book, foreign intervention and foreign-spawned peace conferences and artificial government have not solved but have usually exacerbated and prolonged conflict in Somalia.  It is time to leave Somalia to Somalis.  Developments in Somaliland suggest this can lead to innovative and positive progress.

Nigeria enters the year saddened and split by the growing violence in the north-east and repercussions at Christmas represented by the bloody attacks on churches in Abuja.  President Goodwill Jonathan declared a state of emergency, put tanks and troops in the street in areas of north-east Nigeria and threatened to crush to  the Islamist Boko Haram movement.

Amid what appears on the surface to be a Christian-Muslim split threatening a virtual civil war, there are complex social, communal and economic factors at play – as demonstrated by the widespread protests against the withdrawal of fuel subsidies, which threatened to get rolled into the whole Boko Haram conflict when protests took place in early January 2012 in Kano.

Boko Haram is a militant Islamist group formed in 2002.  It has carried out a series of attacks against both Muslim and Christian targets (as well as the military and police) in north-east Nigeria; starting in the town of Maiduguri, which has a history of violence by Muslim splinter groups dating back to the Maitatsine riots in the mid-1980s.  The attacks and bombings of churches have caused havoc and widespread fear in Nigeria, leading to Christians pledging to defend their churches and fellow-believers.

Boko Haram says its aim is to  overthrow the government and set up an Islamic state.  It is critical of what could be termed moderate Islamic leaders and politicians from the mainly-Muslim north, who it sees as too willing to compromise and to cexist with Nigeria’s Christians and secular system.  It has fed on poverty, resentment at the failure of successive governments to deliver basic services and it has used northern  and Muslim resentment or alienation at being ruled by a Christian southerner to generate support.  Some analysts have suggested that major Muslim politicians in the north, including former military officers, publicly condemn the group but have contacts with it and are not unhappy to see it undermine the current government.  It is not clear from where the movement gets its weapons and explosives.

Boko Haram proclaims an interpretation of Islam which makes it haram, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society or Christianity.  Prohibitions include voting in elections, receiving secular education and dressing in a Western style.  According to the BBC’s Farouk Chothia, Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country had a Muslim president.

The movement’s full name is is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, meaning “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”.  It was formed by charismatic Islamic cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, formed in Maiduguri in 2002.  Coming into conflict with successive governments, the movement carried out a major attack on Maiduguri’s main police station in 2009 – hundreds were killed in the clash.  Mohammed Yusuf was captured and died while in police custody – giving him martyr status among his followers.  Attacks by the movement had esclated since then in Maiduguri, Damaturu and then most sensationally in the Christmas Day bombings in Abuja.

President Jonathan and the security forces are committed to destroying the movement, though whether the army is totally unified in this remains to be seen.  The government has to tread a very careful line in its fight – avoiding a crusading Christian approach and ensuring that this does not become a war against the north-east or against Muslims.  He may not be helped by a US congressional report identifying Boko Haram as a potential threat to US interests. The last thing Nigeria needs is to be dragged into the American war on terror in a US election year.

Overall, Africa as a whole and not just Nigeria needs a year where it is allowed to deal with its own problems in its ways rather than by being roped into US or other external campaigns or plans.    External intervention – of whatever kind short of humanitarian aid in emergencies – in Egypt’s political evolution, the conflict in Nigeria or muddled, uninformed and ill-intentioned interference in Somalia will not be in the interests of those states, Africa or international relations.  The only exception I would make is the ICC process relating to the Kenyan post-election violence.  The inability of the Kenyan political or judicial system to seriously undermine the impunity of leading politicians means that the ICC could help bring about change in this vital area.

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