Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Two things shaped Africa’s narrative in 2020: Covid-19 and the political response to it. The former was a constant, the latter was adaptive, with different governments deploying the virus as shield or sword in an evolving contest between authoritarianism and resistance. 2021 will offer many more theatres around Africa in this contest but few will be as riveting as the Nile Basin, where Ethiopia and Uganda’s rulers will embark on a brutal contest to crown Africa’s most consequential authoritarian model.
Elections will play a role in shaping this contest. In 2021, there will be up to 26 elections in Africa, with at least 13 of them deciding the offices of president or prime minister. In some countries, such as Cape Verde, Djibouti, and São Tomé, the contests will barely register as national incidents. In Benin, Chad and Congo Brazzaville, the outcome will be pre-determined, barring a political miracle. Libya’s will be a transitional election, which should attract international attention. In the Gambia, incumbent president, Adama Barrow, who reneged on an agreement with a coalition of parties to serve three years of his five-year term, will seek re-election against the coalition of politicians to whom he broke his word. Zambia’s presidential election, scheduled to take place in August 2020, will occur against the backdrop of an unsustainable debt overhang that has already triggered a sovereign default and is likely to leave whoever is declared winner with a poor hand to deal thereafter.
In the Horn of Africa and the Nile Basin, 2021 will witness an unusual convergence of suffrage and suffering, with elections scheduled in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Somaliland, and Uganda, amidst a tidal wave of rising authoritarianism, fragmentation and expanding footprint of Islamist violence. In a region where Egypt and Kenya have historically been regarded as anchors, Ethiopia and Uganda are likely to dictate the agenda.
On Christmas Day, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced that general elections, postponed indefinitely from August 2020, will now take place on 5 June 2021 against a background of what could be conflict metastasis. On 3 November 2020, Ethiopia descended into a plurinational war in its northern Tigray region, in which the armed forces of neighbouring Eritrea were actively deployed with forces of the Ethiopia National Defence Force (ENDF) against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). After four weeks of fighting, Nobel Peace laureate and Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, declared active operations as ended, claiming his objectives had been met, despite the fact that the leadership of the TPLF remained unaccounted for. The war has triggered an upsurge in nationalist sentiment that is likely to guarantee another term for Prime Minister Abiy and his ruling Prosperity Party. However, with growing allegations of war crimes, violations against refugees and rising border and riparian tensions with regional neighbours Sudan and Egypt respectively, Ethiopia’s elections could pale into insignificance compared to what could come thereafter. The national and regional landscape created by his war with the TPLF clearly suggests that Abiy’s liberalizing pretensions are over. The main question to be determined is how ruthless his authoritarian turn will be.
Already secure in the affections of Eritrea’s Stalinist President, Isaias Afewerki, Abiy Ahmed, the newest ruler in the Nile Basin, appears to have chosen to look to Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, the oldest in the region and the continent’s third longest-surviving ruler after Equatorial Guinea’s President Obiang and Cameroon’s Paul Biya. In power since 1986, Museveni, a self-described freedom fighter, has chosen to conduct his campaign for re-election in Uganda’s January 14 general election as warfare, liberally deploying soldiers of the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force (UPDF) to shoot opposition supporters, prevent their rallies, arrest independent voices and throttle the media. The outcome of Uganda’s election again will appear pre-determined but its aftermath will need to be watched closely. While Kenya is widely regarded as East Africa’s hegemon, Uganda determines the region’s stability with neigbouring Rwanda, whose President used to be Museveni’s Director of Military Intelligence. Under Museveni, land-locked Uganda has projected a muscular security doctrine of extra-territoriality, exercising latitude to undertake operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and Sudan as he pleases. With the support of the United Nations, the European Union and the United States of America, he has also emerged as a regional ally in the campaign against the Islamists of Al-Shabaab in the Gulf of Aden and was instrumental in the creation of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), with the UPDF as the first and largest troop contributor to the mission. He has parlayed these credentials into portraying himself as Uganda’s indispensable ruler.
The Nile Basin and Horn of Africa present unique governance and fragility challenges. All but three of the eleven countries in the region – DRC, Kenya and Tanzania – are governed by soldiers who default to military methods where political skills are needed. The consequences are multi-dimensional but three stand out.
First, President Museveni has provided an ideological context conducive to the socialization of authoritarianism as a dominant regional governance model. In a region with a median age of 18, this is a guaranteed source of increasing tension and violence.
Second, a regional axis of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda is likely to find itself in a geo-strategic contest against Egypt, Kenya and Sudan at a time when the region needs to unite to confront common challenges of fragmentation, climate change and resource governance. This contest will be fertile ground for meddling by external sovereign actors.
Third, a growing Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique appears to be spreading to southern Tanzania, potentially making common cause with Somalia’s Al-Shabaab to create a contiguous maritime territory of Islamist violence stretching from Mozambique’s Indian Ocean coastline to the Gulf of Aden. This Islamist threat is guaranteed to become an alibi for militarized authoritarianism but growing regional tensions at this time could also be a boon to the Islamists in a mutually nourishing cycle of contradictions.
Egypt and Kenya may claim to have more diplomatic clout but the two soldiers who are likely to emerge in 2021 with renewed electoral mandates in Addis Ababa and Kampala are the regional disruptors. This is why those who seek positive change in the region must look in 2021 to affect the methods and instincts of Abiy Ahmed and Yoweri Museveni.