The year that was: the good, the bad and the ugly


If you think Africa is only about coups, civil wars and crazy dictators…well, we do have a few of those. But there’s been plenty else happening on the continent that defies all those negative stereotypes although there are some discouraging events. Below are some of the year’s most encouraging stories and the negative ones in no particular order.


>> The defeat of M23 (and the 

UN’s new-found teeth)


It all happened remarkably quickly. The Congolese army had been fighting a rebellion against rebels from the M23 movement in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for months, and then, in a matter of days, it was all over: the rebels had been vanquished. The stunning military victory is partly due to a surge of professionalism in the Congolese army, but a large chunk of credit must also go to the United Nations and its experimental new peacekeeping force, the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB).

The 3 069-soldier strong FIB was made up of troops from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania, and is unlike any other UN peacekeeping unit in that it has an offensive mandate – it is allowed to go on the attack, which it did in support of the Congolese army against M23. The defeat also showed Tanzania’s rising stock as a regional military powerhouse. Under the command of Tanzania, the SADC forces, which were part of the UN peacekeeping unit defeated the M23 and its backers.

Attack is the best form of defence, goes the sporting cliché; perhaps the same is true of peacekeeping.

Still, before you get too excited, remember that these are baby steps. M23 has officially surrendered and is at the negotiating table, but successfully reintegrating its fighters into society is an even more complex challenge. And nor is M23 the only problem group in the area: the UN has already said it is going to target the FDLR next (a militia group made up from the remnants of Rwandan genocidaires), which is likely to be a challenge of even greater magnitude.



>> Madagascar: is there a happy ending in sight?


Madagascar is in a bad way. Since 2009, when radio DJ-turned-coup leader Andry Rajoelina seized power, the country has been crippled by economic sanctions and in a constant state of political crisis. The consequences of this have been all too obvious: a collapsed economy, widespread poverty, and a health system that is currently being over-run by an outbreak of the bubonic plague (yes, that most medieval of diseases).

Meanwhile, the Southern African Development Community has been quietly – very quietly, at times – trying to persuade the main antagonists to put aside their own ambitions and let Madagascar return to some semblance of normality. Finally, all the hard work paid off: Rajoelina and Ravalomanana both agreed to renounce their claim to the throne and allow elections to go ahead.

Despite a few hiccups, those elections finally happened in October, and were relatively calm. Although Jean-Louis Robinson, a stalking horse for Ravalomanana, won the most votes, he failed to obtain an absolute majority. This means he will face the second-placed candidate, Hery Rajaonarimapianina, in a run-off election on December 20. And yes, you guessed it: Rajaonarimapianina is Rajoelina’s man.

Provided the run-off goes smoothly, it should not matter who wins. What is important is that Madagascar will be brought back into the fold, those economic sanctions lifted, and the new government can start to worry about actually governing the country. From here, the only way is up.



>> The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam


In May, Ethiopia began the process of diverting the flow of the Blue Nile to allow construction to begin on the mammoth 6 000MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. It is the kind of showpiece infrastructure project designed to reflect Ethiopia’s impressive economic progress over the last decade, as well as its sizeable ambitions; but it also poses an existential threat to Ethiopia’s downstream neighbours, Sudan and Egypt, who worry that any drop in Nile water supply could have a catastrophic impact on agriculture in their own countries.

At one stage, both Sudan and Egypt were talking tough – demanding that Ethiopia cease construction and threatening military action if it continued. Ethiopia, for its part, did not help matters by taking advantage of the chaos in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring to press ahead with its plans.

This year, however, tempers have cooled and both Sudan and Egypt have toned down their rhetoric. Sudan, in fact, has been converted, with President Omar al-Bashir giving his Ethiopian counterpart his official blessing for the project. Ethiopia deserves a lot of credit for this: patient but firm diplomacy, combined with a few tasty economic carrots, has defused a potentially explosive situation. All three countries are now participating in an intergovernmental committee to exchange ideas and make plans to alleviate any potential impact – managed sensibly, there is plenty of water to go around.



>> Where have all the pirates gone?


For the last decade or so, Somalia has been synonymous with famine, al-Shabaab and pirates. While al-Shabaab are still hanging around, and the humanitarian crisis, while improved, is still acute, pirates operating from the Somali coast are becoming harder and harder to find. This year, there have been just seven attacks on shipping that have been attributed to Somali pirates, and none of them have been successful – a precipitous decline from the grim heights of 2011, when 176 attacks were recorded. So what’s gone right?

To start with, ships travelling through the danger areas are much better equipped, with most carrying armed guards. No ship with armed guards has ever been hijacked in the area. Then there’s the coordinated naval response, which has seen the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Bab el Mandeb Strait patrolled by a European Union flotilla. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the changing economics of piracy no longer make it particularly worthwhile: with local Somali communities becoming less accepting of the pirates in their midst, it is harder and a lot more expensive to maintain hostages for a ransom that may or may not come.

It is not all good news: the decline in Somali piracy is being offset by a rise in piracy off West Africa. Hopefully, the lessons learned and applied so effectively in Somalia will be applicable elsewhere.


>> Africa’s richest man’s oil refinery


Nigeria is full of paradoxes and contradictions, but the craziest must be this: as well as being Africa’s largest exporter of crude oil, it is Africa’s second largest importer of refined petroleum. Out the oil goes, and then back it comes – with a hefty mark-up.

In paradox there is opportunity, as Aliko Dangote well knows. Earlier this year, Africa’s richest man, worth a tidy US$22 billion, announced plans to build a new oil refinery in Nigeria that would, at a stroke, nearly double Nigeria’s refining capacity, producing 400 000 barrels a day. It is also likely to create tens of thousands of jobs.

Such projects do not come cheap, however. 

Dangote estimates his refinery will cost US$9 billion, making it one of the most expensive investments in Africa. Already, however, he’s secured US$3.3 billion in loans to get it started.

This, ultimately, is why Dangote’s refinery is so encouraging: although it’s wonderful (and simply good business) for Nigeria to refine its own oil, and the jobs are an added bonus, the fact that African businessmen are in the position to conceive of and carry through projects on this scale is a telling indication of the progress that the continent has made, and of the future that Africa’s best and brightest can see for it. 

A few years ago, a project like this would have been inconceivable.


>> The threat of war in Mozambique


After 21 years of peace following the end of a civil war between government forces and the rebel Renamo movement, there are fears war might return to Mozambique following armed conflict between Government troops and Renamo’s ex-fighters in Sofala province. Talks are underway between the Frelimo Government and Renamo but with little success so far. An armed conflict would have major implications at the regional and international levels because Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia depend heavily on Mozambican ports. Major strides that Mozambique has scored on the economic front would also be undone by war.



>> Central African Republic crisis


The Central African Republic has been brought to its knees by violence since the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels toppled President Francois Bozize in March. 

Their hold to power has seen killings, looting and other abuses leading to the emergence of a Christian militia to oppose them. The militia and gunmen loyal to Bozize attacked the capital recently resulting in fresh killings and revenge attacks that have deepened the conflict. More than 500 people have been killed while 100 000 more have been displaced in the capital alone.


>> Zimbabwe elections


Against all odds, Zimbabwe held its harmonised presidential, parliamentary and council elections, which President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party won resoundingly. The margin of the victory shocked Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T, his Western backers and other detractors of President Mugabe and Zanu-PF. However, the election was declared free and fair by the majority of the observers drawn from all corners of the world and Zanu-PF has set about working to revive the economy, which is battling crippling sanctions imposed by the United States, Britain, the European Union and their Western allies.


>> Kenyan Mall attack and the myth of the Somali renaissance


At the beginning of this year, it was fashionable to talk about Somalia having turned a corner; to go and sip a coffee in Mogadishu and describe a bright, promising future for Africa and the world’s most failed state. It was a seductive myth, but always undermined by the facts: Mogadishu is not Somalia, just a city whose safety is guaranteed only by the presence of thousands of African troops; militant group al-Shabaab still control more territory than the government; and that government is notoriously corrupt and divided among itself.

It took a tragedy to reveal the myth for what it was, however. On September 21, gunmen entered Nairobi’s Westgate Mall and began shooting. What exactly happened over the next three days is unclear – did the gunmen take hostages? Did they escape? What caused the mall roof to collapse? – but by the end of it at least 72 people were dead.

Al-Shabaab immediately claimed responsibility, and said that Kenya had it coming; that this was a justified response to Kenya’s invasion of Somalia, which forced al-Shabaab out of its key strongholds. 

But the attack was also a message to everyone else that Somalia is far from being fixed, and that al-Shabaab remain a potent, unpredictable and brutal force.

The attack was doubly uncomfortable for the Kenyan government because its response was so woefully inadequate. 

Response teams took 90 minutes to get to the scene, at least one policeman died from friendly fire and attempts to seal off the building failed miserably. Westgate was a national tragedy and a national humiliation at the same time.

 >> South Africa, world mourns Mandela  

South Africa, Africa and the world at large were plunged into mourning following the death of anti-apartheid fighter and iconic freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. Mandela, who was given a befitting send-off by ordinary South Africans and world leaders, was buried at his Qunu rural home in the Eastern Cape. – Daily Maverick/Southern Times Writer

December 2013
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