Africa in 2017: The political road ahead

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Nic Cheeseman reflects on some of the discussions emerging from the recent Royal African Society event ‘Africa in 2017: Prospects and Forecasts’ at the University of Birmingham. Nic argues that this will be a big political year for the continent, outlining some of the changes that have already emerged and others that are round the corner.

This year has already brought some changes. The US, Ghana and The Gambia have inaugurated new presidents while a mutiny has threatened to undermine political stability in Cote d’Ivoire. On a more personal and less significant scale, there have also been some big changes in my life, as I have left Oxford University to take up a new position as the Professor of Democracy at Birmingham University. Although it was sad to leave Oxford after almost 20 years as student, researcher, and lecturer, the opportunity to devote more time to my democracy research at Birmingham was too good an opportunity to turn down. I was also excited to join a University with two centres that are really committed to taking Africa seriously, the International Development Department (IDD) and the Department for African Studies and Anthropology (DASA).

Last Monday, IDD and DASA joined forces with the Royal African Society of the United Kingdom to host a discussion of Africa in 2017: Prospects & Forecasts. Joining me on the panel was a fantastic line up including Eliza Anyangwe, founder of The Nzinga Effect, Prof Franklyn Lisk, an economist from the University of Warwick, and Kenya’s own Dr Njoki Ngumi, maker and member of the Nest Collective. The debate was wide-ranging and vibrant, covering everything from the outlook for economic growth to why so much “knowledge” about Africa is produced outside of the continent. If you are interested, you can listen to the whole event as a podcast by searching for “Africa in 2017” on

Electoral Tensions

Regular readers will be unsurprised to know that my own contribution focussed on what is likely to happen to democracy in Africa over the next year. Will we see gains for opposition or ruling parties, and what are likely to be the most important bones of contention? The last few years have been marked out by battles over presidential term-limits. However, while the fate of President Joseph Kabila in the DRC — who has served two terms and would like a third — is yet to be settled there are few other term limit crises on the horizon. This is because most of the countries in which national elections are scheduled do not feature second term presidents hell-bent on staying in power.

This year, presidential polls are only scheduled in Angola, Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone (early 2018) and Somalia. Term limits will not be an issue in Kenya because President Uhuru Kenyatta is in his first term, or in Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame has already secured the right to stay in power. In Angola, the term limits introduced in the new constitution were not applied retrospectively, while in Liberia the ruling party has already announced it will be running a new candidate, defusing any controversy. This leaves Sierra Leone. At the start of last year, supporters of President Ernest Bai Koroma started to test the waters for a third term bid, but recently this idea appears to have been dropped.

In the absence of term limit crises, attention will turn to the competence of Africa’s electoral commissions. The upcoming elections in Kenya, Liberia and Sierra Leone are likely to be close, although it is too early to tell exactly how close. In Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won a landslide in the second round of the last presidential election, but the first round was much tighter and it is likely that a new candidate will not be able to carry all of her support. Similarly, in Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma won with a commanding 59 per cent of the vote in 2012, but the 2007 election was extremely close and required a second round. Given that the ruling party will be forced to run a new candidate, the prospects that the first round of voting will be close are high.

In Kenya, of course, the question of how close the elections will be is one of the big issues being debated in the media as I write. Godwin Murunga has argued the idea that the government has expanded its reach and is on course for an easy victory is misleading. Instead, he points out that a number of by-elections have been won by the opposition, and that if this trend continues into the General Election President Kenyatta could be far more vulnerable than many commentators recognise. For my part, I have argued that the election could become extremely competitive if the opposition can unify and effectively use the new devolved structure to harness the authority and resources that Governors now possess. Should this come to pass, this year’s election is more likely to resemble 2007 than 2013 in terms of the closeness of the campaign — although it is important to keep in mind that this does not mean that the aftermath is likely to be the same.

The fact that three close elections may occur in Africa in 2017 is significant, because it will place electoral commissions under great pressure to perform. This is a source of concern, because the independence and capacity of the electoral commission remains controversial in all three countries. This is most obviously the case in Kenya, of course, where the Coalition for Reform and Democracy has repeatedly called its supporters to the streets to try and force through electoral reform. However, it is also an issue in Liberia, where the losing candidate in 2011, Winston Tubman, claimed the polls had been rigged, and in Sierra Leone where 10 per cent of votes were set aside in 2012 because of alleged fraud. Unless political leaders in these states can build consensus around how elections should be conducted, there is a real danger that heated campaigns will lead to disputed results, increasing the threat of political instability.

Social Media

Another likely site of contestation will be social media and the use of new communication technologies. Last year, the continent saw the rise of political and social movements such as #thisflag in Zimbabwe and #feesmustfall in South Africa. As I have written in previous columns, these groups were driven in part by the ability to use new technologies to quickly communicate ideas and information in the absence of formal political structures. As opposition parties and civil society groups learn from each other’s example, the use of social media for political purposes is only likely to increase. However, while the potential for Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook to substitute for traditional methods of campaigning is an exciting prospect, it is important not to exaggerate the significance of this trend or the vulnerability of ruling parties to new technologies.

Over the last few years, ruling parties have begun to respond to the challenge of social media, for instance by sponsoring supporters to tweet and call in radio shows as if they are ordinary citizens, shaping what are supposed to be organic debates. Over the next twelve months, government efforts to re-assert control over social media are likely to gather pace as leaders in the continent’s more authoritarian states learn from one another about how best to turn new forms of communication to their advantage. For example, following an example set by Gabon, Zimbabwe is set to introduce Cybersecurity legislation that the government claims is simply designed to protect national security, but which critics have alleged represents an attempt to control the media and the flow of information. A similar battle is currently underway in South Africa, and this is likely to spread to other countries in 2017.

Indeed, in response to an earlier version of this argument that I wrote for, I received a number of tweets about cases of Internet censorship occurring in Africa right now. For example, a Cameroonian journalist got in touch to say the government was threatening to sue citizens who spread ‘false information’ about the recent wave of protests on social media. The next day, unconfirmed reports started to come through that the Internet had been blocked in the North-West and South-West parts of the country. Whether social media remains a potential source of political transformation in the future will depend on how these struggles play out.

The Bigger Picture

The outcome of political contestation in 2017 will vary across the continent. In places where governments are particularly authoritarian and opposition parties are disunited, we are likely to see democratic backsliding and a decline in the quality of civil liberties. Cameroon seems likely to fall into this category, unless popular frustration builds to a point that it becomes impossible for President Paul Biya to repress the calls for him to go. Close elections will probably have a very different impact in a second set of countries that have a history of being more respectful of political rights and civil liberties. In states such as Mauritius and South Africa, there is a much higher chance that a year of contestation will end with victories for the opposition, in terms of political reform if not a transfer of power. This raises an interesting question: How politically open are Kenya, Liberia, and Sierra Leone? These countries are typically seen as being in the middle of the spectrum, not as free as Benin and Ghana but not as closed as Angola or Chad. As a result, the way in which their political systems will respond to moments of great national stress is very much an open question – and one that will be the subject of my next column.

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