I’d like to begin my year’s writing on MercatorNet by looking back at Africa’s progress towards economic emancipation and true democracy during 2017. From this latest chapter in a long and tortuous journey I hope to identify important issues that are worth keeping tabs on in 2018.

A year is long, and Africa is vast, so this article is in the form of sweeping generalisations. It won’t contain everything. Events that warrant it will earn more particular treatments as the year unfolds — hopefully with outcomes that will give us Africans reasons to smile.

Let us start with Kenya. Keen readers will have noted that I kept silent during last year’s election – elections, to be more precise – short of announcing the Kenyan Supreme Court’s famous decision to annul the first results on September 1st.

My silence might have seemed a little odd. After all, the event was a key chapter in the political history of both the country and the continent. What’s more, I live in Nairobi and routinely critique elections across the continent. One more should have been easy. But now that I think of it, perhaps silence was the best article for the time.

The Kenyan election was not only a repeat of the country’s history of bungled polls, but also stood out for the impunity with which the bungling was done. It is still a hot topic as I write this, and many of my Kenyan readers will judge my opinion on the basis of my last name (yes, we still do that over here).

But no Kenyan will deny that lives were lost, democracy was trampled upon, state authority (and resources) were misused, and international observers, who were meant to neutrally witness the election, instead impotently watched and abetted the regime’s forceful reach for legitimacy, out of a manic fear of violence and in the economic interest of their home countries.

The 2017 election was meant to consolidate the gains the country has made in democracy since the chaos of 2007/08. Instead, it opened old wounds and left the country more divided than it has ever been since those dark days. When these divisions will be bridged and the wounds healed is still up in the air.

Mariatje Schaake, the head of the EU mission to Kenya during the elections, while presenting a report on the election that has predictably angered the Kenyan government, credited the current calm in Kenya to the resolve of Kenyans to be peaceful. That is not surprising. What is surprising is that Ms Schaake criticised the Kenyan government. But enough of Kenya.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame won a new 7-year term in August with 98.7 percent of the vote. I should talk no more about the matter here for its sheer ridiculousness. But this paragraph has to reach a certain length. So I will complete it by saying that Rwandan democracy, with the attendant rights and freedoms, still has a long way to go.

To switch topics but a little and briefly, some sad news came out of Libya of a most barbaric slave trade, in which thousands of trapped migrants and refugees are haggled over like merchandise in a bazaar. It is an eloquent reminder of the failure of that country after the mismanaged transition post-Muammar Gaddafi. The only fact more eloquent was the silence of the international community and the incompetence of the AU.

Against the backdrop of these parodies of progress, the continent witnessed the end of two strongman regimes. While one was cataclysmic, the other was quite nuanced. I speak, of course, of the fall of Robert Mugabe after 37 years of ruling Zimbabwe, and the retirement of Eduardo dos Santos (after being in charge of Angola for 38 years).

While both changes were massive and pointed in the right direction, they were also a little confusing. For while they embodied desires for change among the citizens of the two countries, they also represented, in many ways, a continuation of rule by the old guard and old interests. It’s almost as if nothing had changed.

In fact, in both countries, the strongmen’s parties (ZANU-PF and MPLA) remain in power and are unlikely to leave it for some more time. However, after the staleness of such long tenures, I think change of any kind would have been welcome. Much credit also goes to the people of the two countries for handling the transitions very peacefully.

Since Yahya Jammeh, who ruled The Gambia for 22 years, was also hounded out of office at the beginning of 2017, the year has turned out to be very fruitful for the end of strongman regimes. The space for autocrats in Africa is shrinking. Nevertheless, after the celebrations are over, the people of Zimbabwe and Angola, like the Gambians before them, will realise that much more work remains to be done.

In West Africa, little Liberia sprung a wonderful end-year surprise for the continent by electing former footballer George Weah as President on 26th December. He won in a runoff against Joseph Boakai. Mr Weah will be sworn in on 22nd January. It will be the country’s first democratic transfer of power since 1944.

The Liberian Supreme Court had delayed the runoff so it could hear charges of fraud during the first round, which took place on 10th October, and which Mr Weah won by 38 percent. That act of the court echoed the Kenyan Supreme Court’s decision a few weeks earlier to nullify the August elections, and proved that African judiciaries could hold their own.

There could have been no better way to end the African news cycle for 2017 and usher in 2018. I see it as African democracy’s statement of defiance, evidence that despite the scale-backs on its progress across the continent, it is interested in entrenching itself. And West Africa, of all regions, seems to be the most fertile seedbed for it.

As we roll deeper into 2018, one can only hope that this progress will continue. There will be many presidential elections in Africa this year, but I will be paying particularly close attention to a few. One of them is South Sudan. The country is gearing for a controversial July election amidst a brutal civil war that is defying a ceasefire signed at the end of 2017.

The transition in Zimbabwe will, hopefully, be completed by an election in July or August. It will be a surprise if it is not won by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the fired Vice President who led the army in deposing Mugabe. I think the greatest achievement that can be expected from this change will be the return of proper presidential term limits.

Up in Cameroon, Paul Biya, another of Africa’s tired old strongmen, will be running in an October election to extend his 34 year tenure. If he loses and is successfully removed from office, the trip down to Equatorial Guinea to join Yahya Jammeh won’t be as long as the latter’s journey one year ago. But perhaps I’m expecting too much.

I expect even less on 23rd October, which happens to be the day I am watching most closely. On that day the long-suffering people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will go to the polls. I’m watching it closely because if the DRC can take a step forward in democracy, then any country in Africa can. Yet from where I stand, not much will change. The incumbent, Joseph Kabila, may run, although he shouldn’t; and his most credible opponent is still in exile.

Away from politics, in 2018 Africa’s collective economy will continue to grow (keep a keen eye on Ethiopia, dear readers), the population will grow apace (expect even more population-time-bomb scares), and wide, genuine smiles will continue to reveal teeth of all colours on faces of just as many colours across this vast primeval home of humankind.

It is those smiles that I look forward to the most.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.