President of Rwanda Paul Kagame (2014): lightening his hand in dealing with critics? Chatham House via Flickr

Like it is everywhere else, a new year is a big deal in Africa. I know this sounds as glib as any canned statement for the beginning of a year, but it has to be said: many people think that Africa never changes, that things are always the same. This is not true. And a new year, like the one just starting, is an excellent chance to take stock and consolidate gains.

In Africa’s case, the stock to be taken is stupendous, for the continent is large and diverse. My approach in this article is to look at specific cases from around the continent that best encapsulate its collective story. As you will see, it is a rich but necessarily incomplete tapestry. If you have no time to read and just want one word for Africa in 2018, and the promise of 2019, “hope” will serve you well.

South Africa: A new president, at last

For the longer story, let’s start in South Africa. In early 2018, the country booted out its president, Jacob Zuma. It took long to come, but his party, the African National Congress, could no longer justify its continued support for him in the face of very credible accusations of corruption. The story behind his fall is complex, but it has a lot to do with his dalliances with three Indian brothers.

Mr Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been busy with the clean-up. But there is more to be said about him. Ramaphosa is beholden to the white elite of the country, with whom he has made lots of money in the past. The elite’s discomfort with the quick rise of the Guptas (the Indian brothers) cannot be ruled out as a reason for Zuma’s spectacular fall.

General elections will take place this year. They will show what South Africans think of Ramaphosa and his brand of leadership. Nevertheless, the South African case is a good one to begin with, if only because it provides an example for the rest of the continent. African presidents rarely suffer the consequences of their misconduct while in power.

Kenya: The ‘Handshake’

Up the coast, in Kenya, a pact was reached between the opposition and the government. Now referred to simply as the “Handshake,” it became public on March 9. It ushered in much-needed political calm and economic stability after the uncertainty and tumult that followed the annulled August 2017 presidential elections and the repeat polls that were boycotted by the main opposition candidate, Raila Odinga.

Nevertheless, there is a case to be made that the deal does not address the root causes of the country’s political problems. It is a classic example of the Kenyan love for quick fixes, applied more out of fear of violence than a desire for justice. It is better, on the face of it, than the situation which preceded it.

But it sweeps the real problems under the carpet. They will certainly resurface when disturbed by a proportionate cause, like the next election cycle. The deal also left the country without an effective opposition, with all the consequences that might have. For now, though, the peace holds, and that means a lot.

Ethiopia: A move towards democracy

Kenya’s neighbour to the north, Ethiopia, perhaps best embodied the interplay between hope and peril in Africa in 2018. A drawn-out and brutally-suppressed protest movement ended with the ascendancy of a new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. He has been a hurricane in Ethiopian politics.

From opening up the political space to restoring relations with bitter rival Eritrea after more than 20 years of frozen dealings, nearly every day of his premiership has marked a new step in the democratisation of Ethiopia. He has risen from relative obscurity to turn Ethiopia on its head in less than a year, and the country loves him for it.

But perils abound. Ethiopia’s stability in the post-Mengitsu era was achieved through a complex political system based on ethnic federalism. The country was hewn into tribal states administered by its various ethnic groups and balanced by a dictatorial central government, leaving little room for dissent.

The opening up of the political space has given hitherto-suppressed extremists a platform, threatening the fruits of the new freedoms. As I see it, there is no doubt that democracy will be good for Ethiopia, but Abiy has a tough-balancing act ahead. Luckily, his popular mandate is unlikely to run out any time soon.

Rwanda: Release of political prisoners

In Rwanda, the release on bail of Diane Rwigara (who had contested the presidency against incumbent Paul Kagame) and her mother Adeline, was a most pleasant surprise. Their subsequent acquittal gave more substance to my speculation that the government might be lightening its hand in dealing with critics.

It also does not hurt that it came against the backdrop of the release of many political prisoners, including the famous Victoire Ingabire. It is still too early to read reform in these events. In fact, in the light of experience, one would not be ill-advised to doubt the Kagame regime’s sincerity in opening up to its most ardent critics just yet. At the moment, though, one can only exult.

Zimbabwe: Mugabe ousted

In August, Zimbabwe held its first elections since the soft ouster of veteran leader Robert Mugabe. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the mastermind of Mugabe’s fall, won 50.8% of the vote, avoiding a runoff. But the result was disputed by his main challenger, dunking the country into political and economic uncertainty that is yet to be resolved. It remains to be seen whether it will come to a quick and peaceable resolution.

Sudan: A popular movement against Bashir

In Sudan, the year ended with massive protests that have spilled into 2019. Started as a reaction against corruption and rising costs of living, they have now morphed into a popular movement against the regime of Omar al-Bashir.

This is an important development, since Bashir’s regime has been quite secure since the secession of South Sudan. He has reacted to the protests in the standard strongman fashion, more keen on suppressing it than on resolving the underlying crisis. However the current crisis ends, his legitimacy has been undermined, and he might never regain it.

Congo: Long-delayed general elections held

To close this selection, the political troubles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo bear mentioning. After an unreasonably long delay occasioned by multiple postponements since 2016, the country finally held its general elections, in a predictably chaotic manner, on 30th December.

Unsurprisingly, the results took forever to be released. Given that the internet, cellphone service, and some media broadcasting signals were shut down shortly after the polling stations closed, it is not beyond prudence to construe that, as my younger brother put it, a lot of “cooking” took place.

There was even news on the ground that the government worked out an agreement with opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi — who was eventually announced as the winner of the presidential poll — before the announcement was made. The government-backed candidate, Emmanuel Shadary, registered such a poor performance that padding his share of the vote to make him the winner would have been obviously ridiculous.

By all indications, Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, had a good showing and should have won. The Catholic Church in Congo, arguably the country’s most functional institution, said as much when it pre-empted the announcement by proclaiming that it already had the result and urging the electoral commission to be truthful. Its voice should count for something; it deployed nearly 40,000 observers during the elections.

Fayulu’s response to the electoral slight has been reassuringly sober. While decrying it, he has filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court, Congo’s top court, to have the results annulled. His conduct is to be lauded. It is probably the only factor keeping the country from sliding into all-out chaos. One day, Congo will be fine.

In general: Internet censorship: abortion colonialism

Politics aside, two more trends from 2018 bear mentioning in this overview. The first is the scaling back of internet access. The DRC’s move to restrict online activity around the elections is not an isolated case.

It is a tactic that has found a cosy place in the playbook of many African governments, from Egypt to Tanzania, Uganda to Togo, to police free speech online. This is a dangerous trend, not just for hard-won freedoms, but also for the continent’s economic prospects, in which the internet has a solid role to play. Stiffer resistance will be needed in 2019.

The second trend I would like to point out is the increasingly public opposition to the operations of the international abortion giant Marie Stopes International, in various African countries. Towards the end of the year, and in quick succession, Niger, Kenya and Tanzania ordered the organisation to scale back its activities in some way because it was offering and/or advertising abortion services.

Before the end of the year, though, the latter two countries relented and loosened restrictions on the organisation once again. For a while, it had seemed like these governments had finally decided to finally run out the organisation, which makes no secret of its illegal abortion activities.

That they eventually, and quietly allowed it to continue operations says a lot about their priorities, and perhaps the organisation’s political influence. It also calls for more public and persistent opposition. Now that the conversation is being had, it should be carried on to the end without letting up.

As I said earlier, 2019 is a year of hope for Africa, but that hope will be useless if we do not work for it.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.