Ethiopia – Planting Avocado Trees. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wants 4 billion trees planted. Photo: Flickr
At the beginning of each year since 2017 I have written an article looking back on how Africa, this dear old continent, fared in the year just-ended, and to outline its prospects in the year ahead. I find it more difficult to do this year than ever before. Last year was one of the most nuanced I have ever seen.
However, I will begin by summarising what I believe to be the most important stories of 2019, at the same time providing updates on some of the big stories of 2018, which you can read about here.
A year ago I speculated on the direction of South Africa after the fall of Jacob Zuma. Well, the South African parliament went on to elect Cyril Ramaphosa, who had taken over as interim president, to a definitive five-year presidential term. He was sworn in in May. It is still too early to evaluate his administration, but he has not been spared trouble since his ascendancy.
In Kenya, the “Handshake,” a 2018 pact between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga which calmed nerves following the contested presidential election of 2017, and whose official name is the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), delivered its long-awaited baby. It came in the form of a 156-page report, launched at a raucous convention in November.
The document has divided opinion. It is seen through the lens of the upcoming 2022 general elections more than as a means to its stated goal. Which stated goal is to unite the country around a core of shared values and forestall the possibility of chaotic future elections by addressing historical injustices and economic equality.
It has been sent to a second-round of public participation, ostensibly as a means to further legitimise it, but it won’t lose its tag as a cog in succession politics ahead of the next elections. This means its usefulness will be short-lived and it likely will not contribute a thing to the achievement of its stated goals.
In Sudan, Omar al Bashir got kicked out of the presidency almost exactly three months after my article, in which I speculated that he would be overthrown. But then the military, which had changed sides and helped topple him, tried to take his place with a two-year transitional government, ignoring calls by protesters for a civilian government.
In response, the people of Sudan went back onto the streets and did not desist until the military gave in. In August, an agreement for a hybrid transitional government – made up of the military and civilian representatives – was reached. In September a new cabinet was sworn in. The new government set itself an ambitious target of getting a handle on two major issues – peace and the economy – in 200 days. Now it has less than 100.
Further north, Algeria handed Bouteflika his exit card in April, just before Bashir. After ruling Algeria for over 20 years and surviving the 2011 Arab Spring, he resigned in response to unrelenting popular protests. The problems which contributed to the protests are far from being solved, but getting rid of Bouteflika was a good beginning. The country gained another victory by beating Senegal to win the Africa Cup of Nations three months later.
In Zimbabwe, former president Robert Mugabe passed on in September. He died in disgrace, having been forced out of power by a coup barely two years earlier. But the disgrace was, thankfully, tempered by his legacy as an African independence hero. For this, he got a well-deserved state funeral.
Mugabe’s reputation is also tempered by the failure of those who took over from him to bring Zimbabwe back from the ruin to which he led it. Things seem to have taken a turn for the worse. The economy is headed for collapse, and political freedoms are in retreat. To encourage the people of Zimbabwe, I can only refer them to Martin Luther King’s “arc of the moral universe” quote – a favourite of Obama.
Speaking of moral matters, population controllers did not relent in their efforts to bring Africa into the fold of the culture of death. Luckily, resistance was not lacking. For instance, when they locked out pro-life participants from the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, held to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1994 United Nations “International Conference on Population and Development,” a parallel conference championing family values was convened. It also helped that the United States led a coalition of countries to oppose the summit, further denying it legitimacy.
If only these birth control crusaders could leave us alone. We had enough problems to contend with in 2019. In March, Ethiopia witnessed its deadliest plane crash ever, in which all 157 passengers and crew passed on. This accident touched close home, not just because Ethiopia neighbours Kenya, where I live, but also because the flight was headed for Nairobi, so that a large number of the casualties were Kenyan.
Then there were Idai and Kenneth, two hurricanes which hit south-eastern Africa around the same time, claiming hundreds of lives and leaving millions of people vulnerable. Hurricanes rarely visit us, and many African countries are not prepared for them. The year ended with another freak weather event when extra heavy rains brought with them devastating floods, especially to eastern and central Africa.
Good news, of course, was not lacking. In October, Eliud Kipchoge, Kenyan marathoner extraordinaire, ran a marathon in under two hours, 20 seconds under two hours, to be precise, so that it would be patently foolish to doubt that he did it. In the same month Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
I didn’t see that one coming, even though I sang his praises in my January 2019 review article. Earlier, in July, Abiy had led his country to plant a record 350 million tree seedlings in a single day, as part of a campaign to plant 4 billion trees in the year to combat deforestation and desertification.
For me, the end-of-year surprise for 2019 came from the CFA (Financial Community of Africa) bloc, which pledged to replace the CFA franc with a new one currency called the “Eco”. The CFA Franc, which is currently used by eight African countries, was instituted by France for its African colonies in 1945. It (alongside the structures that support it) has been seen as an instrument of neo-colonial domination, and calls for its removal have grown in recent times.
This is not the right time to launch into a polemic against France’s colonial legacy in Africa. It is enough to say that the allusion of the Italian deputy prime minister, in January, to France’s constant and detrimental meddling in Africa, which set off a diplomatic row between his country and France, had the flavour of truth.
The announcement of the impending overhaul of the CFA franc, together with the fact that practically all African countries have now ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), are, to me, the most consequential structural developments for the continent’s future. With enough goodwill on the part of those tasked with implementing them, the boundless potential of this continent will be much sooner unleashed.
I summarised 2019 as one of hope. I do not know how to characterise the year we have just started. In many ways, the stories we tell this year will be more particular to the struggles of each country and each people. But they will also be more African, because we ride from the same past and face the same future.
Before I close, I wish to leave you with this beautiful selection of photos, compiled by the BBC, depicting some of the stories of Africa from 2019.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.
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