Senegal wins the African Cup of Nations / screenshot from TotalEnergies AFCON 2021

Africa is a huge place. But, in a world of Mercator projections and pandemics of ignorance, I repeat it at every opportunity, especially in my annual review of the previous year for MercatorNet: Africa is a huge place.

As in all huge places, a lot of things happened in Africa through 2021, some good, some bad. I’ll review the highlights and then attempt a forecast of storylines in 2022, which is already short a month at the time of this writing – time flies here too!

Let’s dive in.

The year 2021 opened with a new occupant in the White House. This is an African story because the United States has a long and complicated history relative to the continent. As it happened, the new fellow isn’t exactly new. Moreover, he hails from a political party that has made the export of non-traditional sexual values across the Atlantic a central cause.

From the outset, the Biden Administration was quite bold about its intentions to resume this sordid export, which had encountered a speedbump while his predecessor held sway. Fortunately, it quickly got mired in a string of domestic and foreign challenges so grand in scale that its mission to transform the sexual values of Africans slipped low down on the bucket list.

Sadly, this is not the end of the story. For one, NGOs which have been the local agents of Biden’s agenda and which had anaemic funding in the Trump era, are suddenly flush with cash. Additionally, all American foreign missions have regained the diversity, equity and inclusion offices which Trump scrapped.

In short, though shadowed by America’s many other current woes, and checked by the loud pushback it received in Ghana, in the form of its new family values and sexual rights bill, the march of American-supported LGBT and abortion advocacy in Africa is back on track after floundering in the Trump years.

Unfortunately, this is a story that will continue to unfold, for the Biden administration is unlikely to recant its morbid obsession with the upending of sexual mores and the murder of unborn babies. It can only be hoped that, as in Ghana, more African governments discover the true dignity of national sovereignty, and assert themselves unflinchingly on these issues, without becoming oppressive.

Speaking of governmental assertiveness, Ethiopia is perhaps an example of the other extreme. A civil war in that country dragged on throughout 2021. Towards the end of the year, Tigrayan rebels seemed poised to overrun the capital and overthrow the government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed.

But then Abiy, who retains tremendous support in the country outside Tigray, left the government in the care of an assistant and headed to the front, and seemed to inject new resolve into his troops. The rebels were pushed back to the hills of Tigray, in the north of the country, where the insurgency started in late 2020.

Sadly, it seems a negotiated settlement is still off the table, with the government committed to the total humiliation and destruction of the rebels. And though this outcome now seems more likely, the wounds it will leave won’t heal quickly.

On to a more embarrassing African narrative. In Chad, a vast central African country, Idris Deby, the president, like Abiy, also felt it expedient to head to the front lines. Unlike Abiy, however, he returned in a box. Thus started a constitutional process that should have led to a smooth transition to a civilian government.

But Mr Deby’s son, whom he had been grooming (shame) to take over from him, seeing his chance to run down the country slipping away, overthrew the government, suspended the constitution, and made empty noises about free and fair elections at some indeterminate point in the future.

I described this story as “embarrassing” because no one was fooled by such antics. One would think that, given how hard it is to hide information in our times, that spoilt military brats would be more sophisticated about their coup-d’états; but alas, they pull the same old-school moves. It all looks like Keystone Cops, except it is real life.

What’s exasperating is that it continues to happen. Similar events, both tragic and encouraging, unfolded in Sudan, where a delayed outburst of the Arab Spring was on course to deliver a democratic civilian government last year.

In October, a general seized power, triggering a fresh wave of protests. The year ended with the protestors still on the streets, facing down a military government that isn’t unwilling to use force to quell them. As it happens, this is a province in which they already, sadly, have some experience, thanks to regime of Omar al-Bashir, which they overthrew with relentless protest and blood.

The final major African storyline of 2021, which I left for last to underscore its relative unimportance to us, though many in the West wished we could give it pre-eminence, was Covid-19. In short, the famous virus continued to behave as if we don’t exist, while we gladly returned the favour.

South African scientists were the first to sequence and identify Omicron, the latest variant, leading the world to wring its collective hands and, in a comical show of its own prejudice, attempt a futile quarantine of the entire continent (as I said above, Africa is a huge place). Omicron followed its predecessors in pretending we don’t exist to the mortification of the Western media.

While on this topic, I must also point out that the reactions of African governments to the pandemic have mirrored the state of local democracy. I can think of no starker contrast than that between Kenya and Uganda, which are very close neighbours, whose people are quite alike, and with both of whom I am familiar.

In Kenya, an elective democracy, most restrictions related to the pandemic have long been scaled back to practical non-existence – and the government keeps being taken to court and stopped at every mere suggestion of new measures, like vaccine mandates; children resumed school in the second half of 2020; and borders remained open even at the height of the Omicron hysteria.

In Uganda, on the other hand, which has been run by an unelected general for 36 years, a dusk-to-dawn curfew remained in effect until January 25; there is a vaccine mandate; children lost two years of school; and the borders are so hard to cross (officially) that it’s hardly worth the effort. All this, in an African country of 48 million that has counted less than 200,000 cases of COVID-19, and under 4,000 deaths.

This is not to say that Kenya is perfect and Uganda is a basket case. Both countries sport great virtues and spectacular flaws. However, unless my very eternal salvation depends on it, I am not visiting lovely Uganda until Uncle Museveni lifts all the limits, or someone lifts him off the throne. Heck, even if my eternal salvation did depend upon my visiting before either happens, I’d first attempt a hard bargain of Abrahamic proportions against the good Lord.

On the 2022 agenda

In any case, there ends my consideration of last year’s major African happenings. Let us now consider a few threads worth keeping an eye on as 2022 unfolds.

The first is one that already unfurled. The African Cup of Nations, a biennial sporting event whose 2021 edition was postponed to 2022, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, was held in Cameroon from January 9 to February 6. The magnificent Lions of Teranga, Senegal’s national team, won the championship for the first time, in penalty time against Egypt.

There were flaws, not least a stadium stampede that led to eight deaths and the continued background simmering of the separatist movement that has wracked the host country for half a decade. Nevertheless, the tournament was a joyful and truly African opening to the year.

It showed a flowering of talent, which hopefully can deliver well for the continent at the World Cup in Qatar later this year. Maybe we can have our own “it’s coming home” moment, and not have to claim France’s black players this time round. The elders don’t permit me to make promises on this though. After all, watching Macron righteously lecture us about the Frenchness of black people is its own reward.

In more weighty matters, there will be a number of elections in Africa throughout 2022. Arguably the most momentous of them, and not just because it’s in my own country, will be in Kenya in August. This will be the third cycle of elections under the country’s 2010 constitution, which has proven resilient so far. The ghosts of negative ethnicity are still around, however, and must not be written off yet.

Coming in a close second, the military junta in Sudan has promised elections by December. And the national assembly in Chad is also supposed to run the electoral gauntlet by September — and this is worth keeping an eye on simply because it was promised by another military junta, in a country that is a bulwark against the advance of ISIS-allied insurgents in the Sahel.

Finally, as in much of the rest of the world, Covid-19 is likely to fade entirely into the background during the course of this year. In many ways, this is already the case, but masks can still be spotted, sanitisers and handwashing stations are still in evidence, and governments are still flirting with the possibility of vaccine mandates.

Perhaps, as this cloud lifts, the long march of democracy and human dignity, set back by the grabbing of emergency powers by governments that were destined for the dustbin, will resume apace. Things aren’t looking too bad, but several dinosaurs still waddle about. It’s time we sent a few asteroids their way.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.