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“I do not know how to characterise the year we have just started.” That’s how I concluded my first article for MercatorNet in 2020. Reading it while preparing this article, my first for 2021, I find it hard to explain my caution. You see, in these year-opening pieces, I usually undertake a broad review of major African stories from the preceding year and attempt to forecast those to come in the new one.  

Given that I’ve done this for some years in a row, one would think (and be right to do so) that I have gotten somewhat used to, and a little bold at, making sweeping predictions about each new African year. My confidence is a function of the fact that I have learnt that it isn’t hard to make broad predictions; there’s always room around the edges for interpretation. Wonder with me, then, why I refrained from making one at the beginning of 2020. 

I do not claim to be a prophet. I was just lucky, if the word may be used loosely. For, as it happens, almost everyone who dared predict the year got it wrong. Big time. Around the time I was finishing the draft of that article, a strange new viral disease in a Chinese city was still the content of rumour, and orange man Donald was cruising to his second term on the back of America’s best economy in decades. 

The world was bold. No one knew we were about to enter the most disruptive year of all our lifetimes (if you don’t count WWII vets and any indigenous communities that may have come in contact with the modern world for the first time in the same period, of course). Yet enter it we did, and spent most of it in sweatpants and living rooms that hadn’t been used for any real living in eons. Yes, the blasted sweatpants caught on here in Africa too. 

Now, as we enter a new year, I find myself confronted with a one-year history of Africa (and the world) that is as easy to characterise as it is perplexing. It’s a simple story that can be told in a few broad strokes, headlined by the strange new virus from China whose infamous place in the history books seems all but secured. Yet it’s also a complicated tale, with millions of barely traceable intertwined threads, for which our strange virus provided a villain’s cover. 

But this is a review, so I will focus on the broad strokes. And where worse to start than closest to home? North of Kenya, where I live, is Ethiopia, an old and vast country. A major armed conflict broke out there towards the end of the year, with the central government battling a breakaway faction in the far north. The conflict threatens to tarnish the legacy of the Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. 

Many commentators, quick to pass judgement, have drawn parallels between Abiy and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who looked on smugly and tacitly encouraged the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya people, and the many other Nobel Peace Prize laureates, like Barack Obama, who have frolicked in senseless wars after receiving the award. 

I, however, at the risk of sounding just as quick to pass judgement, find this characterisation a tad unfair, and the situation markedly different from the Myanmar tragedy. But we live in a world of breathless news cycles, where context matters only in proportion to its sensational quality. Regardless, it is safe to say this story will define Ethiopia’s future well beyond 2021. I promise you an article to consider it in a little more depth. 

Since we have started off with the bad news, let’s just get done with it. Most of everything else that happened can be summarised in one phrase: the autocrats ran amok. From Uganda to China, it seems the autocrats of the world discovered, in the pandemic, the perfect cover for an all-out assault to reclaim the powers that have been clawed out of their hands by successive generations of relentless activists. 

In the 2020 edition of an annual survey, Freedom House, a thinktank, found that democracy and civil freedoms were on the retreat in 80 countries, and stagnant in most of the rest. Like the pandemic that abetted it, this was a global phenomenon, counting Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, and India’s Modi among the foremost offenders. All the same, it remains poignant for Africa, where democracy had a prolific flowering in the years leading up to 2020. 

‘The autocrats ran amok’ — India’s Modi, China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin ‘among the worst offenders’

The decline of fundamental freedoms and the entrenchment of the few autocrats we have left is truly lamentable. Elections were postponed across the continent, the pandemic serving as a  very convenient excuse. In some of the elections due this year, the dinosaurs are running, seeking yet one more term, one more opportunity to continue fossilising at the top. 

I started writing this article a week before the Ugandan general election. I dispatched it to the editor after Yoweri Museveni won his sixth term as president there, on the back of his usual cocktail of intimidation and harassment of the opposition. Similar scenarios are expected to play out in the Republic of Congo, Chad and Djibouti. 

It is indeed lamentable. But we can also choose to look at the bright spot. According to Freedom House’s report, Malawi is the only country, in the entire world, where democracy made gains in 2020. The southern African country held a largely fair and peaceful election (a re-run after an annulled one in which the previous incumbent rigged himself in), and saw a peaceful transition of power. Perhaps Malawi will be the seed of further efforts to entrench democracy and freedom elsewhere on the continent. 

The other election that will be of consequence for Africa in the near future is the one that recently sent Joe Biden to the White House. For the first time during an American election, Africans traded memes about sending election observers and peacekeepers to the US, in a parody of America’s historically sanctimonious meddling in politics this side of the Atlantic. 

Of course, the mess in America is not something we celebrate. The US has been a beacon of hope and inspiration for countless Africans campaigning for greater freedoms in their own countries, and its murky journey through woods in 2020 has been painful to watch. Even worse, the man who now occupies that fabled white house with an oval office will dependably resume the sanctimonious meddling that his predecessor spared us. 

And now to the pandemic, which, paradoxically, happens to be another bright spot, or big bright smudge if you like, for Africa. For the first time in a while, a major disease outbreak behaved as if we didn’t exist, and unwittingly spared us the patronising pity we have come to resent from our self-appointed Western overlords. This deep into the pandemic, Africa’s total fatality from COVID-19 is still below that for many individual countries. 

Is this is cause for celebration? Of course it is. The predictions were apocalyptic, and making it this far with just a little scratch is a huge cause for gratitude. But the celebration must not be contaminated with self-satisfied gloating. The virus still proliferates, and may yet bite. On top of this, the rest of the world has had a very bad go of it, despite our incredibly good fortune. All the people whose lives have been cut short are humans too, just like us. 

The temptation to gloat might be strong, considering how the rest of the world has treated Africa in the last few hundred years. But this is a time for solidarity. The classic African values of unity and solidarity should rekindle our brotherhood with the rest of the world in these tough times. While we count our blessings, we must not fail to commiserate with our fellow earthlings, whose fortunes are ever more closely bound with our very own. 

I already gave another year (2019) the label of “year of hope”. So I will christen 2021 “the year of revival” here in Africa. Democracy and freedom might have gotten a terrible walloping in the year we have just closed. But I am confident that the bug has bitten Africans, and the thirst of these dark peoples for those values will not now be easily quashed. 

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.