Foreign Policy Blogs

Africa: 2010 Year in Review


2010 was a year of both change and continuity in African affairs. The changes were clear: Kenyans approved a new Constitution, though the implementation will take time. South Africa successfully hosted the football World Cup, confounding the naysayers and taking another huge step forward in the process of nation building. There were elections across Africa with two of the most prominent taking place at the end of the year and revealing the sometimes fraught nature of democratization in Africa; in Guinea the worst of a potential crisis was avoided but in Cote d’Ivoire an ugly stalemate has set in that serves as a reminder that elections are a necessary but far from sufficient part of the process of democratic state development.

But 2010 saw stasis as much as transformation in several important areas. The on again-off again conflict between the Nigerian government and multinational oil companies on the one side and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta waxed and waned. Ditto the myriad crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Zimbabwe maintained its uncomfortable and fragile peace with Robert Mugabe still at the center of the drama. Pirates continued to haunt the Gulf of Aden, blurring the lines between simple crime and complex terrorism. South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) continued to fascinate and perplex. And the continent actually managed to miss the worst of the global economic meltdown that continued to dominate news throughout the year, though whether this shows an unexpected resiliency in the continent’s economies or reveals just how removed from most of the global economic system those economies are remains to be determined.

Most unexpected event

I’m not sure I can even be surprised any more when it comes to events in Africa. This is not to say that I am particularly cynical or jaded – I’d say if anything quite the opposite. But let’s face it – writing about African affairs, which is to say the affairs of nearly a billion people spread across more than fifty nation states on a massive, geographically and demographically diverse continent means that one grows accustomed to Pliny the Elder’s old observation that there is always something new out of Africa, a part of the world never lacking for drama and excitement.

Nonetheless I am sure that some were surprised by the success of the World Cup, particularly the besotted scribes desperately searching for a lurid angle to fill the British tabloids. Yet there was little of the violence or chaos that people expected, the matches went off in orderly fashion, and the tourists went home impressed. I don’t want to say I told you so, but . . . oh, who are we kidding? I told you so.

The successful and relatively uncontroversial passage of the Kenyan constitution, the dueling narratives of the Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire elections, and the modest but real economic growth across the continent all surprised observers to some degree or other.

Person of the Year

Good Guy Division: An event such as the World Cup does not go off without the indefatigable work of thousands. But at the front of the line has to be Danny Jordaan, the head of the Local Organizing Committee who oversaw the World Cup from bid to aftermath.

Bad Guy Division: Sadly there are lots of contenders for this title, but I am going to go with Laurent Gbagbo, Cote d’Ivoire’s increasingly intransigent former head of state who continues to defy the will of both the Cote d’Ivoire electorate and the international community. Given how fragile peace is in Gbagbo’s homeland, which so recently saw the end of civil war, his unwillingness to yield the stage is tragic and any blood will be on his hands.

What to watch in 2011

First, what I said about 2010 in January 2010:

First off, I have really bad feelings about Nigeria right now. Umaru Yar’Adua had been in Saudi Arabia for approaching two months and the rumors are that he has brain damage so severe that he cannot remember his wife, never mind run the country. Nigeria is, in the best of circumstances a complex and dynamic, but volatile political stew. Divisions – geographical, economic, religious, “ethnic,” and others – make for a dangerous mix if Yar’Adua really is incapacitated, as appears to be the case, and his succession is up for grabs.

Sudan too looks set for a potentially epochal year. The country will face elections, and one possibility is that the country will divide. The North and South have been held together for years largely by the force of the North’s superior might. And I suspect that a vote to divide might be seen as a vote to secede. Khartoum is rarely accommodation to other parts of deeply fractured Sudan. I cannot see peaceful separation. And even if such a transition manages to take place, the South hardly will go off on its own from a position of strength. Expect more misery to emanate from what is today Sudan, whatever it looks like in January 2011.

On a more cheery political note, expect to see Kenya’s new constitution implemented in the coming months. I do not expect the constitutional process to be a panacea, and it is far from clear how constitutional changes might resolve potential underlying tensions that led to the election violence at the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008. But at the same time most of that violence was fomented by the politicians. If political changes can undercut the ability of the elites to manipulate so-called “tribal” loyalties, all to the better.

2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the Year of Africa. In 1960 the trickle of independence that began with Ghana in 1957 became a flood. British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan spoke of “the winds of change” blowing across the globe, and it appeared that with a few exceptions, most notably South Africa, those winds were going to transform Africa. In some ways it did, though as we know, the trajectory was not what optimists would have hoped. Nonetheless, expect to see commemorations across the continent and across the globe over the course of 2010.

Finally: World Cup! World Cup! World Cup! It is easy to hyperventilate about what hosting the FIFA World Cup could mean for South Africa and for the continent as a whole. Yet if the event goes well, it might still be impossible to overstate what it could mean. And I think the World Cup is going to go exceptionally well. Do not be surprised to hear whispers grow more audible over the course of the event touting Cape Town as a potential Olympic host.

I think I did ok. Nigeria steered some treacherous waters when Goodluck Jonathan took over for Yar’Adua after the President’s death but the real test will come with the elections scheduled for 2011. The referendum in Sudan will take place 9 January and I am far from the only one who does not trust that Khartoum will simply yield to popular will if that will is for separation. Kenya did take awhile to pass the new constitution and implementation is a slow process, but so far so good. There were 50th anniversary celebrations across the continent, albeit muted in some places. And I certainly got the World Cup part right, and yes, I do expect a Cape Town bid to be forthcoming soon rather than later.

So I guess I’ve earned another round of predictions/forecasts for 2011:

Referendum in Sudan: Just as Darfur has somewhat faded from its moment in the sun (largely because Khartoum was so very effective at accomplishing its will in that region) the run-up to the referendum has taken center stage. Everybody is saying all of the right things. But I cannot shake this feeling that if the south chooses independence (and it is almost certain to do so) Khartoum is not just going to sit idly by. There is too much wrapped up in the territorial disputes – oil and prestige, for example – to think that Omar al-Bashir is not going to have a hand to play. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Abyei on the same day was supposed to get to determine whether to throw its lot in with the north or the south. That vote is going to be delayed which could well lead to a ripple effect. Do not be entirely surprised if January 9 comes and goes without any resolution.

Somalia: I wish I could say that 2011 will be the year that Somalia will make the transformation from stateless chaos to peace and security. It will not.

Elections: National elections are scheduled in Liberia, Cape Verde, Zambia, DRC, Cameroon, Uganda, Comoros, Seychelles, Egypt, Nigeria, and possibly Zimbabwe. There is a possibility that other governments will call for elections as well. Some of these will likely go smoothly (Cape Verde, Seychelles, eg.) But several will be hotly contested and run the risk of a Cote d’Ivoire scenario. Among these will be Nigeria, where a successful election could be a boon for regional stability but where the north-South, Muslim-Christian divide is always a real threat to stability; Egypt will have presidential elections following what proved to be deeply divisive parliamentary elections this year; It is hard to expect that the DRC will see completely trauma free elections; and Robert Mugabe will call for an election solely as a form of mobilizing force, as it’s pretty clear he has no intention of letting Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change take real control of what he sees as his country.

Cote d’Ivoire: Do not expect a resolution here anytime soon. Laurent Gbagbo has dug in his heels. He has the capacity (or at least had the capacity – once these things get unbottled it is often difficult to know who leads and who follows) to bring the sordid conflict to an end. It seems instead that he is unleashing the dogs of conflict.

Kenya: 2011 will provide the real test for the implementation of the constitution that passed by referendum in 2010. New national elections are scheduled for 2012 and the country cannot afford a repeat of the chaos that descended over the country after the December 2007 polling. I suspect that Kenya will be stronger in December 2011 than it is in December 2010.

Economic recovery: Growth rates across the continent will hold steady, ranging from modest to spectacular. I’m no economist (not that the dismal science has a particularly laudatory success rate with its own predictions) but all indications are that African economies will continue to grow, albeit at rates still woefully insufficient to bring even a modicum of prosperity to the continent’s people.

Splits within ANC: Will this be the year that the ANC splits, with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) going their own way to form a leftist party to challenge the dominant ANC? Will the ANC Youth League join them or try to play the role of kingmakers? The potential challenge posed by the Congress of the People (COPE) has fizzled, so there is still plenty of space open for a predominantly black challenger to the ANC, but the lure of access to power is great. The ANC will still be a fractious power a year from now, but the break will come some day down the road.

Rugby World Cup/African Cup of Nations Qualifying: Finally, on the playing fields look for South Africa to come back to form to face New Zealand in an International Rugby Board World Cup hosted by the Kiwis. On the football pitch expect many of the usual suspects to move forward (Ghana, Ivory Coast) with a few surprises (defending champs Egypt struggle, Botswana advancing easily from their group).

Have a happy and prosperous 2011 everyone.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid