2017 fourth-quarter forecast

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is a study in diversity. Covering an area that spans the entire width of the continent beginning at the Sahara Desert and ending at the southernmost tip of South Africa, the region is home to countless cultures, languages, religions, plants, animals and natural resources. It’s no surprise that it captured the imagination of Europe’s earliest explorers — and that it continues to capture the imagination of current world powers eager to exploit it. And yet despite the region’s diversity, Sub-Saharan African countries have common challenges — transnational terrorism, rapid population growth, endemic poverty and corruption — that prevent them from capitalizing on their economic potential. The coming years will be critical for the region, especially as its political institutions mature in a rapidly globalizing world.

11 MINS READSep 28, 2017 | 13:58 GMT
Covering an area that spans the entire width of the continent beginning at the Sahara Desert and ending at the southernmost tip of South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa is home to countless cultures, languages, religions, plants, animals and natural resources.
(Radek Borovka/Shutterstock.com)

Covering an area that spans the entire width of the continent beginning at the Sahara Desert and ending at the southernmost tip of South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa is home to countless cultures, languages, religions, plants, animals and natural resources.

section Highlights
  • As their terms draw to an end, South African President Jacob Zuma and his Nigerian counterpart, Muhammadu Buhari, will work to strengthen the hands of their chosen successors, fueling infighting within their ruling parties as their ability to enact much-needed reforms declines.
  • A historic decision by Kenya's Supreme Court to redo the country's recent presidential election will increase the risk of ethnic violence and constitutional crisis as the expectations of the incumbent and his challenger mount.
  • The differences in the leadership transitions of Angola and the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo remain as stark as ever as the former's rigid succession plan steadily progresses and the latter's political process stalls, inviting new international sanctions.
  • Despite insufficient funding and an unclear organizational structure, the new G5 Sahel force will continue to receive political support and resources from France as Paris searches for a way to reduce its military presence in the perpetually unstable region.
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Now Is the Season of Voters' Discontent

During the fourth quarter, all eyes in Africa will be fixed on a series of crucial elections taking place across the continent. Some, such as Angola's legislative elections, have already wrapped up, though their results are just beginning to be felt. Others have yet to be held in Kenya, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. The impending votes will increasingly occupy the attention of the rulers of these countries, at times spurring intense competition among the political elite as opponents and populaces protest the leaders' attempts to cling to power a little longer.

South Africa: The Battle for Two Presidencies Begins

For South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC), the primary political battleground in the coming quarter will be a high-stakes party congress in December. At the summit, members will select a new party president, who will play a leading role in steering South Africa's economy and politics in the years ahead. He or she will also probably become the favorite to succeed Jacob Zuma as the country's president in 2019. Aware of the opportunity that winning the vote could present — and of the perils that losing to rivals could pose — factions within the ANC elite will be working furiously to shore up support ahead of the contest.

Having survived another vote of no confidence in August, Zuma will do all he can to strengthen the hands of his chosen successors in the run-up to the congress. This pro-labor, pro-security and ethnic Zulu camp includes Zuma's former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Should she clinch the December nomination, Dlamini-Zuma would likely take steps to support "radical economic transformation," including reforms intended to redress racial inequities in land ownership, to boost her party's popularity among the country's impoverished black majority before the 2019 presidential election. Moreover, the populist and patronage politics that have characterized the Zuma era would doubtless continue under her rule, as would the pervasive infighting that such tactics have historically fueled within the ANC.

If Zuma fails to install one of his trusted allies at the head of the ruling party, the process of handing off the national presidency would become far more fraught. Zuma's opponents could even try to remove him from his post early. Groups within the ruling party aligned against the president, led by Cyril Ramaphosa, have already begun using perceptions of corruption and mismanagement within the ANC to rally their supporters. But even if Ramaphosa manages to become the party's next chief, he will still have to grapple with the same electoral realities that have shaped Zuma's policies. And to keep the peace within the party, Ramaphosa would have little choice but to seek additional funding for populist programs while abandoning many of his pro-business proposals for reform.

Nigeria's North-South Divide Deepens

Nigerian politicians are gearing up for crucial party primaries as well. The country will hold presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2019, but the ailing President Muhammadu Buhari has brought the leadership transition to the forefront of the nation's consciousness ahead of schedule.

After spending more than three months overseas and out of the public eye to receive medical attention, Buhari returned to Nigeria on Aug. 19. But he has continued to lean on Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to fulfill the day-to-day duties of governing Africa's largest economy. Osinbajo has exercised skillful leadership in the president's absence, but concerns about Buhari's health have renewed doubts about the president's ability to head up the All Progressives Congress (APC) ticket in 2019. And as the possibility of another lengthy trip to London for medical treatment looms, Buhari will struggle to make his presence felt in the fourth quarter.

The continued empowerment of Osinbajo — a southerner from Lagos — could also exacerbate regional competition and generate further unease within the ruling party. The APC contains a group of northerners who defected from the People's Democratic Party (PDP) in 2015 in response to the controversial re-election bid of former President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, which threatened to disrupt the careful rotation of power between Nigeria's regions. Uncertainty about the political future of Buhari, who hails from the north, could spur disillusionment among the APC's northern faction and perhaps even defections to the rival PDP, which intends to select a northern candidate to top its ticket in 2019. At the same time, competition among rival factions within the ruling party will intensify. Each of these factors will weaken the APC in the long run, forcing it to lean on its base of support in the south instead of equitably distributing national resources across the country.

Even so, Osinbajo's continuing influence over policy may promote peace in one particularly restive region: the oil-producing Niger Delta. The vice president has consistently called for reconciliation with militants in the area, a stance that could further efforts to find a lasting peace deal between the region and the central government. The amount of resources that Abuja can devote to the Niger Delta, however, will be limited as low oil prices continue to strain the government's finances. Though the administration will try to buy itself more time by granting piecemeal concessions to the Niger Delta, the region will eventually run out of patience, increasing the risk of renewed attacks against the country's oil and natural gas infrastructure into the new year.

For the First Time, Kenya Votes Twice

Kenya's Supreme Court, meanwhile, has raised eyebrows across the continent with its recent decision to redo the nation's Aug. 8 presidential election. The ruling, which was the first nullification of an election due to alleged irregularities in both the country and the continent, marked a watershed moment in Africa's political evolution.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his challenger, Raila Odinga, are gearing up for their next bruising matchup on Oct. 26. Ahead of the vote, the incumbent will try to reassure his base that he will replicate his August win. Odinga, on the other hand, will lobby for concessions from Kenya's electoral commission — including the dismissal of officials who allegedly helped Kenyatta "steal" the election — in hopes of avoiding another defeat by nearly 10 percentage points. As the expectations of both sides harden, the chances of unrest and bloodshed before and after the electoral rerun will increase.

If Odinga believes that the government has not met enough of his demands to improve his odds of winning, the perennial opposition candidate may boycott the election. Should Odinga withdraw, allowing the election to proceed with Kenyatta as its sole candidate, the president's second term would be marred by claims of illegitimacy. Though this scenario is less likely than a repeat contest between Odinga and Kenyatta, it would have a more devastating impact on the country by inciting further ethnic violence — perhaps even creating a climate ripe for armed resistance as Odinga and his allies regroup in their western strongholds with the intention of challenging a victory that they perceive to be fraudulent.

Both scenarios could lead Kenya into a constitutional crisis. If the elections take place and result in a win for Odinga, the ruling party could retaliate by trying to impeach the new president, even though that process is exceedingly difficult to complete. On the other hand, the government may push off the elections again, whether as a result of logistical problems in organizing another vote or because of a boycott by the opposition. Either way, the electoral redo will be an important test of Kenyan democracy to watch.

Angola's New Leader Angles for More Autonomy

Unlike Kenya, Angola encountered few surprises in its Aug. 23 legislative elections as the ruling party carefully managed the transfer of power from longtime President Jose Eduardo dos Santos to his chosen successor, Joao Lourenco. The Sept. 25 investiture of Lourenco marked a quiet end to the first phase of the African oil producer's planned leadership transition.

The next phase may prove more eventful, however, as Lourenco seeks to demonstrate his independence from his predecessor. The new president's quest for autonomy may not sit well with dos Santos and his family, who have acquired bigger stakes in the engines of the Angolan economy over the past few years and are determined to hold on to them. But given the tightly managed stagecraft of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) — as well as its enduring grip on the country's military and oil sector — Lourenco is unlikely to make any sudden moves against the dos Santos clan in the fourth quarter. After all, the former president will remain the head of the MPLA and will retain the powers that come with the post, at least for now. This arrangement will begin to change toward the end of 2018 as the MPLA prepares for a new generation of leaders after nearly four decades under dos Santos.

A Congolese President Clings to Power

One of the new Angolan president's top foreign policy priorities this quarter will be containing the simmering unrest in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. In contrast to Angola's own orderly power transition, the leadership turnover of its neighbor has stalled as President Joseph Kabila has stubbornly remained in office and as new elections have failed to appear on the horizon. Because the Democratic Republic of the Congo's resource wealth and security threats have drawn in nearby states with conflicting interests for decades, the country's neighbors — including Angola — have long kept a close eye on Congolese politics. Angola, which has firmly backed Kabila during his tenure (and his father before that), also has the added motive of ensuring that a friendly figure stays in power in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo's independent electoral commission recently has made notable progress in registering millions of voters. But the window for holding a presidential race by the end of the year is closing. And Kabila, who is struggling to find an acceptable replacement to oversee his fractious political alliance, will likely use lingering violence in Kasai province and questions about election funding as justification to postpone the contest until 2018. That would almost certainly lead to social unrest spearheaded by the president's opponents, but protests are unlikely to prevent the delay. Instead a response more dangerous to Kabila could come from beyond the Congolese borders, if countries such as France or the United States seek to punish him by imposing additional sanctions or if critical allies such as Angola begin to more quickly withdraw their support for his administration.

Sudan Cozies Up to the West

Sudan will likewise be keeping an eye on its relationships abroad during the next quarter. The coming months will reveal whether attempts made by the government in Khartoum to improve its standing with the West — particularly the United States — will reap the rewards it hopes for. In July, U.S. President Donald Trump shelved until Oct. 12 a decision on whether to make former President Barack Obama's suspension of some sanctions against Sudan permanent.

If the White House does not delay the decision again, the circumstances surrounding the issue will be much the same as they were in July. A decision to formalize the removal of some sanctions would encourage Khartoum to work more closely with Washington on counterterrorism, to improve its human rights record and to take steps to resolve conflicts at home. But a decision against sanctions relief probably wouldn't halt Sudan's attempts to ingratiate itself with the United States, given how far it has already come in its reorientation toward the West and the Gulf states.

No matter the outcome, one serious constraint to Sudan's foreign policy approach will remain: its leader. President Omar al Bashir has vowed to stay in office until 2020, but the International Criminal Court's outstanding warrant for his arrest will limit the closeness of Washington's relationship with Khartoum while he remains at the helm of the Sudanese government.

France's Solution to Sahel Security

Since its military intervention in Mali in 2013, France has acted as the primary security guarantor of the unstable Sahel region. But after years in the role, Paris is searching for an exit strategy. To that end, French President Emmanuel Macron plans to use the newly formed military group assembled by the Group of Five Sahel countries — a 5,000-strong force made up of battalions from Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger — to gradually reduce France's military footprint in the region. The joint force also aids Macron's plans to shift his country's relationship with Africa from one based on military ties to one rooted in economic cooperation and development.

Violent Incidents in the Sahel

However, the incipient force will face many challenges from the outset. Burdened by financial and security problems at home, the joint operation's members will struggle to amass the funding for its budget. Combined with an unclear organizational framework, this shortfall could delay the G5 Sahel force's operational date, which has been set for sometime in October or November. Nevertheless, Paris will maintain its political momentum behind the initiative, suggesting that the force will eventually be deployed.

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