2018 annual forecast

Dec 22, 2017 | 21:01 GMT

10 mins read

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.

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)
section Highlights
  • Southern Africa will undergo a sweeping political transformation next year as South Africa, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola try to move away from their long-entrenched leadership.
  • Despite his health issues, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari could seek a second term in 2019, though he may have trouble holding his party together in an increasingly competitive political environment.
  • Stubbornly low energy prices will continue to constrain Nigeria's finances, but as other sources of economic pressure ease, the government may have the means to offer some concessions to militants in the oil-producing Niger Delta region.
  • As the incipient Group of Five (G5) Sahel Force struggles to address persistent terrorist threats, the U.S. military will deploy armed drones over Niger as a new way to combat militancy in the vast, ungoverned lands of southern Libya and the Sahel.
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Southern Africa Grapples With Political Change

In 2018, key countries in Southern Africa will undergo leadership transitions — some for the first time in decades. Though the process will play out differently from country to country, each transfer of power is bound to bring change to domestic, regional and international politics.

South African President Jacob Zuma is reckoning with the potential pitfalls of ceding control over his country's ruling African National Congress (ANC) party to a new leader. During the Dec. 16-20 party congress, the ANC selected Zuma's successor, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who will set the political and economic course of the ANC — and, by extension, of South Africa — for the next several years. Ramaphosa, as the new party head, will also likely assume the presidency in Zuma's wake, either in 2019, when he is constitutionally mandated to hand off the office, or earlier, should he resign before then.

In the run-up to the convention, Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the president's former wife, vied to take over the party presidency. Ramaphosa's victory signals a departure in the ANC from Zuma's pro-labor, ethnic Zulu faction, and its populist economic policies and growing reputation for graft and mismanagement. The change bodes well for South Africa's business climate, which has weathered dramatic ups and downs throughout Zuma's tenure. Ramaphosa, for instance, could help patch things up between South Africa's political leadership and the Finance Ministry, whose chief Zuma summarily fired earlier this year during a Cabinet reshuffle. But in the meantime, the deputy president's rise through the party ranks promises to do little for South Africa's structural economic deficiencies, including high unemployment, a rigid labor market and collapsing education standards. The approaching elections in 2019 will compel the ANC to come together as a party and increase welfare in one form or another to shore up its support among South Africa's impoverished black majority, a crucial voting bloc. In addition, Ramaphosa's win could make for a bumpier transition as the next election draws near, should the new party leader decide to push for Zuma's dismissal from the presidency.

Meanwhile, just north of South Africa, Zimbabwe will continue its transition from long-standing President Robert Mugabe in the new year. The process, which got off to a messy start late this year with a military coup, will stabilize over the course of 2018 as the military and political elite rally behind Emmerson Mnangagwa's leadership. Nevertheless, Mnangagwa has a tough road ahead. The new president will have to strike a careful balance to undertake reforming Zimbabwe's broken political and financial systems while maintaining the patronage networks that underpin his rule. To try to resuscitate his country's moribund economy, Mnangagwa will seek financial and political support from China, Zimbabwe's main foreign investor, and from the West. The funding and recognition that Western financial and political institutions would afford his country probably will be too much for Mnangagwa to pass up, and Beijing won't mind much. The Chinese government, after all, has emphasized the need for stability in Zimbabwe, where increased attention from the West probably wouldn't threaten its core interests.

As Zimbabwe plunges ahead into the next chapter of its history in 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo will stay right where this year left it. President Joseph Kabila, who has been in office since his father's assassination in 2001, has struggled to find an acceptable successor to lead his fractious political alliance. At the same time, a weak opposition and the international community's relative indifference have emboldened his administration to push off the transfer of power for the past two years. Kabila's alliance is poised to continue this strategy in 2018, maintaining its strong-arm tactics against the opposition while keeping up the appearance of cooperation.

Although the government in Kinshasa has made strides toward improving voter registration throughout the country, it would have to overcome formidable financial and logistical challenges to hold the next general election as planned on Dec. 23, 2018. (The government chose that date only because the United States threatened to mobilize the international community to cut financial support were the vote delayed any longer.) If Kabila doesn't find a suitable successor between now and then, he may resort to desperate measures to protect the fortune his family has acquired during his tenure. Whether he opts to postpone the election further — on the grounds that his administration obviously hasn't prepared to hold a vote — or holds a flawed election that would doubtless favor his alliance, Kabila could provoke backlash from other countries. But more important international crises elsewhere, coupled with fears of instability in and around the Democratic Republic of the Congo, will stay their hands should Kabila try to delay the election once more.

Compared with the stunted transition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola's move away from its own long-standing leader, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, will proceed apace in 2018. Dos Santos' successor, Joao Lourenco, already has begun to chip away at the former ruling family's financial empire since taking office earlier this year. In the coming year, he will continue and expand this campaign, appointing technocrats to key positions in the Angolan government to try to reinforce his authority. Lourenco also will pursue additional probes into the excesses of his predecessor's administration and may push for minor institutional reforms with help from important factions in the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola party.

Nigeria: Obstacles to Prosperity

The new year will be no less consequential for Nigeria as upcoming elections in 2019 start drawing the attention of the country's political elite more and more. Lingering uncertainty over President Muhammadu Buhari's health will cloud his prospects for representing the All Progressives Congress (APC) party in a bid for re-election. Whether the party has another candidate fit to run in Buhari's stead, however, is no more certain. As a result, the APC may struggle to maintain a united front in the coming year, particularly as the People's Democratic Party (PDP) tries to poach more of its members. The rival PDP is liable to have more success with that effort if the APC replaces Buhari with a candidate from southern Nigeria on its 2019 ticket. In that event the PDP, which has selected a northerner to represent it in the election, could force the ruling party to rely on its southern constituents. Northern Nigerians, in turn, could lose their control over the country's lucrative oil industry and resort to backing militant groups to get leverage over the government in Abuja.

Energy Infrastructure and Ethnicities in Nigeria

In oil-rich southern Nigeria, on the other hand, the government stands to make headway next year in its struggle against militancy. Falling inflation and austerity measures may give Abuja more resources to devote to calming tensions in the Niger Delta, despite lagging energy prices. So long as northerners are in power, though, the threat of militancy will endure in the region. And the menace of Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi, better known by its former name, Boko Haram, will permeate northeastern Nigeria throughout 2018. As the Nigerian military and its allies close in on the Islamic State affiliate, splinter groups will continue to stage attacks in the region, even if they struggle to expand their operations.

Africa in the International Spotlight

Elsewhere on the African continent, countries in the volatile Sahel will face a similar struggle in the year ahead. The newly formed Group of Five (G5) Sahel Force — a joint security endeavor by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — will spend 2018 looking for funding and trying to train 5,000 soldiers to patrol three zones in the desolate region. But their efforts notwithstanding, the security situation in Mali, the epicenter of terrorist activity in the region, will continue unchanged because of setbacks in implementing the 2015 Algiers Accord, which ostensibly ended the conflict in the country's northern reaches. The United States, meanwhile, will turn more of its attention to the Sahel next year as construction wraps up on its $100 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, after significant delays. The base, and the Nigerien government's recent decision to allow the U.S. military to arm the unmanned aerial vehicles it uses in the country, will doubtless boost counterterrorism efforts in the region.

The Sahel's International Partners Step Up

In the Horn of Africa, too, the U.S. military will ramp up its campaign against militancy next year. The increased rate of airstrikes and other forms of kinetic action that began this year in Somalia will hold steady as the country's instability continues. In fact, Somalia's security environment may degrade slightly in 2018 when the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) hands off more of its responsibilities to the Somali army.

Somalia's military, a mostly ragtag force, will probably fail to defend the gains AMISOM has made over the years, giving the country's premier militant group, al Shabaab, more room to operate. The Somali National Army's losses may well encourage AMISOM to extend the timeline for its drawdown, tentatively scheduled to end in 2020. They could also necessitate more unilateral force additions from the mission's member states, provided international allies such as the United States step up to cover the cost. Yet in spite of the country's persistent security problems — and the growing worries among policymakers worldwide — the Islamic State branch active in the northern Somalia is unlikely to gain much ground in 2018. Geographic isolation and a lack of capabilities and manpower will limit the group's efforts to expand next year.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

To the west, Ethiopia will forge ahead with its flagship project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Though talks with Sudan and Egypt fell apart over Cairo's fears that the near-completed dam would disrupt the Nile River, the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa is determined to finish construction by late 2018. Sudan, moreover, has realized the extra irrigation capacity it stands to gain from the venture, a matter on which it historically has sided with Egypt. And so, Ethiopia will probably achieve its goal, an accomplishment it can point to as it tries to court more Chinese investment for projects to connect its 100 million citizens to the Red Sea.

Outside the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, Brazil will look for opportunities to take advantage of Africa's economic potential. After years spent dealing with political and economic crises at home, the South American country is ready to turn its focus outward in 2018. Its cultural and linguistic ties with the continent, as well as their shared business interests, make Africa a natural choice for Brazil. Many major Brazilian companies such as Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez already have a presence on the continent. Now that they once again have access to credit from state banks — thanks to leniency deals with the Brazilian government over the corruption cases against them — the firms can get back to pursuing investment projects in such places as Angola, Mozambique and Nigeria. In addition, Brazil has plans to increase its military footprint in Africa in 2018. The country is currently in talks with the United Nations to send about 750 troops to the Central African Republic. Though the move will have a negligible effect on the war-torn country, it will give Brazil's soldiers peacekeeping experience while raising the country's profile on the continent and at U.N. headquarters.

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