Key Trends for 2019
Ethiopia's Rise in a Changing Region
Peace between landlocked Ethiopia and its erstwhile coastal province, Eritrea, allows for the reopening of transport routes and increased opportunities for foreign investment. Ethiopia is the region's rising economic giant, and its reform-minded government intends to partially privatize state-owned enterprises, hoping to attract money from countries including the United Arab Emirates and China.
Ethiopia is a rising star in the Horn of Africa, but economic and ethnic factors could make 2019 a pivotal year for Addis Ababa.
Much depends, however, on the degree of transparency in the process — as well as the profit returns from completed megaprojects. Furthermore, the country's need for continued structural economic reforms, along with its shortage of foreign exchange reserves, will hamper growth in the short term. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will have to carefully manage these key issues, as well as enduring ethnic divisions, if his country is to become a potent driver for change in the region. Take a more in-depth look at the promise and peril of Ethiopia's economy.
A Rising Tide Buoys Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan
Ethiopia's rise is generating interest in neighboring Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan from China, Russia and the United States. Somalia and the breakaway republic of Somaliland will try to harness that interest to strengthen trade and supply chains. For Eritrea, peace with Ethiopia means it can devote more resources to its economy than in recent decades, with manufacturing, mining and tourism most likely to attract investment. The lifting of U.N. sanctions will increase investment and security interest from Washington and others, but human rights concerns will prevent any investment rush.
Great power competition over countries in the Horn of Africa will be a feature of 2019.
Powers such as Russia are likely to increase ties with Eritrea, with Moscow promising to construct a logistics center at one of the country's two ports. Meanwhile, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir will cooperate with Washington on counterterrorism measures to ingratiate himself as he seeks to extend his time in office beyond 2020. Even so, he will maintain balances by deepening ties with Moscow and Beijing, which are seeking greater influence across Africa. Djibouti will continue to leverage its geostrategically important position on the Bab el-Mandeb strait for influence and financial gain. China holds roughly 80 percent of Djibouti's external debt, however, which gives Beijing a significant degree of influence. Read more about the United States' growing interest in the strategic Horn of Africa.
South Africa's ANC Braces for Elections
Ahead of South Africa's 2019 general election, a weak economy will compel President Cyril Ramaphosa to pursue populist policies such as land expropriation without compensation to shore up electoral support among the traditional base of the ruling African National Congress. The impact will scare away some foreign investment, increase currency volatility and induce fears about the country's direction.
Efforts to root out corruption, particularly in state-owned enterprises, will feature prominently in South Africa's electoral run-up.
Ramaphosa's administration will focus on reforming businesses such as the public power monopoly Eskom to tackle endemic corruption and improve services. Ultimately, however, if Pretoria fails to overhaul key state companies, it will become more inwardly focused, hindering its efforts to project influence across the continent. For a more detailed look at Ramaphosa's political calculations ahead of national elections, see our analysis.
Buhari's Last Stand?
When Nigerians vote in February, they will choose between two northerners battling it out for the country's top office — a development guaranteeing that region's hold over the south's lucrative oil industry. President Muhammadu Buhari will continue his efforts to institutionalize the country's struggle against corruption, but his challenger, Atiku Abubakar, will likely put the issue on the back burner if elected. Regionally, the next president will finally sign the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, whose largest non-signatory is Nigeria. Despite pressure from the domestic manufacturing industry and unions to steer clear of the deal, Abuja fears it will fall behind if it doesn't ratify the agreement, which will significantly boost intra-African trade.
Nigeria's general election in mid-February will be important to watch, but irrespective of presidential appointment, there are things the country needs to do in 2019.
On the security front, the Islamic State West African Province, which showed signs of resurgence around Lake Chad in 2018, will struggle to conduct attacks beyond Nigeria's northeast in 2019 as its supply lines remain stretched and the government prepares more effective strategies to counter the group. Meanwhile, militants in the oil-producing Niger Delta remain dormant thanks to Abuja's successful appeasement strategy, and both Buhari and Abubakar will avoid aggression against the fighters to maintain peace in the country's most lucrative industry. Read more about the issues dominating Nigeria's upcoming elections.
The Kabila System Fights for Survival
Whatever its result, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Dec. 23 election will be flawed as outgoing President Joseph Kabila seeks to maintain a system that maximizes the political and economic spoils for his family and minimizes the weaknesses of his hand-picked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. The ruling alliance's control of the security services and other state institutions will enable it to win a tightly controlled contest despite opposition pressure. Subsequent stability in the key commodity producer will ultimately depend on the internal, regional and international reaction to the vote.
With the results likely to be dubious, opposition protests will result in violence and a government crackdown that will prompt the European Union and the United States to enact targeted sanctions. Elsewhere, Kinshasa will stick with the hard-line measures it implemented against international mining companies in 2018. After all, the government, which controls a significant chunk of the global cobalt supply, maintains the advantage — and Chinese producers will be only too willing to step in if Western producers push too far. Read more about the strategic importance of cobalt.
- Leadership changes in southern Africa are generating economic opportunities, but not all emerging or frontier markets are equal.
- Ahmed, the Ethiopian premier, seeks greater ethnic stability inside his country, but the growth of interregional violence may challenge this effort. If Addis Ababa fails to foster calm before elections in 2020, ethnic factions are likely to take sides, endangering the ruling coalition and the country's economic liberalization drive.
- The rising popularity of Ugandan pop star and political upstart Bobi Wine highlights an emerging trend as a youth population disenchanted with the status quo becomes enamored with politicians promising change.
- The threat from upstart jihadist groups in Mozambique remains limited for now, especially when compared to those posed by established organizations.
Key Dates to Watch
- Dec. 23, 2018: The Democratic Republic of Congo holds its long-delayed presidential election.
- January: The heads of state of the African Union will hold a summit in Egypt.
- February: A conference of the heads of state of the Group of Five Sahel alliance will be held in in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
- February: Senegal conducts presidential elections.
- Feb. 16: Nigerians go to the polls to elect a new president.
- Oct. 15: Mozambique organizes a general election.
- Aug. 4: Deadline for South African general elections (date to be confirmed).
- August: The Southern African Development Community summit is set to convene in Tanzania.