Gazing into Africa’s 2023 crystal ball

The time has come for me to review last year’s major stories about Africa and attempt a brief outline of the major stories we are likely to encounter in 2023.

As always, this is a tricky venture. It is foolhardy to try telling the story of a continent as diverse and vast as Africa in 1500 words. But that hasn’t stopped me for the last six years, so here we go.

Let’s start with the predictions I made last year, the first of which was that the Biden administration was likely to put more muscle behind its push to export its “sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)” agenda to Africa. Thankfully, this wasn’t as grievous as I thought it would be. The war in Ukraine, inflation and, in a special way, the Dobbs ruling, kept America navel-gazing throughout the year.

But that isn’t all on this front. Towards the end of 2022, the US hosted the leaders and representatives of nearly every African country for a summit in Washington DC. It was, predictably, interpreted within the context of America’s late bid for influence in Africa in the face of stiff competition from China. Of note is the fact that the summit seems to have been controversy-free and productive.

Whether the pledges of investment and cooperation materialise or turn out to be meaningless fluff, this is a relationship that will be worth keeping an eye on through the year. Incredibly, despite its initial stumbles, the Biden administration is turning out be quite adept at handling relations with our continent. It has managed to be somehow both less aloof and less interventionistic. Credit must be given where credit is due: this administration isn’t too bad for Africa. So far.

I was somewhat right about the course of the conflict in Ethiopia, in that only a negotiated peace would be sustainable. Thankfully, in early November, the government and the Tigrayan rebels remarkably agreed to just that, after talks mediated by the African Union and supported by the US. The year closed with the resumption of flights into Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. By my reading, it is quite possible that Ethiopia has seen its last major armed conflict in our lifetimes.

On the other side of Sudan (which also ended the year in turmoil), Chad did not hold its promised parliamentary elections, as I feared. Instead, what we got from power-hungry orphaned military brat Mahamat Idris Deby was a two-year postponement, with no definitive new date. Mr Deby, of course, also made sure to clear all obstacles to him running for president in that election. If this sounds familiar, it is because it’s the making of a new dinosaur.

Speaking of elections, I was naturally keeping a close eye on the August general polls in my own country, Kenya. My tentative fears over the possibility of chaos were happily scuttled by the incredible maturity of my compatriots. Though all positions were heavily contested, not only were the elections the most open we’ve ever had, but we thereafter had a peaceful transfer of power. It was so successful that I described it as boring. And that’s a good thing.

My first non-political prediction, that Africa might have an “it’s coming home” moment at the World Cup, was delightfully fulfilled when Morocco stunned the world by rising to the semi-finals, becoming the first African team to ever reach that level. However, the moment was somewhat marred by spirited discussions over whether Morocco represented Africa or the Arab world, a bizarre mirror of the controversy over the French team’s African identity at the 2018 World Cup. I wonder if similar discussions will arise during the 2023 African Cup of Nations (which will be held, ironically, in early 2024).

My last prediction for 2022 was that the Covid-19 pandemic would fade into the background through the year. On this, I was spot-on. Practically all African countries have now lifted all visible restrictions related to the pandemic, and the media no longer keep live trackers of the kind that linger on the home-pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Unfortunately, however, this did not translate into a strong economic rebound for the continent. A combination of the war in Ukraine (and its attendant disruption of global food and energy markets), domestic woes related to pandemic-related slowdowns like high inflation, local currency depreciations due to Western central bank interest rate hikes, and other such factors, contributed to skyrocketing costs of living and low growth rates across the whole continent, which are projected by the Economist Intelligence Unit to last deep into 2023 or even beyond.

Economic disruptions of this sort have much worse effects in Africa than anywhere else. Not only do they slow down the pace of poverty reduction, but they also have the potential to reverse gains made over the last decade in food security, healthcare and education across the continent, with potential ripple effects on political and social stability, especially in the poorest countries.

This is especially worth keeping an eye on in the context of the first big story I’m forecasting for 2023. I consider this a scoop, because I haven’t seen a major news outlet speaking about it just yet. In 2023, Africa’s population will narrowly overtake China’s. In 2022, we overtook India in 2022, which itself will also overtake China this year (in April).

Of significance here is that Africa’s population is, on average, under 19 years old (compared to India’s 28 and China’s 38). If African economies hold up in the face of this growth, then this population will also be better educated, and increasingly more urbanised, promising the rejuvenation of the world and a rich demographic dividend for the continent. If the economies continue to falter, this could turn out to be Africa’s greatest missed opportunity.

Another story worth keeping an eye on is the state of energy infrastructure in several southern African countries, especially South Africa, still the continent’s most well-rounded major economy, where the persistent failures of ill-maintained coal power plants necessitated ever more severe load shedding last year. It is disrupting daily life and depressing economic growth, threatening the country’s competitiveness.

Also of note is that the Democratic Republic of the Congo became a member state of the East African Community, the African regional block that’s closest to federation, in the first half of 2022. There has already been a flurry of activities as a consequence, including, for the first time, the official deployment of the militaries of the other member states (Kenya, Uganda and Burundi) to pacify the restive east of the country. I will closely watch how the story unfolds throughout 2023.

In the field of regional integration and cooperation, we must also not lose sight of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which has now been ratified by most African countries. Already, a number of countries have sent off goods to one another to begin trade under the framework of the trade area, along with the associated international payment and settlement system.

I close on a political note. The steady advance of democracy in Africa felt more like a leisurely stroll than a march in 2022. Not only were there regressions in countries like Chad and Burkina Faso (which experienced two coups in one year), but also no dinosaurs went extinct, a phenomenon we had somewhat gotten used to seeing before the pandemic.

In fact, the oldest of the remaining dinosaurs, 80-year-old Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, secured a ridiculous sixth term with 95 percent of the vote in a patently sham election, to maintain his status as the longest-ruling president on the continent, at 43 years in power and counting. I promise you an article – soon – surveying Africa’s surviving dinosaurs and their potential fates.

Nevertheless, the biggest political news of the year is likely to come in late February and early March, when Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, and one of the world’s largest and most important democracies, holds its general elections.

Incumbent president Mohammadu Buhari, having served two constitutional terms, is retiring. The race to succeed him is turning out to be a tight three-horse race featuring radically different candidates.

Nigeria’s next government faces both opportunity and peril at an immense scale. An Islamist insurgency in the north; unstable global oil markets; a dynamic, creative, and restless youth; a population in transition. For the next five years, it will have the unenviable task of piloting a gigantic country through rough waters. One only hopes that the election itself will be the easy part. Luckily, Nigeria already has a two-decade streak of relatively peaceful elections and transfers of power.

My selection of important stories from the past and the future is by no means exhaustive or authoritative. No one knows what will really happen before this year ends. And no one can ever tell that story in its entirety. What I hope I have achieved in this article is to prime your interest in what happens this year in the least understood and most important region of the world.


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