Sub-Saharan Africa faces three potentially destabilizing forces in 2019.
First, this year will be a decisive year for politics in Sub-Saharan Africa. At least 20 nations will hold presidential elections. 2019 will be a crucial political year, as many new elections will be held: in South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Botswana, Cameroon, Namibia, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mali, Malawi and Chad. Three elections in particular are impactful on the course of the region as they will shape the struggle to institutionalize democracies in Africa. Political instability in these countries could easily spill over to their broader regions.
Earlier this month, the opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi won the presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). While many are happy to see the long Kabila dynasty coming to an end, the question remains whether anything will change, since the former president, Joseph Kabila, still has a hold on many levers of power. And as there is fear of election rigging, unrest remains and violence has erupted across the country. Africa’s fourth largest population already counts 85 million people and is rapidly growing. Given its location, size and pace of change, its destabilizing force could impact many countries as violence could spread to the nine border states.
Next up is Nigeria’s presidential election on February 16. In the biggest African country by population (200 million Nigerians), President Muhammadu Buhari is seeking re-election and will be running against Atiku Abubakar, who served as Nigeria’s vice-president between 1999 and 2007. While Buhari is campaigning against corruption, Abubakar is promising to address Nigeria’s disappointing economy and the country’s high unemployment. A promising message to most Nigerians who have not experienced decreases in joblessness and poverty since Buhari came to power. And these are likely to remain major challenges for the country. The IMF projects that growth will remain weak at an annual average of about 1.9% from 2019 to 2023 and the World Bank has estimated Nigeria’s poverty rate to be as high as 70%. Furthermore, as Nigeria’s voter base is young and wary of the political establishment, new voices from outside the establishment are challenging the two candidates.
A third major election is to take place in South Africa, Africa’s second largest economy, just after Nigeria. After ANC’s Jacob Zuma resigned, Cyril Ramaphosa announced a new dawn for the country. He will have to legitimize his power in May. Although Ramaphosa is likely to win a majority, this year’s elections may see an increase in populist rhetoric and constrain the ANC as it needs 55% to 60% to put Ramaphosa in a position to implement reforms and boost economic growth. As plans for such reforms still remain absent, it is considered likely that the country will be further downgraded by credit rating agencies, a key risk to South Africa’s economy.
A second and more structural risk is that key African countries will further see economic instability rise in 2019. In the Brookings report “Foresight Africa: Top priorities for the continent in 2019”, the key risk for the continent is a looming debt crisis and the major challenge of securing large-scale employment opportunities for youth and realizing the demographic dividend. Lack of jobs may further hinder gains in governance, the 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance indicates.
A third destabilizing force on the African continent comes in the form of climate risks. In sub-Saharan Africa, climate variability is projected to compromise agricultural production – including access to food, increase water stress and exacerbate poverty and political conflict.
Due to contentious elections in Nigeria and Congo, political instability could spill over to
their broader regions. Thus, combined with the more structural risks of a continued population explosion, economic instability and the challenges that come with climate change, the region remains vulnerable. Foreign powers such as China, India, France, Brazil and the U.S., which are already active in the region, will show further interest in the region, making Africa even more dependent on them. Meanwhile, these risks could set off migration flows that will also affect the European continent.