When I looked ahead last January to important African developments in 2010, I focused on elections because they seemed to offer the most important events that could be foreseen. This new year is little different in that election issues are important, but there are non-electoral developments that loom large for the continent as well. The following are my five top forecasts for Africa in 2011.
1. The results of next week’s referendum on the independence of Southern Sudan could produce the world’s newest country or a renewed North-South conflict in that country. According to a recent article in the New York Times, neither the National Congress Party government in Khartoum nor the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement government in Juba wants a return to war because each has too much to lose. Both North and South depend on oil for most of their revenue, and renewed war would be devastating in that regard.
While that is true, and while Northern leaders have sounded accepting lately of the upcoming referendum’s likely results, the Khartoum regime has not taken any action in recent memory that didn’t have loopholes allowing it to renege on promises. In this case, the government has not removed its troops as required by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, continues to support rebels in the South and has prevented the full level of voter registration as required in the 2005 peace accord. That sounds like the government is hedging its bets. However inevitable independence of southern Sudan is, this will not be an easy process, and problem likely will linger beyond this year.
2. My next forecast is that for the more than two dozen African elections scheduled for 2011, the international community’s response to serious discrepancies could be different from what it has been -- depending on the outcome of the deadlock in Cote d’Ivoire. The usual international community response has been to complain about election irregularities when it involves an ally and sanctions when it is not a friendly government. Most often, the preferred solution has been to call for a government of national unity to smooth over problems. In the current Cote d’Ivoire case, though, there has been pressure on the presumed losing party to step down rather than accept the winner as a partner.
Having set this new precedent, it will be difficult to go back to taking the easy way out of electoral deadlocks in the future. Perhaps it also will encourage more international support for earlier training of parties and election officials and monitoring of the pre-election environment. It is much easier to prevent bad elections before they actually happen than to correct them once they have taken place. Elections in Nigeria, Egypt, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries are too important to rely on cookie cutter approaches to electoral problem solving.
3. In the largest change of land ownership since the colonial era, more than 50 million hectares of African land has been leased or is in the process of being leased by 20 African countries. This modern land grab is displacing African farmers and failing to create jobs for African workers. In 2011, the trend toward leasing massive amounts of African land will accelerate due to the continuing global food shortage and dwindling supplies of water. This shortage is especially acute in the Middle East, which happens to be the main source of African land leasing arrangements. In Madagascar in 2009, a government was displaced largely due to reports of a land deal with foreigners. Perhaps as early as this year, there will be other citizen eruptions because of what they see as negative consequences from these land deals.
4. African societies, especially in rural areas, cling to traditions that are sometimes millennia old. One of these traditions is the disdain for open homosexuality. Those who keep their sexual orientation to themselves usually are ignored, but in recent years, evangelical activists have taken their war against what they describe as the gay agenda to Africa to warn of foreign influences drastically changing African cultures. Some point to Zimbabwe, where gays there were encouraged by outsiders to be open about their sexuality. Unfortunately, African societies are not as tolerant of behavior celebrating what African spiritual leaders largely find as being n violation of religious standards. Apparently, these American evangelicals did not realize that African governments would not react as the U.S. government has. Gays have been arrested and prosecuted in countries like Zimbabwe and Malawi, and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, speaking to supporters in November, called for gays to be arrested and jailed for their behavior. Pressure from the international community forced Uganda to back down from a law that would in some cases have sentenced homosexuals to death sentences. In 2011, the clash between modern views of human rights and traditional views of acceptable sexual behavior in Africa may come to a head, provoking court challenges to laws and rising harassment of openly gay citizens in African countries.
5. Finally, a hopeful sign in 2011 will be an increase in foreign investment. The continent as a whole is expected to see a growth rate of 5% or more this year. The fall of interest rates in many African countries is caused by lowered rates of inflation. Along with the anticipated rise in the level of bank credit on the continent, one can expect renewed interest in the more than two dozen African equity markets. Various economic analysts say the fastest-growing areas will be telecoms, banks, retail outlets and manufacturing. With the broad use of advanced telephones in Africa, many on the continent are in a position to take advantage of tele-banking. Members of the recent African Diaspora have been increasing their transfer of funds to Africa, and remittances now outpace foreign aid. Moreover, traditional elements of the African Diaspora, some of whom have been linked to specific countries through DNA testing, are taking a closer look at the African equity markets and see opportunities for profits that exceed what traditional Western stock exchanges are offering.
I see a mixed picture for Africa this year, with some progress and some challenges, but even the challenges provide opportunities for advancement.