Africa 2010: 10 Stories to Watch

As we head into a new year, here are ten of the most important stories to watch in Africa.

1. Elections

I debated whether to organize this list by country or by theme, and ultimately went with the latter. But if I had organized it by country, I would have begun with Sudan, where elections in April 2010 represent a critical juncture for the country and for the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Will the government crack down violently on opposition supporters, a trend foreshadowed by some tense demonstrations this fall? Will the elections restart the renewed civil war between North and South Sudan, or pave the way for a peaceful referendum on Southern independence in 2011?

Also, the elections in Sudan aren't the only ones coming on the continent - Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, the Central African Republic and other nations will hold key elections in 2010, and Nigeria will prepare for presidential elections in 2011.

2. Chinese Influence

The conclusion of another Afro-Chinese summit in Egypt in November 2009, accompanied by major loan agreements, reaffirmed China's substantial economic and political role in Africa. With African leaders like Rwanda"s President Paul Kagame and Ethiopia"s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi making strongly pro-Chinese statements last year, one can argue that China's stock is rising on the continent despite political backlash in places like Namibia. In 2010 we'll see which way the wind blows. Will there be more trade and aid deals? More attacks on Chinese citizens and workers? More international pressure for China to stop dealing with countries like Guinea and Sudan? I'm betting that China's power in Africa will, on the whole, increase this year.

3. Environmental Problems

2009 saw major droughts and devastating floods, along with high temperatures and widening desertification. 2010 will likely see more of the same, with resource conflicts straining national unity in countries like Kenya and exacerbating intercommunal and international tensions across the continent. Some innovative solutions are circulating - like creating a "Great Green Wall...stretch[ing] from Senegal to Djibouti", but the challenges are daunting.

4. Energy and Mineral Deals with Foreign Powers

China isn't America's only "competitor" in Africa. A high-profile tour in the summer of 2009 by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to major African energy producers like Nigeria and Angola signaled the increasing interest of foreign actors in Africa's fuels and minerals. South American powers like Brazil and Venezuela, and Asian powers like India, also want a piece of the action. Expect more deals in 2010, with repercussions for local African politics and US influence.

5. Kidnapping and Terrorism

We enter 2010 with a number of foreigners being held in Africa, especially in the Sahel, including at least six Westerners kidnapped by AQIM. 2009 faced major concern over rising kidnappings (of foreigners and locals) in Kenya and in Nigeria. If the peace process in the Niger Delta region stays on track, we will hopefully see fewer kidnappings there in 2010, but expect the trend to continue elsewhere. Regarding the Sahel, an increase in terrorism (including kidnapping) could evoke strong military responses against AQIM by local governments.

6. Piracy

Piracy off the coast of Somalia made headlines throughout 2009, and pirate attacks have nearly tripled from 2008. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is also a trend to watch. If piracy increases in 2010, expect more debate about how to address the problem, with strong pressure placed on NATO, and increasing concern about pirates' capacity to disrupt oil shipments.

7. Separatism, Intercommunal Violence and Rebellion

People in a number of African communities are demanding self-determination: South Sudan, Western Sahara, and Somaliland and Puntland for starters. Some separatists act primarily through political, rather than military, channels, but politics can quickly spill over into violence.

Meanwhile, violent rebellions continue in a number of African countries. Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army remains a thorn in the side of its home country and a serious problem for Uganda's neighbors, including South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rebellions in Chad and the Central African Republic may flare up again, and of course the conflict in Darfur is far from over. Civil war rages in Somalia. Rebels in Senegal's Casamance region are again taking up arms. 2010 could see the resolution of some of these conflicts, but certainly not all.

8. Aid Debates

A fierce debate raged last year over the effectiveness of aid and the form it should take, with scholars like William Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs, Peter Singer, Chris Blattman, and others weighing in with important arguments on the matter. We can tie the aid debate to others on who can best solve Africans' problems (see Mahmood Mamdani and John Prendergast's debate about Darfur). These debates could potentially change the way the US (and other foreign figures) relate to Africa.

9. US Military Activity

From what I can tell, the Obama administration has budgeted slightly less for AFRICOM in 2010 than the funding AFRICOM received in 2009. That does not mean, however, that US military activity in Africa is winding down. Counterterrorism partnerships in the Sahel continue - the US recently conducted military training in Mali, for example - and the Obama administration may conduct more missile strikes in Somalia this year. The biggest story of all would be if AFRICOM moved their headquarters from Germany to, say, Liberia, but that appears unlikely to happen in the near-term.

10. Death of a Major African Leader

I have placed this issue last because it concerns contingencies, but it could easily top the list if those contingencies occur. No one can foresee the future, but a real possibility exists that one of Africa's aging leaders will die in 2010, leaving successors scrambling to attain power and stabilize their rule. The death of any leader would have major consequences - it was the death of Lansana Conte in Guinea that put the current military junta in power, for example - but the passage of either Robert Mugabe (turns 86 in February) or Hosni Mubarak (turns 82 in May) would have especially far-reaching effects.


This list is organized according to my own subjective sense of what's noteworthy, and you may disagree - in fact, I hope some readers will. What have I left off? Should I have given more space to issues of genocide, or to women's issues, or trends in education? Something else? Have I missed important elements in the trends I do mention? If so, I hope you'll give your take in the comments. Happy New Year!