Is Africa’s Strong-man Era Reaching its End-game?

In early April, after months of protests in Algeria and Sudan, the long-term presidents of both countries were forced out of power within less than ten days of each other. A mixture of public protests and pressure from the military brought an end to the ageing leaders’ terms in office. Following a similar conclusion to Robert Mugabe’s reign in Zimbabwe in late 2017, there is reason to believe that Africa’s elderly strongmen are fast-approaching their end-games.  

Although Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned, it was the military that essentially ousted him, much like his counter-part in Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. It was no coincidence that Bouteflika submitted his resignation only hours after the head of the Algerian Army reiterated his call for the president to be removed. While Bouteflika, Bashir and Mugabe came to power through different paths – an election, a coup and a war of independence – all three leaders previously served in the military and relied on it to keep them in power. And, ultimately, either directly or indirectly, it was the military that brought an end to their presidencies.

Aside from the military’s role in Bouteflika’s, Bashir’s and Mugabe’s rise and fall, the three former presidents also all belonged to an older generation of leaders. Bouteflika resigned at the age of 81 with questions being raised about his mental and physical capacities following a stroke in 2013.  Mugabe was removed at the age of 93 following similar questions about his mental capacity and the growing influence of his wife. Of all three leaders, Bashir was the most youthful at 75; however, his physical health was a matter of speculation.

Significantly, the ages of all three leaders contrasted with their countries’ youthful populations. Despite their being 75 or over, a large percentage of the populations of Algeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe are estimated to be under the age of 25. Algeria has the oldest populace with only 45 percent under the age of 25, while in Sudan 61 percent are under that age and, in Zimbabwe, the proportion is estimated to be 59 percent. Although Bouteflika’s, Bashir’s and Mugabe’s ages were not considered a problem when they came to power, after serving for 20, 30 and 37 years respectively, they became increasingly out of touch with their citizens.

While there are various reasons why each of these leaders came under pressure prior to losing power, it appears that their respective militaries could see a growing gulf between the elderly long-term leaders and their increasingly restive and youthful populations.  They acted accordingly to protect their interests. The military has long been considered an essential pillar of Africa’s strongmen and, although it was once seen as an instrument under the control of such leaders, this no longer seems always to be the case. The militaries of such regimes appear to be increasingly willing to intervene to protect their interests, at the expense of the figureheads they helped to put in place.

This growing trend could have repercussions across the continent, triggering soft coups in countries such as Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Uganda. Much like the former presidents of Algeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe, Presidents Paul Biya, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and Yoweri Museveni are significantly older than their populations. The youngest of the three, Museveni, is 74 years old, while an estimated 69 percent of the population of Uganda is under the age of 25. Biya, Obiang and Museveni have served for 37, 40 and 33 years, respectively, and, although Biya was not previously in the military, all three leaders have relied on the military establishment to keep them in power. Accordingly, as pressure begins to mount on these ageing leaders, it is possible that their respective militaries will take inspiration from elsewhere and act to protect their interests, at the expense of Africa’s remaining strongmen.

This article originally featured in Africa Integrity’s May 2019 Newsletter. To join our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.

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Elections in 2016

There are a number of important elections across Africa scheduled for 2016 and over the next year, Africa Integrity Insights will examine a selection of these. As an introduction to the upcoming publications we have compiled a list of countries where elections are set to take place in 2016, including the scheduled date (when available) and the type of election.

  • Benin: Presidential (28th February)
  • Burkina Faso: Municipal (31st January)
  • Cape Verde: Parliamentary and Presidential (February & August)
  • Central African Republic: Parliamentary and Presidential Run-off (31st January)
  • Chad: Presidential (April)
  • Côte d’Ivoire: Parliamentary (December)
  • Comoros: Presidential (21st February)
  • Congo-Brazzaville: Presidential (20th March)
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: Legislative and Presidential (27th November)
  • Djibouti: Presidential (April)
  • Equatorial Guinea: Presidential (November)
  • Gabon: Parliamentary and Presidential (December)
  • Gambia: Presidential (1st December)
  • Ghana: Parliamentary and Presidential (7th November)
  • Niger: Parliamentary & Presidential and Local (21st February & 9th May)
  • Rwanda: Local Government (8th, 22nd & 27th February and 22nd March)
  • Sao Tome and Principe: Presidential (July)
  • Senegal: Constitutional Referendum (May)
  • South Africa: Municipal (May-August)
  • Sudan: Darfur Referendum (11th April)
  • Tanzania: Zanzibar Re-run (20th March)
  • Tunisia: Municipal and Regional (30th October)
  • Uganda: General (18th February)
  • Zambia: Legislative and Presidential (11th August)

A Tough Year Ahead for Africa’s Oil Exporters

Although the world oil price has partially recovered since hitting a six year low in January 2015, last year’s fall in price will continue to have an effect on Africa’s oil exporters throughout this year. The impact of the fall is likely to be compounded by respective governments’ previous overestimation of the price of oil in their budget predictions. The effect of this can already be seen in Ghana, where the government borrowed heavily based on expected oil earnings, and was subsequently forced to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In April 2015, the Brent Crude oil price rallied and increased by 20 percent. In early May 2015, it reached a high for this year, trading at over $67 a barrel, and at the time of writing it is trading at $66.66 per barrel. Although this is a significant improvement, it is far from the average price of May 2014 ($109.41 per barrel). Furthermore, analysts are wary about labelling this increase in price a recovery. A top commodities official at Commerzbank told CNBC that the price rise is “premature” and that it could soon fall back below $50 a barrel. The increase in price has primarily been attributed to conflict in Libya and Yemen, which has disrupted supply and created fear of further disruptions. However, since Libya’s descent into civil war its oil production and exports have been volatile, so it is possible that they could pick up again very soon. Furthermore, the Iran Nuclear Deal could also spell the end of international sanctions opening the market to another supplier. Thus, the recent increase in price should be viewed cautiously. This is reflected in Société Générale’s recent 2015 average Brent price forecast of $59.54 per barrel. Moreover, in more broader terms, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have predicted that oil prices will stay below $100 per barrel for the next decade.

If the recent recovery of oil prices is “premature” and another slump appears, this will put a strain on Africa’s oil exporters’ relationship with OPEC. In November 2014, OPEC decided to maintain production levels agreed upon in December 2011, meaning that prices continued to fall. This policy particularly hit countries with relatively high production costs such as Nigeria, where it costs $20-$40 per barrel compared to $4-$10 per barrel in Saudi Arabia. Although Nigeria did not publicly criticise this strategy like Algeria and Iran, a continuation of it after OPEC’s next conference in June 2015 could create greater opposition amongst Africa’s oil exporters.

Nonetheless, even after the recent recovery, Africa’s major oil exporters are still struggling. It has been calculated by the IMF and Deutsche Bank that Algeria, Libya and Nigeria all require oil prices of over $120 per barrel to balance their budgets, while Angola requires a price of $98 per barrel. This has unsurprisingly put pressure on these countries’ finances. In Nigeria, it was projected that even if the oil price averages at $70 a barrel for 2015, the expenditure levels outlined in the Medium Term Expenditure Framework from November 2014 would leave the country with a fiscal deficit of 1.3 trillion Naira. As a result, governments have reassessed their expected oil earnings and their budgets. As the IMF noted in April 2015 for Africa’s oil exporters the fall in price “will pose a formidable challenge” and it will “require them to undertake significant fiscal adjustment”.

In Nigeria the government has changed its benchmark price for crude oil to $53 per barrel and in Angola it is now $40 per barrel. The IMF has projected that in both of these countries GDP growth will be hit, with Nigeria’s growth falling by 2.5 percent from expectations in October 2014. This decrease in government revenue is reflected in the countries’ budgets. In Angola, the government cut spending by 1.8 trillion Kwacha in its revised budget in February 2015, and still predicted a budget deficit of 7 percent of GDP. Although Nigeria is not looking to cut its budget – which is waiting to be finalised – and are predicting a lower deficit of 1.12 percent of GDP, the House of Representatives have controversially proposed to remove the fuel subsidy and reduce capital expenditure to 21 percent of the budget. This increases the likelihood of popular unrest like that seen in January 2012 after the government first attempted to remove the subsidy. Due to the unreliable electricity supply provided by Nigeria’s national grid, a large proportion of citizens and businesses rely on subsidised fuel to power electricity generators. Thus, this will have a disproportionate impact on less well-off Nigerians and small businesses. The effect of the proposal to remove the subsidy is already being felt in Nigeria through fuel shortages which are set to worsen as marketers restrict imports over fears of the subsidy removal. Furthermore, with a restricted capital expenditure budget it is unlikely that the new All Progressives Congress (APC) government – under the leadership of President-elect Muhammadu Buhari – will be able to make the infrastructural investment needed to significantly improve the national electricity supply. Thus, in Nigeria and across Africa’s oil exporters societal tension and popular unrest are likely to increase as a result of governments’ attempts to restrict spending.

For Africa’s oil exporters, 2015 is likely to be an extremely tough year if prices stay at their current level or drop once more. Although Nigeria’s finance minister – Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – pronounced last year that “we no longer want to be known as this oil economy”, Africa’s oil exporters have not been able to significantly reduce their reliance on oil. In Angola, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of the Congo oil represents over 70 percent of government revenue, and in Gabon and Algeria it represents over 50 percent. In pre-civil war Libya it even reached over 90 percent of the government’s revenue. It also accounts for a large proportion of foreign exchange earnings, with Angola owing 90 percent of its earnings to oil. This dependence has been reflected in depreciating exchange rates, as illustrated by the Naira, which reached a record low against the dollar in February 2015. As a result, governments have not only looked to cut public spending but also increase borrowing. For example, in Nigeria the government have already used over half of its projected borrowing allowance of 882 billion Naira to meet recurrent expenses, such as government employee salaries.

The outlook for 2015 in Africa’s oil exporters remains bleak. Governments are likely to increase debt considerably while depleting their foreign exchange reserves and sovereign wealth funds. Cuts in public spending are likely to cause significant social unrest and it is highly unlikely that companies will pursue new projects due to their loss of revenue. This was indicated by Shell’s and Total’s decisions to delay offshore projects in West Africa in April 2015. Africa’s oil exporters’ dependence on oil has made the impact of the fall in prices particularly acute. Only through significant restructuring of their economies will they be able to avoid such shocks in the future and adapt to OPEC’s predicted long-term slump in prices.

Troubles en Afrique Francophonie

Artist's Map of Africa

Following the overthrow of Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore in October last year a number of other Francophone countries have experienced anti-government protests, predominantly in relation to the tenure of their long-term leaders. In the midst of the events in Burkina Faso commentators coined the phrase “African Spring” drawing comparisons with the Arab uprisings in 2011. However, it appears that “Printemps Africain” is a more appropriate term than “African Spring”.

In the last year and predominantly after the events in Burkina Faso, large-scale unrest has been seen in Burundi, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger and Togo. With the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, where protests came from within the military concerning pay, the other countries witnessed protests against their long-term governments and presidents. As recently as February 2015, protests against Burundi’s government broke out in reaction to the arrest of journalist, Bob Rugurika, in connection with a murder investigation. Witnesses said that the demonstration which took place after Rugurika’s release was the largest in the country in over 20 years. Evidently, these types of events are not on the same scale as those seen during the “Arab Spring” but nonetheless, they do demonstrate a rising undercurrent of unrest.

Significantly, Anglophone and Lusophone Africa have managed to avoid these powerful rumblings of discontent. However, this is not due to a lack of dictatorial zeal on the part of these regions’ leaders, as demonstrated by three out of the five longest serving African presidents being from either Anglophone or Lusophone Africa. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza with his mere 10 years as president must look in envy as the nonagenarian Robert Mugabe enters his 35th year in power.

Thus, on the surface at least, it appears that in our increasingly globalised world of the Internet and social media, language still has an influence on the contagion effect of political protest. It is not clear whether this is through conventional or social media, or links between civil society organisations, but it does seem that it has so far been confined to the Francophone region in which it originated. If this trend continues, 2015 could be an uncomfortable year for Francophone Africa’s longest serving leaders in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere.

[The above is an extract from Africa Integrity’s new quarterly newsletter – Africa Integrity Reports – which is to be launched in March 2015. To request a copy of this newsletter and join the mailing list please contact us]