AfricaSource|Strategic Insight on the New Africa

Since the tumult of the Arab Spring in 2011, the broader Middle East and North Africa region has grappled with instability, internal strife, and an existential struggle against extremist terrorism.

The region has descended from the great hope for change into a spiral of fragmentation, insecurity, and fragility, and it continues to face complex emergency situations on an unprecedented scale. The conflicts cause untold damage to both human life and physical infrastructure, as fifteen million people to date have fled their countries. Syria today is an increasingly fragmented nation and the humanitarian situation there remains extremely challenging.

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World leaders met this week for the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) with an ambitious agenda to tackle warming global temperatures and reduce carbon emissions.

At the same time, Ethiopian officials revised their predictions of the number of people affected by the ongoing drought upward by nearly two million. They now estimate that more than 10 million people—over 10 percent of the country’s population—need emergency food aid. The successive failure of two seasonal rains due to the El Niño weather phenomenon caused massive crop failure, and drought is now straining farmers who depend on the land for their livelihoods.

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The decision by Rwanda’s Supreme Court to allow a popular referendum on the lifting of presidential term limits has all but cleared President Paul Kagame’s path to a third term in office. Rwanda’s constitution currently restricts the president to two seven-year terms, the second of which President Kagame began in 2010, but the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has sought to remove those limits ahead of the 2017 election. Despite serious questions surrounding whether an amendment to the term limit clause is allowed by the constitution, the RPF has acted under the assumption of legality and ignored or discredited arguments to the contrary, drawing international criticism.

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For months, I have been warning that Guinea's young democracy was extraordinarily fragile and might well prove stillborn. Last month, I highlighted the broader significance of next week's presidential election, noting that its conduct will either consolidate the major advance for democracy in Africa achieved earlier this year when the continent's most populous country and largest economy, Nigeria, had a peaceful transfer of power following the first-ever electoral defeat of an incumbent president in its history or, conversely, deal a devastating setback to a fragile West African subregion just emerging from long years of conflict and still reeling from last year's Ebola epidemic. Unfortunately, with just days before the vote, there are troubling signs that incumbent President Alpha Condé may be pulling out all stops to ensure that he won't have to vacate the office he has long sought and which he gained only in 2010 following a highly disputed poll.

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Last year, when it was first reported that South Africa’s ruling liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), would receive funding from the Chinese Communist Party for its new Policy School and Political Institute in Venterskroon, I and several other scholars—including Patrick Heller of Brown University and retired Ambassador David Shinn of George Washington University—drew more than a bit of criticism over our concerns that, as I told Time magazine, “Chinese money in significant amounts and influence could tip the ANC in the wrong direction.” As it turns out, it took less than a year for proof to emerge of just how much the foreign policy orientations of Africa’s second-largest economy have shifted.

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Lake Chad is shrinking


In recent years, we have witnessed the dramatic rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria and its expansion into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. In addition to sharing borders, these four countries have another valuable asset in common: Lake Chad. The resource remains the primary source of freshwater for irrigation projects in the region, and the Lake’s basin remains one of the world’s most important agricultural heritage sites, providing a lifeline to about 30 million people.

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In the many years that I spent working as a civil and human rights activist across East, West, Central and Southern Africa, I quickly learned that there is a surefire way to get a visa into Africa’s most repressive countries. When filling out the little box that asks for your purpose of visit, just say you are “promoting women’s rights.”

Not only will you instantly be handed a visa, your immigration officer is likely to smile broadly and wish you luck in your mission.

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Even as Nigeria struggles to fight against Boko Haram insurgents in its northeast, a dangerous but forgotten conflict on the other side of the country is resurfacing. Before the rise of Boko Haram, the conflict in the southern Niger Delta region had long been considered the most potent threat to Nigeria’s security. Over the years, it has displaced thousands and cost the government a hundred billion dollars in lost oil revenue. Violence in the south has been at a low ebb since 2009, when Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Jonathan bought off rebel leaders with a generous package of stipends. But those amnesty payments are set to expire in December, and new President Muhammadu Buhari will have a harder time dealing with the region than his predecessor: unlike Jonathan, Buhari does not come from the Delta, and global declines in oil prices mean that he has far less cash to throw around.

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Burundi, the central African nation entering its third month of political crisis, held parliamentary elections last week. Seventeen opposition parties formally boycotted the polls (though several others appeared on the ballot); preliminary results suggest that the ruling party of incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza—whose announcement that he would seek a third term sparked widespread protests—won a large majority of parliamentary seats.

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On Wednesday, presidents and other leaders representing twenty-six African countries meeting at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh signed an agreement to launch a “Cape to Cairo” free trade zone spanning the length of the continent. The Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA), as it will formally be known, will embrace three of Africa’s major economic blocs—the East Africa Community (EAC), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA)—with a combined population of some 625 million people and an overall gross domestic product of more than $1 trillion.

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