AfricaSource Strategic Insight on the New Africa

In popular imagination of Africa, the continent is more famous for its savannahs than its skyscrapers. Sub-Saharan Africa’s total urbanized population is just 37 percent, compared to nearly 75 percent of European Union citizens who live in cities.

Africa’s rural population has always been larger than its urban population. But that is changing, and in 2030, the number of urban and rural Africans will be roughly the same: nearly 1.6 billion people altogether. By 2050, nearly two-thirds of all Africans will live in cities. By the same year, nearly a quarter of the world’s workforce will be African—and these workers will be overwhelmingly young.

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As the global downturn in commodity prices and the decreasing demand and investment from China begin to stymie Africa’s historical drivers of economic growth, one of the continent’s largest potential assets—its workforce—is taking off. Africa’s high fertility rates are leading to a demographic shift that will have profound consequences for the region’s long-term economic outlook.

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While a number of African rulers—most notably Joseph Kabila of the rather ironically named Democratic Republic of the Congo whose ham-fisted attempts to prolong his presidency threaten to reignite the continent’s most bloody conflict—have been trying to extend their tenures by all possible means, fair or foul, voters in Senegal were asked in a March 20 referendum to not only reaffirm the two-term limit on the presidency, but also cut the length of terms themselves down to five years from the current seven years. Altogether, the fifteen constitutional amendments approved by nearly two-thirds of the citizens who took part in the plebiscite consolidate the already significant progress made by the West African country in terms of democratic governance and make it something of a model for the region.

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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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