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2018 Geopolitical Forecast: Sub-Saharan Africa


2018 Geopolitical Forecast: Sub-Saharan Africa

/ Africa


The volatility of the drivers of migration in Sub-Saharan Africa — which include regime repression, armed violence, environmental stress, and social and economic aspirations — defy accurate prediction of trends. Nevertheless, the high prevalence of regional mobility experienced in previous years will remain stable as a result of circular migration, while regions likely to experience escalations in conflict, such as South Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), will continue to produce a steady outflux of asylum seekers.

New policies that enforce strict border control are likely to influence migration patterns in 2018. Saudi Arabia’s purge of 3,600 undocumented Ethiopians, and Sudan and Egypt’s interception and deportation of Eritreans has tightened the noose on irregular migrants. The threat that some migrants ostensibly pose to the economy, security and “nature of the Jewish state” has also resulted in the deportation of Eritreans and Ethiopians from Israel via bilateral agreements to facilitate the “safe” passage of refugees to Rwanda and Uganda. Both of the latter nations have reportedly been complicit in the forced dispersal of these refugees into other parts of their region. As a result, migrants become commodified in human trafficking chains, stripped of protection and sometimes left in stateless limbo. It is likely that this trend will continue given Israel and Rwanda’s recent announcement of a new refugee resettlement deal.

The brokerage of such crypto-deals, often with impoverished states open to financial or other incentives, is expected to gain currency as a powerful deterrent to migration. This trend is expected to catch on in 2018, as evidenced in the recent deals between Italy and Libya to constrict the Central Mediterranean migration route, and between the European Commission and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.

US disengagement from the global compact on migration has effectively eroded its leadership role and upset the collective goodwill to formulate responsive migration policies. The Trump administration’s strong anti-immigration stance and the recent US Supreme Court decision to reinstate the administration’s travel ban suggest this trend is likely to intensify through 2018. As the ban targets Somalia, Libya and Chad (among others), austerity in refugee resettlement procedures will persist and resettlement numbers and funding will diminish, likely leading to a negligible reduction in inter-continental migration in the coming year. The US measures are likely to exclude the most vulnerable asylum seekers from protection, particularly those originating from countries with active conflict, while aiding extremist propaganda and potentially recruitment.

There may also be a change and expansion in migration routes and destinations among migrants in 2018. With the help of human traffickers, migrants are likely to target countries along the migration route such as Egypt as new destinations. In contrast, states that have introduced open-border and seemingly inconsistent policies such as Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and Benin will likely encourage reciprocity and experience a spike in migrant influx as well as enjoy possible political, social and economic dividends from international deals.


The transitional government of South Sudan will conclude its term in February 2018, effectively casting the country’s future into doubt. The High Level Revitalisation Forum aimed at reviving the floundering 2015 peace agreement has, for now, seemingly achieved its task, with leading political rivals President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar agreeing to a new ceasefire deal beginning on Christmas Eve. However, it is not clear to what extent the armed opposition will acquiesce to the negotiation platform and commit to the peace process following an earlier repudiation. High on the agenda is the revision of the implementation timelines and the full and inclusive implementation of the accord that will, among other outcomes, create an enabling environment for democratic elections in July 2018.

The undetermined post-transition leadership of the country will embolden Machar’s SPLM-IO to revert to hardcore bargaining and negotiate with Kiir’s faction as equal partners. It is likely that the opposition will not accept the conduct of a poll that perceptibly fails to meet rigorous electoral integrity standards. As such, the negotiation process is likely to be drawn out, thereby scuttling the election calendar. A postponement of the elections will occasion a power vacuum that could be remedied with the extension of the transitional government. Such a move is likely to be met with stiff opposition from SPLM-IO. At the same time, the possible extension of Kiir’s presidency is also likely to compel the opposition to negotiate on more realistic terms and expedite the elections with the aim to unseat Kiir and institute a legitimate government.

The disenfranchisement of numerous voters including the internally displaced and refugees, along with general voter apathy, apprehension in some communities and insufficient funds is likely to put the overall credibility of an election into question. The prevailing climate of hostility not to mention a history of discord will dissuade both the government and opposition from negotiating for a unity government. If the elections conducted as scheduled, it is likely to become a highly contentious and increasingly destabilising factor in an already fragile environment.


A Ugandan soldier of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) looks on as members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group Al Shabaab stand in line after more than 200 fighters gave themselves up to AMISOM forces of the in Garsale, approximately 10km from the town of Jowhar, 80km north of the capital Mogadishu, 22 September 2012 / Africa
Photo: AU-UN IST / Abukar Albadri

The Al Shabaab armed group, an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Somalia, has recently orchestrated successful attacks both in Somalia and Kenya with varying lethality. This rampage defies speculations that the group is in decline despite the African Union Mission in Somalia’s (AMISOM) seemingly successful assaults that have in some cases ousted the group from areas it controlled.

The contradictory policy to build a wall along Kenya’s border with Somalia and the recent executive order for an open border policy portend grim ramifications for the country’s security. Building a wall will not avert a threat that already exists internally, while an open border policy that sheds another layer off an already porous border could potentially facilitate extremism logistics and increase incursions. Kenya will therefore continue to attract reprisal attacks for its operations in Somalia from the group in 2018.

Al Shabaab’s introduction of a new school curriculum in 2017 in areas under its control will not only sustain its ideology but also ensure a steady stream of human capital to engage in diverse operations in Somalia and beyond. Coupled with high levels of poverty, this is likely to boost recruitment. Neutralising the organisation’s leadership and combatants — current US policy has seen an upsurge in drone strikes — is likely to prove counter-productive and encourage more sympathisers, especially in response to civilian collateral damage.

The breakaway faction of Al Shabaab that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State is expected to increase its presence and launch further attacks in Somalia’s northern breakaway region of Puntland and in surrounding areas of South Central. The withdrawal of AMISOM troops, as with the Uganda contingent, will lead Al Shabaab to reclaim previous AMISOM-controlled areas. Somalia’s military lacks the capacity to engage with the extremist organisations. Al Shabaab will therefore continue to re-invent and consolidate itself in 2018.


Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other terror cells are presenting themselves as a growing threat within the Sahel region. The Sahel has experienced a surge in jihadist militant attacks since the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and the Islamic State in Libya (ISL) has concentrated its efforts to build a larger presence in the region after the collapse of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Regional and international powers such as Mali, Niger, France and UAE have taken steps to combat the rising threat posed the Islamic extremists based in the region. The EU has invested more than $56 million in a 10,000-strong multinational military force, mainly composed of G5 Sahel countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger — that will work alongside UN peacekeepers stationed in Mali. France will provide military assistance. Given the scale of the operation, it is hoped that this force will be able to dispel jihadist extremists from the region within the next 5 years.

The success of the G5 force will depend on its ability to cooperate with UN peacekeepers and enforce a tight border control, as the region’s porous borders have helped facilitate the free movement of non-state actors and human trafficking. It is likely that the remnants of Boko Haram and AQIM will anticipate regional and international efforts and attempt to hinder their efforts by taking control of towns close to borders, as occurred in 2015 when Boko Haram occupied a border town in northeastern Nigeria. This would ease the movement of militants and create a stronghold against regional troops.

Small arms that have been circulating around the region since Libya’s collapse will continue to fall into the hands of terrorists for use in attacks on local forces. The proliferation is also likely to expand the presence of the black market and trafficking rings.

Boko Haram has experienced severe losses in recent months, leading it to split into various sub-groups vying for power and influence in the territories they still hold. Expect G5 forces to deploy a divide and conquer strategy to eliminate these groups from Chad and north-eastern Nigeria, while reclaiming bases that Boko Haram once occupied. AQIM and ISL have been at odds competing over various areas within the region – this conflict will spill beyond localised clashes and expand into open attacks against cities in an effort to gain a military advantage. Instances of clashes attacks in Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou indicate future violence as the two groups enter a cycle of one-upmanship.


Zimbabwe’s successful transfer of power has created the potential for great political change. President Robert Mugabe’s fall from grace was cemented when the ruling party Zanu-PF voted for former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa to be party leader and head of state. Mnangagwa has said Zimbabwe is now “open for business” and is expected to embrace neo-liberal economics that will help revilitise the nation’s plagued economy. His cabinet, which is composed of civilians and technocrats in charge of education and financial reforms as well as military figures, suggests there will be progress in developing a coherent strategy for economic reform. But there are fears that Mnangagwa is just a continuation of the status quo that allowed Mugabe to retain his grip on power for 37 years.

The fairness and credibility of next year’s national elections will depend on Mnangagwa’s policy agenda in the coming year. If he facilitates political reform – such as allowing previous critics of Mugabe’s regime to return as well as easing the crackdown of local media – he may sustain the support of the populace, which will encourage him to continue reforms. He might also invite a third party monitor to oversee the conduct of the elections to grant them greater legitimacy both in the eyes of the public and the international community. However, such a scenario depends on the attitudes and influence of the former vice-president; given his reputation as Mugabe’s right-hand man and a political crocodile, do not anticipate reforms to match expectations.


Joseph Kabila / Africa
Photo: MONUSCO / Flickr

Following the ouster of long-time Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, several African nations have begun to show signs of political uncertainty surrounding their respective leaders.


President Joseph Kabila is still clinging to power in the DRC despite mounting opposition from both the public and the international community. Elections meant to take place this year were postponed; Kabila retained his position by implementing a systematic delay in the electoral process, with officials declaring that the government’s strong adherence to proper democratic procedures will take months to complete. The UN has exerted pressure for the government to stick to their election deadline in December in 2018, but given the spread of instability as well as corruption at the local levels, the plausibility of every citizen lining up to vote next year appears dubious.


Togo President Faure Gnassingbe has resisted calls to step down throughout 2017 despite a sustained movement to depose him. His presidency is reinforced by his position as the Chairman of Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS). ECOWAS president Marcel Alain de Souza, who decides the rotating chairmanship of the group, is also married to Mr Gnassingbe’s sister. ECOWAS, the main West African regional body, was partly responsible for the ousting of Gambia’s former president, but it has been slow to respond to Togo’s political instability.


President Paul Biya’s response to the Anglophone secessionist movement has been largely aggressive. Reports suggest 55 people have been killed since October and 7,500 people have fled to Nigeria. The situation will most likely remain volatile given the lack of media attention the secessionist campaign has received from international community. But the exodus of Anglophone refugees to the Nigerian border may compel President Muhammadu Buhari and ECOWAS to exert pressure on Biya to stem the level of violence in an effort to avoid regional insanity.


In 2018, separatists in West Africa and the Sahel will continue their attempts to create new political entities. The risk level of separatist movements in these countries and the potential for peaceful resolution will depend on the response paths chosen by central governments.

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Separatist sentiments gathered steam in early 2017 in the two English-speaking regions of Northwest and Southwest Cameroon. The failure of the Francophone government to translate new laws into English led to protests, amidst reports of genocide by government forces. Protesters comprising of lawyers, teachers, students and civil society groups criticised the government’s transfer of teachers and judges with scant command of English language to their region where English is lingua franca.

These sentiments led to the declaration of a Federal Republic of Ambazonia in October 2017. Ambazonia has appointed a president and named a cabinet in exile, and the movement will continue to threaten the integrity of the Cameroonian state in 2018.

With 2017 coming to an end with no meaningful path to resolution, the threat will be carried over into the new year. In 2018, the Biya-led, French-dominated government will continue its heavy-handed response as it continues to deny legitimacy to the separatists. The arrests of separatist leaders Felix Agbor Nkongho and Fontem Neba may be overshadowed by even more arrests in the new year.

There will be international condemnation of government violence by both Western countries and intergovernmental bodies such as the African Union (AU) and the UN. But condemnation may not deter President Biya, who enjoys French support. Additionally, both AU and the UN will not support a new state, as both bodies are more likely to protect the status quo.

But secessionists’ calls for a new state will not die easily. With a symbolic president and a cabinet, Ambazonia will linger on. This is much more likely if Yaounde responds with more firepower, handing popular legitimacy to the separatists. Such a response will also deepen the divide between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon.

Separatism in Cameroon will be more portentous to sub-regional security than to the Cameroonian state. Should the Ambazonia project ally itself with and seek strength from the Biafra separtist movement in neighbouring Nigeria, it would be the first instance of inter-separatist cooperation in West Africa. This development would further complicate already difficult problems for both central governments. With the AU remaining tight-lipped on separatism in Cameroon ad Nigeria, an Ambazonia-Biafra alliance may become more likely as the two separatist movements continue their struggle. Expect the AU to succumb to pressure and issue a statement of condemnation of separatism and call to order, then follow up with inaction.


Kegbara- dere community oil spill, Ogoniland, Nigeria / Africa
Photo: Luka Tomac / Friends of the Earth International / Flickr

Separatist sentiments in Nigeria’s southeast have persisted since 1967, when then military governor of Eastern Nigeria, C. Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared the of the ‘Republic of Biafra’. Under Ojukwu’s leadership, Biafra fought and lost a civil war with the Nigerian army from 1967 to 1970, in which over 1 million people died. Since then, pro-Biafra sentiment has smoldered with intensity varying on the geographic origins of Nigeria’s president.

Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) is the most recent incarnate of the 1967 movement. In 2018, IPOB, by far the most sophisticated and resourceful votary of the Biafra cause, will insist on separating itself from Nigeria. Expect Abuja to continue to label IPOB as a terrorist group, even as some Western governments oppose this designation. Nigeria over the years has ignored Western powers and pursued its domestic agenda unhindered by international pressure. The federal government will respond mostly with a heavy hand and ignore windows for negotiation due to bad blood between IPOB and the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group, of which the president is a member. Recent statements and actions of the Nigerian state attests to the fact that President Buhari’s government will continue to use force to quell the group instead of less combative measures.

Under federal government pressure, IPOB members and leader Nnamdi Kanu have faced military raids that have led to violence and other acts of torture. With Kanu’s whereabouts unknown to authorities, the Biafra cause will endure throughout 2018 and beyond. But do not expect to see a Biafra Republic emerge in West Africa in 2018, or anytime soon.

Instead, IPOB will threaten Nigeria’s fragile peace through its interactions with other separatist movements in nearby areas. In 2016, the Nigerian army stormed Bayelsa to stop a declaration of an independent Niger Delta Republic in Nigeria’s south by a group that calls itself Adaka Boro Avengers (ABA). Despite capitulating to Nigerian army firepower, the ABA threat was sustained in 2017. IPOB’s political invectives against the north will also likely lead to northern counter reactions against the south. This has already happened with the Kaduna declaration, in which northern youth insist that ethnic Igbos — a key ethnic group in would-be Biafra — leave their region.


The separatist and ethnic nationalist Tuareg movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), will remain a force to reckon with in 2018, even though the movement has now receded into the harsh recesses and rugged terrains of the Sahel-Sahara. With the focus on the fight against religious terrorism in Mali and its environs after the 2012/2013 French-led intervention, MNLA has been in the blind spot of political and security risk analysis. But the 2012 resurgence was one of many in the last many decades. As in the past, the MNLA will wait for another opportunity to return to the political spotlight. It is a development to watch for in 2018, especially as Mali continues to remain in the state of ‘no war, no peace’.

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