Skip to main content

2 024 will be yet another eventful year on the continent. Roughly a third of African countries will hold elections including South Africa; Mali; Burkina Faso; Guinea-Bissau; and Ghana, where the race is expected to be tight. These elections, and others, will take place against the backdrop of sluggish economic growth rates and subdued job creation prospects. In some countries, such as Somaliland and those in the Sahel, regional geopolitics will contribute to the election outcome.

In our 2024 outlook, we take an in-depth look at three developments with far-reaching consequences – insecurity in the Sahel; South Africa’s upcoming poll; and Ethiopia’s efforts to re-shape dynamics in the Horn of Africa. These three headline issues, and the seven others that we highlight, will be analysed throughout 2024 as we identify, analyse and forecast issues shaping the development of the continent. 

The Sahelian Triumviate

On 28 January, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger issued a joint statement announcing their departure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional group. The junta-led countries cited the influence of “foreign powers” on ECOWAS, asserted that it had moved away from “the ideals of its founding fathers and Pan-Africanism” and failed to decisively tackle terrorism in the Sahel. ECOWAS had suspended the three after the military coups in each country unseated an elected government.

ECOWAS

Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso are resolute. On 16 September 2023 they established a security alliance that ensures mutual support in instances of domestic armed rebellion and external aggression. The collective defence agreement created the Alliance of Sahel States. This move can be seen as a precursor to their departure from ECOWAS, whose members had mooted military intervention as a means to restore democracy. 

The joint statement issued this month underscores recurrent criticism voiced by the military junta about the progressively deteriorating security situation and Western, namely French, interference in domestic political affairs.  Anti-French sentiment is palpable across all three countries. It is closely tied to and spurred by the failure of the G5 Sahel – a framework that enabled coordination between Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania on security and developmental issues.

Abandoned military tank in the desert, Chad

Northern neighbour

The military rulers in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have publicly stated their willingness to return to civilian rule. They have been less forthcoming about the timetable. ECOWAS’ attempt to seek clarity on timelines or push for an accelerated return to democracy have not yielded positive results. Despite this, there is a  mediator with sufficient political credibility, a track record of mediating in regional issues and demonstrable successful counter-terrorism experience that could gradually facilitate this process.  

From the 1970s to 1980s, Algeria’s foreign policy was based on anti-colonial and non-intervention principles. This sentiment was matched with actions on the regional and international stage. The country retreated during the Black Decade (1991 – 2002), during which the government fought a jihadist insurgency in a brutal civil war. It’s been making an increasingly assertive comeback since President Abdelmadjid Tebboune took office in December 2019 after former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his resignation earlier that year after mass protests against his continued rule. 

Algeria’s aversion to foreign intervention in the region remains the same. However, it’s stance on non-intervention in other states’ affairs has changed. The country’s 2021 constitution allows Algeria to participate in peacekeeping missions “within the framework of the United Nations, the African Union and the League of Arab States”. A two-thirds parliamentary vote can also allow the president to send troops abroad. This, in conjunction with Algeria’s local counter-terrorism experience and historic mediation in the Sahel, provides important context that could lead to substantive mediation efforts aimed at restoring democracy in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Making peace

Algeria is experienced in facilitating regional peace and successfully fighting hardline jihadist terrorist groups. In Mali, it has decades’ experience brokering peace between the government and Tuareg armed groups, which led to the Tamanrasset agreements in 1991; the Algiers agreements in 2006; and the 2015 Algiers Process. Algeria is highly motivated; it shares a 997 kilometre (620 mile) border with Niger and is heavily invested in the Trans-Saharan Highway Project that will connect Algiers to Lagos via Tunis, Bamako, Niamey, and Ndjamena. We discuss the highway’s complexity in a previous article. In August 2023, Algeria proposed a six-month plan to restore democracy, which the Nigerian junta rejected. In spite of this, Algeria arguably has more sway over the Alliance of Sahel States than ECOWAS, France, the US or leading European nations.

Algeria began its two-year term on the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 8 January. We expected a more assertive approach to three areas during its term – requesting funding, logistical and technological support for counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel;  opposing Morocco and calling for international recognition and independence for Western Sahara; and supporting South Africa’s position in the Israel-Gaza conflict. 

In the short term, Algiers has to balance the need to build trust among all state and non-state groups and devise suitable and sustainable economic incentives that address the root causes of internal instability in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. It also needs to propose a credible military strategy to tackle terrorism across the Sahel. This will likely be under the auspices of the Joint Military Staff Committee (CEMOC) that coordinates counter-terrorism efforts between Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. It was side-lined in favour of French-led G5. Mali and Niger are likely to be more receptive to a revived CEMOC that may include Burkina Faso in the near future.

Past, present, future

2024 marks 30 years of South African democracy. The country and government will undoubtedly reflect on 1994 and the monumental elections that marked the end of white-minority rule and saw universal suffrage extended to all citizens. The African National Congress’s (ANC) resounding legislative win and Nelson Mandela’s ascension to the presidency marked at new dawn for the country. 30 years on, the sun appears to be setting on this phase of the ANC’s history as President Cyril Ramaphosa leads the party to what is expected to be its worst electoral performance to date. 

The reasons are many. Voter apathy fuelled by equal parts frustration and general disillusionment with the ANC’s failure to materially improve their lives. Thanks to robust journalistic reporting, voters are aware of the extent of state capture all three spheres of government but commensurate news of prosecutions is scant. Voters’ future prospects, particularly young people, are dire. Successive years of poor education outcomes funnel ill-equipped scholars into a labour market with limited opportunities for the ANC’s core voter base.

man waving a south african flag

The splintering of the ANC since the late 2000s, systematic weakening of internal structures such as the ANC Youth League and Women’s League, and erosion of the strength of the tri-partite alliance has wholly transformed the party. The efficacy of the ANC’s voter mobilisation efforts has historically been underpinned by its “broad church” concept and enabled by efficient structures and effective cadres. The 2024 election should have been a walk in the past for Ramaphosa – leverage the 1994 nostalgia, draw from recent feelings of national unity over the Rugby world cup victory and point to substantive wins and tangible benefits of casting a vote for the ANC to govern for another five years. Instead, it has become the equivalent of a sprint to the top of Table Mountain for the ruling party.

It's who counts that counts

The ANC will have to fight hard to secure over 50% of the vote in the legislative elections. In addition to the aforementioned voter apathy and the party’s sub-optimal voter mobilisation infrastructure, the election will take place during the winter months. The legislature, national and political government’s term ends on 18 May 2024 and elections must be held within 90 days of this expiry date.

This election is operationally and technologically significant. It is the first time that the IEC will hold national and provincial elections at the same time. Practically, it means potentially increasing the 10 ballot configuration to 19. This election will also allow voters to cast ballots for independent candidates, “which expands electoral participation and widens the pool of leadership choice”. IEC Chair Mosotho Moepya, appointed in 2022, and his team will have their work cut out for them.

Over 30,000 voter management devices (VMDs), centrally connected through an access point, were deployed in the 2021 local government elections. They replace Zip-Zip scanners in the 2024 poll. VMDs enable live tabulation and quickly highlight instances of double voting. Telkom will provide the voice and data network infrastructure, which includes the latest generation of W-LAN technology, WiFi 6.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

The IEC has never been tested in this manner. There is an adage – “it’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes who counts”. South Africa’s election commission will be under incredible domestic and foreign scrutiny in the upcoming election. The ANC is desperate for the win, opposition parties are determined to make the ruling party lose.

South Africa flag, hand dropping ballot card into a box

Party-affiliated and independent election observers will be alert to potential uses of the law to disenfranchise voters on election day. They will be on the lookout for common tactics used in electoral fraud such as changing voting times, incidents where the voting centre may need to be moved due to security concerns in a particular constituency, or delays between the end of voting and start of counting the votes. 30 years ago reports of election fraud in Kwa-Zulu Natal Province barely made headlines; a similar occurrence in 2024 will have very different results for the country. 

Coastal view

From one tip of the continent to another where a region poised on a knife-edge. We move to the Horn of Africa where a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Somaliland and Ethiopia signed on 1 January is threatening to upend a fragile détente. The MoU grants Ethiopia a 50-year lease of 20 kilometres (12 miles) of coastline around the port of Berber for military and commercial uses. In exchange, Ethiopia will give Somaliland an unspecified number of shares in Ethiopian Airways and take some steps towards recognising the semi-autonomous region of Somalia. 

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on 22 January spoke out about the MoU, which he described as a landgrab by Ethiopia that would not be tolerated. He asserted, “we want Ethiopia to have access to the sea, there is no question about that,” but questioned the manner. Somalia has recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia in response to an act of “aggression”. The African Union, Arab League, US, Turkey and several other nations have backed Somalia’s position.

Somaliland Flag

The exact contents of the MoU have not been made public. This has fuelled speculation about detail surrounding Ethiopia’s recognition of Somaliland’s sovereign integrity. Somaliland has its own currency, holds regular democratic elections and has maintained relative peace and stability since the self-governing territory was created in 1991. Currently, only Taiwan has granted it official recognition.

When the MoU was signed, Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi stated that it included wording stating that Ethiopia would recognise Somaliland as an independent country in the future. In contrast, Ethiopia stated on 3 January that it could conduct an “in-depth assessment” into the request for official recognition. It also highlighted that other countries had signed MoUs with Somaliland and that “no laws have been transgressed.”

Prison break

Ethiopia needs to diversify its trade routes for geopolitical and economic reasons. It has previously explored gaining access to the coast via Sudan and Kenya, both of which failed. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced in October 2023 that the government needed to find a way to break its population of over 100 million people out of their “geographic prison”. During the same television address, he stated that the Red Sea is Ethiopia’s “natural border”. This undoubtedly raised eyebrows in Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and in doing so, cut off Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea.

Ethiopia negotiates sea access

Source: Ethiopia negotiates sea access © Sylvie HUSSON, Valentina BRESCHI / AFP

Al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab has stoked anti-Ethiopian sentiment in Somalia since the announcement of the MoU. The group routinely portrays Ethiopia as a religiously and ethnically foreign crusading force that wants to subjugate all Somalis throughout the Horn of Africa. It’s stance has had some resonance; it has successfully attacked Ethiopian envoys operating in Somalia as part of the African Union Transition Mission, a regional peacekeeping force. It has also infiltrated Ethiopia’s borders in a bid to launch an attack as recently as June 2023. 

Neighbouring Djibouti also will not be pleased about the MoU. Ethiopia has transported over 90 percent of its goods via Djibouti since 1993. If Ethiopia gains access to a port in Somaliland, this dependency will reduce by 30 percent. It will also pay significantly less port fees. In 2022 Abiy unsuccessfully tried to reduce the USD 1 billion annual fee. Ethiopia’s sovereign default on 26 December 2023 undoubtedly exerted pressure on the government to explore all opportunities. A gradual alignment between Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea driven by shared regional interests also likely energised this exploration of alternative alliances and solutions.

Grand ambitions

In his Christmas address, Abiy stated that “When we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, we should continue to consider the way the world has changed and evaluate the way we are going.” This followed earlier remarks that alluded to the need for unconventional thinking to achieve goals. Abiy is jugging a lot – securing the port access deal in the face of regional pressure to change tact; finalising the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) despite a breakdown in talks with Egypt and tensions with Sudan; decisively quelling restive regions, preserving territorial integrity and eliminating threat of a civil war or coup before the 2026 general elections. An eventful year, even by other Nobel Prize winners’ standards.

Gold Medal Nobel prize

On the horizon

Other developments and trends to watch include: 

  • Ghana – New Patriotic Party hobbles to the December poll under the weight of the legacy of outgoing president Nana Akufo-Addo’s lacklustre second term. 
  • Zambia – President Hichilema seeks to consolidate power, narrows opposition space. 
  • Resource nationalism and local beneficiation targeting critical minerals. 
  • Côte d’Ivoire – a markedly different campaign season ahead of the 2025 presidential election as Tidjane Thiam gives Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PRCI) a shot at victory. 
  • UAE, Qatar and Turkey playing roles traditionally occupied by European middle powers. 
  • As investor interest in fintech and e-commerce cools, impact investor interest grows in ag-tech and climate-change related solutions.
  • Governments’ interest in developing a “new capital” pique in a bid to avoid congestion and disfunction in the original capital city. This boosts the construction industry and shifts, not solves, the problems associated with rapid urbanisation and an under-investment in public services and infrastructure.