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Your Cheat Sheet For (Almost) All The African News You Missed This Year

Apart from a few bright spots, it's been a pretty pathetic year all round.

13/12/2016 06:21 SAST | Updated 13/12/2016 06:33 SAST
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Map of eastern hemisphere highlighting Africa

Most people would agree that 2016, broadly, sucked with a Donald Trump victory, Brexit and the rise of intolerant, isolationist far-right parties the world over. But Africa hasn't exactly covered itself in glory this year either: leaders continue to cling to power, terror groups continue to kill and maim innocent people and corruption continues to deny African citizens the right to basic services. Apart from a few bright spots, it's been a pretty pathetic year all round. We look at some of the big events on the continent this year.

Third termism

We were going to praise The Gambia's autocratic president Yahya Jammeh for recognising his number was up and stepping aside peacefully this month 22 years after seizing power in a military coup. It appeared last week that he had accepted defeat and conceded to his rival in the face of a clear election result rather than forcing through a fourth term. Not so sadly: the hint that he might be prosecuted prompted Jammeh to snap back to previous form, announcing on public radio that he had decided the results were flawed and he would be challenging them, sparking what is expected to be intense instability.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there have been fierce protests and work stay-aways at the suggestion that President Joseph Kabila could change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. The elections were delayed from November this year to sometime in 2018 by the electoral commission, which claimed a new census needed to be conducted first to determine the number of voters, an excuse opposition leaders — who are routinely harassed by the security forces — say is a sham.

Over the border in Congo-Brazzaville, President Denis Sassou Nguesso extended a 32-year reign after manipulating the constitutionally-mandated age limits amid opposition allegations of fraud.

In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni dealt with the pesky constitutional term limits in 2005 and this year won a fifth term in office, dealing with long-time opposition leader Kizza Besigye by having him locked up.

In Gabon, a tiny, oil-rich country to the west of giant DRC and Congo Brazaville, Ali Bongo, the jovial son of the country's long-time leader showed his teeth with a harsh security crackdown after a hotly-disputed election.

Calling foul

Even in elections where presidential candidates were relatively new to the game, there were complaints of electoral fraud and voter manipulation in several other African elections.

In Zambia, the incumbent who stepped in to the presidential seat when his predecessor died in office was confirmed in a knife-edge August election. The long-time opposition candidate, a millionaire cattle rancher popularly known as "HH", said the media and police had been hijacked to help President Edgar Lungu further his cause. Claims of fraud through poll delays, partisan officials and dodgy ballots could, as is so often the case, not be proven.

In Gabon, a tiny, oil-rich country to the west of giant DRC and Congo Brazaville, Ali Bongo, the jovial son of the country's long-time leader showed his teeth with a harsh security crackdown after a hotly-disputed election. The opposition — led by former African Union chief Jean Ping — rightly queried results including that Bongo's home province saw a 99 percent turnout, with 95 percent of the votes going in his favour. Bongo, until this point a darling of the West for measures taken to protect Gabon's forest elephants and pristine rainforest, stood firm and a court case brought by Ping foundered.

In Zimbabwe, social media saw Pastor Evans Mawarire's #ThisFlag protest spread like wildfire, providing a rallying point for a series of popular protests.

Speaking of freedom...

Soaring internet penetration and enthusiasm for social media has helped spurn popular movements from the Cape to Cairo and was credited with helping citizens to register protests, bolster democracy and blow the whistle on wrong-doing.

In Ghana, a Social Media Tracking Centre was set up, staffed by volunteers, to monitor tens of thousands of Tweets, WhatsApps and Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram posts, acting as an early warning system for where trouble might occur during the presidential election. In Zimbabwe, social media saw Pastor Evans Mawarire's #ThisFlag protest spread like wildfire, providing a rallying point for a series of popular protests.

But with any audacious act there comes a backlash. President Robert Mugabe has loudly complained about "bad stuff" on the internet and praised the approach of China, which bans all western sites. Zimbabwe has since introduced a new law to curb "cyber-based destabilisation" which would empower police to intercept private communication, search smartphones and tablets and send "abusers" to jail for five years.

The government of Cameroon's octogenarian and autocratic president Paul Biya has labelled social media "a new form of terrorism". Assembly speaker Cavaye Yeguie Djibril said platforms like Twitter had created a "social pandemic," perpetuated by "amateurs, whose ranks, unfortunately, continue to swell and who do not have a sense of etiquette and decorum". Cameroon has called on its spy chiefs to "track down and neutralise the culprits of cyber crimes".

In Angola, 17 young activists arrested during a meeting of their book club were jailed for between two to eight years in March for fomenting rebellion against strongman president Eduardo dos Santos because the oeuvre they were discussing was about non-violent opposition to repressive regimes. They were released into house arrest after three months by the country's Supreme Court.

And there's been a lot of shooting the messenger going on, in some cases literally, with journalists harassed, detained and even murdered purely for doing their jobs in countries including Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Ethiopia.

In Somalia, despite being driven out of the capital, al-Shabaab continues to cause carnage, overrunning a Kenyan military base in El Adde in January and dragging soldiers' bodies through the street. Kenya has been accused of masking the true death toll of what represented its biggest military defeat in operations in its northern neighbour.

Terror in Africa

The actions of a regional force set up to counter Boko Haram have seen the Islamic terror group struggle to operate in Nigeria and its neighbouring countries, although it has pressed on with low-level attacks on soldiers and villages in the country's remote north-eastern region.

There have been reports that its crazy-eyed leader Abubakar Shekau, who appeared in promotional videos ranting and waving weapons, has been replaced for being "too bloodthirsty". The appointment of Abu Musab al-Barnawi in his stead was announced in the propaganda magazine of the Islamic State, to whom Boko Haram swore allegiance.

The escape in March after two years in captivity of one of the more than 200 schoolgirls from the village of Chibok was taken as another sign that the group was weakening. Amina Ali Darsha Nkeki, aged 19, said she managed to break away from the group being held in the vast Sambisa forest and walk towards a nearby vigilante group, accompanied by her four-month old baby and her Boko Haram "husband", himself a former captive. For more on Nkeki's release and the release of 21 more of the girls in October, see Bright Spots below.

There have also been two major terror attacks on civilians in other West African countries this year. In Burkina Faso in January, 25 people were killed when four turban-wearing attackers from al-Qaeda's West African affiliate launched a bloody assault on a hotel and a café in the capital Ouagadougou, just weeks after a near-identical attack in Mali. Those who escaped the carnage at the Hotel Splendid and nearby Café Cappuccino told how they hid beneath bodies as the assailants cried out "Allahu Akhbar" and executed people at point-blank range.

Exactly two months later, the same terror group — al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — claimed responsibility for a gun attack by three militants that claimed the lives of 18 people at the Grand Bassam beach resort in southern Ivory Coast.

The attacks prompted fears of attacks on other previously untouched cities. Senegal stepped up security around its major hotels and rounded up 500 people in a bid to curb any terrorist plans. In June, the US embassy in South Africa warned of a "high threat" of a terror attack on a shopping mall, a claim angrily rejected by the local authorities as based on "sketchy" information.

In Somalia, despite being driven out of the capital, al-Shabaab continues to cause carnage, overrunning a Kenyan military base in El Adde in January and dragging soldiers' bodies through the street. Kenya has been accused of masking the true death toll of what represented its biggest military defeat in operations in its northern neighbour. Al-Shabaab also managed two terror spectaculars in the capital Mogadishu, the city it once held large parts of, both on Lido beach. In January, gunmen detonated a bomb before bursting into a seafood restaurant, killing 20 people, and in August two gunmen struck again, killing seven people before they too were felled.

Meanwhile the success of US airstrikes in Libya and counter-insurgency operations in Egypt against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has had the indirect consequence of pushing the group south. It already has support on the continent, from Boko Haram and a faction of al-Shabaab, but is believed to also have a growing influence in Tunisia and Algeria and even as far afield as Kenya and Tanzania.

In October, South Africa gave the United Nations notice that it too intended to leave, with the foreign minister telling mandarins its obligations to international human rights were "incompatible" with the ICC's interpretation. The move was widely seen as a reaction to the slap on the wrist South Africa received for allowing ICC-wanted criminal, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, to visit Johannesburg for an African Union summit in 2015.

International Caucasian Court?

There have been mutterings for some time now but October Gambia fired the starting gun for pulling out of the International Criminal Court which prosecutes war crimes in Netherland's The Hague. Denouncing the body as "The International Caucasian Court", Gambia's information minister Sheriff Bojang questioned why the ICC had not indicted the former British prime minister Tony Blair over the Iraq war. "There are many Western countries, at least 30, that have committed heinous war crimes against independent sovereign states and their citizens since the creation of the ICC and not a single Western war criminal has been indicted," he said. Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza forced his people to hand him a third term down the barrel of a gun and has been massacring anyone who opposes him, said he would follow suit.

In October, South Africa gave the United Nations notice that it too intended to leave, with the foreign minister telling mandarins its obligations to international human rights were "incompatible" with the ICC's interpretation. The move was widely seen as a reaction to the slap on the wrist South Africa received for allowing ICC-wanted criminal, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, to visit Johannesburg for an African Union summit in 2015, and prompted howls of outrage from opposition parties and human rights groups, who are now challenging its legality before the courts.

The ICC did manage a couple of firsts despite being under fire however. In September, it saw the sentencing of a Malian jihadist to nine years imprisonment for the destruction of some of Timbuktu's most historic mausoleums and monuments — a first conviction for the destruction of cultural heritage and the first time an Islamic extremist was charged by the court. The following month, Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was convicted for attempting to manipulate witnesses in his earlier trial for war crimes as the head of a militia. The result represented the first time the court had found suspects guilty of attempting to pervert the course of justice. In April, the trial of Kenya's vice-president William Ruto was dropped amid what one judge denounced as "troubling incidence of witness interference and intolerable political meddling".

A pan-African study of elephant numbers revealed that their numbers had dropped by 111,000 in just 10 years to only 415,000 today, a death toll of 50 each day.

Wildlife under fire

Wildlife numbers have continued to decline across the continent. A pan-African study of elephant numbers revealed that their numbers had dropped by 111,000 in just 10 years to only 415,000 today, a death toll of 50 each day. Another survey revealed that giraffes, previously ubiquitous in game reserves, were also facing "silent extinction", with their numbers sinking from 155,000 in 1985 to 97,000 in 2015 because of habitat loss, poaching and civil unrest.

Johannesburg hosted one of the biggest gathering of wildlife officials and experts in recent decades when it hosted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species' Conference of the Parties, where the protection of everything from pangolins, to rosewood, to thresher sharks and African grey parrots was hotly debated by countries with vastly different positions and priorities. A rift between southern African nations that wanted elephant protection reduced was fought fiercely by east African nations where they are under considerable threat, resulting in the preservation of the status quo albeit with stricter curbs on the trade of their tusks — and rhino horns — in the east.

Kenya has made no bones about its disapproval of South Africa's stance towards elephants. In April President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to 105 tonnes of ivory — the equivalent of 8,000 elephants - in the biggest ever stockpile burn aimed at sending a message to poachers that ivory was off the market. His conservation chief Dr Richard Leakey said countries including South Africa that argued putting ivory on the market could reduce poaching pressure said this was tantamount to "speculating in an evil, illegal commodity", adding: "They should be ashamed of their position."

Swaziland meanwhile found a novel way to deal with the wildlife overpopulation southern African countries point to as justification for hunting and selling animal parts. It darted 18 of its elephants in what it described as a "rescue mission" to save them and other animals vying with them for food and had them shipped to US zoos.

In Ethiopia, the government and aid agencies battled to help 18 million people in need of food assistance in areas where the drought killed up to 90 per cent of crops and at least one million cattle.

Cruelty of El Niño

The UN warned that 36 million would face hunger across southern and eastern Africa this year as the worst drought in decades saw rains fail and crops and animals die and the mass displacement of desperate populations seeking to survive. Africa is no stranger to drought but the latest was put down to one of the strongest events of El Niño, the climate change-influenced weather system, ever recorded. In Ethiopia, the government and aid agencies battled to help 18 million people in need of food assistance in areas where the drought killed up to 90 per cent of crops and at least one million cattle. In Madagascar the failure of successive harvests has prompted aid agencies to warn this week that at least 330,000 people were "on the edge of famine".

In Nigeria, the United Nations said the combination of mass displacement by Boko Haram and drought had created the "greatest crisis on the continent" and appealed for more than $1bn (£793m) of international aid to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance to almost seven million people. Nigeria's president Muhammadu Buhari did not appreciate the gloomy warning however, hitting out at agencies for "blatant attempts to whip up a non-existent fear of mass starvation ". "The hype, especially that which suggests that the government is doing nothing is, therefore, uncharitable and unnecessary," Buhari's spokesman Garba Shehu said.

The consequences of President Jammeh's about-turn in The Gambia are yet to be seen but news that a few other of the continent's strongmen could be considering throwing in the towel is to be welcomed.

Bright spots

The consequences of President Jammeh's about-turn in The Gambia are yet to be seen but news that a few other of the continent's strongmen could be considering throwing in the towel is to be welcomed. In Angola this month, sources within the ruling MPLA confirmed that President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled for 37 years, would stand down before next year's general election. The 74-year-old leader, who has been accused of siphoning off oil wealth and viciously suppressing dissent, became president in 1979, making him Africa's second-longest serving leader after Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema. Political activist and rapper Luaty Beirao called for "new faces and new blood in Angola".

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe caused excitement when he finally uttered the "R" word. The 92-year-old dictator has previously said he will rule until he is 100 but told military veterans he only wanted to retire "properly" and when the time was right. Things are far from rosy in Zimbabwe however — the economy is in deep doldrums, talk of an opposition coalition has fallen apart and if anyone is going to take over from Mugabe, the frontrunners are currently the crazed first lady Grace or Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president nicknamed The Crocodile for his active role in the 1980s massacre of opposition supporters.

Boko Haram has seen a decline in its ability to operate, having previously won the dubious accolade of being 2015's most deadly terror group. Amina Nkeki, one of more than 200 schoolgirls take from the village of Chibok, escaped the group and in October, lengthy negotiations finally paid off and 21 girls were released. Whether the girls were released in return for the release of Boko Haram commanders, whether a "handsome ransom" was paid on behalf of the Nigerian government is likely never to be known. What is however is that 21 girls were reunited with their families and began the process of getting over their ordeal.

African justice received a boost with the conviction and sentencing to life imprisonment of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for murder, torture, rape and crimes against humanity committed during his eight-year regime. Habré tried to obstruct and frustrate every second of the trial, at a specially-convened court in Senegal, but 69 of his victims came forward to give evidence against him, providing harrowing and compelling testimony that helped three judges to unanimously convict him. Human Rights Watch, which supported the victims, said despots around the world should take note.

The world's first beauty contest for people with albinism was held in Kenya, aimed at fighting back at the prejudice towards them in east Africa that sees them targeted by witchdoctors for their "lucky" limbs. Loyce Lihanda, who was crowned Miss Albinism Kenya, said: "For so long albinos have been treated as half-humans because they are different. Yet time has proven that we can excel."

And in South Africa — and yes we're cheating by mentioning our own country but this is worth highlighting, we promise — eager volunteers are already signing up to be among the 5,400 people due to be injecting with a pioneering new HIV vaccination. The jab incorporates a strain of the virus that's been modified to make it harmless and it manufacturers hope it could have a success rate of up to 60 per cent, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives. A good note to end the year on, we reckon.

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