Africa Brief

From Algeria to Zimbabwe, and everything in between, a weekly roundup of essential news and analysis from across Africa. Written by Johannesburg-based journalist Lynsey Chutel.

Will Somalia’s Missed Election Lead to Chaos?

The vote scheduled for early February was canceled, leading to uncertainty and a power vacuum in Mogadishu.

By Lynsey Chutel, the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, also known as Farmajo, delivers a speech in Nairobi on Nov. 26, 2018.
Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, also known as Farmajo, delivers a speech in Nairobi on Nov. 26, 2018. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Somalia can’t agree on an election date, and why that’s a sign of deep instability. Plus: A child soldier is convicted as an adult in Uganda, and how TikTok sparked a food trend for fufu—a West African staple.

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Gridlock and Uncertainty in Mogadishu

Somalis should have been awaiting the results of a national election this week. Instead, the Feb. 8 vote never took place, because the country’s leaders could not agree on the ground rules for holding it. Not only has the failure to reach a compromise undermined the democratic process, but it has also made Somalia more vulnerable to security threats and regional rivalries. 

Although President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed—widely known by the nickname Farmajo—assured citizens that there would be no power vacuum, he is in no position to make promises. His term officially expired on Monday, when the election was set to take place. While he may have had plans to stay on as interim leader, opposition leaders are refusing to recognize him as president. Instead, an alliance of opposition parties is calling for the creation of a transitional government. 

Not so universal suffrage. It’s not the first time Somalia has delayed this election. In fact, it was supposed to be held in November 2020, but in June last year, the country’s electoral commission delayed the vote over “significant technical and security challenges.”

Perhaps even more frustrating for Somalis is the existing electoral system. The country has not directly chosen a president since 1969. Instead, Somalia uses a localized version of the U.S. Electoral College system. Clan elders select delegates for 51-member electoral colleges, which in turn vote for 275 members in the House of the People, according to a power-sharing formula, while 54 members of the upper house are elected according to the representation of the federal states. Both houses then vote for the president from among a list of several candidates vying for the position.

It’s a complicated system that has excluded the vast majority of Somalia’s citizens and was meant to evolve into a more directly representative system in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has further added to these challenges, discouraging any plans for a direct vote.

States within a state. This intricate electoral process is a response to a complex country, where decades of civil conflict created a shaky federal system. Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in the north, participates on a basis of self-interest, as does Jubaland, which at one time had its own president.

Meanwhile, Somaliland functions as a de facto independent state on the world stage, although it does not formally exist as a country, and Mogadishu doesn’t recognize its independence. Kenya’s decision to open a consulate in Somaliland’s quasi-capital, Hargeisa, and establish direct Kenya Airways flights to the city led to Kenya and Somalia severing diplomatic ties last year.

The leaders of Puntland and Jubaland are now refusing to recognize the incumbent, while Farmajo blames them for failing to reach a compromise. The regions and the central government ultimately failed to agree on key processes, including who staffs the electoral commission—the independent body tasked with overseeing the already complex election.

Security vacuum. All of this is happening against the backdrop of continued violence from al-Shabab. The Islamist fundamentalist group, which wants to establish an independent state ruled by sharia, has for years carried out terrorist acts across the country.

Al-Shabab regularly shatters Somalia’s attempts at peace. In recent years it has bombed an ice cream shop, sent a suicide bomber to a graduation ceremony, and killed dozens of civilians. To make its presence felt during the talks, the group orchestrated a roadside blast near the town where leaders were meeting on Sunday, killing at least a dozen intelligence officers.


This Week in Africa

Feb. 15: Schools in South Africa are set to reopen after an extended COVID-19 lockdown.

Feb. 15-16: French President Emmanuel Macron will meet leaders of the G5 Sahel countries, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, to discuss violence in the region.

Feb. 17: Libya marks 10 years since rebels rose up against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime.


What We’re Following

Vaccines as a public good. The European Union and the United States balked at a proposal from South Africa and India to waive intellectual property rights on vaccine technology. Since October of last year, the two countries have lobbied the World Trade Organization on behalf of other developing countries to alter trade rules on vaccines to allow more countries to manufacture them. The WTO has vaguely encouraged cooperation.

Convicting a child soldier. The International Criminal Court in The Hague found Dominic Ongwen, a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, guilty of war crimes, human rights violations, and sexual offenses committed in Uganda. The court also dismissed Ongwen’s defense that he was mentally unfit due to his own experience as a child soldier. As a boy, Ongwen was abducted and groomed by the guerrilla group to become the feared commander known as “the White Ant.”

Thousands missing in Ethiopia. Approximately 20,000 refugees are missing as a result of the chaos following the conflict in Tigray. The United Nations says it is unable to account for thousands of people, many of whom are Eritreans who had been sheltering in Ethiopia, after two refugee camps were destroyed last November.

About 3,000 people made it to another camp, but others are feared abducted or dead. Locating them could be difficult; aid agencies this week reported that their buildings had been destroyed, and humanitarian workers say much of the region is inaccessible.

Civilian sleuthing. Had it not been for the intrepid Kenyan nurse Margaret Ruto, the American sex offender Gregory Dow may have gotten away with multiple crimes committed at an orphanage he and his wife established in Kenya.

Dow was convicted in the United States last week and sentenced to more than 15 years in prison. To build the case, Ruto carefully gathered evidence of multiple sexual assaults and then alerted local media and the FBI to the fact that a fugitive was living freely near her home in Pennsylvania. The case has raised questions about how easy it is for foreigners claiming to be missionaries to set up orphanages in African villages, taking advantage of desperate poverty with little oversight.


This Week in Tech

Opening the books in Nigeria. For the second year in a row, Nigerian fintech start-up Carbon has published its financial data. This may not raise an eyebrow in Silicon Valley, but among African start-ups it’s extraordinary. Few start-ups are willing to open their books, particularly in the early stages of funding, for a number of reasons—from avoiding cynical investor scrutiny to avoiding outdated regulation.

Customers and observers have welcomed Carbon’s transparency, and it doesn’t hurt that the company’s numbers show a profit. Still, Carbon is playing a long game. The fintech market in Africa is already crowded and competitive. Carbon has made it clear that it plans to be much more than a payments system; the founding Dozie brothers are building a digital bank that will serve a young Nigerian market.

They’ve already started offering zero-interest loans to salaried young people. Starting a bank on a foundation of transparency, in a country where financials and other data are notoriously opaque, could be a welcome change.


This Week in Culture

#FufuChallenge: Thanks to a social media hashtag, the West African staple fufu is finally getting the international recognition it deserves. The hashtag started as a response to the latest online trend of derogatory videos featuring mostly white TikTok users trying African food and spitting it out. The internet, however, is a welcome equalizer. West African social media users responded by posting their own videos, dipping balls of fufu in delicious-looking soups and stews.

Fufu, made from cassava flour or other pounded vegetables, is eaten across West and Central Africa and parts of the Caribbean. The social media trend has not just countered food racism; it has also introduced the food to a new audience. A Los Angeles foodie drove nearly 80 miles to the nearest Nigerian restaurant, where she sampled fufu with multiple soups. One TikToker went further, flying to Accra, Ghana, to try it, where he also got a crash course in making his own.


African Voices

The original Karen. In the now-classic colonial nostalgia novel, Out of Africa, Danish writer Karen Blixen created an elitist picture of Kenya that endures beyond the Nairobi suburb that bears her name, Carey Baraka writes in The Drift. Blixen “drew on colonial-era British notions of the African frontier,” argues Baraka, “while conveniently erasing the violence of empire, a paradox that saturates safari tourism more broadly.”

Hoarding vaccines harms everyone. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, published an essay in FP explaining why it’s both immoral and scientifically unsound for 16 percent of the world’s population to buy up 60 percent of all available COVID-19 vaccine doses. As new variants emerge, “Vaccine nationalism is not just morally indefensible. It is epidemiologically self-defeating and clinically counterproductive,” he wrote, arguing for increased production and waiving intellectual property barriers to overcome “artificial scarcity.”

Nigerian labor hero-turned-villain. In Africa Is a Country, trade union leader Kunle Wizeman Ajayi tracks the rise of Adams Oshiomhole from factory floor shop steward to state governor, and how his shift from defending workers to oppressing them represents the failings of Nigeria’s labor movement at large.


That’s it for this week.

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Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel