Africa Brief

From Algeria to Zimbabwe and countries in between, a weekly roundup of essential news and analysis from Africa. Delivered Wednesday.

2022 Was an Attack on Democracy

Africa Brief’s year in review.

Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Gbadamosi-Nosmot-foreign-policy-columnist10
Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
An aerial view of rising waters around the Numan bridge is seen in the Numan community of Adamawa State, Nigeria, on Sept. 25.
An aerial view of rising waters around the Numan bridge is seen in the Numan community of Adamawa State, Nigeria, on Sept. 25.
An aerial view of rising waters around the Numan bridge is seen in the Numan community of Adamawa State, Nigeria, on Sept. 25. RADENO HANIEL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief. The highlights this year: Economic crises and democratic backsliding, the West’s selective climate morality, and a new Cold War comes to Africa.

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Africa Brief’s Year in Review

The January print edition of Foreign Policy opened with a series of essays offering a to-do list of sorts on how to alleviate the pressures facing democracies around the globe. In Africa and beyond, it was inevitable that the economic toll of the pandemic would continue to have a lingering effect on freedom and democratic principles. But then something else happened to wreak havoc on supply chains and embolden authoritarians globally.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief. The highlights this year: Economic crises and democratic backsliding, the West’s selective climate morality, and a new Cold War comes to Africa.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Africa Brief’s Year in Review

The January print edition of Foreign Policy opened with a series of essays offering a to-do list of sorts on how to alleviate the pressures facing democracies around the globe. In Africa and beyond, it was inevitable that the economic toll of the pandemic would continue to have a lingering effect on freedom and democratic principles. But then something else happened to wreak havoc on supply chains and embolden authoritarians globally.

On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, and sanctions imposed on Russia by Western states led to surging food, fuel, and fertilizer prices. Burkina Faso saw two successful coups and a third foiled putsch. There were failed power grabs in São Tomé and Príncipe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and against Mali’s military junta, sparked by armed groups’ escalating attacks and creeping inflation on food and services. It was a continuation of a trajectory set in 2021, a year that saw four successful coups in Africa (in Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan).

African countries’ refusal to pick a side in the Russia-Ukraine war upset the established world order and brought into focus the continent’s strategic value to global powers as a major natural resource supplier. State repression and mass pro-democracy protests were other big themes throughout 2022 as ordinary Africans felt the economic ripple effects of a war far away in Europe and as global powers sought to woo their nations’ leaders.

Here are five of Africa Brief’s biggest—and, in some cases, underreported—stories of 2022.


1. A New Cold War in Africa?

As Russia bombarded key cities in Ukraine, videos shared on social media showed Africans being prevented from boarding trains out of the country to make space for Ukrainians first, according to Africans fleeing.

Amid the backlash, African governments were forced to charter planes to evacuate their citizens. African countries largely abstained from United Nations Security Council votes seeking to adopt a position of neutrality in the war, but the reaction and tone of the debates hit a raw nerve across the continent.

The pressure on African countries to pick a side caused further divisions between Africa and the United States and Europe. A draft bill in the U.S. Congress aiming to “counter the malign influence and activities” of Russia did not help matters. Realizing Africa’s importance to U.S. global priorities, the Biden administration launched a new Africa policy document that was heavy on the so-called harmful activities of China and Russia before employing a strategy among U.S. diplomats of not mentioning China and Russia at all in a campaign to woo African nations amid strong competition from Turkey, Russia, China, Japan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes, such as Cameroonian President Paul Biya, sought to exploit the geopolitical rivalry unfolding.


2. Tunisia’s Democratic Backsliding Was the Tip of the Iceberg

Supporters of Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, protest outside the office of Tunisia’s counterterrorism prosecutor in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 19.
Supporters of Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, protest outside the office of Tunisia’s counterterrorism prosecutor in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 19.

Supporters of Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, protest outside the office of Tunisia’s counterterrorism prosecutor in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 19.FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

Tunisia held parliamentary elections on Dec. 17 amid a boycott of the vote by major parties, including the country’s powerful Tunisian General Labor Union. Just 11 percent of eligible voters turned out. The new parliament will have far fewer powers compared to Tunisian President Kais Saied under a new constitution drafted by Saied and passed in a July referendum that was also widely boycotted.

Tunisia, hailed as the last bastion of Arab Spring democracy, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as Saied continues to hold onto power.

Elected as a populist leader in 2019, Saied promised to eradicate corruption among politicians who had brought citizens none of the promises of a better life offered in 2011, when Tunisians took to the streets to protest and overthrow the autocratic regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia is just one of many countries experiencing a rollback of democratic gains. Amid an economic crisis worsened by the pandemic and made even more acute by the war in Ukraine, democratic backsliding is increasing. As reported in Africa Brief this year, Sudan’s democratic future still hangs in the balance, and Mali’s putsch leaders agreed to a two-year democratic transition that would allow coup leader Col. Assimi Goïta and other military members to run in general elections in 2024. Ibrahim Traoré, an army captain in Burkina Faso, proclaimed himself the new president of the country’s military junta in the country’s second coup in eight months while Guinea’s military rulers issued a three-year ban on public demonstrations to combat growing calls for democracy. And around 50 people were killed by security forces as Chadians took to the streets to demand a quicker transition to democratic rule.

Elsewhere, there are some signs of hope. Recent elections in Kenya and Angola showed democratic gains as Kenyans defied their outgoing president’s chosen successor and young Angolans increasingly challenged their one-party state. Africans want more democracy even if their leaders want less of it.


3. The West’s Selective Climate Morality

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, European nations have admitted that fossil fuels could continue to make up a significant share of their future energy demands and started searching for new energy sources. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Italian President Sergio Mattarella have sought to end a reliance on Russian fuel by backing longer-term fossil fuel extraction projects in Senegal, Nigeria, and Mozambique. Namibia, one of the youngest countries on the continent, was looking to exploit offshore deposits that could provide an estimated $3.5 billion annually in royalties and taxes for the Namibian government.

In the midst of this global energy crisis, African leaders have argued that their nations should also be allowed to ramp up fossil fuel use to improve domestic energy access—given they had contributed so little to historic carbon emissions. Indeed, 43 percent of Africa’s 1.4 billion people still lack access to electricity. As a result of soaring energy prices, the number of people without access to energy across Africa rose for the first time in decades, threatening to erode all gains made. According to the International Energy Agency, around 1 billion Africans will still rely on dirty fuels, such as firewood, for cooking in 2030. However, Western governments demanded that multilateral lenders, such as the World Bank, stop funding fossil fuel projects to reduce global carbon emissions.


4. Egypt’s Economic Crisis Could Be the First of Many in Africa

A worker delivers bread from a bakery in Cairo's Al-Azhar neighborhood to stands to be sold on May 9.
A worker delivers bread from a bakery in Cairo's Al-Azhar neighborhood to stands to be sold on May 9.

A worker delivers bread from a bakery in Cairo’s Al-Azhar neighborhood to stands to be sold on May 9.Roger Anis/Getty Images

Egypt, Africa’s second-largest economy, agreed on Oct. 27 to a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was the country’s fourth since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in a coup in 2013, making Egypt the IMF’s second-largest debtor after Argentina. Long a top choice for emerging market investors, Egypt had become heavily dependent on hot money, but investors panicking over the war in Ukraine pulled around $20 billion out of Egypt between February and March.

African countries that were once a favorite for international investors and business are finding themselves being pushed close to the edge. Inflation in Ghana rose to 15.7 percent in March as the Ghanaian currency lost 16 percent of its value against the dollar, prompting protests in June over the soaring cost of living.

Accra secured a $3 billion bailout just as inflation in the country soared to more than 50 percent last week. It was a climbdown for Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, who has sought to emulate the “Asian Tigers” and promised a “Ghana Beyond Aid.” Meanwhile, on Sept. 1, Zambia’s kwacha briefly became the world’s best-performing currency, gaining 18 percent in the year, a day after the IMF approved a $1.3 billion loan to Zambia. The country became the continent’s first pandemic-era defaulter on foreign debt, and Zambian authorities are asking for about $8.4 billion in debt relief from China and other top foreign creditors.


5. Africa Demanded Leadership on Climate Change

Africa has contributed just 3.8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but its 1.4 billion people are feeling the brunt of climate change. Flooding in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and other countries in the region displaced thousands of people just as an African country was due to host the U.N. climate summit (known as COP27).

At the summit in Egypt, African voices pushed for a “loss and damage” policy, in which the biggest polluters would pay for the damage and destruction wrought on poorer nations as a result of climate change. Although Africa has the world’s fastest-growing and urbanizing population, African voices on the global stage when it comes to climate policy have been muted. The United States and European Union had rejected calls for a “loss and damage” funding pot for weeks, but in the early hours of Nov. 20, a historic deal was struck, with the details of who will pay and how to be more clearly defined at next year’s summit.

Africa is seeking more than just climate reparations as it looks to transform the global system. African leaders want a permanent seat for the African Union at the G-20, two seats on the U.N. Security Council, and a reordering of global tax rules under the United Nations.


The Biggest Stories in Culture

Visitors view the Benin Bronzes exhibit at the British Museum.
Visitors view the Benin Bronzes exhibit at the British Museum.

Visitors view the Benin Bronzes exhibit at the British Museum in London on Feb. 13, 2020.David Cliff/LightRocket via Getty Images

Despite long-standing claims dating back to the mid-20th century, 2022 was a year for the restitution of Africa’s historical artifacts stolen by colonial powers. The Smithsonian Institution agreed to return its collection of Benin Bronzes and placed legal ownership with Nigerian authorities. In July, Germany handed back two bronzes and put more than 1,000 other items into Nigeria’s ownership while a digital database—known as Digital Benin, which documents Western museums’ existing collection of Benin’s artifacts—was unveiled in November. Despite this progress, there are still unanswered calls for the British Museum, the largest holder of Benin Bronzes, to return its loot.

In September, the world marked the 200th anniversary of the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, a fragment of written decrees issued by Egyptian priests during the reign of Ptolemy V (204 to 180 B.C.). Egyptian scholars and archaeologists renewed their demand for the stone’s return, which has been housed at the British Museum in London since 1802. Their call has garnered more than 135,000 signatures on an online petition.

Meanwhile there has been a broader push to expand global knowledge of Africa’s ancient civilizations. An online archive to showcase Mali’s cultural history was launched in March, digitizing more than 40,000 of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century and originally written in medieval Arabic but translated to several languages in an online platform. Malian librarians and their assistants secretly transported hundreds of thousands of documents into family homes in a bid to save them from destruction by jihadis. Through those efforts, some 350,000 manuscripts from 45 libraries across the city were kept safe.

In Sudan, the pyramids of Meroe, the last capital of the ancient Kingdom of Kush, have been digitized, including the chance to view carved hieroglyphics inside the sandstone tombs using panoramic imagery. The cursive and hieroglyphic scriptures within Meroe have long been considered a lost history of Black civilization because the Meroitic language they are written in is only partly deciphered.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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