Looking out for Africa in 2016

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While each of Africa's 54 independent states presents a different political and economic risk profile rooted in each country's unique history and driven by diverse internal and regional dynamics, there are nonetheless several common trends which will broadly impact many of them in 2016.

Increasing terrorist violence. While the attacks in Paris at the beginning and end of 2015, which were linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), respectively received a great deal more attention in global media, it is in Africa where terrorism has been surging. In fact, the publication in mid-November of the annual "Global Terrorism Index" by the Institute for Economics and Peace provided statistical evidence that, in fact, it is the Nigerian group Boko Haram, which in March pledged its allegiance to ISIS and been branding itself as "Islamic State West Africa Province" (ISWAP) — an evolution I predicted this time last year — is "the most deadly terrorist group in the world." The report counted 6,644 deaths caused by Boko Haram in 2014, an increase of more than three times the tally of just a year earlier. The toll meant that the Nigerian terrorists outdid their self-proclaimed caliph, the ISIS's Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose forces in Iraq and Syria killed 6,073 people in the same period. With continuing assaults like the rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombers it unleased on Maiduguri and Madagali in northeastern Nigeria last week, killing more than 80 people in just one day, Boko Haram is likely to have retained its title as the globe's deadliest terrorist group going into the new year.

In fact, of the five most deadly terrorist groups on the "Global Terrorism Index," three are in Africa: Boko Haram, Fulani militants in Nigeria's Middle Belt and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Together, just these three groups accounted for nearly half of the terrorism-related casualties in the world in 2014. It is not just the threat that terrorism poses to the individuals and countries immediately impacted that is preoccupying, but the broader harm that this surge in violence poses to Africa as a whole — in terms of its prospects for economic growth and development — by having a dampening effect on the confidence of investors for the entire continent at precisely the moment when many are just beginning to discover its extraordinary potential.

For the sake of international security in general as well as their own interests in preventing massive population displacements as a result of the violence, the United States and its European allies need to step up their assistance to African states on the front line of the battle against Islamist terrorists and other violent extremists.

Continued, but uneven, economic growth. According to the most recent edition of the World Bank's "Global Economic Prospects" report, of the 13 countries with the highest projected compounded annual growth rate from 2014 through 2017, six are in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be the fastest growing economic region in the world for 2015, with its gross domestic product (GDP) growing at 4.5 percent, slightly higher than China's anticipated GDP increase of 4.3 percent. With prices for commodities being depressed globally — the price for oil ended the year at its lowest point in more than a decade — and demand for natural resources by China slumping as a result of that country's economic slowdown, the growth spurts in places like Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania are less a matter of a resource windfall than other factors, including the wise choices made by their leaders and peoples regarding economic reform, governance and the use of new technologies that have encouraged significant investment in and diversification of their economies, enabling them to ride out the slackening demand for primary commodities. Likewise, some regional blocs like the East African Community have made great strides toward integration and in lowering barriers to trade between members, boosting their collective economic potential.

On the other hand, the sustained slump in prices commanded by natural resources will cause significant political and economic headaches for both existing producers like Angola and Nigeria — the latter relies on oil for roughly 80 percent of the federal government's revenue — as well as countries like Mozambique and Uganda, where recent major finds may go underdeveloped or even undeveloped as current price levels discourage the level of investment required. Given the expectations raised by the discoveries, the disappointment may lead to unrest and even instability in some places. (It goes without saying that the socioeconomic prospects are even bleaker for countries like South Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic, which remain deeply mired in conflicts that are not even close to being resolved.)

Electoral uncertainty. Presidential and/or parliamentary elections are supposed to take place in at least 16 African countries this year: Benin, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, The Gambia, Ghana, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Somalia, Uganda, and Zambia. While Africa's incumbents have long enjoyed huge advantages over their opponents across most of the continent, there were some surprises in 2015, notably in Nigeria, where challenger Muhammadu Buhari beat incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan — the first time a challenger has ever beaten an incumbent in the country's history — and the latter conceded and peacefully handed over the reins of Africa's most populous country and its biggest economy.

Such grace and respect for constitutional order is unlikely to be the case with 2016's most significant African poll, the presidential election in the DRC, whose current ruler, Joseph Kabila, has been in power since he extralegally inherited power from his assassinated warlord father. Not only barred by the constitution from running for another term, but explicitly precluded by the charter from amending the provision on presidential term limits, Kabila fils has pulled out all stops to avoid having to stand down at the end of this year, including widespread repression as well as a cynical call for "national dialogue" about the vote. A report in December by the United Nations mission in the Congo documents the detention of at least 649 political opponents and civil society activists in the first nine months of 2015 alone and notes rather diplomatically that "the shrinking of democratic space is likely to impact the electoral process." Absent timely elections which will enable the Congolese people to transition past the Kabila era, it is hard to see how the country can avoid a slide back into conflict that will impact the entire continent.

In this regard, dwindling resources for democracy efforts in general across the whole of the United States government could not have come at a worse time, especially when one considers that that U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding for democracy assistance in Africa has declined 43 percent under the Obama administration, according an estimate by the Carnegie Endowment's Thomas Carothers.

Geopolitical competition. Notwithstanding some of the challenges, the extraordinary lure of Africa's human and material resources as well as its ongoing security challenges will continue to attract global interest and, inevitably, competition. The last few months have seen both an India-Africa Summit in New Delhi and a China-Africa Summit in Johannesburg. China has also announced plans to build of its first-ever overseas military base in the East African country of Djibouti, which already hosts American, French and Japanese outposts. The heightened outside interest and, indeed, competition, need not necessarily constitute a negative, if African governments can avail themselves of their newfound leverage to strike more advantageous deals for their peoples and economies. For their part, Africa's partners, including the United States, will need to step up their own diplomatic and commercial engagement in 2016 if they want to be taken seriously by their African counterparts, many of whom now enjoy multiple options.

For African countries and those other governments and businesses that have chosen to invest in the continent's incredibly promising future, the year ahead will bring these and host of other challenges and opportunities. The key to success will be having a strategic approach that manages the former while seizing the latter.

Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.