5 Things We Learned About Africa in 2013

South Sudan is a mess, South Africa has its problems and Nigeria is an underrated bright spot.

By + More

The French have a wonderful phrase: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." The more things change, the more they stay the same. The French no doubt had Africa in their minds.

2013 saw much euphoria about investing in Africa despite rising political risks in various parts of the continent. Africa remains a continent of hope and promise despite some ominous happenings this past year. In North Africa, political stability diminished, especially in Egypt and Libya. Their instability has spread to neighboring nations. In the south, the African National Congress, without Nelson Mandela, has been largely at odds with itself, although this may mean a trend towards greater democracy and away from what has essentially been a one-party, albeit largely benevolent, state.

Here are five key countries or regions whose course in 2013 may tell us a lot about what to expect in 2014.

[Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons]

1. South Sudan is not "open for business": No country, new or old, has exemplified better what it means to shoot itself in the foot than has the new nation of South Sudan. In fact, South Sudanese leadership has shot itself in the foot so many times, one wonders if anyone has any toes left. Now in only its second year, it finds itself teetering on a tribal civil war that will prevent any significant development anywhere in the country.

South Sudan is the size of France with less than 200 miles of paved roads, no schools, little industry, but yet its leadership finds the time to shoot at one another, mostly killing innocent bystanders in the process, and slaughtering its own population. The latest challenge to President Salva Kiir comes from his former Vice President Riek Machar, who leads the second largest tribe in South Sudan. Over the last 25 years, Machar has broken every alliance and pact he has entered into, each time moving to a side that seems to have the upper hand. Machar, who has a doctorate degree, is proof that an education does not make the man. Good luck on establishing a lasting peace with this guy.

2. Nigeria is the continent's biggest enigma: Despite a consistently bad and often ill-informed international press, Nigeria's leadership seems committed to broader economic development of a country that contains one-fifth of sub-Saharan Africa's population. Nigeria makes one think of a high-wire artist practicing his craft outdoors on a windy day, with no net below. It looks pretty scary when bad winds abound in the Nigerian political currents, from Boko Haram to divisive North-South politics (sound familiar?), to vast gaps between the rich and the poor created in part by a long tradition of political corruption. Still, its middle class is growing (unlike the United States), the nation has a diverse and talented network of entrepreneurs and many young leaders of the Nigerian diaspora are returning to the country to seek their fortunes. It is a country far more open to innovation and entrepreneurship than many around the world, and some of its richest leaders in the private sector are working to put wealth and jobs back into the country. The Nigerians believe that as Nigeria goes, so too will Africa. They may be right. Where they are going is still the question.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

3. South Africa is the continent's second biggest enigma: South Africa remains one of the greatest hopes for the future of mankind. Its constitution is arguably the most just in the world, its infrastructure is far superior to any nation's on the continent and its economy, on a per capita basis, is the envy of many.

Yet, in its first 20 years since apartheid ended, the gap between rich and poor remains, and more ominously, the economic gap between whites and blacks has narrowed little, if any. Services to the growing number of poor have not increased, and millions remain without adequate transportation, plumbing and basic services. In the face of a more opaque political leadership and economic policies, external investment in South Africa, essential to the country's development, has declined. In the shadow of Mandela, South Africa was also a moral leader for the world. That shadow is gone now and  the glare of reality is upon it. Its greatest challenges may not be behind, but ahead. South African stability and leadership is essential to the entire southern cone of Africa and beyond.  

4. Central Africa is, well, Central Africa: Central Africa is arguably the richest region of Africa, with almost unlimited and diverse mineral wealth, water supplies, timber and agricultural lands that are largely untouched. Yet it is also one of the poorest. In 2013, five of the eight countries in the region experienced some form of armed conflict. The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to be a killing field, there was an attempted coup in Kinshasa, fighting in southern Chad, a civil war in the Central African Republic, a brief gunfight between forces loyal to the former minister of security in the Republic of Congo and the president, and Equatorial Guinea, though quiet, continues to be what the international press and observers describe as a heavily oppressed nation. Gabon is a bright spot of relative stability, with new leadership. Enough said.

[Read Drew F. Cohen: Nelson Mandela's Funeral Lays Bare South Africa's Political Divides]

5. The East Africa Community isn't ... quite yet: Regional integration was a mantra for Africa in 2013. It will continue to be so in 2014. The theory is that the more harmonization of infrastructure, monetary codes, laws and the like, the more likely a higher level of economic development and investment. The recently formed East Africa Community, comprised of Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi has been deemed by many experts, including those in the U.S. government, as the most likely region to succeed economically.

Kenya is the economic giant and logically the linchpin for the region. Unfortunately, its economic strength is distrusted if not resented by Uganda and Tanzania, and cooperation has been slow in coming. Furthermore, although the U.S. has been the primary champion for the East Africa Community, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya have resisted any U.S. influence and efforts due to political statements and actions by the U.S. towards leaders of these three countries. Rwanda has been accused of inciting the wars in Eastern Congo, Uganda of human rights violations and Kenya has been in disfavor as its president and vice president await the outcome of International Criminal Court accusations of crimes against humanity.

Look for an improvement in relations with Kenya in 2014. Whether the five leaders of the countries can cooperate more closely remains to be seen. Ethiopia and South Sudan also hope to be members of the East Africa Community in 2014, but it may take longer for that to happen.

  • Read Brian Michael Jenkins: Why Did Terrorists Attack Volgograd?
  • Read Mackenzie Eaglen: 5 Lessons for the Pentagon From 2013
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.