Africa: Looking Back at 2021 and Likely Trends in 2022
Samir Bhattacharya, Senior Research Associate, VIF

For the second year in a row, countries across the world battled to cope with the negative economic impacts of covid. Though African continent handled the initial impacts of Covid-19 relatively well, in 2021 it suffered immensely from Covid-19 outbreaks and the resulting lockdowns. While governments across the continent took several measures including complete economic lockdown to stop the spread of the mutating virus, people struggled to come up with the devastating loss of life and livelihoods.

The year 2021 has not been a good year for the democratic governments across the continent. In 2021, there were five attempted coups across the continent, with two being successful while three failed. In Mali and Guinea, the power changed hands through a coup. While in Niger and Madagascar, the coups failed. And in Sudan, the result of the coup is still unclear.

Furthermore, with more than 12 general elections, 2021 was also the year of Presidential elections in Africa. Uganda, Niger, Benin, Congo, Chad, Morocco, Zambia, Djibouti and The Gambia held elections this year. Sao-Tome and Principe and Cape Verde were two island nations that also conducted their national elections and in both the countries’ opposition candidates managed to win the election.

The present paper is an attempt to recapitulate the key political issues and events of the continent in 2021 and reflect onthe likely trends and issues that might define Africa of 2022.

Lingering Effects of the Covid 19 Pandemic

Throughout 2021 Africa remained under the grip of the ongoing pandemic. So far, the continent has reported about 227,000 covid-related deaths[1]. While rest of the world is making steady vaccine-driven recovery, barely nine percent of people have been vaccinated so far in Africa[2]. As a matter of fact, less than 20 African countries have managed to vaccinate 10 percent population and only six of them have vaccinated 40 percent of the population, a target set by World Health Organisation (WHO)[3]. The situation is grimmer when it comes to the highly populated countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo where the vaccination rates remained abysmally low at 2.1, 3.5 and 0.1 percent respectively[4]. With the current pace of vaccination, the WHO target of 70% coverage for all countries by June 2022 appears to be a pipe dream for Africa.

The low vaccination coverage is due to myriad of challenges including unavailability of vaccines, poor health infrastructure resulting in waste of vaccines and inadequate trained medical staff to deploy the vaccine. In early 2020, Africa started receiving AstraZeneca shots in small quantities under global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX, produced by the Serum Institute of India (SII), the largest vaccine maker of the world[5]. However, in April 2021, due to large number of domestic cases, India suspended vaccine export. This caused disruption to the continent’s vaccination drive and generated resentment among many countries. On the positive side, the extended halt provided countries time and opportunity to improve their medical infrastructure.

Now, that the covid shots have started reaching more steadily, the timely rollout of these large stocks will constitute a major challenge in 2022, particularly for the poorer nations. With the pilling stocks due to low inoculation rate, even Africa’s most developed economy South Africa had to request Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer to hold off the delivery of vaccines[6]. And the largest economy and the most populous country Nigeria had to destroy more than 1 million doses of AstraZeneca as they could not use it before the expiry date[7]. It is ironical that in a continent suffering from access to vaccine, only 63% of total vaccines received were administered[8]. As per WHO, Africa will require about 1.3 billion USD worth of investment in medical infrastructure to overcome the shortfalls[9]. Finally, vaccine hesitancy and scepticism also played a strong role in low vaccinate rate.

The economic impact of the outbreak has been severe in most of the African countries, causing the first recession in the Sub-Saharan Africa region in 25 years[10]. Nevertheless, with accelerated vaccine deployment, Sub-Saharan Africa could grow up to 5.1 percent in 2022[11]. As the continent will progress towards post-pandemic economic recovery, there remains significant challenges, ranging from political strife to rising debt. The current debt-to-GDP ratio of the continent is hovering at alarmingly high level, more than 70 percent for 12 sub-Saharan African countries[12]. Fortunately, most African countries are on their way to recovery and set to emerge from recession this year. However, the pace of recovery will depend on the acceleration of inoculation rate.

A Season for Military Coups

It started in March, when just two days before the newly elected President Mohamed Bazoum was to be sworn into office, Niger witnessed an attempted coup by a few members of the army. However, the coup failed as the Presidential Guards acted on time and adeptly thwarted it[13]

In April 2021, Idriss Deby, the President of Chad for three decades, surprisingly got killed in the battlefield. Soon after his death, military took over the reins of power in the country. As per the constitution, the President of the National Assembly was supposed to take over the charge of provisional government. Instead, military dissolved both the Parliament and the government and installed President’s son Mahamat as the head of an 18-month Transitional Military Council[14]. In this fashion, military effectively managed an unconstitutional change of government. Despite their tall claims of commitment towards peace and democracy, this has been termed by opposition as an “institutional coup d’état”[15].

Next month in May, Mali’s Vice President arrested the President, Prime Minister and Defence Minister in the country’s second coup within nine months[16]. To recall, since August 2020 Mali has witnessed two back-to-back coups by strongman Colonel Assini Goita, and not long ago he had positioned himself as the head of transitional government, shattering any concocted promise of democracy. Given these circumstances, his promise to hold free elections in February appears to be hollow[17].

In July, Authorities of Madagascar informed that they have foiled an assassination attempt on the President. Following that, the government punished twenty people, including two Frenchmen for criminal association and plotting to kill the President[18].

In September, the tiny West African country Guinea witnessed a military coup led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya. Within one month of staging the coup, the military leader assumed the position of interim President. This happened barely a year after the President Alpha Condé won a contentious third term after changing the Constitution, allowing him to stay in power beyond the two-term limit[19].. Though, the junta has announced plans to move the country towards civilian rule, no specific transition period has been announced.

In October, another coup took place in Sudan when its military GeneralAbdel-Fattah al-Burhan arrested the Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and a number of his Cabinet ministers from the transitional government[20]. The transitional government was in place since 2019 when Omar al-Bashir was ousted from power. Even though Hamdock was reinstated due to public pressure, he seems to be unhappy with the current arrangement and intends to resign at the earliest[21]. This has put a big question mark on the feasibility of the much-awaited first election post-Bashir era, scheduled in July 2022.

As seen from the foregoing, the transition to civilian rule in Niger, Mali, Chad, Guinea and Sudan remains shaky, each for a different reason and 2022 will be a testing year for democratic transition of these countries.

Key Elections of 2021

There were 14 Presidential and parliamentary elections across the continent which were held in 2021. In January, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni won his sixth term with almost 59 percent of votes in an election marred by severe allegations of fraud and misuse of power[22]. In West African country Benin, incumbent Patrice Talon won at the end of first round itself with 86 percent of the votes, despite the ballot boycotts by several opposition parties[23]. Similarly, in Republic of Congo, long-time President Denis Sassou Nguesso extended his period for another term with more than 88 percent of the vote[24]. In Ethiopia, despite the ongoing conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the election took place in June as scheduled and Abiy Ahmed won a landslide victory[25]. On the other hand, a wind of change blew over the West African country Niger as the country witnessed its first transfer of power through election[26]. Finally, in both Sao-Tomeand Principe[27] and Cape Verde[28], two island nations, opposition candidates managed to beat the incumbent.

In Southern Africa, Zambia registered its name in the democratic history of the continent when opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu in hard-fought presidential election. In North Africa, Morocco’s long-ruling Islamists suffered a crushing defeat by the liberal parties, indicating the waning appeal of political Islam and the diminishing space that Islamists now find for themselves in Morocco and beyond[29]. As a matter of fact, Morocco was one of the last countries where an Islamist Party rose to power after the Arab Spring protests. And in West Africa, Gambian voters re-elected the incumbent President Adama Barrow[30]. The peaceful transfers of power in these three countries are good examples of transition towards a democratic society.

Few Hurdles in Democratic Transition Remain

Since its independence in 2011, no election has ever taken place in South Sudan. Due to conflicts the elections got postponed several times and the incumbent President Salva Kiir got a three-year extension. The announcement of first ever election of the country in July 2021 raised hopes of moving beyond the current Unity government and elect a new democratic administration. However, the election was postponed again to 2023 as government and rebel forces need more time to fulfil the pledges of 2018 agreement toward reconciliation and formation of a unified national army[31].

Initially slated for February, Somalia started its complicated indirect election process in October 2021[32]. The election impasse has led to the resurgence of Al-Shabaab group, which continues to destabilise the country by sporadic terrorist attacks. Moreover, with the withdrawal of US forces on ex-President Donald Trump’s order, the security situation has become more vulnerable. Now, as African Union Peacekeeping forces are slowly withdrawing from the country based on “Transition Plan 2018”, the country faces the greatest risk of political violence[33].

Libya was expected to hold its first Presidential election on 24th December but it has been postponed due to conflict over the eligibility of candidates and security reasons. The country has been in turmoil since its strongman ruler Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed in 2011. The election raised some hope regarding peace and democracy. Although Electoral Commission of Libya is planning to reschedule it one month later, on 24th January, the parliament is seeking more time, making it a more contentious issue[34].

Meanwhile, the President of Tunisia Kais Saied, in July, dissolved the parliament and declared a state of emergency. He suspended the incumbent Prime Minister and assumed executive authority. He had given Tunisia its first woman Prime Ministerand promised to hold a referendum on constitutional reform by July 2022, followed by a general election[35]. However, as the parliament remains shut till then, experts have started to raise concerns about the sincerity of the plan.

Going forward in 2022, Kenya will elect a new President in August, when the second and final term of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta will come to an end. Just as the battle for Kenyatta’s successor is heating up, the 2022 Presidential election of Kenya poised to be a crucial one for the country as well as for the continent. Another Southern African country, oil-rich Angola, is also gearing up for its Presidential election in August 2022. Looking further, two most populous countries of the continent, Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo are expected to go to polls in 2023. Holding peaceful elections in these countries and elsewhere would be a great statement for successful transition towards a democratic society.

Rising Threats of Islamist Terrorism

While Islamic terrorism is a global phenomenon, some parts of Africa are extremely vulnerable with regards to terrorism inspired by radical Islamists. Currently, the Sahel region of West Africa is the most vulnerable from the threat of radical Islamism. In countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, Islamists are continuously attacking security forces and civilians. As of June 2021, in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger more than 921000, 240000 and 489000 people respectively have been displaced or were forced to flee due to growing threats of Islamists[36].

In Mali, French government through its counterterrorism military operation “Operation Barkhane” and UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)has been providing the protection against Islamist militants. As France is closing its Operation Barkhane by 2022, French forces left Timbuktu city in December 2021, after nine years of engagement in the region[37]. While France, the former colonial power, is scaling down its presence in northern Mali and Sahel region, Russia through its mercenary group WAGNER group has assured the security to Mali[38]. Even though the US and other countries will try to keep Russia away, the possible face-off between Russia and France may get interesting this year. The waning US influence and French withdrawal is giving rise to grave security concerns similar to Afghanistan, not only for Mali, but also for the whole Sahel region.

In southern Africa, Islamist militants have been active in Mozambique since 2017, extracting a huge price in lives and livelihood. In March 2021, they seized the northern province Cabo Delgado and forced French oil giant Total Energies to pull out from Mozambique, abandoning their USD 20 billion liquified natural gas project, the largest private investment in Africa[39].

Finally, the newest branch of Islamic State, Islamic State’s affiliate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC), also known as Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), is carving out a foothold as radical Islamist militants in Democratic Republic of Congo[40].

Violent conflicts from Islamists will continue to challenge governments and societies in sub-Saharan Africa in 2022.

Ethiopia on the Verge of Balkanisation

One year ago, when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the war against Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for their alleged role in attacking a federal military base, no one expected it to continue till the end of 2021. Albeit, there have been several twists and turns in this metastasising war. As a matter of fact, at one point the rebels were just 130 km away from Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the Headquarter of African Union[41]. Amid the rising speculation of Ethiopia’s fall, several countries including USA asked their nationals to leave Ethiopia. This forced the Ethiopian government to announce six months emergency. Currently, with the support of countries like Turkey, UAE and Iran, PM Abiy Ahmed seems to have gained back the momentum[42]. However, learning from the past, this war is far from over and it could continue throughout 2022.

Some Good News for the Continent

On 15th February, WTO members created history when the General Council unanimously elected Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria as the organization’s seventh Director-General. She is the first woman and first African to lead the multilateral trade body[43]. Okonjo-Iweala is the former Finance Minister of Nigeria and World Bank economist. Similarly, as Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel prize for Literature, the year proved to be a good year for African literature[44].


2022 is expected to be a turbulent year for the continent. While the biggest challenge will remain the health and economic recovery from the pandemic, there will be a series of other issues that can stifle the growth and development of the continent. Ending the civil war in Ethiopia and combatting the Islamist terrorism in Sahel as well as Somalia in the east and Mozambique in the south will remain the most important challenge for the African governments. With waning US influence, countries like Russia and Turkey are stepping forward to fill the gap. It will be interesting to watch whether these external powers could cooperate and collaborate for the development of the continent, or they compete and fight each other. For most of the continent, 2021 was a rollercoaster of political upheavals. As hope springs eternal, 2022 is expected to be more stable and more peaceful for the continent.

Endnotes :

[1]Voice of Africa, December 29, 2021. Low Vaccination Rates a Concern Amid African COVID Surge.
[2]BBC News, December 31, 2021. Covid-19 vaccinations: African nations miss WHO target.
[3]Business Standard, December 14, 2021. 83% surge in Covid cases in Africa, WHO remains 'cautiously optimistic'
[4]BBC News, December 31, 2021. Covid-19 vaccinations: African nations miss WHO target.
[5]Reuters, May 18, 2021. India's halt to vaccine exports 'very problematic' for Africa.
[6]Bloomberg, November 24, 2021. South Africa Asks J&J, Pfizer to Stop Sending Vaccines
[7]Al Jazeera, December 22, 2021.Nigeria destroys more than 1 million expired COVID vaccines.
[8]BBC News, December 31, 2021. Covid-19 vaccinations: African nations miss WHO target.
[9]World Health Organization, December 24, 2021. Key lessons from Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
[10]The World Bank, April 2020. For Sub-Saharan Africa, Coronavirus Crisis Calls for Policies for Greater Resilience.
[11]The World Bank, The World Bank in Africa.
[12]Frontline, December 11, 2021. Africa's debt burden threatens to slow economic recovery.
[13]France 24, March 31, 2021. Niger foils ‘coup attempt’ days before presidential inauguration.
[14]BBC News, April 21, 2021. Chad president's death: Rivals condemn 'dynastic coup'.
[15]Africa News, April 22, 2021. Chad's opposition slams 'coup' as major powers quiet on army takeover.
[16]Al Jazeera, 24th May, 2021, Mali’s military detains president, prime minister.
[17]Finacial Times, 3rd June, 2021. Mali coup: How the west African country fell from grace.
[18]Africa News, December 7, 2021. Madagascar: Trial of alleged masterminds of attempted coup begins.
[19]Bhattacharya Samir, September 9, 2021.Military Coup in Guinea and its Implications for Democratic Governance in Africa
[20]The Guardian, October 25, 2021. Sudan’s army seizes power in coup and detains prime minister.
[21]Arab News, December 21, 2021. Sudan’s PM Hamdok intends to resign within hours, say sources.
[22]BBC News, January 17, 2021. Uganda's long-time leader Yoweri Museveni declared election winner.
[23]Al Jazeera, April 13, 2021. Benin’s President Patrice Talon wins re-election with 86%.
[24]DW, March 24, 2021.Republic of Congo: President Sassou Nguesso wins by landslide.
[25]BBC News, July 11, 2021. Ethiopia election: Abiy Ahmed wins with huge majority.
[26]Al Jazeera, March 22, 2021. Niger’s top court confirms Mohamed Bazoum’s election win.
[27]Garda World, September 7, 2021. Sao Tome and Principe: Electoral commission confirms presidential election result Sept. 6.
[28]Reuters, October 18, 2021. Opposition candidate Neves wins Cape Verde election.
[29]Bhattacharya Samir, September 22, 2021. Future of Post-Islamist Morocco and India-Morocco Relations.
[30]Bhattacharya Samir, December 13, 2021. The Re-election of Gambian President Raises Hope for Justice
[31]Business Ghana, December 10, 2021.UN aims to limit potential South Sudan election violence.
[32]Africa News, November 1, 2011. Somalia kicks off next stage of long-delayed elections.
[33]United Nation Security Council: S/2018/674. Letter dated 5 July 2018 from the Secretary-General addressed to the President of the Security Council
[34]Al Jazeera, December 23, 2021.Why Libya’s election got postponed: A quick guide.
[35]Africa News, September 12, 2021.Tunisian president Kais Saied indicates plans to amend constitution.
[36]United Nation Security Council: S/2020/585. Activities of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel Report of the Secretary-General
[37]Al Jazeera, December 15, 2021. French forces leave Mali’s Timbuktu after nearly nine years.
[38]BBC News, October 2, 2021. Mali's plan for Russia mercenaries to replace French troops unsettles Sahel.
[39]AlJazeera, April 26 2021. Total suspends $20BN LNG project in Mozambique indefinitely.
[40]Candland, T., Finck, A., Ingran, H.J., Poole, L., Vidino, L., & Weiss, C. (2021).L’Étatislamiqueen RD Congo. George Washington Program on Extremism. %20State%20in%20Congo%20French.pdf
[41]Egypt Today, November 24, 2021. TPLF reportedly 130 KM from Addis Ababa as PM Abiy Ahmed hands duties to deputy
[42]Al-Monitor, December 22, 2021. Intel: US concerned over Iran, Turkey, UAE-supplied drones in Ethiopia war
[43]The Economic Times, 27 December, 2021Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala appointed WTO Director-General
[44]Al Jazeera, October 9, 2021. In Tanzania, Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win sparks both joy and debate

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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