February 4, 2023

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The good, bad, and the ugly: West Africa’s big issues in 2022

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A recap of top issues in West Africa in 2022, including heated political campaigns and armed groups gaining ground.

Lagos, Nigeria – This year has been a generally turbulent one for West Africa – with a few bright spots.

Just as the region was recovering from the post-COVID-19 economic fallout of 2020, Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

That led to a global disruption in the supply of certain commodities including wheat, causing a collapse for many economies worldwide. West Africa, with its fair share of domestic troubles, was also impacted.

Here are 10 of the top issues that defined the socio-political landscape across West Africa in 2022.

Cost of living crisis

In November, Nigeria’s inflation rate hit a 17-year-high of 21.47 percent and the number of people living in poverty rose to 133 million, or 63 percent of the population, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

In Sierra Leone, economic woes led to street protesters demanding President Julius Bio step down. Twenty-one protesters and six police officers died in the protests. In November, Senegal had to release $762m to tackle soaring living costs and put price caps on essential goods.

Ghana’s cedi became the worst-performing currency against the dollar in 2022 and inflation reached a 21-year high of 40 percent, leading to the International Monetary fund (IMF) granting it a $3bn loan bailout.

Return of stolen art

For decades, West African nations have demanded the return of artefacts looted by former colonial powers. This year, US, Germany and the UK began to do so. London’s Horniman Museum has also agreed to return 72 of the bronzes stolen during the pillaging of the old Benin empire in 1897.

In the nearby Benin Republic, artefacts returned by France in 2021 went on display for the first time. The returns mark the beginning of a positive arc for West African countries clamouring for the return of cultural treasures looted during the days of slavery and colonialism.

Floods

Torrential rainfalls which experts attribute to climate change triggered widespread floods in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Niger and Senegal. More than 5.5 million people were affected.

In Nigeria, thousands of homes were destroyed, 1.3 million others were displaced and more than 600 people were left dead.

Climate change has also exacerbated worrying levels of food insecurity in the region with many farmlands submerged from Nigeria to Chad.

Coups plotters and rebels

A trend of coups that began in 2020 in the region once infamously known as “the coup belt”, continued this year. In September, disenchanted soldiers broke ranks and overthrew Burkina Faso’s military government installed in January, a move widely described as a “coup within a coup”.

Elsewhere in Mali, a coup was thwarted. The military government which came to power via an August 2020 coup, blamed an unnamed Western nation. There were also attempted coups in Guinea Bissau and The Gambia.

Senegal reached a peace agreement with the rebel group in Casamance, in what was effectively Africa’s longest-running conflict since 1982. Some of Chad’s plethora of rebel groups also participated in a dialogue facilitated by Doha after decades of unrest and tussle for power.

After long-term strongman leader Idris Deby’s death in combat, his son was named head of a transitional military council. The threat of civil war loomed until a peace agreement was struck leading to the return of exiled key rebel leaders.

Armed groups’ expansion

Benin and Togo witnessed a number of attacks from armed groups, heightening fears about violence spilling from the Sahel into coastal West Africa. Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, who alleged that Burkina Faso is paying Russian mercenaries with mining rights, has warned that violence could “engulf” West Africa.

Expansionist violence by armed groups linked to ISIS (ISIL) and al-Qaeda made Burkina Faso the epicentre of the conflict this year. Attacks there and in Mali for years have resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis.

In June, suspected members of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) killed at least 50 people during a Catholic mass service in the relatively peaceful southwestern Nigeria, prompting global condemnation.

Analysts said the incident marked a worrying spread of terror in a country seemingly unable to protect critical infrastructure, as exemplified by a March attack on a train just outside the city of Kaduna.

Wagner in West Africa

Private armies are on the rise in the region, especially in Mali which has severed ties with France and withdrawn from the G5 multinational security force tackling insecurity in the Sahel.

Mali’s leaders had taken power citing the government’s inability to tackle armed groups wreaking havoc, complicating its relationship with France and the Economic West African Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which imposed sanctions.

Mali’s detention of 48 Ivorian soldiers in August led to a diplomatic rift within ECOWAS and Ivory Coast has since withdrawn its troops from the UN peacekeeping force.

Anti-French sentiments led to protests in Bamako mostly over the perceived ineffectiveness of French troops to curtail the activities of armed groups in the Sahel since arriving in 2013. The French troops have since left to set up in Niger as its new Sahel base.

In recent years, Russia has made crucial inroads into Africa, renewing Cold War-era relationships. In October, half of the 35 countries that abstained from voting for the United Nations to condemn Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine, were African.

The presence of Russia’s Wagner mercenaries has been seen as proof of the West losing its near-monopoly of influence in Africa. But the group has been accused of human rights abuses in their pursuit of armed groups, attracting criticism internationally.

Meanwhile, Burkina Faso has summoned Ghana’s ambassador after Akufo-Addo’s claims but neither confirmed nor denied being involved with the Wagner group.

Twitter: Here today, gone tomorrow

After a reported agreement with Twitter, Nigeria ended its seven-month ban on the social media platform that began after controversial tweets by President Muhammadu Buhari termed “genocidal” by human rights groups, were removed in June 2021.

Last year, Twitter announced that it would open an Africa office in Ghana, with many Nigerian users speculating that Nigeria had been bypassed because of the ban. But four days after a physical office was opened in Accra, new owner Elon Musk fired all but one of its entire Africa-based staff.

Google expands footprint in West Africa

An estimated 40,000 of the Timbuktu manuscripts were digitised on Google for the first time following combined efforts by local and international scholars. The manuscripts which document stories of the pre-eminent past of pre-colonial empires including its early contribution to scholarship in mathematics, medicine, astronomy, etc. had been at risk of being looted or destroyed as a result of unrest and political instability in Mali since 2013.

In March 2022, Togo became the first place to receive Google’s underwater internet connectivity infrastructure to Europe. The cable will have other landings in Africa including Nigeria.

Women’s rights

Sierra Leone’s government is backing a bill to decriminalise abortion and repeal a colonial-era pro-abortion rights law allowing the process only in the case of a threat to the mother’s life. In 2015, then-president Bai Koroma vetoed the bill after backlash from religious groups in the country which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

In Nigeria, the federal legislature voted against a raft of bills seeking to improve women’s representation in politics and conferment of citizenship on foreign husbands, among others. Protests led to parliament rescinding its decision – a new vote is expected in the new year.

In Guinea, the trial of former strongman Moussa Dadis Camara has left survivors of a 2008 stadium mass killing and mass rape during his tenure, with renewed hopes for justice.

Election fever hits West Africa

Campaign for Nigeria’s 2023 elections began in full force this year, dominated by talk of security and economy, which citizens say have severely tanked under the current administration.

Three leading candidates are hoping to succeed President Buhari whose second and final five-year term expires in May next year, a departure from the traditional two-party dominance.

Many youths hope the trade union-backed Labour Party – with a candidate younger than the septuagenarian heavyweights in the ruling All Progressives Congress and leading opposition People Democratic Party – can snatch victory against the run of play.

In May, an Abuja court halted Central Bank Governor Godwin Emefiele’s astounding and unprecedented attempt to contest the presidency.

Senegal’s ruling party lost its comfortable parliamentary majority as protests before the legislative polls threatened the country’s image of stability in the region. There is mounting concern that President Macky Sall could announce a third-term bid next year.

Elsewhere in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the incumbents secured tickets for re-election in next year’s presidential polls.

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