Watch List 2018

Global Overview

For Europeans who have chafed at the embrace of U.S. hyper-power, resented being relegated to the part of bankroller-in-chief, and longed for a more assertive European role on the world stage, now would seem the moment. Disengaged from some areas, dangerously engaged in others, and disconcertingly engaged overall, the U.S. under President Donald Trump provides the European Union (EU) and its member states with a golden opportunity to step up and step in. The challenge is doing so without either gratuitously antagonising or needlessly deferring to Washington.

On a first set of issues – broad policy choices and matters of values – Europe’s response has offered early promise. Its reaffirmation of the Paris climate accord and the vigorous defence by the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel of a more tolerant, less nativist form of politics and a rules-based international order were the right form of push-back. Europe’s internal challenges, from economic woes to the difficulties of managing migration, are far from resolved. They require European leaders to balance foreign priorities with those at home. But 2017, in some ways and with some exceptions, was the year of the dog that didn’t bark: populists and anti-immigrants didn’t prevail in France, the Netherlands or Germany. The threat they pose remains, yet the wave many feared was only beginning to gather force with Brexit and Trump, for now at least, appears to have crested. This has created space for several European leaders to speak out in support of norms the U.S. appears in danger of neglecting.

On a second set of issues U.S. policies directly clash with Europe’s interest in stability and conflict resolution. This is most obviously the case with the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on which Trump’s ultimatum – agree with us to alter the agreement or I’ll withdraw from it – requires Europe to grapple with how much it is willing to fight back. The wise response would be to simultaneously encourage Washington to stick to the deal, reject any attempt to make Europe an accomplice to its breach, while preparing for a U.S. walkout. That means immunising as much as possible economic relations between Europe and Iran from the re-imposition of U.S. secondary sanctions. Brussels could, for example, revive blocking regulations (prohibiting companies from complying with such sanctions) and adopt other measures to safeguard Iran’s business ties with Europe.

A similar dynamic is at play in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Trump’s “I’ve-taken-Jerusalem-off-the-table” refrain, coupled with his threat to withhold funding from the Palestinian Authority should President Mahmoud Abbas ignore U.S. desiderata, are stripping Palestinians of whatever slender hope they retained in a negotiated settlement. That is reason enough for European governments – which already have moved to plug a separate gap left by the U.S. withholding its funds for the UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees – to work with the Palestinians on devising novel ways of advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In the cases of both the JCPOA and Israel/Palestine, Europe’s objective ought to be simple: shore up bilateral relations so that Iran and the Palestinians, despite being spurned by Washington, resist the allure of alternate and more hazardous routes – away from the nuclear deal, in one instance, and toward violence, in the other. In the two instances, there may be only so much Europeans can do. But they should do it.

The third category is trickiest, for it entails Europe at times breaking not solely with the U.S., but with some of its own habits as well. Over the past several years, European foreign policy progressively has defined itself as an extension of domestic anxieties – mostly about terrorism and migration. That’s understandable. Political leaders can ill afford to come across as divorced from public opinion – however revved-up and exploited for partisan purposes its apprehensions. They must make public angst at least partly their own.

But carried too far, this runs the risk of producing a narrow and short-sighted approach. Indeed, it risks replicating in some places the U.S.’s policy flaws: too heavy a reliance on military force; unsavoury deals with autocratic leaders who pledge to counter terrorism or stem migration; a capricious human rights policy that spares allies while penalising foes; a diminished role for diplomacy; and the neglect of measures to address political or social factors that drive people to join violent groups or flee their homes.

Examples of what the EU and its member states can do to counter this trend are legion, and developed in some detail in the entries of this Watch List. But to mention a few: European leaders might use the EU’s position as Africa’s chief peace and security partner to work with its leaders and regional organisations to help nudge the continent’s long-serving incumbents toward peaceful transitions of power. They might more critically assess the performance of strongmen who (from President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, to President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, or President Idriss Déby in Chad) promise aggressive counter-terrorism operations in the hope of external leniency toward their repressive behaviour at home.

Certainly, they should ensure that the African counter-terrorism force deploying across parts of the Sahel (the G5 Sahel joint force) – which is backed by European powers – comes hand-in-hand with local mediation efforts, lest it further militarise the region and empower non-state proxies whose rivalries aggravate intercommunal conflicts. More generally, they might see to it that deals cut on migration (say, with Libyan militias) and alliances forged for counter-terrorism purposes don’t end up entrenching the misrule that propels the very patterns – migration and terrorism – they aim to forestall.

In other areas, Europe could give diplomacy a shot in the arm where the U.S. appears to have abandoned it. European leaders could press Saudi Arabia and Iran to open a channel of communication, even as the U.S. appears to encourage escalation. They could use the leverage provided by European forces’ presence in Afghanistan to persuade Washington to pursue not military escalation alone, but a settlement with the Taliban that involves regional powers. They also should match their criticism of rivals’ abuses – from President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to the Taliban’s horrific attacks on civilians – with more forceful rebukes of those of its allies, members of the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen first and foremost.

Standing up to the U.S., stepping in where it opts out, devising policies with or without it: all of this undoubtedly can attract Washington’s ire. But the European Union and its member states ought to pay little heed. To forge a more independent and forceful European foreign policy focused on diplomacy, de-escalation and conflict prevention at a time of uncertainty and confusion in Washington is not to undermine the U.S., but to do it – and, more importantly, the rest of the world – a favour.

Africa

In 2018, Africa faces some all-too-familiar peace and security challenges: tense winner-take-all elections that risk provoking violence; authoritarian drift that erodes institutions and generates rebellions; and low-intensity insurgencies that create humanitarian crises. Meanwhile, the spat between Gulf powers – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on one side, and Qatar, on the other – threatens to destabilise the Horn of Africa. 2018 also promises to be an important year for Europe’s relations with Africa, particularly in the light of the Cotonou Agreement renegotiations.

Critical elections and democratic backsliding

Eighteen countries are expected to hold presidential, parliamentary or local elections in 2018. In many of these places, either politics is zero-sum, raising the stakes and risking violence around the polls; or power is heavily skewed toward the ruling party, often sowing the seeds of future conflict. Three elections to watch are in Cameroon, Zimbabwe – both covered in the entry below – and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cameroon’s contest is complicated by an insurrection in its Anglophone region and Boko Haram violence in the Far North. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s unexpected departure offers the chance to reverse the country’s economic crisis, but significant reforms are needed to ensure a level playing field, a credible vote and thus a government with a strong mandate to begin to repair the damage of his 37-year rule. In the DRC, President Joseph Kabila’s extension of his tenure in office – he should have left in December 2016 – has already provoked a political crisis; even getting to elections now scheduled for the end of 2018 will be hard, and the vote itself is likely to be contentious.

Democratic backsliding and authoritarian drift remain sources of instability. The Ugandan parliament’s December decision to remove the presidential age limit will allow President Yoweri Museveni to run for a sixth term in 2021; longstanding and seemingly mounting grievances against his continued rule are feeding popular discontent. One-person or one-party rule and the closure of political space in Chad and Ethiopia risks stoking similar problems. All three governments enjoy significant Western support, related to the role their security forces play in Western-backed military operations across the continent. But if these governments are perceived as reliable security partners

abroad, they increasingly deepen problems at home and behave in ways that foment rebellion.

Spillover from the Gulf

The Gulf crisis, pitting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on one side, against Qatar (and, indirectly, Turkey) on the other, has spilled into Africa, particularly the Horn, complicating relations among states and often aggravating instability. Even preceding that crisis, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, propelled partly by the Saudi-led war in Yemen, had signed military cooperation agreements with various states in the Horn – Saudi Arabia with Djibouti and Sudan; the UAE with Eritrea, Somalia and Somaliland – thus strengthening their relations and presence on the Red Sea. Eritrea, Djibouti and Somaliland allowed their airstrips and ports to be used as military logistics hubs. Both Sudan, which curtailed its ties with Iran to join the Saudi coalition, and Somalia committed forces to the Yemen campaign.

The Saudi and Emirati spat with Qatar, however, put this expansion in a new light. Most Horn of Africa states have traditionally pursued good relations across the Gulf. Now they are under pressure to pick sides. Gulf powers’ competition has rekindled old hostilities and sown new tension between Sudan and Egypt, Egypt and Ethiopia, and Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Somalia may be most vulnerable. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt (which largely aligns with the Saudis and Emiratis), Turkey and Qatar are all big donors and investors. Attempts by Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” to steer a neutral course prompted Gulf powers, notably the UAE, to directly approach Somalia’s federal states, thus bypassing Mogadishu and aggravating tension between the capital and local governments. In December 2017, Farmajo’s suspicions that the UAE was actively fomenting opposition triggered a crackdown on politicians accused of receiving Emirati funds. The Gulf spat has thus split Somalia’s government and institutions into two feuding camps, further eroding modest gains made to stabilise the country that, even before that crisis, were tenuous.

Even more perilous to regional stability is mounting tension between Sudan and Egypt, whose relations a disputed border region and trade quarrels had already strained. Relations have been further tested by Khartoum’s willingness to allow members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to visit and consult with sympathetic groups in Sudan following their 2013 expulsion from Egypt after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power. Khartoum accuses Egypt of arming Sudanese rebels from Darfur now active in southern Libya, where they fight as mercenaries for the Egypt-backed Libyan National Army. Cairo strenuously denies the accusation.

Ethiopia and Eritrea – the region’s most intractable enemies – have been drawn in. Ethiopia’s decision to construct a dam on the Blue Nile, thus affecting the flow of water downstream, has increased tensions with Egypt. In response, Cairo has strengthened ties to Eritrea and South Sudan – the latter of which Ethiopia sees as being within its own sphere of influence – deepening Addis Ababa’s unease. Frequent, usually technical negotiations reduce the likelihood of a water war. But Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s visit to Sudan at the end of December 2017 risks upsetting the fragile equilibrium. Turkey, already a big player in Somalia, rival of Egypt under Sisi and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, signed a deal to develop the ancient Ottoman port of Suakin on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Cairo sees this move as a direct challenge to its own influence. Soon after Erdoğan’s visit, unverified reports emerged of an Egyptian military deployment at the Eritrean military base of Sawa, near the Sudanese border. The story precipitated an announcement by Khartoum that it had closed the Eritrea border and deployed thousands of militias east.

Whether the escalation was genuine or a means for Khartoum to distract attention from an economic crisis at home remains to be seen. Clearly, though, Gulf and Middle Eastern politics are having a profound impact on the Horn. The African Union (AU) has expressed unease at growing geopolitical tensions in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and mooted a joint Gulf-Horn summit in 2018. These dynamics should be watched carefully in 2018. At present, with U.S. influence declining and the UN Security Council divided, the European Union (EU) is one of few actors that could help prevent inadvertent conflict escalation among these many actors, by positioning itself as an honest broker and potentially pushing for discrete confidence-building measures. Given cross-regional dynamics, the EU should redouble efforts to coordinate internally among the regional divisions of its own European External Action Service (EEAS) and between the EEAS and other services. Another war in the Horn would have disastrous humanitarian consequences and undercut Europe’s efforts to counter terrorism and control the flow of migrants.

Europe’s relations with Africa

2018 also will be an important year for Europe’s relations with the continent. By September, the EU must begin renegotiating the Cotonou Agreement, its partnership with 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, which expires in 2020. The agreement’s development fund finances the African Peace Facility, which supports many of the AU’s peace and security activities. Agreeing on a new funding mechanism that is predictable – to enable the AU to do more medium-term planning – but also flexible, allowing for new initiatives and adaptation to emerging threats, is vital.

Renegotiations over Cotonou and the EU’s development aid come as European policy in parts of Africa appears increasingly military-centric.Motives driving European support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, established chiefly to fight jihadists across the Sahel, are understandable: military action must be an important component of the response to such groups which pose a threat to UN peacekeepers that they cannot confront alone. But, as examined below, the force risks stirring up a hornet’s nest unless accompanied by support for negotiated political settlements, local peacebuilding and steps to minimise the risk that sponsorship of militias might aggravate local conflicts. Increased Western military support also could reinforce the authoritarian tendencies of some Sahel leaders. Excessive militarisation risks worsening – terrorism and migration – the very trends Europe wishes to curb.

Cameroon: Electoral Uncertainty amid Multiple Security Threats

Cameroon’s governance and security problems for many years have attracted little outside attention. But the country now faces violence in three regions: the Far North, where Boko Haram continues to mount small-scale attacks, as well as the Northwest and Southwest, where an incipient Anglophone insurgency emerged in 2017. Added to this ambient insecurity is a refugee crisis in the East and Adamaoua, to which 236,000 people from the Central African Republic have fled militia battles. Elections scheduled for October 2018 will be a major test, as will the eventual transfer of power away from President Paul Biya, now 85. 2018 is a crucial moment for the international community, and in particular the EU and its member states, to engage in early action and prevent further escalation.

Boko Haram: still a threat to a neglected region

Boko Haram, active in Cameroon’s Far North since 2014, has killed about 1,800 civilians and 175 soldiers, kidnapped around 1,000 people and burned and looted many villages, while the conflict has displaced some 242,000 and badly disrupted the local economy. Some 91,000 Nigerians have fled Boko Haram-related violence in Nigeria to Cameroon. Though battered by security forces and riven by internal divisions, Boko Haram remains a threat in the Far North: in 2017 the group has killed at least 27 soldiers and gendarmes, as well as 210 civilians. It could regain strength if Cameroonian authorities neglect the crisis.

Boko Haram fighters and associates have surrendered in increasing numbers. Dozens of former militants have been sent home, after swearing on the Quran they would not rejoin the group. About 80 others are being held at a military camp in Mayo Sava. To encourage more such surrenders, authorities should avoid blanket stigmatisation and differentiate between hard-core fighters and others. The government also needs to develop a clear plan to counter the appeal of the jihadist ideas that some of the Boko Haram fighters that have given themselves up or been captured continue to espouse. Effective justice and reintegration mechanisms are lacking. Hundreds of supposed Boko Haram members are currently in pre-trial detention, a situation that risks fuelling their further radicalisation; their status should be resolved as swiftly as possible. Authorities also should seek to implement flexible, locally-informed mechanisms to facilitate the social reintegration of former Boko Haram fighters and encourage new surrenders. Leaving this to the whims of ad-hoc local efforts is inadvisable: given the destruction wreaked by the insurgency, communities are highly resentful, and poorly conceived reintegration schemes could sow the seeds of future problems. This is in contrast to neighbouring Chad, where local communities seem to be integrating former militants somewhat successfully on an informal basis. The EU should encourage national authorities, both in Yaounde and in regional capitals, to elaborate and implement their own plans to manage the demobilisation of former Boko Haram members.

The war against Boko Haram has strained local communities, given rise to humanitarian crises and highlighted the need for longer-term development. In 2018, Cameroon’s international partners, including the EU, should provide further humanitarian assistance in the Far North, focused on strengthening support to displaced persons and host families as well as supporting the voluntary return of Nigerian refugees. Where required, emergency operations should continue, but humanitarian efforts should also evolve into a more sustainable development approach.

The challenge is to stimulate the local economy without filling the coffers of Boko Haram, which taxes local trade and whose recruitment efforts in the past have been facilitated in part by offering small business loans and other financial incentives. Achieving the right balance will be difficult. But European support for small businesses within the formal and informal economies could help undercut local backing for Boko Haram. Separately, while Yaounde has long controlled the Far North by co-opting local notables, Boko Haram’s spread into Cameroon was partly facilitated by tapping into anger at local elites, thereby demonstrating the limits of that approach. Instead, Cameroon’s partners should encourage the state to reassert its presence in the north in a participatory and inclusive manner rather than through proxies, including via development projects that boost local earning potential.

The Anglophone crisis: an insurgency in the making

The crisis in the Anglophone regions (the Northwest and Southwest), which started as a sectoral protest, is rapidly developing into an armed insurgency, following the Cameroonian security forces’ violent repression on 22 September and 1 October. While there are hardliners among the militants, the government bears a large share of the responsibility for the conflict. It failed to recognise the legitimacy of Anglophone grievances; its security forces committed widespread abuses; and it imprisoned many peaceful activists in early 2017.

Several small “self-defence” groups (the Tigers, Ambaland forces and Vipers, to name a few) now operate alongside two armed militias: the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) and the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces. Since November 2017, these groups have launched low-intensity attacks that have killed at least 22 and injured 25 among soldiers and gendarmes. An unknown number of separatist fighters have died in these clashes. The military crackdown also exacted a large humanitarian toll and involved significant human rights violations. The violence has left at least 90 civilians since October 2016. Around a thousand have been arrested, with 400 still in jail. More than 30,000 Anglophones are refugees in Nigeria and tens of thousands have been internally displaced.

Given that the crisis is rooted in historically grounded identity-based grievances, notably the strong sentiment among Anglophones that they have been politically and economically marginalised, there will be no easy resolution. The government will need to change course and negotiate in good faith. The government’s refusal to launch a dialogue with peaceful Anglophone leaders has corroded the community’s trust in state institutions and provoked escalating violence. The crisis also illustrates the limits of the country’s centralised governance model, which show signs of atrophy. Discontent is still mounting in Anglophone areas. Reports suggest that some members of the security forces are joining the insurgency.

A direct dialogue between the government and Anglophone community leaders is critical to de-escalate the crisis, particularly ahead of the October elections. A wider conversation, which should include discussion of different models of decentralisation and federalism, is also important, given the failings of the current model. The EU and its member states should take advantage of the government’s concern about its international image and desire to preserve cooperation with them to nudge it toward direct talks and a national dialogue.

Uncertainties ahead

Most of the country’s security threats stem, at least in part, from bad governance and an over-centralised political system. While the 2018 elections are likely to see the ruling party retain power, a vote perceived as manipulated or unfair could further diminish its legitimacy, making it even more remote from citizens and feeding greater levels of violence. Election season will be an especially risky time if, as appears likely, Anglophone militants attempt to disrupt the balloting in the Northwest and Southwest regions, and possibly elsewhere.

More broadly, while many local activists and international actors see an eventual transition from President Biya, whose party dominates the government, as a prerequisite for improvements in governance, they also fear that his departure could trigger instability. European and other foreign powers should start laying the groundwork for a peaceful transfer of power; the longer the situation deteriorates, the harder it will be to pick up the pieces. They have two opportunities to do so in 2018: first, by supporting dialogue between the Biya government and Anglophone leaders, as described above; and, second, by working with Cameroon’s electoral body (ELECAM) and pressing the government to permit, and then deploy, election observers to protect the integrity of the vote, as best possible, and thus build confidence in the electoral system. Even small gains in these areas would help mend the frayed contract between the Cameroonian state and its citizens.

The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action

The Sahel region faces particularly acute challenges. Rural insurgencies across parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are expanding. Jihadi groups exploit local conflicts to secure safe havens and win new recruits. Other militias are being formed, whether to defend communities, conduct criminal activities or both. Sahelian states, supported by Western powers, rely ever more heavily on force. The new G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S), encompassing army units from five Sahelian states, must avoid angering local communities and stoking local conflicts. It should be accompanied by local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives, outreach to communities and, where possible, efforts to engage militant leaders.

Mali’s stalemated peace process

In Mali, the epicentre of the Sahel crisis, implementation of the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement that aimed to turn the page on the country’s 2012-2013 crisis, has stalled. Having acted as chief broker of the agreement, Algiers appears to have lost interest in leading the process. No African or other actor has stepped in.

Malian leaders’ attention has shifted to the July 2018 presidential election. In parts of the country, particularly central and northern Mali, a credible vote appears a remote prospect, due to insecurity and state weakness. But any attempt to postpone the vote would likely spark street protests: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has struggled both to restore security and stimulate development, and is increasingly unpopular even in his core constituencies of Bamako and other southern cities.

Nor have state authorities, ousted from much of the north during the 2012-2013 crisis, returned. Security continues to deteriorate in central Mali(Mopti region) and further south (Segou region), fuelling tension among communities. Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas, recruiting new fighters and launching attacks against national and international forces. Their reach is extending into neighbouring countries.

An expanding crisis

Northern Burkina Faso is suffering its own insurgency: notwithstanding spillover from Mali, violence there largely obeys its own logic and feeds off local dynamics. The emergence of Ansarul Islam, a Burkinabe jihadist group that has perpetrated a string of attacks against security forces and state institutions, reflects widespread discontent with the prevailing social order in the country’s north. Ouagadougou and most of its foreign partners recognise that a military campaign alone will not end the conflict, but their response needs to better factor in the deep social roots of the crisis, which means greater efforts to stimulate or facilitate communal dialogue. Ultimately, as militants operate between Mali and Burkina Faso, the crisis also requires that Mali secure its borders and both states deepen their police and judicial cooperation.

In Niger, the October 2017 killing of U.S. Special Forces and Nigerien soldiers near the border between Mali and Niger brought international attention to a long-neglected region that has become the Sahel’s latest jihadist front line. An armed group claiming links to the Islamic State has repeatedly targeted Nigerien security forces. In response, Nigerien authorities briefly backed Malian armed groups as proxy counter-terror forces along the border. Such action can prove counterproductive, adding to the already vast quantities of weaponry in the region and fuelling intercommunal conflict. The large number of armed young men in the border area between Mali and Niger – frequently now with combat experience, including fighting both against and alongside jihadist groups – are a key source of instability. Their demobilisation and reintegration into society is a critical component of any effort to end violence.

Chad is vulnerable to instability in southern Libya, where Chadian rebels have found refuge, and in the Lake Chad basin, where the Boko Haram crisis has spread. President Idriss Deby has positioned his military as a bastion against jihadism. This stance has brought financial and political support from Western powers and largely spared him their criticism, notwithstanding the country’s fragility, growing political and social discontent, and deep economic recession. Many businesses have gone bankrupt. Unemployment, especially among youth, is high. The International Monetary Fund suspended budget support in November 2017 after Chad failed to reach an agreement to restructure loans granted by a mining and oil company. Mounting political and socio-economic challenges pose a grave long-term threat to Chad; left to fester, these problems would till fertile ground for violent actors of all stripes, including jihadists.

Going beyond military solutions

After considerable delays, the G5 Sahel joint force has started to deploy at the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso border. But it is struggling with funding shortfalls and to define its role, particularly in relation to other forces in the Sahel, from UN peacekeepers to French and U.S. counter-terrorism forces. To secure the support of local populations, the joint force should respect the rights of those living in its operations zones. Efforts to de-escalate local conflicts and, where possible, open or exploit existing lines of communication with militant leaders should accompany military action.

Sahelian states remain worryingly dependent on security assistance. Indeed, foreign donor priorities, to some degree, drive the Sahelian states’ security policies: the focus on curbing human trafficking and migrant smuggling in the region in good part reflects European worries about migration and terrorism. Yet overly strict security measures can upset fragile local economies and balances of power between central state and nomadic communities or between local authorities and ethnic or religious groups.

In this light, the Alliance for the Sahel, launched in July 2017 by France, Germany and the EU, and designed to address both security and development challenges in the Sahel region, could be a step in the right direction, if European short-term concerns over migration and terrorism do not trump efforts to reform local governance, especially in neglected rural areas. The EU and its member states should also support government initiatives to strengthen local law and order – again critical in rural areas – through its EU Capacity Building Missions (EUCAP) Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger.

In particular, the EU, including its special representative for the Sahel, should warn governments against relying on militias as proxy counter-terrorism forces. It should instead encourage regional leaders to promote bottom-up reconciliation through local dialogues, especially in Mali. In Chad, the EU and its member states should not only pursue short-term security objectives but also seek to check, as best possible, the government’s authoritarian impulses so that political space does not shrink further.

Zimbabwe: An Opportunity for Reform?

Amid a rise in authoritarian tendencies across parts of the continent, Robert Mugabe’s resignation and the November 2017 appointment of his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as president make Zimbabwe a potential exception, carrying fresh prospects for reform and economic recovery. Mnangagwa and his administration have set a different tone, promising to clean up government, reach across political, ethnic and racial lines, strengthen Zimbabwe’s democracy and reform its moribund economy. Re-engaging with Western partners and financial institutions is an integral component of his strategy. Questions remain, however, as to whether Mnangagwa’s administration represents a genuine change or simply a reconfiguration of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), now dominated by security sector interests and factions aligned to the new president. International actors will have an important role in encouraging the reforms that will determine whether the country can recover economically and steer a more open and democratic course.

African and non-African governments alike agree that Zimbabwe’s continued isolation would be counterproductive. Following the lead of the AU and Southern African Development Community (SADC), actors including Western governments and China – most of which were happy to see the back of Mugabe – stopped short of calling the “military-assisted transition” a coup d’état, thus ensuring they could maintain diplomatic relations with and