Year in Review: The key things that happen in Eat Africa 2018

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A lot can happen in East Africa over a 12-month period and every year there are landmark events that promise to shape the future of the region. Change comes quickly in this part of the world – both good and bad – but 2018 was a particularly eventful year, even by East African standards.

From historic moments and familiar political problems (plus the occasional breakthrough) to new leaders and changes in regional geopolitics, so much has happened in 2018 that it’s easy to forget even some of the more significant moments.

Which is why it helps to look back at the year behind us and remind ourselves of the biggest stories that came out of East Africa in 2018.

Abiy Ahmed becomes Ethiopia prime minister

Arguably, the most significant thing to happen in East Africa in 2018 was the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia’s prime minister. Aside from bringing back the country from the brink of political disaster, Ethiopia’s new PM has also ended the border conflict with Eritrea, spearheaded cooperation between Horn of Africa nations and opened Ethiopia to foreign investment.

Back on home soil, he’s also opened the political landscape by welcoming back rebel groups and promoting political freedoms. However, his tenure has been marred by a striking uptake in ethnic violence within Ethiopia that threatens to compromise much of the progress Abiy has made in such a short space of time.

Could it be a case of too much change, too soon for Ethiopia?

Eritrea-Ethiopia peace deal

The Eritrea-Ethiopia peace deal is worth a mention in its own right – not only because it has brought an end to Africa’s longest-running conflict but also for the wider impact it has had on the geopolitical landscape in the Horn of Africa and its relationship with the wider world.

With Eritrea and Ethiopia now working together, the pair has been able to team up with Somalia and heal ongoing tensions between the two countries. This trio has created a stronger Horn of Africa and a union that could bring Eritrea back into the international community. The biggest remaining problem is the sticking point of Djibouti, which still has a border dispute running with Eritrea, and could stand to lose from increasing competition in the region.

South Sudan officially ends its civil war (again)

This should be the biggest headline of 2018 and it could still prove to be if South Sudan manages to make this the peace deal that actually succeeds. Sadly, faith in the country’s ability to implement a peace deal is low after successive failures and ongoing concerns over human rights violations.

The good news is that, for the most part, a relative peace has been maintained since the agreement was signed in September. That might not sound like a long time but we’re talking about a country that has repeatedly violated ceasefires and peace agreements in the past – sometimes within hours of them being implemented.

It’s still too early to be confident about South Sudan’s peace prospects but there are early signs of reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Paul Kagame releases political prisoners, Diane Rwigara acquitted

Paul Kagame’s 2017 election win with almost 100% of the vote extended the strongman’s rule over the country. This in itself shouldn’t have surprised anyone but the nature in which presidential hopeful Diane Rwigara was barred from running against Kagame and detained (along with her mother) over charges of inciting insurrection and forgery was a stark reminder of what can happen when anyone stands up to Rwanda’s leader.

There’s no doubt 2018 was a difficult year for Rwigara and her family but it ended in celebration with the 36-year-old and her mother being acquitted of all charges. This was by no means a certainty and the court’s decision followed the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners – a move approved by President Kagame himself.

John Magufuli targets homosexuals, pregnant school girls

For Tanzania, most of the international headlines have centred around John Magufuli and his increasingly authoritarian regime. In 2018, his primary targets have been homosexuals, pregnant women and journalists. The country has now established an investigative team dedicated to arrested homosexuals and called upon the general public to report anyone believed to have engaged in homosexual activities.

This followed fresh moves from authorities to remove and ban pregnant girls from school while doing almost nothing to prevent pregnancies in the first place or punish men who sexually abuse and impregnate young girls. The president then took a stance against contraception and targeting organisations teaching gay people about contraception in a bid to prevent the spread of Aids.

Tanzania, Uganda stifle media freedoms

Another group heavily targeted in Tanzania in 2018 was bloggers and independent journalists. The country implemented new licensing laws for online publishers that require anyone with a blog or YouTube channel to pay more than the average annual salary – assuming they were even approved for the license to begin with.

The legislation essentially makes it impossible for the majority of independent publishers to operate and gives authorities a free pass to reject licencing for anyone who criticises the government.

Uganda took a different approach to stifle freedom of expression by implementing a tax on social media usage – a move that was equally condemned by rights groups.

Bobi Wine puts Uganda under the global spotlight

In 2018, it wasn’t Yoweri Museveni dominating the headlines in Ugandan politics but rather pop star and politician Robert Kyagulanyi – otherwise known as Bobi Wine – who put Ugandan politics under the global spotlight. The popular singer and opposition MP was arrested for allegedly illegally possessing a firearm but these charges were dropped and Wine was inexplicably charged with treason instead.

Wine’s lawyer promptly accused soldiers of beating the MP while he was being detained and the singer was seen using crutches as he struggled to walk into court. He was later granted bail but prevented from leaving the country in order to receive medical treatment in the US, despite a court ruling allowing him to leave.

Wine eventually left for the US, where he received the treatment he needed and revealed the details of his arrest and torture while being detained. However, the singer and MP soon returned to Uganda to face his charges and resume political activities, insisting the change his country needs is far from being realised.

DRC finally holds its presidential election

After more than two years of waiting, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) finally held its election on December 30. The electoral commission couldn’t have left it much later to fulfil its promise of a 2018 election but the DRC managed to hold a relatively peaceful vote, albeit a chaotic one in the logistic sense.

For a country that’s never had a peaceful transition of power in its recent history and had to fight to get its election – even at this late stage – the poll is a major political landmark. However, the votes are still being counted and a result is yet to be announced, which where things could get ugly if the outcome is highly contested.

The start of 2019 is going to be a defining period for the DRC, one way or another.

Protests in Sudan

Protests that started over the price of bread and fuel shortages in Sudan have turned into a wave of anti-government demonstrations across much of the country. Protesters are now demanding President Omar al-Bashir resigns and this is significant in itself while the violent nature of the protests should be a major concern for the government.

Police have fired live ammunition upon crowds on multiple occasions and the violence has killed at least 19 people and injured hundreds – although rights groups put the death toll much higher.

The government has responded by arrested opposition leaders and shutting down access to popular social networks in a bid to calm dissent. After two weeks of almost non-stop protests and the deadly response by security forces, Sudan is entering a real crisis point, similar to the one that forced Hailemariam Desalegn to resign as Ethiopian prime minister in February.

What will 2019 hold for East Africa?

With 2019 officially here, the knock-on effect of last year’s events are going to prove their significance and there will be plenty of surprises ahead. What we already know is the role of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa will be a key influence in the year ahead. However, the question remains whether Ethiopia will be able to calm the internal conflicts spreading across the country. Then we have to consider whether the peace deal with Eritrea will hold true and ponder the role of Djibouti as regional tensions shift.

We’ll also find out more about the role of Gulf states in the Horn of Africa as their fight for influence intensifies.

Meanwhile, the economic stability of the entire region will be under the spotlight this year. Growth is slowing while debt is piling up and the outlook is highly debatable. Closely related to this topic will be the relationship between East African nations and China as their economic partnerships become more strained.

South Sudan’s peace process, Somalia’s battle against al-Shabaab, John Magufuli’s regime and the situation in Burundi will be ever-present issues throughout 2019 while Kenya’s lengthy battle against corruption will ramble on.

In the meantime, everyone will be keeping an eye on events in the DRC as its next leader is announced and the public reaction is revealed. And then we have the situation in Sudan and the questions hanging over long-time president Omar al-Bashir’s regime – both from inside and outside of the country.

Featured image: By Jason Patinkin (VOA) – http://www.voanews.com/a/government-soldiers-leave-juba-before-rebel-leaders-return/3286194.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56846864

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.