Key Elections, Events to Watch in Africa in 2023

Source: Key Elections, Events to Watch in Africa in 2023

Nigeria’s pivotal elections and other trends that will shape the continent next year.

Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
A Labour Party supporter holds a placard during a campaign rally in Ibadan, Nigeria, on Nov. 23.
A Labour Party supporter holds a placard during a campaign rally in Ibadan, Nigeria, on Nov. 23.
A Labour Party supporter holds a placard during a campaign rally in Ibadan, Nigeria, on Nov. 23. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Below, we look at what’s ahead for the continent in 2023, starting with Nigeria’s high-stakes elections in February. Other areas to watch in the new year include Ethiopia’s tricky peace process and Rwanda’s belligerence with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nigeria’s Political Cliff Edge

There is a great deal of expectation among young voters ahead of Nigeria’s elections in February as the country grapples with an economic downturn and heightened insecurity. Nigeria’s new president has a staggeringly long list of crises to manage, including rising unemployment; violence by armed groupsseparatists, and jihadists; corruption; and a near-total lack of accountability from government institutions.

Young Nigerians eager for a more effective government than the current one have registered to vote in record numbers, aggrieved by the state’s violence against #EndSARS protesters in 2020 and incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari’s increasing authoritarianism. (Buhari cannot seek reelection for a third term.) Around 84 percent of new voters are under the age of 35. However, the three front-runners happen to be quite advanced in age—and tainted by corruption allegations.

Lagos’s former state governor, Bola Tinubu, 70, leads the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party. He is accused of tax fraud and evasion. Despite denying these allegations, he settled a $41.8 million lawsuit out of court in July. He fought another lawsuit in the 1990s, in which the U.S. government accused him of laundering the proceeds of heroin trafficking and eventually reached a $460,000 forfeiture settlement without indictment.

Atiku Abubakar, 76, who lost to Buhari in the 2019 presidential election, leads the main opposition People’s Democratic Party. Abubakar has denied multiple corruption allegations against him. In 2010, U.S. Senate investigators alleged that his American wife helped Abubakar transport more than $40 million in “suspect funds” into the United States. Meanwhile, Nigerian senators accused him in 2007 of diverting more than $100 million of public money to his own business interests.

Peter Obi, relatively youthful at age 61, is the favorite among young voters. But his candidacy suffered a blow last week when his campaign chief, Doyin Okupe, was convicted of money laundering by a Nigerian high court. Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency charged Okupe in 2019, before he began working for Obi, for violating the country’s money-laundering act.

Most of Nigeria’s problems stem from decades of government neglect. As Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún wrote in Foreign Policy in July, the presidential options “do not inspire confidence” that these problems can be solved. “None of the candidates has laid out credible plans to tackle the insecurity around the country,” he wrote.

Buhari’s successor will inherit these same structural issues. This year, Africa’s biggest oil producer failed to gain from rocketing prices as it struggled to hit OPEC quotas, in part due to large-scale oil thefts and a failure to maintain pipeline infrastructure. With few refineries, Nigeria depends on oil imports for its domestic needs.

Consumer fuel prices are kept artificially low through subsidies, which have proved politically difficult to remove. The cost of maintaining Nigeria’s petrol subsidy could jump from 4 trillion naira this year to nearly 7 trillion naira next year (about $16 billion), according to Nigeria’s finance minister. Tense relations between China, Russia, and the West will bring more difficulties for Nigeria, which relies heavily on Chinese loans and Russian arms but is under pressure from the West.

Meanwhile, conflicts across northern Nigeria have resulted in a hunger crisis and more than 3 million internally displaced people, with 1.3 million more displaced by unprecedented floods. On Dec. 20, gunmen killed at least 38 villagers in northwestern Kaduna state. Observers are worried that parts of the country may also see armed groups violently disrupt next year’s elections. “There has been no time where the accessibility to polls has been this difficult as what we are experiencing,” Idayat Hassan, head of the West Africa-focused Center for Democracy and Development, told The Associated Press earlier this month.

In 2023, presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Zimbabwe could similarly turn into major political flashpoints. Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, who took office after a rigged election in 2018, will be fighting to stay in power amid militia violence. In Zimbabwe, the ruling party has busied itself by locking up rivals: The administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is on the ballot, has jailed key figures from opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change. Overall, Africans will be voting for change—although they may not get it.

Africa’s Election Year Ahead

Saturday, Feb. 25: Nigeria, the continent’s biggest economy, holds presidential and legislative elections.

Saturday, June 24: Elections are scheduled in Sierra Leone, with proposed changes to the electoral system to allow for proportional representation.

Tuesday, Oct. 10: Liberia, Africa’s oldest modern republic, is slated to hold presidential and legislative elections.

Wednesday, Dec. 20: Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

What We’re Watching in 2023

Ethiopia’s tricky peace process. In November, Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a cease-fire deal in Pretoria, South Africa. Fighting has stopped, but stumbling blocks remain in achieving a lasting end to the country’s two-year civil war. Eritrea’s withdrawal from Tigray was not part of the deal, and foreign-policy experts say Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki seeks to wipe out the TPLF, which led Ethiopia during a border war against Eritrea between 1998 and 2000.

Hostilities also remain in Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s home region, Oromia, where the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is accused of killing hundreds of civilians—many of them from the Amhara ethnic group. Adding to this deadly mix, Amhara militias that fought alongside the Ethiopian army in Tigray are also accused of committing atrocities in territorial disputes.

Still, there are positive signs of reconciliation as Ethiopia begins to address the humanitarian crisis in Tigray. Dialogue on territorial claims and the administration of the region should be among Abiy’s top priorities this year.

A famine without a name. It is little surprise that Somalia tops the International Rescue Committee’s 2023 emergency watchlist. More than 40 percent of Somalia’s population currently require or will soon require food assistance after a two-year drought that began in 2020. However, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), the international body responsible for monitoring global hunger, has not yet classified the dire situation a famine.

The Horn of Africa region is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years, with around 7.8 million Somalis affected. A fifth consecutive failed rainy season is expected to push 8.3 million people—half of Somalia’s population—toward extreme hunger by the middle of 2023. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected in May, has worried that declaring a famine would divert international aid from the government’s other priorities, including fighting insurgents.

“Let us be absolutely clear: Famine is already present and killing tens of thousands silently in Somalia,” the Norwegian Refugee Council said in a Dec. 13 statement. Somalia’s crisis is multifaceted—rising violence from the al Qaeda-affiliated extremist group al- Shabab, combined with severe drought conditions, will likely lead to further conflict.

An ISIE agent begins counting ballots at a polling station in Tunis, Tunisia, during parliamentary elections on Dec. 17.

An ISIE agent begins counting ballots at a polling station in Tunis, Tunisia, during parliamentary elections on Dec. 17.

An ISIE agent begins counting ballots at a polling station in Tunis, Tunisia, during parliamentary elections on Dec. 17.YACINE MAHJOUB/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Tunisia’s one-man rule. Tunisian President Kais Saied has ruled the country by decree for over a year after sacking former Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, dissolving parliament, forcing out independent judges, and adopting a new constitution to reduce the parliament’s power. Only 11.2 percent of Tunisian voters participated in Dec. 17 elections in a show of force against Saied’s one-man rule.

The country is on the verge of bankruptcy, which is driving migration to Europe. Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund postponed a board meeting on a loan program for Tunisia that had been scheduled for Dec. 19 because the country’s 2023 budget and spending reforms are not yet finalized.

Opponents have called Saied’s actions a constitutional coup, but there has been silence from global leaders on the power grab. Pro-democracy observers criticized U.S. President Joe Biden’s photo opportunity with Saied at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this month, saying that it sends a message to autocrats across the continent that there are no consequences to seizing power. Amid rising food prices and other inflationary pressures, it is likely Tunisians will eventually take to the streets to protest Saied’s rule.

Rwanda’s chief expansionist. Accused of war crimes at home and of pursuing dissidents abroad, Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s administration is still the fifth-largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions globally—which has an effect on its global image. In Mozambique, Rwandan troops are helping beat back Islamic State-linked insurgents in the northern Cabo Delgado province.

As Jessica Moody wrote in Foreign Policy in November, “Rwanda likely recognizes that through its participation abroad and its upholding of security in Africa, it can make itself indispensable to the very actors in the West who are most likely to critique its human rights practices.”

Meanwhile, Rwanda is pursuing vaccine manufacturing in Africa. Kagame also has ambitions for the country to be a continental leader in civil nuclear power and a hub for Europe’s rejected migrants. At the same time, the president has not been able to image manage rising tensions with neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rwanda continues to deny supporting attacks in Congo’s east by the largely ethnic Tutsi formed M23 rebel group. “The problem was not created by Rwanda, and it is not Rwanda’s problem. It is Congo’s problem,” Kagame said on the sidelines of the U.S.-Africa summit.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg