Five African stories you may have missed during Egypt's revolt

Street protests in Gabon, a punishing stalemate in Ivory Coast, a coming election in Uganda: there is plenty of news even as Africans remain glued to the Egypt revolt. Some of it may affect the price of your next steaming cup of cocoa.

By , Staff Writer

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    A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, on Feb. 13. Some 4.8 million Chadian voters went to the polls for a parliamentary election on Sunday.
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After 18 days of being glued to their television sets, radios, and smartphones, watching the Egyptian citizenry kick out there long-ruling leader, Africans finally opened newspapers this week to find that there was crucial news closer to home.

Here are five countries to watch closely:

In South Africa, on Thursday, President Jacob Zuma announced a new priority for his government: creating jobs. Meanwhile, a massive trucking strike began on Monday, threatening to bring the retail and manufacturing economy to a halt.

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South Africa is the continent’s strongest and most developed economy, and a natural base for foreign investors interested in getting a foothold in the rapidly growing resource-rich economies of sub-Saharan Africa. But despite this attraction, there are problems that give foreign investors cause for concern.

For one, strikes are plentiful, and strikers enjoy the at-least ideological support of the ANC government, which includes top leaders of the umbrella labor group, Congress of South African Trades Unions (COSATU), in its ruling alliance and in the cabinet of President Jacob Zuma. A country that honors labor rights is good. A country that is regularly brought to a halt over wage issues is harder for investors to love.

Yet, much of the hardest criticism of President Zuma’s pro-jobs program is of the too-little, too-late variety. South Africa has one of the highest disparities between rich and poor citizens in the world, higher even than Brazil. This disparity is highly correlated with race, which makes the divide cultural as well, and thus potentially quite ugly. According to the government’s own agency, StatsSA, black people, who make up 80 of the population, account for 41 percent of South Africa’s income; compared with whites, who make up just 9 percent of the population but account for 45 percent of the nation’s income.

In Gabon, an oil-producing country ruled for 34 years by the same family, street protests by opposition activists and students -- apparently inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypthave put the regime of President Ali Bongo on notice.

Despite the many factors that make Tunisian-style citizen revolts less likely in sub-Saharan Africa, there are plenty of parallels between the strong-arm regimes of Tunisia and Egypt in the north, and of African leaders below the Sahara, and the potential unrest that might call for their overthrow.

But citizen movements in sub-Saharan African countries like Gabon will be fighting with disadvantages, many of them technological. When there are few independent or foreign news organizations covering a country, and citizens' only source of news about their country is state-run television and radio, the Internet becomes an important alternative for citizens to communicate with each other and to share the scraps of information they do manage to find.

But south of the Sahara, Internet penetration – the percentage of the population who use the Internet regularly – is still quite low. It’s just 6.4 percent in Gabon, compared with 21 percent in Egypt and 34 percent in Tunisia. A revolution organized by word of mouth is much easier to control than one that goes viral over Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and the text messages of cellphones.

In Uganda, national elections will be held on Feb. 18, with long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni widely expected to hold onto power. The runup to this election has been peaceful, thus far, but opposition candidate Kizza Besigye has warned Museveni’s ethnic group – the Banyankole – of a widespread anger among other ethnic groups who believe that Museveni has favored his own ethnic group to the exclusion of others.

Uganda has slightly better access to Internet than Gabon, with 9.6 percent of its 33 million people using the Internet regularly, and Ugandan journalists have a slightly stronger tradition of independent and critical coverage of their elected leaders. But experts like Sandra Adong Oder of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria say the regime of President Museveni has effectively neutralized opposition parties and politicized civil society groups, making it difficult for any latent anger to coalesce around any one particular opposition leader or party. (Good to have link to our Weekly story up on website to accompany this story).

Ethnically based rebellions in the north, particularly that of the Lord’s Resistance Army – led by self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony, who faces human rights charges at the International Criminal Court at The Hague – also have strengthened the hand of Museveni, who argues that Uganda needs an authoritarian ruler such as himself in order to prevent ethnic differences from pulling the country apart.

In Ivory Coast, the political stalemate between President-elect Alassane Ouattara and the non-yielding former President Laurent Gbagbo, continues with no signs of resolution.

Elections held in late November found Mr. Ouattara to be the winner of a runoff with Mr. Gbagbo, and most election observers, including those from the United Nations, the African Union, and the European Union, agree that Ouattara’s 54 percent victory over Gbagbo’s 46 percent should make him the country’s leader. But Gbagbo’s supporters – who include the nation’s armed forces and a sizable majority of the citizens in the mainly Christian south of the country, along with the country’s capital of Abidjan – refuse to honor Ouattara’s victory.

For now, violence aimed at Ouattara’s supporters and against independent journalists seems to have abated, and the fight is now over money. Gbagbo seems to have taken control of the Ivory Coast’s central bank, although his access to foreign-held bank accounts has been frozen by much of the West. This week, Ouattara told the Financial Times that he would extend his current one-month-long ban on Ivory Coast’s exports of cocoa, a $4.5 billion business.

Another bit of unwelcome news for the Gbagbo camp: Two banks, Citibank and BNP Paribas, closed their doors on Monday "temporarily," thereby cutting off a major source of cash for Gbagbo.

But the apparent lack of political will for military intervention by either the African Union or the West African economic grouping ECOWAS, and the lack of any sustained mediation by African leaders such as Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Nigerian former President Olasegun Obasanjo, or South African former president Thabo Mbeki, means that any change in Ivory Coast is likely to come from within, and likely after a long, punishing “war” of economic attrition.

Finally, in Chad, there appears to be some good news. Until lately, Chad was a country with a long history of coups, peppered with the occasional raid on the capital by Sudanese-backed rebel groups. But on Sunday, Chad held its first parliamentary elections in eight years. More surprisingly, the elections went smoothly, with no major reports of violence, intimidation, or manipulation.

Chad’s ruling party, the Patriotic Salvation Movement of President Idriss Deby, currently holds a strong majority in parliament. Opposition candidates complain that the ruling party has loaded the candidate list, but European Union election observers say they have seen no irregularities thus far. Perhaps just as important to Chad’s stability is a signed agreement with Sudan, in which Chad agreed to stop funding and supporting rebels in Sudan’s Darfur region if Sudan agreed to do the same with Chadian rebels lurking along the Sudanese border with Chad. That agreement seems to be holding.

Yet the mere holding of elections is just one sign of a healthy democracy. There are others, such as a strong constitution that guarantees the freedom of expression, a vibrant independent news media, and a civil society that allows citizens to express their views without the fear of intimidation and arrest. On this score, according to groups like Human Rights Watch , Chad may still have a long way to go.

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