Africa in 2017: Fighting drought, demanding good governance

Coverage of Africa in 2016 gave cause for alarm, and for celebration too. That should continue in 2017 as people across the continent take on monumental political and environmental challenges.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Villagers in drought-stricken southern Africa collect their monthly food aid provided by the United Nations World Food Programme in Bhayu, Zimbabwe, Sept. 14, 2016.

For several years now, it’s been a popular trope of the Western press to make sweeping statements about Africa’s collective future – the continent is tumbling, no it’s rising, or maybe, as The New York Times put it earlier this year, Africa – all 50 some countries and 1.2 billion people of it – is just “reeling.”

In truth, like everywhere in the world, the future you see here depends on where you stand – and where you look.

In 2016, I reported on violence, starvation, and corruption across Africa. I also wrote about a pioneering African astronomer, the continent’s refugee Olympians, and how Africa’s female politicians have set a global model for gender equity in governance.

There was cause for alarm, and for celebration too. Many of those stories – from the ugly to the triumphant to everything in the murky middle between – are likely to continue into the new year. Here are a few stories to watch in Africa in 2017.

The International Criminal Court

The ICC – the global court that prosecutes so-called “crimes against humanity” – has taken a hard knock to its legitimacy this year, largely on account of some of its African members.

In the last three months, three African countries – The Gambia, Burundi, and most importantly, South Africa – have announced that they will withdraw from the court, claiming, as the Monitor’s Peter Ford wrote in October, that the arbiter of the world’s most morally repugnant crimes is troublingly “racist, colonial, and anti-African” because it has almost exclusively investigated and prosecuted Africans across its 14-year history.

The burst of African withdrawals has opened an uncertain new future for the ICC – prior to this, new states had joined onto the court, but none had ever left. Now, Russia has also followed the African example, and the Philippines has said it may soon do the same. But the court itself is also rising to meet the challenge, pursuing new cases in Georgia and likely Afghanistan, promising a future ICC that is more inclusive and global. This year’s African shake up put the court on shaky ground, but if it changes how business is done, it may be exactly what secures the court’s future in the year to come.


During a good year, the Fika Patso Dam in South Africa’s eastern Free State is glossy and blue, deep enough to slosh up against the rolling green hills all around it. When I visited late this year, however, the massive dam was more like a murky puddle, so shallow that a thick layer of dirt and rocks was visible churning just beneath its surface.

For more than a year, taps in this part of South Africa have run completely dry, forcing residents to rely on water trucked in from other parts of the country and massively limiting both commercial and subsistence agriculture here.

Elsewhere in the region, the results of the drought are even more startling – in Malawi, for instance, the drought is widely considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the country’s history, with more than a third of its population in immediate need of food assistance.

Across southern Africa, more than 40 million people are facing severe food insecurity – a crisis that, despite its severity, has frequently been eclipsed by more visible humanitarian disasters elsewhere in the world. 

2017 will mark the third year of this drought, which was touched off by a super-sized El Niño in late 2014. Although El Niño – a periodic warming of the surface water of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that flip-flops weather patterns in much of the world – is natural, experts say that as the climate warms, it’s likely to continue growing more extreme.

This is distressing news for Africa, the world’s poorest and most ecologically fragile continent, but it is also prompting new and innovative thinking on farming and food security that could benefit the world’s poor far beyond African borders. As the drought and its aftershocks continue next year, watch for opportunities to assist with, but also learn from, this crisis.

The end of a political era?

2016 was a wobbly year for many African governments. In South Africa, the African National Congress – which has ruled the country since the end of apartheid in 1994 – suffered a major shock defeat in local government elections, losing control of nearly every major city in the country.

In Zimbabwe, meanwhile, the impassioned YouTube plea of preacher Evan Mawarire touched off the largest protest movement in recent history against the 36-year rule of strongman Robert Mugabe.

Ethiopia’s ruling party, meanwhile, faced the strongest challenge to its rule since it assumed power in 1991, with a protest movement by farmers near the capital eventually engulfing large swaths of the country. And in tiny Gambia, the landing strip of a country buried inside Senegal, President Yahya Jammeh made history twice earlier this month – first for conceding defeat in an election after 22 years of a white-knuckled grip on power, and then for reversing his own concession and vowing not to leave office after all.

If 2016 saw many of the continent’s governments teeter, 2017 could well decide whether or not they fall. Regime change, depending on whom you ask – and what country you’re talking about – could mean hitting the reset button on broken democracies, or it could result in widespread violence and chaos.

But across the continent, many people have made clear that new government isn’t a request – it’s a demand. The only questions are when and under whose rules.

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