LONDON - 2020 for Chatham House Africa Programme was as follows:

2020 will be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic. The risks of a devastating health crisis triggered an early response and coordination among African leaders, who also called for global cooperation to overcome the pandemic. Some countries, like South Africa and Rwanda, implemented tight lockdowns early on, while others like Tanzania downplayed the health risks and argued the economic impacts would be worse, allowing the virus to spread through the population.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) has confirmed over 2 million COVID-19 cases across the continent. Despite available data showing relatively higher numbers in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Kenya, Africa has so far been impacted less directly by COVID-19 than other regions, but the economic consequences are devastating.

COVID-19 has thrust many African countries into recession. Oil-based economies such as Nigeria have been particularly badly hit. Mining countries have had mixed fortunes, with gold prices increasing but other commodities such as iron ore seeing significant declines. South Africa, with its mixture of manufacturing, mining and tourism has been badly affected. Tourism-dependent states have also seen their economies suffer.

Tied to this has been a growing unsustainable debt burden. This has resulted in countries such as Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Congo Brazzaville and Chad joining IMF programmes; Zambia is finally following. Talk of a Chinese debt-trap strategy is overstated, although Djibouti’s debt exposure to Beijing might be partly the result of this. One of the big debates for 2021 will be over international forgiveness versus suspension of African debt.

Unlocking economies that provide sufficient, equitable and well-managed growth for a youthful continent of 1.2 billion people remains a key challenge for Africa in the coming years. The hope is that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that commences in January 2021 will create an integrated market and generate jobs.

Prior to the pandemic Africa featured several of the world’s fastest-growing economies and a burgeoning middle class, although some regions remained mired in debt, ravaged by conflict and protest and plagued by elites clinging to power. Such contradictions are to be expected in a diverse geographical area with land mass that would swallow up Europe, US, China and India combined.

Civilian-led reform movements toppled regimes in Algeria and Sudan in 2019, paving the way for ongoing but fragile transitions. Youth-led protests pushing for more accountable government have clashed with state security forces, such as the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria or the November 11 (Independence Day) demonstrations in Angola.

There have also been democratic advances. An independent court in Malawi overturned fraudulent presidential elections, resulting in a rerun that brought opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera to power. The Seychelles voted for an opposition presidential candidate for the first time since independence in 1976, These positive developments and smooth but fiercely contested elections in Ghana offered hope for the health of democracy in Africa.

There were worrying democratic reversals too, including incumbents re-elected as presidents in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire for third terms following controversial redrafting of constitutions, or overtly oppressive and fraudulent elections in Tanzania. Flawed electoral practice in Mali contributed to a military coup which toppled an unpopular government and has introduced an 18-month transitional process.

A year ago, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was lauded as Nobel Peace Prize winner and a reformer, but his military action against the leaders of the Tigray region in November has led to a regional conflict that also involves Eritrea. Resolving persistent conflicts continues to be a top priority for African security, whether in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Over the year countering Islamist-linked terrorism has increasingly dominated Africa’s security agenda, from established networks like al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, to widening threats in the Sahel and the emboldened Islamic State-affiliated efforts in northern Mozambique, also now spilling over into Tanzania.

Africa’s international partners remain engaged, although with some distraction. The UK held its first ever UK-Africa Investment Summit in London in January, which 16 African leaders attended. The AU-EU summit in Brussels was postponed to 2021, and China’s next FOCAC summit is scheduled for 2021 in Dakar.

With the election of Joe Biden in the US, a more active American diplomacy and retained military engagement in Africa can be expected, but with few new resources. It is likely that European nations and the US will seek to shore up bilateral trade across the continent but will also strengthen collective efforts to counter China’s growing presence in Africa. Other countries are looking to expand their influence in Africa as well, such as the Gulf states and notably Russia.

This year the Africa Programme expanded its projects and activities despite COVID-19. In January we celebrated the centenary of Chatham House by co-hosting an exhibition at Bonhams Art Gallery of Africa at Chatham House over the past century. This illustrated the importance of Africa from the creation of the Institute in 1920 and growing African agency and mainstreaming in international affairs as the decades progressed.