Africa Watch

An African perspective on 2014

Ebola dominated Africa’s news

The Ebola crisis, the flight of refugees and chronic conflict and instability dominated the news headlines on Africa in 2014.

These three issues by no means represent a full picture of Africa’s 2014, but to our mind were the most prominent challenges faced by the continent.


The Ebola virus and its consequences dwarfed everything else in Africa. But despite being called an epidemic and even a pandemic by some, the six and a half thousand deaths recorded in West Africa as a result of this horrible disease pale in significance compared to the continent’s real serial killers such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

In 2012, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 1.1 million people in Africa were thought to have died from AIDS-related illnesses while malaria killed 568,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa in that year.

What the Ebola epidemic did was to once again highlight the ineffective health systems of many African states and the vulnerability of Africa’s poor to illnesses and diseases.

It also accentuated Africa’s inability to confront and adequately address home-borne challenges. It strengthened a narrative of Africa being a continent reliant on foreign assistance and intervention, incapable of managing its own affairs.

The consequences of the Ebola epidemic will be felt for generations to come. One can almost feel the despondency in the remark that, “Even more serious – albeit very difficult to quantify – is the effect that Ebola has had on other public health crises.

‘With almost every health facility in the affected countries now dedicated to Ebola, other patients in need are left to fend for themselves. Without doubt, this year the death tolls from HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and maternal mortality will soar.”

The economic impact is also devastating. In a recently concluded assessment by the World Bank it is estimated that the financial impact of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa – the epicentre of the epidemic – could reach US$32.6 billion by the end of 2015 if not arrested soon.

Refugees and boat people

Despite Africa being home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, living conditions and life expectancy of many having increased spectacularly and real income having risen by more than 30% over the last ten years, millions of Africans are still consigned to a life of misery and hardship.

In search of a better life many Africans are prepared to take death-defying risks in attempting to get to Europe.

In 2014 more than 207 000 people crossed the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe – about three times the previous high of about 70 000 in 2011 during the Libyan civil war – but at a terrible cost.

The Mediterranean crossing from African to Europe is described by the UN agency for refugees as “the most lethal route in the world” and in 2014 a record 3 419 people lost their lives attempting it.

The increase in the number of Africans trying to get into Europe is happening against the backdrop of a visible hardening in Europeans’ attitude – complaining that their way of life and standard of living are under threat.

If this trend continues it is likely that governments will respond with stricter measures to stem the flow.

In fact, it is already happening. The British government has announced plans in this regard and the Italian navy is winding down its Mare Nostrum rescue mission.

Italy is the preferred destination by most of the “boat people” from where they migrate to the rest of Europe. In the past 12 months the Italian navy has saved 150 000 people fleeing poverty and war on the African continent.

Despite all the odds the exodus will continue. It will not be easy but a lasting solution urgently needs to be found or this humanitarian crisis could spiral out of control.

Terrorism, civil war, and political instability

The reasons for seemingly never-ending unrest on the African continent are manifold and complex with no region immune to the consequences.

Southern Africa is fortunately the least affected but in some parts of the continent the situations are dire.

In Central Africa civil strife with untold misery to millions continues with little progress recorded towards a permanent solution in the almost forgotten conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). Turmoil and fighting has also again reared its ugly head in the eastern DRC.

President Kabila has promised peace to the people of the eastern DRC but it remains doubtful if the inclusion of opposition members into a government of national unity will have the desired outcome.

In East Africa the situation seems to be worse than a year ago, with Kenya bearing the brunt of the onslaught by splinter jihad groups. In Somalia the back of Al- Shabaab might have been broken, but in retaliation Kenya is now the target of remnants of what is left of Al-Shabaab. It is also clear that on its own the Kenyan security forces will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to thwart the present onslaught.

In West Africa Boko Haram continues to cause mayhem in the north of Nigeria. The government, despite foreign assistance, appears to be unable to register much success with their turnaround strategy. It is likely that a year from now Boko Haram will still be challenging the Nigerian state.

North Africa also seems to be on a slippery slope with no respite in sight.
Mali still staggers under the continued threats and sporadic attacks from jihadists and fundamentalist groups while Libya is advancing towards total anarchy and disintegration, posing the question whether removing Gaddafi was such a good idea after all.

Looking at Libya at the end of 2014, the African Union (AU) and Gaddafi, even in death, might feel vindicated: The AU for strongly arguing in favour of a mediated political transition, leaving Gaddafi with some power in return for significant political reforms; and Gaddafi for correctly predicting the rise of Islamic militancy in Libya.

It is also an ominous sign that Egypt might be on the brink of another implosion, with the United Kingdom and Canada temporarily closing their embassies for security reasons. It would be a body blow for peace and stability in North Africa if the political order in Egypt relapses again.

With 2014 winding down fast, the people of Africa can do little more than just hope 2015 will be an improvement and that the continent will move closer towards realising its true potential.

by Garth Cilliers

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