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Africa in 2011: Getting out the vote

By Eurasia Group's Africa practice

Over the next couple of weeks, The Call will be detailing our political and economic expectations for regions around the world. First up: Africa.

The big story in Africa next year will be elections. In total, Africa will hold 17 presidential contests; a range of local, regional, and parliamentary votes; and a referendum on independence in southern Sudan. Not all political actors will seek legitimacy via the ballot box or play by the rules, but this high number of elections highlights the continent's momentum toward democratization.

Elections in Africa often generate uncertainty -- by intensifying power struggles among elite factions, between reformist and hard-line elements, and between incumbents and the opposition. Nigeria's election in April 2011 is likely to be the continent's most hard-fought. A bid by current President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, to secure the ruling party's nomination for another term threatens to upset the delicate power balance between the country's north and south and to derail crucial oil and power-sector legislation.

Zimbabwe is at a crossroads. Political reforms -- including a constitutional referendum -- are stalled. The landmark power-sharing agreement between President Robert Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) expires in February 2011, but the timing of elections is still uncertain. ZANU-PF will go all out to avoid another power-sharing pact, but a disputed election is possible. If Mugabe can hold elections in early 2011, ZANU-PF has a good chance of retaking sole power, which would kill Zimbabwe's tentative rapprochement with Western nations and seriously dampen its prospects for economic recovery. A postponement (perhaps until 2012) would ensure a more credible process and give the MDC a decent chance. In the meantime, the election battle will heighten economic policy risks.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the administration of President Joseph Kabila will likely rig the voting in late 2011 to ensure his reelection. But one challenger, Vital Kamerhe, could pose a limited threat if the government allows him to run. On the economic side, management of resources is expected to improve incrementally, especially at the central bank, the finance ministry, and donor coordination bodies.

Although Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni is likely to win reelection outright in February (perhaps thanks to his newly displayed musical talents), challenger Kizza Besigye may force a runoff. Uganda's imminent oil wealth has ratcheted up the political stakes and could darken prospects for a peaceful election. But despite complaints from the opposition about election rigging, the international community will likely accept the results, and the status quo will prevail. This will reassure investors in East Africa's next oil-producing state. But the combination of a relatively competitive election, the potential for violence, and looming oil windfalls could each make Uganda harder to govern.

A different type of vote, southern Sudan's referendum on independence, is likely to generate the most media attention in early 2011. Despite logistical challenges, the referendum is almost certain to take place -- though with minor delays -- and a vote in favor of independence is a foregone conclusion. But the separation may be difficult to effect. During the six-month transition period before statehood and a final agreement on oil revenue sharing, borders and citizenship rights must be negotiated. The contested region of Abyei, which has its own referendum, could become an early flash point.

This post was written by analysts in Eurasia Group's Africa practice.

PETER MARTELL/AFP/Getty Images

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