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An African Spring? Not likely.

By Philippe de Pontet

On Sunday, Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in as the fourth president of Nigeria, guarded by security personnel and shadowed by the country's double-digit inflation. He's not alone. Rising food prices threaten governments across Africa, where food costs consume more than 50 percent of urban dwellers' average incomes. A handful of countries face a heightened risk of unrest as a result, and in a year of multiple elections, incumbents will struggle to cling to power. That said, the intensity of the threat varies widely across the continent, and the widespread upheaval rocking the Middle East isn't in the cards. Here's a cheat sheet for the continent:

  • Nigeria and Uganda: The government is in control. In Nigeria, Jonathan can breathe easy. While inflation could rally the recently defeated opposition and fuel protests in opposition strongholds (in the north and Lagos), it won't fundamentally threaten the administration. The elections provided both legitimacy for Jonathan and space for the opposition, creating a release valve for discontent. The Ugandan government is probably safe, too, despite the bloody opposition-fueled protests that have plagued it since it swept the country's national elections in February. President Yoweri Museveni will enact his usual mix of repression and co-option well before Uganda becomes the poster child for any African spring.

  • Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Madagascar: grumbling from soldiers. Governments are feeling the heat in countries where public-sector wage demands (including from the military) are intensifying­, but where the funds and political will to satiate them are missing. Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Madagascar are in this unlucky category. In gold-rich Burkina Faso, the presidential guard recently "mutinied" in a bid for housing allowances, touching off wage riots that encouraged President Blaise Compaoré to dissolve his cabinet. The cash-strapped governments of Guinea and Madagascar face potentially restive militaries, too, and each has a history of deposing heads of state in lean times. Madagascar, with fresh elections on the horizon, is the bigger risk because political crisis has roiled the country ever since former President Marc Ravalomanana was overthrown in 2009. Guinea's new president, Alpha Condé, meanwhile, has taken steps to consolidate his rule, including over the once-dominant military.
  • Sudan: the continent's big risk. Sudan is on the grave end of the risk spectrum. Steep inflation (17 percent and rising) comes just as the south's looming independence, on July 9, threatens to sap President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's administration in Khartoum. As the Sudanese currency continues to tank, inflation could be the spark that unleashes latent discontent with the administration. Moreover, with long-standing cultural and political ties to Egypt, Sudan is arguably the North African country most susceptible to contagion from the Middle East. If protests do break out, the chief risk will be a heavy-handed government crackdown that ignites further instability.
  • Incumbents at risk. If prices continue to soar, opposition-fueled agitation could also swing a few of the continent's elections against incumbents, especially where races are tight, as in Zambia, Senegal, and Ghana. In countries where elections are rigged, such as in the DRC and Cameroon, incumbents will still "win," but unrest will likely bubble up in the cities.
  • Stability in the sub-Sahara. Countries that have basic democratic institutions, competent militaries, and diversified economies are of course far less vulnerable to regime-threatening upheaval. This is the case in most of the sub-Sahara, where inflation will stir up policy conundrums and at times protests, but won't shake administrations.

Philippe de Pontet is head of Eurasia Group's Africa practice.

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