Peacefulness in Africa deteriorates to worst level in almost a decade

More than half of all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) saw their level of peacefulness deteriorate in 2017. Out of the five countries with the largest deteriorations worldwide, four were in SSA.

SSA’s level of peacefulness, as measured by the 2017 Global Peace Index (GPI) regional score, deteriorated to its worst level since 2008. Although the region recorded notable annual improvements between 2011 and 2013, SSA’s GPI score has been consecutively worsening for the past four years, albeit by different magnitudes.

Despite the fact that the trend for the safety & security and ongoing conflict GPI domains has been improving since 2008, the deterioration in the overall score since this reference year has been driven by a worsening trend in the militarisation domain. The reason behind this becomes clear when we disaggregate these domains by their respective GPI indicators; with access to small arms, military expenditure and UN peacekeeping funding being the ones that deteriorated the most since 2008. Political Terror is another indicator that deteriorated significantly during this time. Notable improvements were however recorded in the indicators for political instability and the deaths from conflict, although the indicator for intensity of conflict has been worsening since 2013.

Although SSA’s global ranking as a region remains unchanged at sixth out of nine regions, it is one of only three regions that saw its score deteriorate across the three GPI domains between 2016 and 2017.

The magnitude of SSA’s deterioration is reflected by the fact that 24 out of 44 countries in the region recorded worse scores in the 2017 GPI than in the 2016 edition – bearing in mind that scores are reflective of data from the year prior. Most importantly, four of the five countries to record the largest worldwide deteriorations this year were SSA countries: Ethiopia, Burundi, Mali and Lesotho. 

Ethiopia suffered the biggest deterioration (both within SSA and globally) as violent demonstrationspartly driven by rising ethnic tensions – led the government to introduce a six-month state of emergency in October 2016. This was reflected in a sharp worsening of the indicators measuring internal peace levels, leading Ethiopia to suffer a 16 rank deterioration: falling from 118th to 134th.

Although SSA’s global ranking as a region remains unchanged at sixth out of nine regions, it is one of only three regions that saw its score deteriorate across the three GPI domains between 2016 and 2017.

In Burundi, the GPI score deterioration was driven by the political crisis triggered by the controversial re-election of Pierre Nkurunziza in July 2015 for a third consecutive five-year term in office. This resulted in major protests that developed into a low-level insurgency, contained only through significant repression and a drift towards authoritarianism.

Mali continues to suffer from a difficult security situation, despite the recapture – with French assistance – of the northern region from Islamist groups in 2013 and a peace agreement signed with an alliance of Tuareg groups in 2015. Mali recorded declines in all three GPI domains, with the worst-performing indicators being political instability and level of violent crime. This is indicative of the difficulties in implementing the 2015 peace deal, coupled with an opposition that has become more vocal since the November 2016 local elections. In addition, there has been a deterioration in the indicator for the number of deaths from internal conflict. This is attributed to the fact that UN peacekeepers and a contingent of French troops remain engaged against West African jihadists and also against groups violating the ceasefire agreement.

Further south, Lesotho’s score deteriorated primarily due to two indicators: relations with neighbouring countries (in this case with regional partners due to a reform programme it has largely failed to implement) and political terror. The country’s internal security issues stem from a failed 2014 coup d’état against the recently re-elected Prime Minister Tom Thabane and the political instability that has followed. The political turmoil worsened following splits in the ruling Democratic Congress party over an alleged corruption scandal.

In contrast, a number of countries in SSA recorded gains in the 2017 GPI. The Central African Republic (CAR) recorded the biggest improvement in the region and the world, as the country continues to emerge from a wave of inter-communal violence. That said, although scores for the number of deaths from internal conflict and political terror have improved, much of the CAR’s remote northern and eastern regions remain under the control of rebel groups, and the overall political situation remains fragile.

In Djibouti, a lower likelihood of violent demonstrations has helped the country recover some of the ground that it lost over the previous two years, as robust economic growth has helped defuse some of the tensions caused by the government’s increasingly authoritarian political stance.

The smooth transition of power in Ghana that followed the December 2016 presidential and legislative elections, is reflected in an improved overall score for the country, which has now risen to the top five most peaceful in the region. At the same time, Sierra Leone, which has recovered from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, also registered improvements in its overall level of peace, ranking third in the region for 2017. Improvements in Rwanda’s overall score are consistent with the country’s well-entrenched democratic institutions, particularly at a time when the country is experiencing sustained economic growth.

In the past two years, the pace of economic growth in Africa has been decelerating while the political space for democratic contestation has been shrinking.

The most and least peaceful SSA countries remain unchanged from last year: Mauritius continues to top the rankings, while South Sudan is firmly at the bottom. Notwithstanding – and despite pockets of violence, alarming levels of famine and prevailing political tensions – South Sudan registered the fourth largest improvement in the region. This, however, can be attributable to a ‘base effect’, itself a reflection of the dire situation the country plunged itself into when it relapsed into armed conflict at the end of 2013 and from which it has been slowly recovering, despite recurrent setbacks.

Overall, the deteriorating trend in peacefulness across the region sheds light on the multiplicity of challenges it continues to face. In the past two years, the pace of economic growth in Africa has been decelerating while the political space for democratic contestation has been shrinking. This comes at a time when labour strikes and boycotts protesting against deteriorating working conditions and perceived lack of democratic accountability have multiplied – as have instances of violent crackdowns on political dissenters.

Finally, the regional dispersion of non-state armed groups remains a source of international concern. In spite of the multinational efforts launched by the Lake Chad Basin countries to fight Boko Haram, or the African Union and French-led operations to combat Islamist armed groups in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, terrorist attacks continue to undermine the security landscape across SSA.