The world’s second-most populous continent tends to fall off US policymakers’ radar. Between an expansionist China, tumultuous Middle East, and resurgent Russia, Africa is an afterthought for those entrusted with US foreign policy. While understandable, the neglect is shortsighted. Africa is a region of frenetic political changes, many of which have far-reaching implications. As African populations and economies continue growing, so too will the reverberations from the continent.

Each African state faces its unique prospects and challenges heading into the new decade. Nevertheless, there are common themes and transnational trends we may expect to shape the continent in the new year and beyond.

Heightened Geopolitical Competition

In echoes of the nineteenth-century and Cold War, external powers today increasingly view Africa as an arena for strategic competition. Most notably, the global contest between the US and China has taken shape in Africa for years and will likely escalate soon. This contest is ideological, not simply geopolitical: China offers a political-economic model based on authoritarianism and state capitalism, the US one based on democracy and market capitalism.

In many ways, China has the upper hand in Africa. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been building influence in Sub-Saharan African since the 1960s through loans, development aid, and infrastructure projects while US engagement has been much less consistent. China outspends the US in Africa and most likely will continue to do so in the 2020s. Additionally, the CCP’s authoritarian ideology and unscrupulous approach to politics can lend itself to forging ties with African states, many of which are corrupt and less than fully democratic. Tanzania’s president was frank when he explained his preference for Chinese over Western aid: China’s aid is “not tied to any conditions,” by which he meant that human rights abuses, rigged elections, and the like are not considerations for the CCP when it distributes aid, in contrast to Western countries (inconsistent as their record is). Similarly, Chinese businesses operating in Africa don’t face the same hurdles their American counterparts do: Environmental impact studies? The FCPA? Not issues for Chinese firms operating in Africa, many of which are state-owned.

That said, China does not dominate Africa, as some alarmist pundits have claimed. African states act in their own interests, and some show more wariness about ceding sovereignty to China: even the aforementioned Tanzanian president is holding out in talks over a Chinese-funded port. Nor is the US consigned to irrelevance in Africa, even as it fights an uphill battle. The US has comparative advantages, including its soft power. Whether or not Washington can effectively leverage these remains to be seen, however. The US would be wise to start by recognizing that the advantages of its political-economic system are not always self-evident, especially to nations with different cultures, complicated histories with the West, and urgent development priorities. It would be hubristic to assume that the majority of Africans (or people in any part of the world) wish to live in a mirror image of American society. No policy premised on such an assumption could succeed.

Whereas China has maintained a steady presence in Africa throughout the 2000s, Russia has rapidly reemerged as a competitor on the continent over the past two years. Vladimir Putin seeks to reverse the decline in Russian global influence that followed the dissolution of the USSR and sees Africa as an arena to compete with Western powers (if not China as well). Since 2017, Moscow has signed dozens of agreements with African states on trade, development, technological cooperation, and defense—including reported basing agreements. Much like the CCP, Russia presents itself as an alternative to the West, attacking Western states for their colonial baggage and promising African leaders a policy of “non-interference” (a laughable claim belied by the presence of Russian private military contractors in African civil wars and Russian disinformation operations). It remains to be seen whether Russia can deliver on its new pledges to African states, however, especially given Russia’s poor economic forecasts.

The most turbulent geopolitical contest taking place in Africa today is not between great powers but between Middle Eastern rivals. The dramatic split in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that began in June 2017 quickly spilled over the Red Sea and is now shaping local politics and conflicts from the Horn of Africa to Libya. In these regions, Middle Eastern powers—generally aligned along a Saudi-Emirati (and sometimes Egyptian) axis and a Qatari-Turkish axis—are competing with each other for access to bases, investments, and influence over African governments. This zero-sum competition risks compounding instability in fragile African states and empowering Islamist factions in these regions.

2020 Elections

African states tend to lack strong institutions and checks on executive authority. Elections are therefore often high-stakes affairs, serving as an inflection point that determines whether a state descends into conflict or avoids such a fate. Several states face this test in 2020. The small central African nation of Burundi has been teetering on the brink of civil war since a disputed election in 2015, and the UN has warned that government atrocities against opposition supporters could presage a wider conflagration this time around. In neighboring Tanzania, traditionally one of the most stable countries in East Africa, the electoral playing field is highly uneven after five years of efforts by the populist president, John Magufuli, to clamp down on free expression.

The year’s most consequential election will likely be Ethiopia’s. Africa’s second-most populous state has a new reformist prime minister, Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed, who seeks to cement his legacy through a free and fair poll. In the ideal scenario, the election is successful and allows Ethiopia to continue undergoing reforms and develop stronger institutions, becoming a model of a multiethnic and religiously diverse democracy. But Abiy’s reforms have also polarized Ethiopia’s political arena and contributed to rising rates of ethnic violence, including a troubling new trend of attacks on churches and mosques that could spiral into wider inter-religious strife if not addressed. Holding elections in such a tense environment is risky. In the worst case, a contested election would catalyze a multi-sided civil war that would have significant regional ramifications, including on counterterrorism efforts in neighboring Somalia.

The Growth of Salafi-Jihadi Extremism in Weak States

From the coast of Somalia to the deserts of West Africa, al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked groups have grown and strengthened over the past decade by exploiting local grievances and instability. The US and European nations have spent millions of dollars on counterterrorism assistance and conducted scores of airstrikes while hundreds of African soldiers have lost their lives in counterinsurgency operations. Yet the jihadist groups, which constitute part of the global Salafi-jihadi movement, have proven remarkably resilient. There is no purely military solution to defeating such groups, which rely on maintaining strong ties with aggrieved and vulnerable populations to sustain their insurgencies. African governments tend to make matters worse by responding to these insurgencies in a militarized and indiscriminate manner, further driving local populations into the arms of insurgents. Even the most precise US counterterrorism operations can likewise be counter-productive in the absence of a wider strategy.

Salafi-jihadi groups have killed thousands in Africa over the past decade. It is sobering to think this trend will continue in the 2020s, but there is little reason for optimism. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, is mired in a bloody stalemate with US-backed African Union peacekeepers. This stalemate will not last, however, if the peacekeeping force departs as planned in 2021 and hands over the reins to a fledgling Somali state. In northeastern Nigeria, an Islamic State-linked faction of Boko Haram has carved out a proto-state by offering a modicum of governance and stability in a region wracked by a decade of conflict and government neglect. Six years after the French launched a 4,000-man counterterrorism mission in another West African state, Mali, myriad Salafi-jihadi groups remain active there and in neighboring countries. Terror attacks in this Sahel region of West Africa doubled in 2018. Littoral West African states such as Ghana, Benin, and Cote D’Ivoire are on alert as these groups are poised to push further south.

Conflict Over Land and Natural Resources

Land usage conflicts will unfortunately grow more ubiquitous as large swathes of Africa become less habitable due to climate change. Conflict over grazing routes or watering holes between herding communities has always been commonplace in parts of Africa, as well as conflicts between farming and herding communities. Many of these conflicts are rooted in ethnic, clan, or religious identity as well as material concerns, limiting the effectiveness of economic interventions. The religious dimension of such conflicts is particularly concerning, as it can undermine interfaith tolerance and threaten the fabric of fragile societies. In Nigeria’s Middle Belt states, for instance, herdsmen from a Muslim ethnic group are clashing with predominantly Christian farming communities. This contributes to tension and hysteria outside the communities affected by the violence, fueling narratives across Nigeria of an impending religious war that could tear the country in two. To add to the country’s troubles, Nigeria faces intermittent insurrections and high levels of criminal activity in its oil-rich Niger Delta region, insecurity that stems from the environmental destruction and corruption endemic in that part of the country.

Human Migration Challenges

For the reasons explained above—geopolitical competition, extremist insurgencies, inter-ethnic or inter-religious conflict, climate change, and more—many parts of Africa will face instability over the next decade that will create sizeable refugee flows. African states will simultaneously face demographic pressure from rapidly expanding youth populations in the coming years (one need only look at the past few centuries of European history to understand how large numbers of disaffected young men can spell trouble for a society). Many African youths, facing limited economic prospects at home, will naturally seek better opportunities abroad.

As much as African migration across the Mediterranean has become a political flashpoint in Europe, it is African states above all others that must grapple with the challenges of migration and displacement. The number of African asylees and migrants who reach Europe’s shores each year are dwarfed by the number of those who move within Africa. African states host a quarter of the world’s refugees and over one-third of the world’s internally displaced people. Similarly, Africans frequently migrate within the continent in search of economic opportunities. In some instances, this migration is seamless, a natural continuation of generations of inter-communal trade that predates the onset of European colonization and arbitrary borders. In other instances, this migration frays social relations, as evidenced by the uptick in xenophobic violence in South Africa in recent years.

A New Free Trade Agenda

In May 2019, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) went into force, creating the world’s largest free-trade zone in terms of participating countries. The US and EU unsurprisingly applauded the agreement, which some commentators were inclined to see as evidence of the inevitable progress of globalization. Given current global trade trends, however, China will capitalize far more from greater African economic integration than any Western powers. Indeed, Beijing, which had over $200 billion in trade with Africa in 2018, appears to have helped broker the agreement.

At this stage, the AfCFTA exists more on paper than in reality. For all of the talk from African elites and AfCFTA’s Western boosters of a true African common market, this remains a distant vision. Pan-Africanism remains intellectually compelling to many—especially African elites—but nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, clan divisions, and religious tension are more relevant forces in African politics. Last year showed that many African governments still have protectionist impulses, AfCFTA notwithstanding. The continent’s largest economy, Nigeria, abruptly closed its borders in October, just three months after signing the agreement. More ironically, Rwanda, which hosted the summit that spawned the AfCFTA, spent most of the year engaged in a tense border standoff with Uganda that all but killed longstanding trade between the two neighbors.

If the free trade area does begin to materialize in 2020, it will likely fall short of immediate expectations. As others have noted, African leaders clearly overstated the projected near-term benefits of the agreement. There is also a risk that Africa’s smaller economies will get chewed up by the continent’s economic powerhouses in a common market, which could stoke the very nationalist furors that free trade proponents seek to render irrelevant.


In the Western imagination, Africa is often conceived of as a land of underdeveloped rural communities and unspoiled natural beauty. The reality is that Africa is rapidly urbanizing, and the implications are far-reaching. Roughly 40 percent of Africa’s population lives in urban areas. By some estimates, a quarter of the world’s 100 most populated cities will be African by 2050. There is promise and peril in this trend. African entrepreneurs are the first to see this trend’s upside, as evidenced by the growth of African cities as hubs of financial technology. At the same time, urbanization, particularly the poorly planned and unchecked urbanization characteristic of the developing world, can have detrimental effects on the environment, public health, and security.

Western nations have been slow to recognize this new reality in Africa. US foreign assistance remains skewed toward supporting African agricultural sectors. Beijing, on the other hand, touts its recent experience with industrialization (conveniently ignoring the darker chapters of this process) as evidence of the superiority of its development model.

The Future of the Abrahamic Faiths

It feels appropriate to conclude by considering one way that Africa will shape the rest of the world in the coming years. Africa has never been peripheral to Christianity and Islam. The ancient kingdom of Aksum in modern-day Ethiopia was one of the first states to adopt Christianity in the fourth century AD. The same kingdom welcomed the first migration or Hijra of Muslims from Mecca in AD 613, seven years before the Prophet Mohammed and his followers made their way to Medina. Islam had spread throughout much of western African and the East African coast by the late Middle Ages, a history attested to by the Timbuktu Manuscripts in Mali and the coral mosques of Kilwa in Tanzania. By the twentieth century, Africans had become members of nearly every Christian denomination in existence, including new Christian movements founded in Africa.

In contrast to the prevailing trends of secularization in much of the world, religion remains central to African societies in the twenty-first century. Yet in discussions of global religious trends, Africa often gets short shrift. This is all the more baffling given the size of the continent’s faith communities. Nigeria alone has approximately as many Muslims as Egypt and more Christians than Italy. As African populations continue to grow, Africans will shape the trajectories of Christianity and Islam in ever more profound, even if unpredictable, ways.