Sub-Saharan Africa

In the next five years, Sub-Saharan Africa will become more populous, youthful, urban, mobile, educated, and networked. Projected rates of population growth for the region are the world’s highest and, with no likely imminent changes to the longstanding gender inequality issues that are largely driving high fertility, the sheer scale of the population increase will strain food and water resources, health care capacity, education, and urban infrastructure. These conditions will also generate increased migration outflows where economic growth is insufficient to support the population. As a result, a young, urban, and networked population will become the engine of economic and political dynamism, despite the waning of the geopolitical and economic trends that fueled the region’s strong performance in the past decade. At the same time, a growing population of educated and urban youth will strengthen existing trends of religious affiliation and of protests fueled by dissatisfaction with corruption, rising inflation, high unemployment, and poor government performance. In such conditions, complex security problems will mount, ethnic tension escalate, and religious extremism, particularly radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, will spread even further.

The region is likely to suffer from insufficient economic growth and job creation, putting a premium on good governance and further overwhelming the abilities of most governments, very few of which have implemented policies and have infrastructure—or the educated workforces—to secure “demographic dividend” economic growth by adding productive new workers. Chinese demand for commodities—a windfall for African exporters in recent years—will moderate as China’s economy cools, and aid flows may decline as developed countries’ economies remain weak and growing humanitarian needs elsewhere compete for donors.

  • Mass mobilization, urbanization, and religious affiliation. Given the expansion of democracy—there are more democratically elected governments in Africa today than since decolonization in the early 1960s—African publics will increasingly use protests and political action to shape government policy and drive societal change. Nevertheless, some experts warn that democracy has stalled or even reversed; the majority of these young democracies remain weak, and corrupt and badly fractured states—including the latest addition, South Sudan. The process of democratic deepening in the medium and longer term will rely on the success of a growing number of assertive civil society organizations in challenging election results, unpopular economic policies, overzealous security agencies, human rights abuses, and unwanted constitutional amendments. In this regard, Africa’s growing urban populations become crucial to democratization because the vast majority of civil society organization members will live in cities.
  • Rapid urbanization is also likely to stress marginal infrastructure, however, and this will combine with the increased visibility of corruption to fuel public frustration with governments’ failures to provide services. First-generation city dwellers tend to be more religious than subsequent generations, and urbanization will boost religious affiliation, possibly giving rise to religion-based conflict. Urbanization can also boost public participation in governance, potentially raising tension between political groups or serving as an engine of nation building that helps blend Africa’s mosaic of ethnicities and religions. These divergent possibilities highlight the importance of sustaining African-driven good-governance efforts through regional and subregional institutions such as the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the East African Community, and the South African Development Community.

Complex Security Threats. Although significant efforts have been made to confront willful destruction by groups such as al Shabab, Boko Haram, ISIL, Ansar al Shari’a, and Al Qa’ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, African governments will continue to grapple with the asymmetric threats posed by rebels and extremist groups. Many national and regional militaries almost certainly will lack funding, personnel, and training to deal with such challenges, especially because rebels and terrorists can acquire weapons and other resources easily from international networks across the many porous African borders. Africans will continue to contribute troops to international and regional peacekeeping, but some of these well-intentioned operations are ad hoc mechanisms being used to address complex security threats, facing an uphill task under mandates that blur peacekeeping, stabilization, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, atrocity prevention, and state building. Some troop contributing countries probably will continue to rely on multilateral peacekeeping missions to train and fund their militaries, but recent acknowledgment that peacekeeping forces sometimes commit atrocities themselves may undermine some multilateral engagement.

  • Radicalization. Most of Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to reject violent and radical ideologies, but those who embrace such movements are increasingly capable of disruption and widespread messaging, in part through use of social media. Radical groups, with their promises of purposeful opposition to the government and cash rewards, will appeal to some of the disenfranchised. For example, Christian militias have driven tens of thousands of Muslims to flee their homes in the Central African Republic as opposition groups vie for power. The quality of state responses to these challenges will be crucial. Military and extrajudicial responses—as seen in West and East Africa—will only complicate and heighten the trend. Better results are likely from deescalatory measures, improved state capacity in intelligence gathering and analysis, judicial transparency, political decentralization, community policing and development, and youth engagement and employment initiatives that would drastically reduce extremist groups’ recruiting pools.
  • Slowing Demand. Most Many of Africa’s economies will remain vulnerable to swings in global commodity prices and Chinese and Western demand. Most African commodity exporters are not sufficiently diversified to withstand a rout in commodity prices, although some African countries that are not commodity producers instead benefit from low prices. After 15 years of unprecedented growth rates, African economic growth slowed to 3.8 percent in 2015, largely because of weakening Chinese and other demand for commodities such as copper, oil, and gas. Nigeria and Angola—the region’s biggest oil exporters and accounting together for roughly a fifth of Africa’s population—were hard-hit and could take years to develop non-oil revenue sources. That effort would probably force both governments to cut spending, potentially including education and other programs needed to prepare their large youth populations for employment in the modern global economy.
  • Environmental, ecological, and health risks. Most Africa’s mosaic of savannahs, forests, grasslands, deserts, and freshwater resources, its millions of people and countless ecosystems face severe threats from natural as well as human-induced environmental change. Many of these challenges transcend national borders and individual states’ capacities and require coordinated multinational action, but the troubled states involved probably will not view environmental and human health issues as their most-pressing priorities.
  • Pressures from populations and grazing livestock and loss of arable land, Most coupled with recurrent droughts and floods, will drive further degradation of soil fertility and vegetation cover in the region. Desertification threatens Sub-Saharan Africa more than any other region in the world, and deforestation—progressing in the region at twice the world rate—adversely affects habitats, soil health, and water quality, particularly in Central Africa. An estimated 75 to 250 million people in Africa will face severe water stress, which will likely lead to migration. Uncontrolled burning, wood and charcoal cooking, industrialization, and widespread use of leaded gasoline contribute to greatly polluted air, while waste management is uniformly poor across the continent.
  • Despite great strides in raising global public awareness of the critical human threats to wildlife—particularly elephants and rhinos—huge profits for criminals continue to drive poaching and illicit trafficking and nudge them closer to extinction. The rich fisheries off the West African coasts are being rapidly depleted by commercial and illegal fishers. Intensifying pig and poultry farming contributes to emergent zoonotic diseases that pose economic and health risks to Africans and in some cases to the rest of the world.

The political effects of these trends will vary considerably across the 49 countries, with some moving towards decentralization while others experiment with Rwanda-style centralization and authoritarianism. Most leaders will remain transactional and focused on political survival rather than political or economic reform. The generational transition in politics that many African countries will undergo in the next five years will be a telling indicator of future security and stability, with those that maintain the status quo risking instability and those that let power pass to the next generation probably better equipped to manage the technology- and development-induced changes to come. These transitions are also likely to play into ethnic divisions, heightening the possibilities for conflict.

  • Investment in human capital—especially for women and youth—and in institutions that foster human development and innovation will be critical to the region’s future prospects. The expansion of the region’s middle class, the dramatic improvement in life expectancy in the past two decades, the vibrancy of civil society, the spread of democratic institutions and a democratic ethos, and the decline in the incidence of HIV/AIDS all point to the many positive possibilities that exist in Africa.

Geopolitical Relevance of Region in Next Five Years: Competition in Governance. In the next five years, Sub-Saharan Africa will remain a zone of experimentation and influence for governments, corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and individuals seeking to improve Africa’s development conditions and eventual access to its markets. Most African countries will focus on internal issues as they struggle to consolidate gains of the past 15 years and to resist the geopolitical and economic headwinds that threaten them. The flow of economic migrants out of Africa will increase if job prospects remain insufficient amid slowed global growth rates and as rural environmental stresses and rapid population growth swell urban populations. Security and counterterrorism activity will increase in the region in the near term as militant Islam and Christian extremism continue to spread into regional enclaves and even some cities.

The region may well become an arena of geopolitical and resource competition as political elites make different governance choices. Increasing religious affiliation in many parts of Africa may encourage pushback on some liberal norms and institutions, reflecting current misgivings about international liberalism and resentment of the West for imposing its morality on Africa.

  • The weakness of formal political institutions in many African states suggests that vacillation between democratic and authoritarian politics will persist, particularly as international engagement wanes, risking large-scale political instability. US and Western retrenchment from Africa will be of particular concern in light of the relative expansion of China’s influence, but China’s role in the region remains uncertain. Economic strength and interest in African resources have made China an important source of funding for infrastructure, and significant commercial investments by Chinese companies contributed to Beijing’s clout in the region, but the recent cooling of Chinese demand for raw materials—and Chinese firms’ poor reputation as employers—may dilute this influence. Russia has not been a significant player in Africa since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is unlikely to have the capacity or desire to engage in a significant way. European policy is likely to be limited by economic constraints but could find increased aid a cost-effective way to help abate the flow of migrants.
  • The international human rights agenda in Africa will almost certainly weaken, with realist calculations offsetting normative impulses in Europe and North America. African leaders will continue to see the International Criminal Court as biased against Africans and may be more assertive in rejecting the Court.
  • Electricity generation and technologies that leapfrog brick-and-mortar infrastructure—such as 3D printing, which could obviate the need for many large-scale manufacturing plants—hold the promise of significant economic benefits and will attract significant public and private interest. Investment in basic infrastructure will be critical to economic growth, and the potential returns to well-managed infrastructure investments are high, given Africa’s strong growth potential compared to other regions. An environment of low yields elsewhere could make Africa attractive for foreign investors, potentially improving economic and political fortunes across the continent.

Other Considerations. Africa’s population will be the world’s fastest growing in the next five years. Fertility rates have declined slower than many demographers anticipated, decreasing from 5.54 children per woman in 1995 to 4.56 in 2015. The overall drop may reflect the relative success of the UN Millennium Development Goals, especially in the areas of women’s health and education. The central regions of Africa will remain among the world’s most-youthful and the most at risk for violence and instability if opportunity and governance are insufficient.

  • Development conditions, which have improved significantly in the past 15 years, probably will stall or even deteriorate if the continent fails to reduce corruption and to develop capacities for political and microeconomic policymaking in its difficult geopolitical and economic environment. Issues related to persistent poverty are the most pressing problem for Sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy at birth in Africa is 60 years, a significant improvement from two decades ago but still the world’s lowest. Lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and health infrastructure increases the risk of rapidly spreading communicable diseases that range from intestinal parasites to Ebola. Despite substantial gains in mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDS made with international aid, 19 million Africans still live with the virus, more than in any other region. Beyond HIV/AIDS, other indicators highlight the continent’s continued public-health fragility. Maternal mortality rates have declined recently but remain high, and health outcomes for children under five years are even worse: in 2015 alone, 5.9 million children under age five died, a rate of almost 16,000 per day; 83 percent of those deaths were caused by infections, neonatal complications, or nutritional status.
  • The progress made against HIV/AIDS and the eventual containment of the 2014 West Africa Ebola breakout spotlight the potential for further health gains in through partnerships between African states and the international community. Sub-Saharan Africa has become the world’s central health strategy proving ground, with major aid agencies concentrating their efforts against many disease fronts. The operational footprint of these initiatives spans dozens of national governments and numerous international agencies and NGOs and affects millions of Africans. Managing and implementing these operational networks will be a prime test of responsible, effective governance for African governments and their development partners.
  • Africa will drive the global pace of rural-to-urban migration. Some African cities have tried to limit movement to metropolitan areas, citing concern about infrastructure and capacity, but others recognize the potential benefits of urbanization, and the trend will continue largely unabated. For example, Accra, Ibadan, and Lagos have formed an urban development corridor to link commerce in those three cities, creating opportunities for growth that, in turn, can generate jobs. By 2020, Lagos (14 million people) and Kinshasa (12 million) will be larger and more congested than Cairo. In many African countries, even what are now small trading centers will grow into cities. Nigeria, for example, will soon have 100 cities of more than 200,000 inhabitants.
Infographic - Nigeria's Population Projection of 293,965,000 in 2035

aEstimates for religious affiliation are based on data from the World Religion Database and are rounded to the nearest one-tenth of a percent.

bTotal Fertility Rate is the projected average number of children born to a woman if she lives to the end of her childbearing years.

Note: Demographic data is presented for countries estimated to have the largest population in each region in 2035.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Pitched Contests for Democratization Through 2022 (12 MB) new 512