On Sunday, 20 March, voters in five African countries cast their ballots, including four presidential elections and a constitutional referendum. Incumbents in Niger and Republic of Congo are expected to sail to re-election, while Benin’s presidential election run-off vote is less certain.
Below is a look at the contests:
Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi is stepping down after the maximum of two terms in office, effectively enhancing the West African country’s democratic credentials. Sunday’s election was between the current Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou and businessman Patrice Talon, who was once accused of trying to poison the outgoing president, an allegation he denies. Prime Minister Zinsou, who quit his job as the head of one of Europe’s biggest investment banks when he was nominated prime minister last year, is the leading contender. The 61-year-old candidate for Boni Yayi’s Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) has the support of the majority of lawmakers in parliament via the backing of two main opposition groups. During the first round of voting, on 6 March, Zinsou won 27.1 percent of the vote, with Talon, a 57-year-old entrepreneur who made his money in cotton and running Cotonou’s port, coming in second with 23.5 percent. However since then, 24 of the 32 other candidates who stood in the first round of the election have come out in support of Talon, including third-placed Sebastien Ajavon, who won 22 percent of votes.
Polls opened at 7:00 AM (0600 GMT), with 4.7 million people eligible to cast their ballots. Voting was to close at 4:00 PM (1500 GMT). Voting on Sunday passed off calmly, with no major incidents reported.
On Monday, 21 March, Benin Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou conceded defeat to businessman Patrice Talon in the presidential elections. He conceded after early results overnight indicated that Talon won 64.8 percent of the vote, against 35.2 for Zinsou.
- Youth Unemployment – The 15 – 34 age group makes up some 60 percent of the country’s working population. Officially, the unemployment rate is under 4.0 percent, however with 85 percent of works in the informal sector of the jobs market, the figure does not reflect reality. With few jobs available, many university graduates end up driving motorbike-taxis that are increasingly found everywhere in the West African country. Zinsou has promised to create 350,000 jobs by 2021, especially for the young and women, while Talon has pledged to take steps in order to encourage job creation in the private sector.
- Corruption – When President Boni Yayi first took office in 2006, he had vowed to stop endemic corruption in several key sectors, including in the port in Benin’s commercial hub, Cotonou, and the cotton industry. However his two terms in office have been marked by several embezzlement and bribery scandals. In 2010, the head of state ws implicated in a major savings scandal in which thousands of Beninese lost money. The construction of a new national assembly building in the administrative capital Port Novo has also taken millions of dollars however it has never been finished. Furthermore, last year, the Netherlands suspended aid to Benin after four million euros, which were earmarked for drinking water schemes, disappeared.
- Health and Education – Benin, which has a population of 10.6 million, is considered by the World Bank to be a low-income country with poor ratings in both the health and education indicators. Free primary school education has been seen as a positive from Boni Yayi’s presidency, even if subsidies do not always reach schools. Furthermore, President Boni Yayi also created a universal scheme to open up access to healthcare to the poorest in society via an average monthly subscription of 1,000 CFA francs (1.5 euros). The scheme however is not yet up and running. Prime Minister Zinsou has promised that he will make development a key priority, including helping the 100,000 poorest families and improving medical infrastructure.
- Major Port in Benin – The port accounts for almost half of the country’s tax receipts and more than 80 percent of customs tariffs. It handles some 90 percent of the country’s overseas businesses and sells itself as a transit port for neighbouring Nigeria to the east and surrounding countries, such as Burkina Faso and Niger. Major infrastructure work has been carried out, including the construction of a new quay, which allows it to handle twice as many containers in 2014 as it did in 2008. A computerized management system of truck arrivals and departures has also been put in place as well as a single counter to handle all transactions, effectively helping to streamline procedures and cut graft. However waiting times remain long due to a lack of available space and the new checks. Accoridng to sources, ships often wait up to a week before offloading, with some opting to go to Lome in neighbouring Togo, brining in the containers by lorry, which is quicker. The port of Tema, in Ghana, is also a main competitor for business.
The election in Niger effectively pits incumbent president Mahamadou Issoufou against opposition figure Hama Amadou, who has been in prison since November 2015 on charges, which critics say are politically motivated. President Issoufou is campaigning on his credentials in the fight against Islamic militancy. His opponent left the country late last week to seek medical treatment in France for an unspecified ailment.
Voting on Sunday ended in Niger with President Mahamadou Issoufou the likely winner of the election. Throughout the day, security forces were posted at polling stations. They also patrolled the streets of Niamey and monitored the city’s main intersection. As polling stations closed in the early evening and elections workers began counting ballots, observers disclosed that there were no major incidents that had been reported, adding that voter turnout had been low. Provisional results are due to be released in the next few days.
Republic of Congo
President Denis Sassou N’Guesso, 72, who has been in power for more than 30 years, is seeking another term in office after he organized a constitutional referendum that effectively removed the an age limit that would have disqualified him from running again. The run-up to the October referendum was marred by violence, and mobile phone service was blocked in the country.
On 19 March, authorities in Republic of Congo announced a 48-hour communications blackout for Sunday’s presidential election. On Saturday, a government source disclosed that all communications would be cut on Sunday and Monday, by order of the authorities in order to avoid “illegal publication” of the results. A letter from interior minister Raymond Mboulou to the country’s phone companies disclosed that “for reasons of national security, please block all communications including SMSs from March 20 and 21.” The government source added that the move would not affect the voting process and would “in no way hinder the opposition’s access to the results.”
On Sunday, voting began under a media blackout, in a tense ballot that is expected to see President Denis Sassou Nguesso prolong his 32-year rule. Polling stations opened promptly at 7:00 AM (0600 GMT), with on the ground sources reporting that voters lined up quietly outside in the capital Brazzaville. The polls closed at 6:00 PM (1700 GMT). Tensions later broke out with riot police using tear gas to disperse 200 opposition supporters who were trying to get into a polling station. According to on the ground sources, dozens of heavily armed police fired tear gas at the supporters of opposition candidate Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas and chased them away from the polling station in the south of the capital Brazzaville.
Senegal is voting on a constitutional referendum, which proposes fifteen reforms that would make sweeping changes. In contrast with many African leaders, Senegalese President Macky Sall is asking voters to shorten the country’s presidential term from seven years to five. The proposed changes also call for a strengthened National Assembly, better representation for Senegalese abroad, and greater rights for the opposition in national elections.
Voting began on Sunday at 0800 GMT and ended at 1800 GMT, with up to five million Senegalese voting in the election. Technical problems with producing voter ID cards however will prevent 200,000 from exercising their democratic rights. According to Doudou Ndir, the head of the country’s election watchdog, turnout was slow early on, with only 10 percent of votes cast by 11 AM. Activity however was likely to pick up in the afternoon. The results are no expected to be released until later this week.
Voters are casing ballots in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. The opposition parties have called for a boycott of the election. Zanzibar’s vote is a re-run of an October ballot, which the main opposition parties say runs counter to Zanzibar’s electoral laws.
On Sunday, voting began with tight security. Polling stations opened on time at 7:00 AM (0400 GMT), with votes lining up peacefully. Turnout however was expected to be low in opposition strongholds after the Civic United Front (CUF) urged its supporters not to participate. The Zanzibar Election Commission (ZEC) indicated that there had been no delays in the delivery of ballot boxes and papers and said both local and African observers were in place, although those from the EU had stayed away. Polls closed at 4:00 PM (1300 GMT) with results expected as early as Monday.
On Monday (8 February), African forces began a US-led counter-terrorism training programme in Senegal, which is aimed at what a US commander said were rising signs of collaboration between Islamist groups across northern Africa and the Sahel region.
The annual “Flintlock” exercises began only weeks after an attack in Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou, which left thirty people dead. The assault on the hotel used by foreigners raised concerns that militants were expanding from a stronghold in northern Mali, towards stable, Western allies, such as Senegal. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters claimed responsibility for the attack, which is just one of several increasingly bold regional strikes that have occurred in the Sahel region. Speaking to reporters on Monday, US Commander for Special Operations Command Africa Brigadier General Donald Bolduc indicated that increased collaboration between militant groups effectively meant that they have been able to strengthen and strike harder in the region. According to General Bolduc, “we have watched that collaboration manifest itself with ISIS becoming more effective in North Africa, Boko Haram becoming more deadly in the Lake Chad Basin (and) AQIM adopting asymmetrical attacks…against urban infrastructure.” He further noted that cooperation has increased as the so-called Islamic State (IS/ISIS) group exploited a power vacuum in Libya to expand its self-declared caliphate, which takes up large areas in Syria and Iraq. He added that “we know in Libya that they (AQIM and ISIS) are working more closely together. Its more than just influence, they (AQIM) are really taking direction from them.” He also stressed the importance of regional cooperation and intelligence-sharing, adding that the United States would help Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria set up a joint intelligence center by the middle of next year. The US already supports a regional task force against Nigerian-based terrorist group Boko Haram. However not all security experts agree that there are emerging alliances between Islamist militant groups, with some arguing that competition between groups has led o more attacks.
This year’s programme, which opened on a dusty airstrip in Senegal’s central city of Thies, involves around 1,700 mostly African special operation forces. Western partners are also participating in the programme, including forces from France and Germany, which are amongst more than thirty countries that are participating. The attacks in Ouagadougou, coupled with a hotel attack in the Malian capital of Bamako in November 2015, have led to a greater emphasis on preparing for urban attacks this year through training to increase cooperation between police and military forces. At the request of African partners, this year’s exercises will also include anti-Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) training. The programme, which has been an annual event since 2005, will run from 8 February until 29. Some exercises will also be held in Mauritania.
On Tuesday, the ambassadors of France and the United States issued separate statements calling for tighter regional and global cooperation to fight the threat of jihadist attacks in Senegal and the broader West Africa region. In the wake of two successive attacks in the past few weeks, which saw the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso being targeted, Senegal’s Interior Minister Abdoulay Daouda Diallo disclosed that “the surge of terrorist groups shows the international community must fight terrorism everywhere with the same combativity.”
Speaking at talks on a four-year French funding plan against terrorism, he added that the only way forward was to “strengthen our cooperation” and “share our means.” France’s ambassador to Senegal, Jean-Felix Paganon, who attended the meeting, stated that cooperation in the fight against the Islamist threat “calls for regional and international cooperation.” Meanwhile in a separate meeting with the media, US ambassador James Zumwalt stated that “the Senegalese are very eager to partner with us and work with us because they obviously are concerned about the possibilities of terrorist incidents and also worried about radical extremism here in Senegal.” He added that “the threat is no greater now than it was before the attack in Burkina Faso, it’s the same thereat. And the Senegalese capability is the same capability that they had before.” The US ambassador also indicated that “there’s more awareness now about those threats and we clearly want to work very closely with Senegal to help them increase their capacity to respond, either pre or post attack, to a terrorist incident.” An upcoming three-week joint military exercise between Africa, US and European troops, known as Flintlock and due to begin in Senegal and Mauritania next week, will aim to help a country respond to an Islamist attack. Senegal, like Mali and Burkina Faso – which were hit by deadly Islamist attacks in November and January respectively – is a majority Muslim nation however it has so far been free of extremist jihadist attacks. However a Senegalese security source has disclosed that in November, around a dozen people, including several Muslim preachers, were arrested in the country for “links to AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and Islamic State.”
On 15 January, gunmen launched an attack on two hotels and a café popular with foreigners in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou, leaving thirty, mostly foreigners, dead. In November, militants launched a similar attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali. Both attacks were claimed by AQIM.
Military officials reported on Monday that two female suicide bombers suspected of belonging to the Boko Haram militant group blew themselves up on Monday near a mosque in Cameroon’s Far North province.
While officials have disclosed that it was not immediately clear if the explosions caused other fatalities, sources are reporting that Boko Haram militants are likely to be behind the latest attack.
Meanwhile in Senegal, officials disclosed on Monday that they have arrested five people suspected of having links to Boko Haram – a development that could mark a significant expansion of the militant group’s operations. According to a senior justice ministry official, the five were arrested last month in the suburbs of Senegal’s capital city Dakar and in the central town of Kaolak, more than 2,500 km (1,500 miles) from the militant’s base in northeastern Nigeria. The official has disclosed that “we believe those arrested have ties with Boko Haram,” adding that a judge charged them on Friday with alleged relations with a terrorism organization, financing of terrorism and money laundering.
In the days leading up to 14 December, there has been a total of 18,603 confirmed, probable and suspected cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) that have been reported in five affected countries: Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone and the United States; and three previously affected countries: Nigeria, Senegal and Spain. There have been 6,915 reported deaths. Reported case incidence in Guinea is fluctuating and is on the decline in Liberia. In neighbouring Sierra Leone, there are signs that the increase in incidence is beginning to slow. The case fatality rate in the three intense-transmission countries remains at 70%.
In the week leading up to 14 December, a total of 76 new confirmed cases were reported. Since September, the national trend in case reporting across Guinea has been fluctuating, with between 75 and 148 confirmed cases reported each week. World Health Organization (WHO) officials have reported that currently, there is no clear upward or downward trend in national case incidence.
Transmission remains high in the capital city of Conakry, which reported 18 confirmed cases in the week leading up to 14 December. EVD transmission remains high in the neighbouring district of Coyah, with 14 confirmed new cases. South of capital city, in Forecariah, officials have reported a surge in new cases, with 13 new confirmed cases in the past week. The district had reported its first case 12 weeks ago and until now, had reported no more than 4 confirmed cases each week.
Transmission remains persistent in the eastern district of N’Zerekore, with 6 new confirmed cases reported in the week leading up to 14 December. The district of Dubreka reported 3 confirmed cases, while new cases continue to be reported in the outbreak’s epicentre of Gueckedou (2 confirmed cases); Kerouane (5 confirmed cases) and Lola and Kouroussa (2 confirmed cases in each district). In the past week, Macenta reported only three confirmed cases, a sharp decline from the 15 cases that were reported in each of the two previous weeks. WHO officials however have warned that it remains too early to draw conclusions whether this decline in reporting in this district will be sustained. After reporting last week its first case since June, Telimele reported 5 new confirmed cases. While the districts of Kindia and Faranah did not report any new confirmed cases, officials in these two districts reported 21 and 12 probable cases respectively. The northern district of Siguiri reported 4 probable cases. This area requires continued vigilance, particularly due to its proximity to Mali.
Officials in the Guinean capital of Conakry have banned all public Christmas and New Year celebrations in a bid to curb the spread of EVD. A statement issued by Conakry governor Soriba Sorel Camara on 16 December indicated that “large-scale gatherings in public places are suspended for the moment,” adding “beaches will remain closed” and firecrackers and fireworks will also be banned. The capital city’s governor has appealed to residents to “refrain from anything” that would compromise efforts to contain the spread of Ebola. This means avoiding “all gatherings in markets, bus stations, ferry landing stages, hospital and the airport.”
At the national level, case incidence in Liberia has been on the decline, with 6 districts reporting new confirmed or probable cases in the week leading up to 14 December.
Transmission remains intense in Montserrado, which includes the capital Monrovia. The district reported 3 confirmed cases and 9 probable cases. Grand Bassa experienced a decline in cases, reporting only one confirmed case after having reported 7 in the previous week. The other districts to report confirmed cases during this period included Bong (1 confirmed case); Grand Cape Mount (2 confirmed cases) and Marigibi (1 confirmed case). In the northern region of the country, Lofa reported no cases for the seventh consecutive week. This is likely due to the strength of response efforts being carried out across the district.
EVD transmission across Sierra Leone remains intense, with the country reporting 327 new confirmed cases in the week leading up to 14 December. While WHO officials have reported that there are signs that the increase in case incidence has slowed, and that the incidence may no longer be on the rise, the country reported the highest number of confirmed cases in epidemiological week 50.
EVD transmission remains most intense and persistent in the western and northern districts of the country. The capital city Freetown accounted for 125 of all new confirmed cases. Other western districts that reported new confirmed cases include Port Loko (56 cases); Western Rural Area (52 cases); Bombali (23 cases) and Kambia (11 cases).
In the country’s eastern region, the district of Kono, which has experienced high transmission over the past five weeks, reported 12 confirmed cases in the week leading to 14 December. The neighbouring district of Koinadugu in the northeast reported three cases. Although transmission has been intense in Tonkolili for the past three weeks, in recent weeks the number of new weekly cases has declined from a peak of 56 four weeks ago to 14 cases over the past week. In the southern region of the country, the district of Bo continues to report a high number of new cases, with 24 confirmed cases in the week leading up to 14 December. By contrast, the south-eastern districts of Kenema and Kailahun reported 1 and 3 new cases respectively. Only two districts in Sierra Leone did not report any new cases during this reporting period: Bonthe and Pujehun.
Officials in Sierra Leone have banned any public Christmas celebrations in a bid to halt the spread of EVD. According to the government’s Ebola response unit, soldiers will be deployed across the country throughout the holiday period to ensure that all residents remain indoors. Officials in Sierra Leone have also imposed a two-week lockdown on the eastern diamond-mining district of Kono. The lockdown will effectively limit residents’ movements until 23 December.
Countries with an Initial Case/Cases or with Localized Transmission
Five countries: Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Spain and the United States of America; have reported a case or cases of EVD imported from a country with widespread and intense transmission.
In Mali, a total of 8 cases (7 confirmed and 1 probable) including 6 deaths (5 confirmed and 1 probable) have been reported. The most recent seven cases were reported in the Malian capital Bamako and are not related to the country’s first EVD case, which was reported in Kayes on 24 October. The last confirmed case tested negative for the second time on 6 December and was discharged from hospital on 11 December. All identified contacts of both the initial case and the outbreak in Bamako have now completed the 21-day-follow up. If there are no more reported cases of EVD in Mali, the West African country will be declared Ebola-free by the WHO in mid January.
In the United States, there have been four confirmed cases of EVD and 1 death. All contacts in the country have now completed the 21-day follow-up period. If no further cases are reported in the US, the country will be declared Ebola-free at the end of December.
Nigeria, Senegal and Spain have all been declared Ebola free by the WHO.