Civil unrest in Africa hits 6-year high

Political tensions, food insecurity to amplify disruption

Businesses operating in Africa are grappling with an unprecedented rise in disruption linked to protests, demonstrations and rioting, according to our latest research, which suggests the situation will deteriorate over the course of 2023.

Our data shows that 36 African countries saw an uptick in risk on our Civil Unrest Index between 2022-Q2 and 2023-Q2, the largest annual increase seen in the region since the dataset launched in 2017. This means that the number of African countries rated high or extreme risk for civil unrest now stands at 37, up from 28 six years ago.

The impacts have been felt across the continent. The Republic of the Congo (ranked 94th highest risk on the index globally), Angola (52nd) and Kenya (33rd) are among the countries that registered the sharpest declines on the index in the past year, falling 32, 29, and 28 positions on the ranking respectively.

These findings are consistent with our previous research, which found that political risks - including civil unrest, conflict intensity and government instability - reached record levels globally earlier this year.

For Africa, these global risk dynamics are placing further strain on countries that are already contending with some of the worst consequences of the war in Ukraine, including deteriorating food and energy security and spiralling living costs.

As the region grapples with mounting food shortages, widespread government inefficiencies and a swathe of contentious elections, the frequency and magnitude of protests is set to increase in the months ahead.

Map, 37 African countries are rated high or extreme risk for civil unrest

Food insecurity remains a driver of unrest

Inflation on the price of staple foods has worsened already high levels of food insecurity in Africa, particularly in countries that are reliant on imports to cover national demand.

The result is that Africa accounts for 16 of the 20 highest risk countries on our Food Security Index (FSI), which measures the availability, stability and access to food supplies. This includes the likes of Somalia (ranked 2nd highest risk globally), South Sudan (3rd) and DR Congo (4th). The continent has also seen the sharpest uptick in risk on the index of any region over the past two years, in turn heightening the likelihood of civilians mounting protests to demand access to food.

In South Sudan, insufficient food supplies and high living costs have driven protests in the first half of 2023. These protests, which are particularly common among internally displaced people in the country, typically centre on the lack of support given by public institutions when it comes to providing food and other basic supplies.

Similar protests have also become increasingly common in DR Congo. In March 2023, protesters blocked roads in Goma, Nord-Kivu province, demanding access to food and denouncing the deaths of ten people from starvation at an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp.

Public discontent is only set to grow as African countries contend with an uncertain economic outlook and the mounting impacts of climate change. The Sahel, Central Africa and the Horn of Africa, already facing the longest drought in the region’s recent history, are key areas to watch as these risks converge to fuel unrest in the months ahead.

Graph, Africa accounts for most of the world’s most food insecure countries

Government inefficiencies to fuel discontent

While issues such as inflation, unemployment and failing public infrastructure are common across Africa, the likelihood of unrest is greater in countries where governments are unable to provide the services needed to tackle these problems. This is highlighted by the strong correlation between data from our Civil Unrest and Government Effectiveness (GEI) indices.

Graph, Countries where governments fail to provide necessary public services

South Africa is a prime example. The country experienced the sharpest regional uptick in risk on the GEI over the past year, falling 24 positions to 111th highest risk globally. This has in turn fuelled an uptick in unrest, as President Ramaphosa’s government struggles to tackle issues such as unemployment, corruption and the country’s rolling power outages.

Indeed, there were 692 protest and riot incidents in South Africa in 2023-Q1, up from 456 in the first three months of 2022. This included a protest in Johannesburg in January, during which demonstrators marched on the headquarters of the ruling ANC party to protest the escalating energy crisis. President Ramaphosa has since declared a state of disaster over the electricity crisis and announced new measures aimed at tackling the problem, but public frustration will continue to manifest in the form of disruptive demonstrations while the issue persists.

Elections to increase the intensity of unrest in key jurisdictions

A host of African countries have held presidential and legislative elections already this year, with more scheduled in the months ahead. With widespread political uncertainty and scepticism around the management of electoral processes, these could trigger a surge in protests across the continent.

We’ve already seen this in Nigeria. APC party candidate Bola Tinubu’s victory in the February 2023 president election exacerbated discontent with the country’s political system, causing opposition supporters to protest to demand a new vote amid reports of voter intimidation and irregularities with the count.

Another potential flashpoint is DR Congo, where President Tshisekedi is likely to delay the December general election amid concerns related to the resurgence of the Rwanda-backed M23 rebel group. This likely postponement risks triggering a new wave of nationwide protests, mirroring the surge of unrest that followed a similar delay in 2018.

Next year’s election in Senegal will also create an environment ripe for new instances of civil unrest. Indeed, there have been several severe bouts of unrest in Dakar this year, led by supporters of main opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. Further unrest is likely as President Sall pursues a third term in power.

Businesses must brace for an extended period of unrest

An escalation of civil unrest across Africa risks creating a vicious cycle, whereby protests against spiralling living costs and political uncertainty drive away investment - in turn exacerbating the issues that triggered those protests in the first place.

Businesses operating in the continent will need to assess their exposure to the potential fallout, from supply chain disruption and the destruction of property, to rising insurance costs and threats to the security of employees. Those that do not will be flying blind in what is set to be an extended period of unrest.

Aleix Montana

Research Associate, Risk Insight