JOHANNESBURG (AP) — As the roar of “strongman” politics rose in 2018, extraordinary developments in Africa offered an alternative to the noise. Millions watched, astounded, as one of the world’s most reclusive leaders accepted a reformist’s peace offer, bringing a two-decade conflict to a close.
Not all was optimism on the continent. A historic election was followed by gunfire. Extremism adapted. A deadly virus outbreak rages. But a Nobel Peace Prize for a surgeon who treats rape victims in war was a reminder that recovery is possible.
“Now is the time to make up for the lost times,” a visibly moved Eritrean president said, visiting Ethiopia for the first time in 22 years. Here are some of Africa’s top stories of the year.
January: “The people’s president”
Kenya’s bitter presidential election drama continued as opposition leader Raila Odinga was sworn in as “the people’s president” during a mock inauguration, protesting what he called a manipulated vote. The government cracked down. Coaxed into peace, Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta finally shook hands weeks later and agreed to work together to unite a country divided once again along ethnic lines by politics.
February: “We must never allow this to happen again”
After South Africans protested sprawling corruption allegations that threatened to dangerously weaken the ruling African National Congress, President Jacob Zuma stepped down. The ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, still struggles to recover ahead of next year’s election in a country where inequality is some of the starkest in the world. Mandela’s preferred successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, is now president with the task of clearing out the rot and righting the economy.
February: “They were shooting guns and everyone was confused”
Nigeria’s decade-long battle against Islamic extremism was complicated by the rise of the Islamic State West Africa Province, an offshoot of Boko Haram. In an echo of the mass abduction of Chibok schoolgirls, the IS-affiliated fighters swept into Dapchi village and seized more than 100 girls. The extremists then surprised Nigerians by releasing all but one, a Christian, but shattered any goodwill by executing two kidnapped health workers later in the year.
April: “This is a historic moment”
Africa’s biggest surprise in 2018 has been Ethiopia’s jaw-dropping reforms announced by new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who welcomed home exiled opposition figures, announced one of the world’s few “gender-balanced” cabinets, survived an assassination attempt and seems determined to hold free and fair elections in a country ruled for decades by a single coalition. Many inside Africa’s second most populous country have scrambled to keep up as international praise pours in.
April: “She refused to be bowed”
The death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, “mother of the nation,” set off fresh debate among South Africans about the legacy of the anti-apartheid icon and Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife. Banished to a remote town for years while her husband spent more than a quarter-century in prison, she later sought punishment for perpetrators of abuses while her husband preached reconciliation. In the end, she received 10 days of national mourning and fierce loyalty. “She gave everything she had,” one ANC official said.
June: “They tossed us into the desert”
An Associated Press investigation revealed that Algeria had left more than 13,000 migrants in the desert of Niger and Mali since May 2017, forcing them to walk or die in searing heat, sometimes at gunpoint. Shattered parents described losing children on the trek. Others described wandering, dehydrated, for days. Algeria’s opaque government refused to acknowledge it and, after a lull, the expulsion of migrants at its border resumed.
July: “Am I dreaming or what?”
It was a shocking diplomatic thaw that reshaped the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s prime minister announced his country would fully accept a deal ending a 20-year border war with Eritrea. Within weeks, he and Eritrea’s longtime president visited each other’s countries and embraced, while phone lines and borders opened and flights began. Strangers called each other just to say hello. Reclusive Eritrea then restored ties with Somalia and agreed to normalize ties with Djibouti, and celebrated as the U.N. Security Council lifted sanctions.
July: “We’ve been through darker times”
Former President Barack Obama took aim at the world’s “strongman politics,” turning a speech about Nelson Mandela’s legacy into a sharp rebuke of leaders who, caught lying, “just double down and lie some more.” Cheered by thousands in South Africa, it was Obama’s highest-profile address since leaving office and it marked a shift from staying publicly quiet about his successor, President Donald Trump.
July: “We will sink or swim together”
It was a sight few could have imagined. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, forced out under military pressure after 37 years in power, tottered into a voting booth in the first election without his name on the ballot. The peaceful election day, full of hope, was followed by the military sweeping into the capital’s streets to disperse opposition protesters, with six people killed. The opposition still disputes the narrow win of Mugabe’s protege as economic decline continues.
August: “If a member of parliament can be treated like that, what of me?”
The frustration of Africa’s booming young population exploded in a remarkable standoff between a Ugandan pop star and the country’s aging president. The singer known as Bobi Wine, also an opposition lawmaker, accused security forces of torturing him after an incident in which the president’s car was pelted with stones. After an outcry by dozens of global musicians, the government let him leave for the United States for treatment but denied the allegations.
September: “Final final”
After five years of civil war and nearly 400,000 dead, South Sudan’s warring sides signed a new peace deal that the government vowed would hold. Armed opposition leader Riek Machar returned more than two years after fleeing on foot amid the ashes of the previous agreement. He is now set to become President Salva Kiir’s deputy once again as wary observers and weary South Sudanese hold their breath. Violations of the new deal have begun.
September: “God should have spared him a few more years”
Global leaders gathered in Ghana to pay their last respects to the late United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The grandson of tribal chiefs, he was the first black African to become the U.N. leader and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. “An exceptional global leader,” current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “He never lost his moral compass,” said Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, calling Annan an ardent believer in the capacity of Africa to chart its own path of progress.
September: “A great disaster for our nation”
Well over 200 people died, many trapped underwater, when a badly overloaded Tanzanian ferry capsized on its approach to shore. Horrified witnesses said the passengers had been returning from a busy market day. Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin were among those expressing condolences over one of Africa’s deadliest accidents.
October: “I don’t think I have ever heard her name”
With Trump showing little interest in Africa, first lady Melania announced that the continent would be her first extended solo visit. Holding babies, feeding elephants and wearing a much-noticed pith helmet, she made few waves as some residents of Ghana, Malawi and Kenya admitted they had never heard of her. She ended the visit with rare, unscripted comments to reporters in Egypt, saying she doesn’t always agree with what her husband tweets and “I have my own voice.”
October: “It’s you women who carry humanity”
Congolese surgeon Denis Mukwege was at the operating table when the Nobel committee rang with the news that he shared the Peace Prize with Yazidi activist Nadia Murad in a powerful statement against sexual violence. After treating tens of thousands of rape victims in conflict-torn Congo, including babies, Mukwege declared that “we hope that the world will no longer delay taking action in your favor … because the survival of humanity depends on you.”
October: “Cameroon will never be the same again”
As deadly fighting between Anglophone separatists and security forces displaced hundreds of thousands of people, Africa’s oldest president, Paul Biya, calmly won a seventh term as a committee he appointed rejected all challenges to the vote. Cameroon’s government celebrated and renewed its offensives — then sputtered as the country was stripped of the right to host next year’s African Cup of Nations soccer tournament over insecurity concerns.
October: “We were treated like criminals”
An AP investigation revealed that more than 30 countries, many in Africa, illegally detainpatients who cannot afford to pay. In Kenya, armed guards stood watch over patients. One woman, still with a catheter in her stomach, tried to escape but “the guards then forcefully took me back to the hospital where they handcuffed me to a bed.” As activists raised an outcry, the World Health Organization said it was working on a “technical briefing” to countries about hospital detention practices.
November: “This tragic milestone”
The deadly Ebola outbreak in Congo is like no other, with critical containment work carried out in a conflict zone. Cases climbed well past 500, making the outbreak the second-largest in history. Even as tens of thousands of people receive an experimental Ebola vaccine and the first-ever clinical trial of Ebola treatments begins, rebel attacks and wary residents complicate the response work in alarming ways.
December: “You should never rule out anything”
Millions of Congolese prepare for what could be the country’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power, while the opposition worries that President Joseph Kabila will call the shots behind the scenes if his preferred successor wins. The first use of voting machines in an infrastructure-starved country causes concern , including about possible manipulation. The Ebola outbreak and insecurity also pose threats. At stake is trillions of dollars of mineral wealth.