In the 60-plus years since the countries of sub-Saharan Africa started becoming independent, democracy there has advanced unevenly. During the Cold War, many African states turned into Soviet- or U.S.-backed dictatorships. Afterward, some nascent democracies made notable gains, but others ended up backsliding. Even as some countries in the region have grown into success stories, most have failed to embrace true democracy, despite a deep hunger for it among their populations. Today, a mere 11 percent of Africans live in countries that Freedom House considers free.

But change is afoot. Whereas from 2010 to 2014, the region experienced nine transfers of power from one leader to another, since 2015, the region has experienced 26 of them. Some of these transitions amounted to one leader relinquishing his or her seat to a handpicked successor, but more than half featured an opposition candidate defeating a member of the incumbent party. Of the 49 leaders in power in sub-Saharan Africa at the beginning of 2015, only 22 of them remained in power as of May 2019. Just one of the newcomers, Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, entered office through a coup (although once someone is chosen to succeed Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, the count will grow to two). Gone are the decades when power regularly changed hands through coups—87 times between 1950 and 2010, according to one count.

Africa’s new set of leaders includes former military dictators turned democrats, party loyalists who steadily moved up the ranks, and a few political outsiders, among them a disc jockey, a business magnate, and a former soccer star. Five of them will prove especially pivotal: Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, João Lourenço of Angola, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria. These leaders preside over countries that make up nearly half the population of sub-Saharan Africa, include four of the region’s five largest economies, and have some of the continent’s strongest militaries. And all of them claim to reject the corruption and misrule associated with their predecessors.

The leaders of five key African states could shape the region for years to come.

This is not the first time Africa has seen a wave of new leaders who inspired optimism. In the 1990s, a fresh cohort of rebels turned politicians presented themselves as democratic reformers, including Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. But the accompanying enthusiasm proved misplaced: all made turns toward authoritarianism and, with the exception of Meles, who died in office in 2012, remain in power to this day. Whatever their lofty promises, it turns out, those who come to power through the gun rarely transform into democrats. Today’s class of new leaders seeking a break with the past entered office peacefully, through elections—however imperfect—or other constitutional processes. Their legitimacy comes not from their military prowess but from their reformist agendas.

As the leaders of five key African states, Abiy, Lourenço, Ramaphosa, Tshisekedi, and Buhari could shape the region for years to come. The choices they make when it comes to navigating domestic challenges, pursuing reforms, and wielding their influence beyond their borders will go a long way toward determining whether the region stagnates or thrives. And although revanchist forces always threaten tentative gains, there is good reason for optimism: the popular pressures that led to change in these countries, through protest and the ballot box, will press the leaders to follow through on their promises.

Given its diplomatic, military, and economic weight in Africa, the United States has the power to nudge these leaders to choose transformation over stasis. For too long, however, Washington has embraced the false comfort of the status quo. Worried about rocking the boat in a seemingly fragile region, it has supported trusted but flawed partners instead of pushing leaders to make real change. It’s time for a new approach. As a new cohort of leaders takes the reins of power in Africa’s most influential countries, the United States should have the courage to stand with the people calling for change.

People celebrate Cyril Ramaphosa winning the South African general elections in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 2019
People celebrate Cyril Ramaphosa winning the South African general elections in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 2019
Ilvy Njiokiktjien / VII / Redux


Ethiopia, a country of some 100 million people, has seen the most dramatic transformation. In 2015, the ruling party and its allies swept every seat in parliamentary elections, revealing the sorry state of the country’s ostensibly multiparty political system. The next year, tens of thousands of Ethiopians took to the streets to protest their country’s closed political space and uneven allocation of resources. Lacking the political heft to steer Ethiopia through the crisis, the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned in February 2018, and the ruling party chose Abiy to succeed him. Abiy swiftly ushered in a series of audacious and previously unimaginable reforms. He has released thousands of political prisoners; made peace with Ethiopia’s archenemy, Eritrea; lifted restrictions on civil society; and begun the process of privatizing the country’s telecommunications company and national airline.

Although his actions have proved wildly popular among Ethiopians, setting off a craze known as “Abiymania,” the dizzying pace of his reforms has unsettled the political elite. Many of its members are of the Tigrayan ethnic minority, a group from the country’s north that has long dominated national politics and the security sector, and they see Abiy’s reforms as coming at their expense. In October 2018, he claimed to have stared down a coup attempt by the military. Moreover, by loosening the state’s tight grip on its population, Abiy’s reforms have exacerbated communal tensions that used to be contained. Ethnic violence—often triggered by competing claims to land and resources—has escalated under his leadership, displacing nearly three million people inside the country’s borders. Abiy has called the violence “shameful” but has been unable to stop it. Yet he remains popular at home and abroad, and his twin goals of political pluralism and a market-based economy are exactly what have been missing from Ethiopia for the past two decades.

A new leader is upending Angola’s politics, too. For nearly 40 years, the country was ruled by José Eduardo dos Santos, who stole Angola’s substantial oil revenues to enrich his family and associates. In 2016, dos Santos, 73 years old and in poor health, announced that he would step down, and the next year, he endorsed a successor from the ruling party: Lourenço, a former defense minister. In office, Lourenço quickly defied expectations that he would do the bidding of the dos Santos family, instead pursuing corruption investigations and breaking its near monopoly on the economy and politics.

In a country ruled by a formerly Marxist political party, Lourenço has broken with precedent by seeking warmer ties with the United States and even with his country’s former colonizer, Portugal. He has also broken a taboo against accepting international assistance that comes with conditions attached by welcoming an aid package from the International Monetary Fund. Although he has not turned away from China, he has promised to cease providing it with oil as collateral for credit lines, a practice that left Angola in considerable debt. And whereas his predecessor rarely deployed troops to multilateral peacekeeping missions, he has flexed Angola’s muscle in regional crises, contributing soldiers to a South African–led peacekeeping operation in Lesotho and insisting on a political transition in Congo.

It is possible that Lourenço is merely a canny politician building a new patronage structure beholden to him. His anticorruption investigations have targeted dos Santos’ family and key allies while sparing other power brokers. But he seems to grasp that reform is the best way for his country to end its decades of underperformance, and Angolans appear to agree. If he succeeds, then Angola—a mineral- and oil-rich country of 30 million people with an 87,000-strong military—could realize its potential as a regional powerhouse.

Ramaphosa faces greater structural challenges as he seeks to move South Africa away from the corrupt legacy of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Zuma allowed cronies to hijack ministries and state-owned companies to line their pockets, authorized a disastrous military deployment to the Central African Republic, and entertained a shady deal with Russia for a nuclear power plant. For Africa’s most advanced economy, the anemic growth, weakening currency, and periodic rolling power outages had become a national embarrassment, and in February 2018, Zuma’s party, the storied African National Congress, forced him to resign, replacing him with Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa has pledged to attract $100 billion in new investments over the next five years and reform the country’s decrepit state-owned corporations. Equally important, he has established a commission to investigate corruption under his predecessor, which has already unearthed considerable abuses by former officeholders.

In May 2019, Ramaphosa won a fresh electoral mandate. To do so, however, he had to appease left-leaning constituents, signaling support for land expropriation without compensation, a step that threatens to scare off foreign investors. Moreover, his party remains riddled with corruption and ideological divisions, which will constrain full-throated reform. Yet Ramaphosa still represents South Africa’s best hope for revitalization, and there is so much low-hanging fruit that even partial reforms could prove game changing. South Africa began its two-year term as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council in 2019 and is set to take over the chairmanship of the African Union in 2020. Ramaphosa now has an opportunity to reverse Zuma’s ignoble record of supporting autocrats and stifling human rights campaigns, and he has made some improvements on this front. Last year, he reversed his country’s vote in the UN General Assembly in order to condemn human rights abuses in Myanmar. South Africa is the only African member of the G-20 and the most powerful member of the Southern African Development Community. If Ramaphosa manages to clean up his country’s politics and reform its economy, South Africa could act as an engine of growth for the whole region. And if he expands its global voice, too, the country could serve as a global champion of conflict resolution, drawing on its experience of ending apartheid 25 years ago.

Congo’s road to reform is far rockier. Even though he is steering his country through its first peaceful transfer of power, Tshisekedi became president in dubious circumstances. Most observers agree that another opposition candidate actually won the elections held in December 2018, even though Tshisekedi was declared the victor. The surprise result fueled speculation that Tshisekedi had struck a deal that would allow Joseph Kabila, the country’s outgoing authoritarian leader, to retain influence out of power. Any such deal will continue to constrain Tshisekedi. So will his party’s lack of a majority in parliament, which means that he has to negotiate with Kabila to appoint his prime minister and cabinet.

Congolese people await the results of the presidential election outside a bar in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, January 2019
Congolese people await the results of the presidential election outside a bar in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, January 2019
Baz Ratner / Reuters

Yet as Lourenço has shown in Angola, sometimes new leaders can untether themselves from their patrons. So far, Tshisekedi has freed about 700 political prisoners, appointed a competent national security adviser who is not beholden to Kabila, and pledged to revive the Congolese economy. Despite Tshisekedi’s limited room for maneuver, in Congo’s ever-shifting political landscape, he may be able to pick off defectors from Kabila’s coalition and expand his own power base. He also has the benefit of strong support from the United States and other influential countries, which chose to overlook the undemocratic nature of his ascent.

The size of western Europe, Congo boasts vast stores of natural resources and the potential to generate up to 100,000 megawatts of hydropower (second only to China and Russia in this regard). If Tshisekedi earnestly tries to address Congo’s endemic insecurity, contain its devastating Ebola outbreak, and responsibly manage its immense mineral wealth, he can reap dramatic dividends that should prove popular among Congolese. The prospect of a stable Congo—a long-standing basket case that borders nine countries—could obviate the need for the 20,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission there and reduce regional tensions.

Nigeria, with a population of nearly 200 million people, has long been Africa’s would-be heavyweight, full of potential but plagued by poor leadership, corruption, and insecurity. Change was supposed to come in 2015 with the election as president of Buhari, who, even though he was a military head of state in the early 1980s, campaigned on a promise to fight corruption. In a few ways, Buhari has made good on his promise, fighting some corruption, increasing infrastructure investment, and streamlining government finances. But he has turned out to be less dynamic than hoped. He has spent several months in London over the last four years for medical treatment and has failed to inspire Nigerians outside his base in the country’s north. Only 35 percent of Nigerians turned out for the February 2019 elections that gave him a second term, the lowest participation rate on record since the country’s transition to civilian rule, in 1999. The private sector is especially wary of his economic instincts and failed to respond to his win with a stock market rally—a first for Nigeria.

Ethiopia’s profound improvements in individual rights could have a spillover effect across East Africa.

Crucially, however, he has opened up space for a new cadre of reformers, in the cabinet and at the state level, who are now waiting in the wings. Buhari has never fit into Nigeria’s political class. He never sought to build a patronage network, and he has consistently pressed for cleaner government and a strong work ethic among civil servants. However inconsistently, he has promoted Nigerian leaders who share these values and sidelined politicians who do not.

Nigeria’s energetic vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, exemplifies the country’s potential. During Buhari’s trips to London, Osinbajo has stepped in as acting president and showcased a pragmatic and inclusive style of leadership. Notably, he agreed to devalue the naira to narrow the gap between official exchange rates and black-market rates, and he traveled to the oil-rich Niger Delta to lower tensions there. His successful stints in power have increased his profile as a potential candidate in elections in 2023. Other up-and-comers include Peter Obi, a former governor and the opposition’s most recent vice-presidential candidate, who has won plaudits for his economic management of his state, and Kashim Shettima, a former governor who ably facilitated humanitarian assistance to war-ravaged northeastern Nigeria. Reform under Buhari will continue to be slow, but he has set the stage for the next generation of leaders to quicken the pace of change.


Two main obstacles stand in the way of these countries’ democratic progress. The first is economic stagnation. Africa’s overall GDP is forecast to grow by around three percent in 2019, dragged down by even slower growth rates in Angola, Nigeria, and South Africa, all of which have been hit hard by the recent slump in commodity prices. If growth rates don’t improve, it will be nearly impossible for these countries’ new leaders to sustain reforms and reduce dangerous levels of unemployment. But even in a period of weak commodity prices, Lourenço, Buhari, and Ramaphosa can undertake reforms that would boost growth. Nigeria should shift to a single exchange rate to attract foreign investment; it and South Africa should reform their bloated state-owned companies; and it and Angola should reduce their reliance on oil revenues. Abiy and Tshisekedi, by contrast, have the wind at their backs, with Ethiopia’s economy growing at over seven percent (thanks largely to a more attractive climate for investors) and Congo’s growing at over five percent (in part due to public investments in infrastructure). All five leaders have pledged to diversify their economies, reduce corruption, and attract foreign investment. Their predecessors said the same things, but unlike them, these leaders face real pressure to deliver on these promises or face the wrath of their people.

The second obstacle is political. Each of the five leaders is engaged in a high-wire act, trying to pursue reforms without triggering a backlash. Abiy, Lourenço, Ramaphosa, and Tshisekedi are mindful of the still powerful reactionary forces within their coalitions that are associated with the ancien régime. If these leaders move too fast, rivals may clip their wings or lead a party revolt. (Buhari, by contrast, is at risk of moving too slowly and providing an opening to his opponents.) Abiy has already encountered firsthand the consequences of charging ahead, with several politicians tied to the previous regime loudly opposing his reforms. Ramaphosa, for his part, presides over an African National Congress divided between factions loyal to him and those loyal to Zuma and risks the ire of the senior party officials who stand to lose from a crackdown on large-scale corruption. Tshisekedi is in the most precarious position of all. Kabila, his predecessor, is still relatively young, and his party remains dominant. He will not go quietly into retirement, especially if his substantial wealth is threatened.

These leaders will need to discern when to press forward and when to slow down, getting the buy-in of would-be opponents without abandoning bold aspirations. Abiy, for instance, could build more internal consensus before rushing to announce his next big idea, a step that would preempt political pushback and pave the way for swifter implementation. Ramaphosa will need to respond delicately to demands for land expropriation, addressing the legitimate concerns of his base without scaring off investors and threatening commercial agriculture.

A woman speaks at a public hearing regarding land expropriation in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, July 2018
A woman speaks at a public hearing regarding land expropriation in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, July 2018
Rogan Ward / Reuters

If the five leaders get the economics and politics right, then they could set off a virtuous cycle of reform. First, economic prospects improve, the result of a combination of economic diversification, increased foreign investment, and reduced corruption. That, in turn, strengthens their hand and helps them navigate political obstacles. As their popularity increases, they have more incentive to double down on existing reforms and build support for new ones. Investor confidence increases, economic growth accelerates, and the old guard becomes further marginalized.

If this cycle repeats across enough of the five countries, a broader narrative of regional reform could take hold, building pressure on other African countries to follow the same path. Ethiopia’s profound improvements in individual rights, for example, could have a spillover effect across East Africa, emboldening antigovernment protesters in Uganda and elsewhere and convincing the military dictatorship in Eritrea to open up. In Congo, Tshisekedi has denounced his predecessor’s human rights record and promised that he “will be making a clean break with everything.” If he really does, the new standard he will be setting for governance in central Africa could increase the pressure on neighboring leaders, most of whom have been in power for two or more decades, to walk back some of their most egregious abuses of power.

Something similar could happen economically. Stagnation in Angola, Nigeria, and South Africa brings down Africa’s overall growth rates, but under better economic management, the three largest economies in sub-Saharan Africa could drive up foreign investment outside their borders as companies use these markets as gateways to the region. Corruption in all the countries also inhibits growth, and if Abiy, Buhari, Lourenço, and Ramaphosa continue their efforts to fight it—and if Tshisekedi follows through on his still notional promises to do the same—then they could reassure skittish foreign investors about the economic potential of the entire region.

Reforms could also supercharge promising moves toward regional economic integration. As of April 2019, 52 countries had signed up for the African Continental Free Trade Area, an agreement aimed at uniting the region’s 1.2 billion people and combined GDP of $3.4 trillion into a single market. Owing to poor infrastructure and high trade barriers, Africa suffers from particularly weak economic integration, with just 17 percent of its countries’ exports staying within the region, compared with 69 percent for Europe and 59 percent for Asia. According to an estimate from the Brookings Institution, removing tariffs would increase the value of intra-African trade by $50–$70 billion. Although Nigeria, which is in dire need of economic liberalization, has yet to sign the treaty, the momentum for reform and integration is growing.

Transformation in these five countries could reverberate beyond the continent, too. Historically, the African states large enough to enjoy sustained global influence have been crippled by internal dysfunction. Moving beyond domestic distractions would give these countries a chance to finally punch their weight internationally. To actually do so, however, they will need to adopt more assertive foreign policies. That means better leveraging existing forums and leadership posts, such as South Africa’s seat on the Security Council (where, by some estimates, more than 60 percent of resolutions concern Africa). It also means taking the lead on regional flash points. There are tentative signs of progress on this front: Angola has put its thumb on the scale to resolve political disputes in Congo and Lesotho, and Ethiopia has done the same for one between Kenya and Somalia.

The five leaders can also defend basic rights and weigh in on global issues. When it comes to violations of democratic principles, rather than turning a blind eye, they should increase the pressure on violators, both through policies such as sanctions and through their personal connections with other leaders. And when it comes to global priorities—such as climate change, counterterrorism, migration, trade, human rights, and data privacy—they should demand a seat at the table. To date, few African governments have been more than pro forma participants in the global debate over these issues, even though they greatly affect the continent.

Abiy Ahmed arrives to meet members of Sudan’s opposition alliance at the Ethiopian embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, June 2019
Abiy Ahmed arrives to meet members of Sudan’s opposition alliance at the Ethiopian embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, June 2019
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters


Just as the developments in Africa’s largest states can change how the region deals with the rest of the world, they can also change how the United States deals with the region. U.S. policy toward Africa has long been decidedly risk averse, aimed at preserving relations with predictable partners in the pursuit of stability. This is particularly true when it comes to the region’s heavyweights. Washington has been willing to lean forward when freedom is at stake in smaller countries—for example, supporting the ouster of tiny Gambia’s longtime dictator in 2017—but is much more restrained in countries with greater influence. The Obama administration shied away from making forceful statements about democratic backsliding and repression in Ethiopia and Uganda because the two countries were counterterrorism allies, and it refused to abandon the narcissistic leaders of South Sudan even as they led the country to ruin. The Trump administration declined to call the military takeover in Zimbabwe in 2017 a coup and has taken a hands-off approach to the protest movement in Sudan.

It is time for a bolder approach that embraces change. Opportunities to support such fundamental reforms in such strategically important states are rare, and they give the United States a chance to endear itself to growing populations that are increasingly finding their political voice. To start, the United States should increase its diplomatic, financial, and technical support to those states doggedly reforming on their own initiative, beginning with Angola and Ethiopia.

But the United States needs to target this support carefully: instead of applauding individual leaders, it should seek to strengthen institutions. Tempting as it may be for Washington to throw its political weight behind reform-minded leaders such as Lourenço and Abiy, it must not feed into cults of personality. Those, after all, are the lifeblood of dictators, and all the praise of the would-be reformers of the 1990s probably ended up encouraging their authoritarian turn. Rather, the United States should focus its attention on promoting reforms in the most important parts of each state, such as the security services, the finance ministry, the judiciary, and the legislature. The goal should be reforms that outlive the reformers.

U.S. financial support should also be rebalanced. For now, the lion’s share is focused on public health and humanitarian relief, with relatively little devoted to supporting democratic governance, promoting human rights, or reforming regressive legislation. More aid should go to the latter set of tasks, and most aid should be tied more closely to tangible progress. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. aid agency established in 2004, offers a promising model. The MCC negotiates “compacts” worth several hundred million dollars with countries that meet certain governance criteria. Although Ethiopia is the only one of the five countries currently in the MCC program, the United States can and should apply the principles behind it to assistance to all five, making support conditional on reforms. It should use this approach at the subnational level, too. In Nigeria, for example, the United States should consider striking deals with the most dynamic of the country’s 36 states, some of which boast economies larger than entire African countries.

But support cannot be limited to governments. As encouraging as some of the reformers may be, equally important are the civil society leaders, human rights defenders, and journalists who provide an essential check on government authority. In Angola, Congo, and Ethiopia, such figures have suffered from decades of repression and would benefit immensely from more outside help. South Africa shows just how effective such elements can be: it was the media, civil society, and the judiciary that shone a light on the massive corruption of Zuma and his cronies, building pressure for his removal. Political leaders get the headlines, but civil society leaders often deserve just as much credit for reform.

U.S. policy toward Africa has long been decidedly risk averse.

Finally, if the United States wants to reinforce new openings under new leaders, it needs to stop treating Africa as an afterthought. Washington tends to relegate the region to one-off engagements and staid forums, if not ignore it entirely. Congo last had an Oval Office visit in 2007, South Africa in 2006, Angola in 2004, and Ethiopia in 2002. The Trump administration has devoted even fewer resources and less attention than its predecessors to sub-Saharan Africa: the current secretary of state has yet to visit the region, and unlike the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the Trump administration has no signature initiatives centering on it. (The White House’s Prosper Africa initiative has yet to get off the ground.) Optics and invitations matter. The Trump administration should work with France to invite Africa’s new leaders to the G-7 summit in Biarritz in August 2019. It should invite key reformers, such as Abiy, to deliver an address to Congress and encourage leaders of other branches of African governments to meet their U.S. counterparts. It should revive the moribund strategic dialogue with South Africa and start its first one with Ethiopia. And it should fill key ambassadorial posts that have been left vacant since before Donald Trump took office, including those in South Africa and Tanzania.

What makes this moment in Africa unique is the confluence of new leaders coming to power in the most influential countries, each with a mandate for reform and renewal. Success is never guaranteed, and the path to lasting progress is littered with obstacles. But in each country, there is a plausible route to reform that just a few years ago did not exist. Where it ultimately leads is worth the journey: a future in which hundreds of millions of Africans live in freedom and prosperity.

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  • JUDD DEVERMONT is Director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2015 to 2018, he served as National Intelligence Officer for Africa at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
  • JON TEMIN is Director of Africa Programs at Freedom House. From 2014 to 2017, he served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State.
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