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One of the biggest questions hanging over Africa in 2009 is what will happen in Zimbabwe. The total collapse of the once-respectable economy and social system under longtime strongman Robert Mugabe has devastated the country and has begun dragging down neighboring states as refugees stream out of the country in an effort to escape the repression and dire conditions. A cholera epidemic has ripped through the malnourished population, killing more than 1,600 people so far, and risks spreading across borders.
Each time it looks as though Mugabe may finally be on his last legs, the wily veteran finds a way to extend his political life, seemingly indifferent to the suffering of his people.
The spillover of Zimbabweans into South Africa last year sparked violent anti-immigrant riots that rekindled old visions of Apartheid-era violence.
South Africa itself is in no position to be destabilized as it deals with one of the world's highest crime rates. Elections this year are likely to bring to power Jacob Zuma, who was recently acquitted of rape and who faced corruption charges but they were dropped. The populist leader is a far cry from former presidents Nelson Mandela, the magnanimous, iconic liberation hero, and Thabo Mbeki, the pipe-smoking intellectual. Zuma has a limited formal education and he has more than one wife. He notoriously admitted having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman at the centre of the rape case, saying he protected himself from infection by taking a shower after sex. His raucous rallies feature the Zulu anthem “Bring Me My Machine Gun”. Investors in sub-Saharan Africa's strongest economy are worried.
Elswhere in Africa, Kenya seems to be recovering from post-election ethnic violence, but neigbouring Somalia is as anarchic as ever, if not more so. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden will continue to be a problem until Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991, regains some sense of stability, an unlikely prospect for the coming year.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than five million people have perished from violence and conflict-related illness over the past decade, will continue its slow boil of death. Fighting in the resource-rich east may flare up again, but even without heavy fighting, the vast nation at the heart of Africa will remain trapped in a seemingly unending cycle of violence and suffering.
Famine is stalking Ethiopia again. In Darfur, Sudan's government is continuing to hinder efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis while dodging charges of genocide by the International Criminal Court.
The war in Darfur is likely to spill over into neighboring Chad again, with the various ethnic groups and rebel factions criss-crossing the frontier and destabilising the population.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and leading oil exporter, will continue to struggle to quell violence in the restive Niger Delta, where militants frequently kidnap foreign oil workers to protest the lack of oil money returning to the region.