A look back at significant events that shaped Africa in 2021

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From Yoweri Museveni’s re-election in Uganda to the death of Chadian president Idriss Déby and the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia, the year has been eventful for Africa. FRANCE 24 looks back at some of the news stories that shaped the continent in 2021.

  • Yoweri Museveni re-elected in Uganda, amid fraud allegations

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni shows his ink-marked thumb after casting his ballot at the Kaaroh high school polling station in Kiruhura, Uganda, on January 14 ,2021. Badru Katumba, AFP

The start of the year brought with it a political upset in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni won the presidential election on January 14, with 58.6% of the votes, catapulting him into his sixth term in office. But the opposition candidate Bobi Wine, who won 34.8% of the votes, alleged that there had been widespread election fraud and called on Ugandans to reject the results. Wine, a former singer whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, then took his election challenge to the supreme court, saying he had evidence of vote rigging. However, three weeks later, he asked his lawyers to withdraw the case, claiming the judges were biased.

Museveni’s presidency began in 1986 off the back of a rebel movement in the country. He was initially hailed as a modern leader following the brutal de facto dictatorships of Idi Amin Dada and Milton Obote, but his grip over the country has gradually become more authoritarian.

  • Chadian President Idriss Deby dies on the battlefield  

Chad army officers carry the coffin of late Chadian president Idriss Deby Itno during the state funeral in N'Djamena on April 23, 2021.
Chad army officers carry the coffin of late Chadian president Idriss Deby Itno during the state funeral in N’Djamena on April 23, 2021. Issouf Sanogo, AFP

Just hours after he was declared the winner of the presidential election, Chad’s president, Idriss Deby Itno, died on April 20 while fighting rebels in the north of the country. He had just won his sixth mandate after three decades in power. A military transition council took power, led by Idriss Deby’s son Mahamat Idriss Deby, a 37-year-old general. He promised to set up “free and transparent” elections in the country within 18 months. In November, he decreed an amnesty for rebels and political opponents in the country, aiming to open dialogue with armed groups.

  • Laurent Gbagbo returns to Ivory Coast after nearly a decade

Laurent Gbagbo on his arrival at Abidjan airport on June 17, 2021
Laurent Gbagbo on his arrival at Abidjan airport on June 17, 2021 © Olivier Jobard, MYOP

Ivory Coast’s former president Laurent Gbagbo returned home on June 17 for the first time since his ouster from power in 2011. He took a passenger flight from Brussels, where he had lived after The Hague’s International Criminal Court acquitted him in January 2019 of war crimes. Hundreds of supporters greeted him at the airport. After meeting his old rival Henri Konan Bédié, he then met with the current leader Alassane Ouattara at the presidential palace on July 27 – their first meeting since the embattled election of 2010, which led to a bloody civil war. In October, Gbagbo launched a new political party, and has yet to rule out running for the next presidential election in 2025.

  • Tigrayan rebels take Mekele in Ethiopia

Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters arrive after eight hours of walking in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 29, 2021.
Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters arrive after eight hours of walking in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 29, 2021. Yasuyoshi Chiba, AFP

Rebel fighters entered Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region on June 29, prompting Ethiopia’s government to call a ceasefire after almost eight months of fighting. It marked a major turning point in the conflict. Mekele had been under the control of federal troops since November 28. The arrival of rebel fighters in the town sparked celebrations, with residents coming out and dancing in the streets.

The war has caused thousands of deaths, displaced more than two million people and plunged hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians into famine. On December 20, Tigrayan fighters announced that they would withdraw from regions outside of Tigray in order to allow humanitarian aid to arrive.

  • Former South African president Jacob Zuma sent to prison

Former South African president Jacob Zuma removes his eyeglasses as he addresses the media at his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, on July 4, 2021.
Former South African president Jacob Zuma removes his eyeglasses as he addresses the media at his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, on July 4, 2021. Emmanuel Croset, AFP (file photo)

South Africa’s Constitutional Court gave former South African president Jacob Zuma a 15-month jail term on June 29 for refusing to comply with an enquiry into corruption committed during his time in office between 2009 and 2018. Minutes before the deadline on July 7, Zuma turned himself in. Days of rioting and looting by his supporters left over 300 people dead. He was released on medical parole in September but the country’s High Court ordered him to go back to prison in December.

  • Najla Bouden becomes Tunisia’s first female prime minister

A handout picture provided by the Tunisian presidency shows Najla Bouden, who was named as the country's first ever female prime minister.
A handout picture provided by the Tunisian presidency shows Najla Bouden, who was named as the country’s first ever female prime minister. Tunisian presidency, via AFP

Najla Bouden Romdhane was named Tunisia’s first female prime minister on September 29, two months after Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the previous prime minister and suspended the cabinet. Bouden was a geophysics professor by training and barely known to the public when she was appointed. It was the first time in the history of the country that a woman had been asked to form a government – although the “exceptional measures” adopted by President Saied meant that her power was somewhat diminished. In a speech given when she took up her post, Bouden said that “the fight against corruption will be the most important goal” of her government.

  • France returns Benin artworks  

French President Emmanuel Macron greets his counterpart from Benin, President Patrice Talon, at the Elysée Palace on Tuesday.
French President Emmanuel Macron greets his counterpart from Benin, President Patrice Talon, at the Elysée Palace on Tuesday. © Bertrand Guay, AFP

On November 9, France returned 26 artworks looted from the Palace of Abomey by colonial troops and until then displayed in the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron met the Beninese President Patrice Talon at the Élysée Palace and conducted an official ceremony to hand over the treasures after almost 130 years away from their country of origin. Hundreds of Beninese people gathered at Cotonou airport to welcome home the artworks in an emotional and historical moment for the country.

  • Goodbye to French troops in Timbuktu

French Colonel Faivre hands over the symbolic key of Camp Barkhane to the Malian colonel during the handover ceremony of the Barkhane military base to the Malian army in Timbuktu, on December 14, 2021.
French Colonel Faivre hands over the symbolic key of Camp Barkhane to the Malian colonel during the handover ceremony of the Barkhane military base to the Malian army in Timbuktu, on December 14, 2021. © Florent Vergnes, AFP

French troops left the Malian town of Timbuktu on December 14, eight years after their arrival. General Étienne du Peyroux, head of France’s Sahel mission Operation Barkhane, briefly shook hands with the camp’s new Malian commander, who was also offered a symbolic wooden key as a parting gift. It was in this town that former French President François Hollande officially marked the start of the French deployment in the region on February 2, 2013, after French and Malian troops liberated the UNESCO world heritage city from the control of jihadist groups. But almost nine years later, France is winding down its involvement in the region in 2022, going from 5,100 soldiers to 4,800 in January, 4,000 by the summer and 3,000 by the summer of 2023.

  • Congolese music and Senegalese national dish recognised by UNESCO

Specialists have located rumba's origins in the ancient central African kingdom of Kongo.
Specialists have located rumba’s origins in the ancient central African kingdom of Kongo. PIERRE VERDY AFP/File

On December 14, Congolese rumba was added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, joining the Central African Republic’s polyphonic pygmy music (added in 2003) and the drums of Burundi (added in 2014). In Kinshasa and Brazzaville, rumba specialists trace the music’s origins back to the Kongo kingdom, where a dance called Nkumba originated. Rumba in its current, modern form dates back hundreds of years. It has been made famous by musicians like Papa Wemba, Grand Kallé, Wendo, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Franklin Boukaka and Pamelo Mounka.

UNESCO also added thiebou dieune, Senegal’s national fish dish, to its intangible heritage list in December. The dish, made with rice, fish and different vegetables, served with or without tomato, is often eaten as a lunchtime dish in families and restaurants across the country.