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Africa Specific: Here We Go

This is a series about the African continent — and we're just getting started

It’s a big, wide, complicated, confusing, confounding world out there. And for most of us, it's impossible to keep track of everything that's going on. We get ground down in the nitty-gritty. We get distracted. We get Snapchat and spend, like, three hours trying to figure out how to make our girlfriends look like a panda. It happens.

Meanwhile, a lot is happening, and a ton of it is happening in the 54 countries that make up the African continent. Six of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa, as are three of the world’s fastest-growing cities. The world’s second-largest movie market — bigger than Hollywood — is in Nigeria. Nairobi, the tech capital of the continent, is known as “Silicon Savannah.” But for a lot of reasons — including racism, the lingering effects of colonialism, a mass-media culture that ignores a continent of 1.2 billion people — you probably haven’t heard much about Africa lately.

This is a series about the African continent, because what happens in Niger or Nigeria has implications for all of us, whether they're good, bad, or Brexit. This is just a slice of what's out there, so keep reading and keep learning. This is "Africa Specific."

After 25 years of running, Chad’s former president Hissene Habre has been sentenced to life in prison for war crimes in Dakar, Senegal. The trial of a man the CIA called America’s "quintessential desert warrior" took 10 years to even begin after the African Union ruled that Senegal, not Belgium (which had issued an arrest warrant for Habre), should try him.

With the support and funding of the United States and France — who needed him as an ally against Chad’s neighbor, Libya, and its socialist dictator, Muammar Gaddafi — Habre killed at least 40,000 so-called “enemies of the state.” Some, he tortured by forcing them to put their mouths around the exhaust pipes of running cars or hanging them upside-down by their genitals. Others, like the Hadjarai, a Chadian ethnic group, were murdered en masse as punishment for insubordination. In 1990, Habre stole $11 million of Chadian funds and ran to Senegal, where he lived in exile until he was put under house arrest in 2005.

Habre was called "Africa’s Pinochet," after the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet was among the first former heads of state to be held accountable for war crimes. But for the first time ever, the court of one country tried and convicted the former leader of another for crimes against humanity. And for Habre’s victims, it’s been a long time coming.

Kenya is home to 44 million people — as well as to what is currently the world’s largest refugee camp. At roughly 330,000 people, Dadaab would be Kenya’s third-largest city (and the same population as Iceland), and some refugees in the camp have lived there for more than two decades (in contrast, the United States, which is eight times bigger than Kenya by population, plans to take in roughly 85,000 refugees in 2015–16). Kenya wants Dadaab closed, but the international community, including the United States, responded by saying that closing the camp would put nearly half a million people escaping from civil wars across the continent at incredible risk. And experts are noting that with the upcoming presidential election in 2017, Trump-style anti-refugee political stances and scapegoating are easy ways to get votes. In a phone call on June 23, President Obama called Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and told Kenyatta that the United States and Kenya would work together to ensure that refugee safety and security was made a priority.

The camp has schools, hospitals, and graveyards, as well as hundreds of thriving businesses. But residents don’t have Kenyan citizenship, and can’t leave the camp. Some attempt "the desperate journey": fleeing from the Horn of Africa to Italy and then into Europe (with the help of human traffickers).

Others, according to the Kenyan government, are being radicalized, particularly by al-Shabaab, a jihadist group with allegiance to al-Qaeda. After the 2013 Westgate Mall terror attack in Nairobi that killed 67 people, the Kenyan government became increasingly concerned about refugees, particularly since Dadaab is in the same district as Garissa University College, where 148 people were killed in a 2015 al-Shabaab attack.

Burundi, a country of 10 million people, is in the midst of simmering crisis — and the African Union wants effective talks, now. After President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a controversial and legally contentious third term in 2015, a failed coup led to a mass government crackdown on dissent (even jogging in an unregistered group is forbidden) that has turned incredibly violent. At least 100 people are fleeing the country every day, running to Tanzania, the DRC, or Rwanda and away from alleged mass rape and government death squads. The president of the Burundian Senate, Révérien Ndikuriyo, told local leaders last November that opponents of Nkurunziza are not worthy of life: “You tell those who want to execute the mission: on this issue, you have to pulverize, you have to exterminate — these people are only good for dying. I give you this order, go!”

Already 250,000 people have left the country in a single year. Some, mostly women and young children, have walked for weeks to get to camps in Tanzania, hiding from Nkurunziza's political allies. Peace talks began in Tanzania, but opposition leaders who opposed Nkurunziza’s third term were excluded, meaning that, according to attendees, the government is largely talking to itself.