columnBy Alex Vines
'We have a prediction problem. We love to predict things - and we aren't very good at it.' These are the words of the statistician superstar Nate Silver, one of the few men in the world who actually does not have a prediction problem: he correctly forecast the results of the 2012 US presidential election in all 50 states.
Each December experts are asked to predict events around the world for the coming year. Many of these are blindingly obvious - or just plain wrong. According to Silver, one of the reasons for this is the Web, which allows bad ideas to circulate until they become conventional wisdom.
In the following pages Chatham House experts look at some of the notable surprises of 2012, and ask why no one predicted them, and what we can learn.
In March, I had lunch with Joyce Banda, then Malawi's Vice-President and a women's activist whom I had first met in the 1990s when we both campaigned to ban anti-personnel mines. She told me that she feared she might be 'accidentalized' before the next elections in 2014. She had fallen out with President Bingu wa Mutharika after a row over the succession in 2010, and had been expelled from the ruling Democratic People's Party. The president's brother, Peter Mutharika, Malawi's Foreign Minister, had been chosen instead of Banda to be the DPP's presidential candidate and was deputizing for the President on official occasions.
Since Bingu wa Mutharika had been re-elected as President for a second term in 2009, he had shown an increasingly authoritarian streak. Britain's High Commissioner had been expelled in 2011 after a WikiLeaks cable was circulated quoting him saying that Mutharika was 'becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism'. The Malawian leader said that he could not accept 'insults' just because Britain was his country's largest aid donor. London suspended aid to Malawi, which the United Nations ranks as one of the world's poorest countries with an estimated 75 per cent of the population living on less than $1 a day. Other donors also suspended aid.
All the risk projections were negative, forecasting an increasingly authoritarian and unpredictable trajectory for Malawi up to the 2014 elections. Then in April state radio and TV reported that Mutharika, 78, had been flown to Johannesburg for emergency medical treatment. To prepare the ground for the President's brother to assume power, six of Mutharika's allies in cabinet released a statement claiming that Banda was ineligible to be Vice-President, since she had left the DPP and founded her own party. In fact the President was not having treatment. He had suffered a massive heart attack and was clinically dead. His body had been transported to South Africa to buy time in the succession battle.
The Malawian army became the deciding factor. The army stuck to the constitution and supported Banda. Mutharika's allies were forced to back off and Banda assumed the presidency.
President Banda, as she now was, moved quickly to appoint a new government and set out to repair relations with international partners. She still faces major challenges, but this was a case where dire predictions of an African country collapsing into family-based despotism were wide of the mark.
Alex Vines is head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House.