Stability is currently a prized characteristic of African governmentality: it has become the desirable state-of-being for African governments to exist in, prized by foreign governments, aid organisations, multilateral agencies and wealthy corporations.
In the last four months, something rather unprecedented has happened in African politics: three African heads of state have resigned. What are we to make of this? Are African leaders, and the political elite, becoming more accountable to their electorate or voices of the opposition? Or are the mechanisms of civil society that work in tandem with the functioning of a plural democracy — the media, citizens groups, pressure groups — getting more vocal?
Are we likely to see, in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, where long-serving heads of state have resigned, the transitions that occurred in Ghana under Jerry Rawlings in the 1992, which saw the country return to multiparty democracy after three decades under military rule? Or, the high-profile resignations are a considered theatrical strategy for ensuring the continuation of the ruling elite rather than delegitimise or weaken it.
As of 2018, sub-Saharan Africa has some of the world’s longest serving heads of state. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea seized power in a military coup in 1979 and has remained at the helm of the oil-rich nation ever since. <1> Paul Biya has ruled Cameroon since 1982. <2> Yoweri Museveni has been in charge of Uganda since 1986. <3> Idriss Déby had ruled Chad continuously from 1990. <4> Isaias Afwerki has been president of Eritrea from 1993. <5>
All these leaders (with the exception of Afwerki), after seizing power through force, have eventually conceded to hold elections in their countries. However, these have been highly flawed exercises, as these states are either de facto one-party states with an opposition heavily regulated by the ruling party (as in the case of Equatorial Guinea <6>, Cameroon <7>, and Sudan <8>), or with the opposition leaders silenced or eliminated before the elections (as in the case of Uganda <9> and Chad <10>), leaving the legitimacy of the governments in question.
The emergence of autocratic leaders in African postcolonial states has often been attributed to cultural peculiarities — the ‘Big Man’ syndrome, which African socio-political systems tend to produce <11>. Big Men proceed to cultivate dialogical networks of patronage with their subject-citizens. These contours of patronage build upon ethnic, class, and regional divisions. Big Men maintain their power through control and redistribution of the states’ resources in neopatrimonial relationships with their patrons, channeling the machinery of state — the army, police, judiciary, media, and local and multinational corporations to sustain their positions.
Unsurprisingly, there is a direct correlation between the length of tenure of a head of state and his removal by undemocratic means. In other words, longer serving African heads of state in recent memory have seen their tenure terminated not through democratic transfers of power, but by coup d’états, assassinations, or death, while those that have stayed in power for less than a decade have been associated with the youthful but burgeoning electoral democracies on the continent.
Mobutu Sese Seko’s kleptocratic thirty two year reign of mineral-rich Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) ended in 1997 <12>. He was known for his extravagant lifestyle and he amassed a massive personal fortune, while Zaire’s external debt spiraled out of control amid currency devaluations. Civil war erupted as ethnic unrest in the 1990s — largely in the form of tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups — from neighbouring countries in the Great Lakes Region spread to Zaire. Laurent Kabila, Mobutu’s chief rival was backed by Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda <13>. Mobutu fled into exile in 1997, and died in Morocco that year.
Similarly, Muammar Gaddafi was a victim of the broader undercurrents of the Arab Spring and NATO backed-Libyan rebels, who ended his 42 year grip of Libya in 2011. Later that year <14>, a National Transitional Government was formed. In both cases, the new leaderships attempted to mark an ideological and administrative departure from the old guard, though conflict-ridden countries proved difficult to stabilise. Both Mobutu and Gaddafi had come to power by staging coups against Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and the Libyan monarchy respectively, and were dislodged by violence. The takeaway: violent transitions of power in large, multi-ethnic, resource rich states, with foreign governments and multinational corporations at play, often breed chaos, plunging countries into prolonged anarchy.
Meles Zenawi died in office after leading Ethiopia for 21 years in 2001. Meles had been a guerrilla fighter involved in the overthrow of Ethiopia’s Marxist Derg regime; as premier, he had overseen the transition back to multiparty democracy, through his party, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDLF) was essentially the only party capable of winning elections. <15> The opposition was silenced and media regulated. Meles was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn, who was nominated as chairperson by the same party, eventually becoming Prime Minister. Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s 38 year presidency of Togo ended with his death in 2005. <16> He was succeeded by his son, Faure Gnassingbé, amid condemnation from the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Despite holding elections since 2005, Faure’s regime remains in a deadlock with opposition parties, which want more concessions, like wide-ranging constitutional reforms and a limit on presidential terms, which would see him step down immediately. <17> Faure has tried to distance himself from his father, by moves such as rebranding his father’s party, Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT) to Union pour la Républic (UNIR). Though he made key concessions to the opposition, such providing increased representation in the electoral commission, and releasing some anti-government activists, his policies remain very similar. <18> In both cases, death of a premier merely resulted in an almost monarchal coronation, and the maintenance of status quo.
However, Ghana is now a functional electoral democracy, and power has alternated between the current ruling party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Party (NDC), with no leader staying in office for longer than two terms. Countries like Tanzania, the Republic of Benin, Zambia, and Nigeria have also seen peaceful transfers of power through the ballot box, with presidential term limits respected. <19>
Once the liberator of Zimbabwe from white minority rule in 1980, Robert Mugabe’s 38 years in power has left his country in ruins. His controversial land redistribution policy and mismanagement of the economy saw the economy collapse: unemployment and inflation skyrocketed. He became increasingly autocratic, silencing or eliminating any opposition and media. Rampant corruption and nepotism characterised his inner-circle. Mugabe was forced to resign after a coup on 14 November 2017 after which the army installed former Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, from whom Mugabe had become estranged, as the leader of the country. It is broadly acknowledged that Mnangagwa’s rule will differ little from Mugabe’s; his track record is very similar to his predecessors. <20> He was a key agent in the violent slaughter of thousands of Ndebele dissidents during the 1980s. He has also been accused of electoral rigging in Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)’s favour in the past. He commands the loyalty of some of the former Mugabe loyalists. Mnangagwa serves as first secretary of the ZANU-PF after it sacked Mugabe. So it is unlikely that any of his policies will change drastically in the interim. With the death of longtime, charismatic opposition leader Morgon Tsvangarai in February 2018, Mnangagwa’s access to power in any future Zimbabwean election looks almost guaranteed.
Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s President was pressured into resigning on 15 February 2018. He had been in the news for allegations of corruption, links to unsavory businessmen, and embezzlement of state funds. Cyril Ramaphosa, his long-serving right hand man, replaced him. The choice of Ramaphosa is strategic, meant to redeem the image of the struggling African National Congress (ANC), in a bit to ensure its success at the polls next year: the ANC still continues to rest on its anti-apartheid laurels, and has won by large (though depleting) margins, since 1994; Ramaphosa has played crucial roles during the anti-apartheid struggle, as part of the National Union of Mineworkers. Ramaphosa’s policies and governance is are unlikely to differ from his predecessor’s. <21>
Hailemariam Desalegn became the first Ethiopian Prime Minister to resign on 21 February 2018, and a state of emergency was declared in the country almost immediately. <22> A successor will be appointed shortly from the ruling EPRDF, which is a coalition of four parties, drawn from Ethiopia’s ethnic regions. Two regions of Ethiopia, the Amhara and the Oromio region, have seen widespread anti-government protests in the last five years. Together, the inhabitants of these regions make up 27 and 34 percent of the population respectively, but feel the balance of power is skewed against them. <23> The ruling elites are perceived as being largely from the northern Tigray region, who constitute just six percent of the population. Meles was Tigray, and through Hailemariam is a Welayta from the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SSNR), he was widely regarded as a puppet of the Tigray elite. Land redistribution policies have become a contentious issue. The government’s attempts to boost commercial agriculture, have seen large tracts of agricultural land leased to multinational corporations and foreign agencies, a move which has cleared local peoples off their ancestral lands, left them inadequately compensated and marginalised. <24> Hailemariam’s government released several political prisoners in February 2018 in a move to quell tensions, but he was probably pushed to resign by his party for being unable to manage Ethiopia’s building ethnic tensions brewing within its federalist structure. <25>
These changes at the top, while they appear to be strategies aimed at paving the way for greater democratisation or in the political space, are just the opposite. Stability is currently a prized characteristic of African governmentality: it has become the desirable state-of-being for African governments to exist in, prized by foreign governments, aid organisations, multilateral agencies and wealthy corporations. Stability guarantees foreign agencies and actors access to African resources and markets; allows security and ‘terrorism’ threats to be monitored; puts in place mechanisms for stemming the flow of human migrations to other geographies. The mantra of ‘good governance’ and ‘democratic change’ which until recently pervaded the political discourse is associated with ‘instability’ in resource-rich African states and markets with potential: and while the development of truly democratic will be beneficial to African peoples and societies in the long-run, it will potentially dislodge the parasitic relationship between African political elites and external stakeholders. <26> High-profile resignations are therefore almost a considered theatrical strategy for ensuring the continuation of the ruling elite rather than delegitimise or weaken it.
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