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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

It might be too early to declare an African Spring – but leaders are being toppled in their droves

In recent months, a trend has emerged with leaders across the continent falling victim to their greed or being brought down by their own parties

Ethiopia's new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, arrives at the country's parliament in Addis Ababa for his swearing-in ceremony. EPA / STR
Ethiopia's new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, arrives at the country's parliament in Addis Ababa for his swearing-in ceremony. EPA / STR

Ethiopia swore in a new prime minister this week after an overhaul within the ruling party. To onlookers, the transition of power to Abiy Ahmed might seem insignificant. But seen in the context of a continent in flux, it reflects what some are calling the African Spring.

Young and energetic, Mr Abiy's appointment ends a political crisis that has gripped Africa’s oldest independent nation since the surprise resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn in February.

Mr Hailemariam’s departure followed two years of public protests against the country’s beleaguered ruling coalition, which has dominated national politics since 1991. Amid a state of emergency, hundreds of protesters were killed. Thousands more were arrested.

The new prime minister is a fresh face and the first Ethiopian leader from the Oromo ethnic group, whose members have led anti-government protests. He is, nonetheless, a central figure within the ruling coalition.

Discussion of Africa is often laced with stereotype and assumption. It tends to ignore the diversity – historical, political, cultural, ethnic, geographic and linguistic – within and between its 54 nations. And yet in recent months, a trend has emerged.

Leaders across the continent are being toppled in their droves. Some have fallen victim to their greed, filling their bellies while their countrymen starved. Others have been brought down by their own parties, by the army or by popular protest.

Some, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, have attracted global attention. Others, like former Mauritian President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim – who resigned last month after allegedly spending $27,000 on an NGO credit card – have not. As change sweeps the continent, its young population – likely to surpass 2.5 billion by 2050, according to the UN – are rightly demanding education, employment and increased opportunities from their old-fashioned leaders.

But does this herald a new dawn for African democracy – or will they be left disappointed?

The three biggest downfalls herald from Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos ruled Angola from independence, revelling in the fertile oil reserves and resulting foreign investment that made it Africa’s third biggest economy. But redistribution began and ended with his inner circle. Last year he stepped down after 38 years. His daughter Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman, was immediately fired as head of the state oil company. Her brother is now the target of an anti-corruption drive.

Meanwhile, as Zimbabwe’s economy plunged to unprecedented lows, a 93-year-old Mr Mugabe was powerless to cushion its effects. Last November he was ousted in an orderly military coup and his Zanu-PF party brought an end to his 37-year rule.

And earlier this year, plagued by rumours of corruption and scandal, Jacob Zuma was deposed by the African National Congress, months before his term was due to end. Declining ANC support and electoral losses in major urban strongholds expedited his downfall. Mr Zuma is due to appear in court on Friday to face charges of corruption in relation to a $2.5bn arms deal from the 1990s.

Equally symbolic of this rift between the old and new guard was the death this week of Winnie Mandela, a deeply divisive figure whose significant role in the anti-apartheid struggle was overshadowed by accusations of corruption and violence.

Messrs Mugabe, Dos Santos and Zuma were synonymous with liberation struggle. With it comes a sense of entitlement and self-preservation that will live on in their parties after they are gone.

With his purge of Zuma's allies, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa offers the greatest hopes of meaningful change.

But Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mr Mugabe’s former vice president who stepped into his shoes and Joao Lourenco, a veteran of the ruling MPLA, may simply offer Zimbabwean and Angolan voters more of what preceded them. For their parties, it is an opportunity to proclaim progress and deliver continuity.

Other recent transitions have been more encouraging. In January 2017, power changed hands after 23 years in Gambia. The election and its aftermath were entirely peaceful. There have been smooth transfers of power between political parties in Ghana and Liberia in recent months. This week, troubled Sierra Leone looks set to be another. Their new leaders, including former footballer George Weah, who took control of Liberia in February, face an avalanche of expectations from their jaded electorates.

Africa is changing. Quite how much is likely to depend on the fortunes of other well-entrenched leaders within the continent. Will they buck the trend or fall victim to it? Will their demise start in the street or at the ballot box?

A handful of candidates spring immediately to mind, most notably Joseph Kabila, who assumed power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 after the assassination of his father Laurent-Desire Kabila. The Kabila legacy has seen untold violence and bloodshed since.

In spite – or perhaps because of – its vast mineral wealth, the DRC is today among the world’s poorest countries, cleaved by conflict and grasping foreign powers, both regional and international. Mr Kabila was expected to step down at the end of his term in 2016 but remains in office today, most of his opposition either dead or exiled. But with the influential Catholic church calling for change, protests are growing in frequency and numbers.

Across the border in Uganda, Yoweri Museveni recently bulldozed presidential term and age limits after 32 years in power, causing significant disquiet. To the west, Paul Biya has ruled Cameroon with an iron fist since 1982. When a south-western separatist movement swelled last year, the army reportedly killed 100 protesters. Mr Biya is facing growing popular dissent.

The fate of these three presidents could have considerable implications for Africa’s pro-democracy movement, simmering away since the 1990s.

Perhaps all will remain as it is. But sceptics would be wise to remember that two years ago the leaders of Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa all looked unassailable. Today, all three are gone.

Charlie Mitchell is a leader writer for The National