Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Africa’s democratic deliberations

Gamal Nkrumah appraises highlights of the political year in Sub-Saharan Africa



For those seeking evidence that Africa was set on a radical overhaul, 2017 was the proof of the pudding. There were political changes galore. In Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa was declared president and long-time leader Robert Mugabe was set aside, even though Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s right-hand man.
The military takeover in Zimbabwe was not a classic African coup d’état. Whatever the generals’ goals in installing Mnangagwa, they knew they could no longer manage Zimbabwean politics. They left that to the politicians.
Mnangagwa, nicknamed “the Crocodile”, was selected by the Zimbabwean generals who engineered the coup d’état, which was not against Mugabe as such, but rather against his wife, former first lady Grace Mugabe, 40 years Mugabe’s junior. She was widely loathed because of her extravagant lifestyle and mesmeric control over her husband.   
The Zimbabwean Defence Forces are renowned for their professionalism, and Mugabe was still held in high esteem by a significant section of the Zimbabwean population.
The country’s political crisis revealed the urban-rural divide in the country. The population in large cities such as the Zimbabwean capital Harare and the country’s second-largest city Bulawayo are decidedly anti-Mugabe. The rural areas are sympathetic to Mugabe, and he is widely respected for leading the Chimurenga, or War of Liberation, from white rule.
Army General Constantino Chiwengaza pledged that Zimbabwe would now return to “genuine democracy”. The generals indicated that they were not interested in power, but rather had temporarily taken control of the country to “target criminals” around the president, including his wife Grace. Zimbabwe’s Ruling Party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), promptly stripped Mugabe of the party’s leadership.        
The situation was reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square protests in the People’s Republic of China in 1989, sometimes referred to as the 89 Democracy Movement. China has taken a keen interest in the Zimbabwean political crisis, as Beijing is Zimbabwe’s most important trading partner and arms supplier.          
The country faces serious economic challenges. Inflation has been a perennial problem, and Zimbabwe has experienced hyperinflation for the second time in fewer than 10 years, defined by the monthly inflation rate reaching 50 per cent and remaining above that for at least 30 consecutive days.

Mugabe and wife, Grace

More than three million Zimbabweans live in extreme poverty. Three million have also left the country and settled in neighbouring South Africa.

This in turn has caused a wave of xenophobia in South Africa, though many more Zimbabweans have left the country to live in other African countries, as well as Europe, the United States and Australia. The unemployment rate in Zimbabwe now stands at a staggering 90 per cent.

Zimbabwe was forced to abandon its currency and replace it with the US dollar in 2009. Wheat production declined from around 270,000 tons in 1998 to 62,000 tons in 2017. Yet, many Zimbabweans believe that Mugabe does not deserve all the blame for the economic catastrophe that has hit the country.
The international sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe have hurt. A lack of security of land tenure has prompted white farmers to flee the country in droves. The pathologies that afflicted Zimbabwe during the Mugabe presidency came to a head in 2017.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring South Africa, the country’s President Jacob Zuma attended the 37th Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summit of Heads of State and Government in the capital Pretoria on 19 August. South Africa is the economic powerhouse of this regional grouping.

Zuma presented his State of the Nation address to a joint sitting of the country’s two houses of parliament in August. This was his fourth Address since being re-elected in May 2014. South Africa has three cities that serve as capitals: Pretoria (executive), Cape Town (legislative) and Bloemfontein (judicial). Johannesburg, now called Guateng, is the largest city in the country.

South Africa, too, has had more than its fair share of problems. Its ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), is riven with internal rivalries and factionalism. ANC presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma now aims at becoming South Africa’s first woman president.


South Africa lies thousands of kilometres from major African cities such as Lagos and Cairo, which has fostered a unique cultural tradition coupled with the profusion of races and ethnic groups in the country. It is home to peoples as diverse as the San hunter-gatherers of the northwestern desert, the Zulus of the eastern plateaus, and other Bantu-speaking ethnic groups.
There are the Khoekhoe of the southern Cape regions, and the so-called “coloureds”, a derogatory term now altered to mixed-race. There are ethnic Asians, including Indians, Malays, Filipinos, and Chinese.
Ethnic separatism in this multicultural land is no longer tolerated. Yet, whites of European descent tend to dominate economically, even as black Africans have the upper hand in the political sphere. All three presidential hopefuls are black Africans. The racial composition of the powers that be in South Africa is unlikely to change in 2018.

More than a decade after Zuma stood trial for the rape of now-deceased Fezekile “Khwezi” Kuzwayo, his number two man, Cyril Ramaphosa, stated in public this year that he believes Zuma is a rapist, a charge the president vehemently denies. Meanwhile, the ANC’s various structures are making their views known of who they believe should be Zuma’s successor.

“There is an intense need for self-expression among the oppressed in our country. When I say self-expression, I don’t mean people saying something about themselves. I mean people making history consciously,” mused South African poet Mongane Wally Serote.                                
In Kenya, too, there have been political problems, with human-rights organisations continuing to implicate the Kenyan police and military in the disappearances and killings of individuals allegedly linked to the militant Islamist group Al-Shabab.
Presidential elections held on 8 August were held again in October after being annulled by the Supreme Court on the grounds of irregularities. Kenya has had a relatively smooth democratic experience and is one of the few countries in Africa never to have experienced coup d’états.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was officially re-elected with 98 per cent of the vote, but opposition leader Raila Odinga boycotted the elections and does not recognise Kenyatta’s victory. Nicknamed Agwambo (act of God) by his supporters, the 72-year-old Odinga appears to have lost his last chance to be president.

Kenya’s Attorney-General Githu Muigai said that any attempt to hold a parallel swearing in of a different president would be high treason. And Kenyatta was sworn in as president on 28 November. Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled that the presidential elections met all the constitutional requirements, though the opposition still rejects the ruling.

Ethnicity played a pivotal part. Kenyatta is a Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, while Odinga is a Luo, Kenya’s second-largest ethnic group. The inauguration of Kenyatta revealed deep social divisions within this relatively rich Nile Valley nation, the wealthiest country per capita in East Africa.
The spectacle of music and dance performances in the Kenyan capital Nairobi’s Kasarani Stadium did nothing to quell the fury of the opposition. The elections echoed the days when the country’s former British colonial rulers deliberately pursued a policy of divide and rule, fomenting hatred among the various ethnic groups.

As far as his supporters are concerned, Kenyatta’s presidential inauguration brought to a close the protracted electoral chronicle that degenerated into ethnic and tribal rivalry that threatened to create political chaos.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this year, civil war led to a man-made famine in the eastern part of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese are threatened by hunger on an unprecedented scale. Some half a million severely malnourished children are at risk of starvation, and the UN’s World Food Programme has declared the crisis in DRC to be comparable to that in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

In Angola, President Joao Lourenco, the country’s leader since September 2017, sacked his predecessor’s daughter, former chief executive of Angolan state oil firm Sonangol, Isabel dos Santos, explaining that the two major Angolan banks she has links with are preparing to sell shares as part of plans to strengthen their operations at home and abroad.

Despite the collapse in the international oil price in recent years, crude oil has remained Angola’s leading revenue source, contributing 70 per cent of the country’s income. According to the US-based Forbes magazine, Dos Santos’s wealth was estimated to be around $3.5 billion in August 2017.
The daughter of Angola’s former president Jose Eduardo dos Santos who ruled the country from 1979 to 2017, she is Africa’s richest woman. The new president’s decree firing her was largely supported by the country’s ruling Party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), sidelining her politically and economically.  
In Nigeria, 2017 commenced with the 17 January accidental bombing of a refugee camp in Rann in Bornu State in the northeast of the country that resulted in 115 deaths, according to official sources. The Nigerian authorities claimed that the bombing was a “mistake”, and it caused much consternation.

The year ended in scandal in December when Ekiti State Governor Ayo Fayose described Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari as the “father of corruption” over his refusal to sanction the minister of solid minerals development, Kayode Fayemi, and other officials. The euphoria that followed the relatively peaceful 2015 elections that brought in the administration of Buhari has now given way to increasing concerns.
With more elections around the corner, Africa has nevertheless come a long way from the turbulent coup-ridden years of the 1960s and 1970s that produced many situations like the case of Kenya. 

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