Africa waves some leaders goodbye: but is the democratic deficit any narrower?

Jose Eduardo dos Santos has stepped down as president of Angola but the country’s political system hasn’t been overhauled. EPA/Manuel de Almeida

At a time when Africa has seen a few long-standing leaders exit, the issue of change in power is occupying minds of citizens as well as those in leadership positions.

In spite of their varied repertoire of tactics to remain in power, no one is immune to the wave of change in leadership that has led many African presidents to lose their coveted top job.

Whether through elections, succession battles, coups or end of terms in office it has become a question of when and how they will exit. That’s if one is not too concerned with what comes afterwards. Though it is too early to tell whether meaningful changes can be expected, cases such as Zimbabwe suggest that its citizens can envisage more of the same.

Nevertheless, a review of developments in 2017 shows that it was a fruitful year for those advocating change. Examples include the Gambia where Adama Barrow came in as a promising new leader. Angola’s Joao Manuel Lourenço rose to power and immediately replaced some top public servants, raising hopes that he might champion good governance, although there hasn’t been an overhaul of the system.

In any case, the arrival of a ‘new’ leader in power always brings optimism for change and constitutes an opportunity for new beginnings.

The big changes of 2017

In the Gambia Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jammeh decided to hang onto power following his electoral defeat to Adama Barrow.

Gambian President Adama Barrow. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A nuisance to his Senegalese neighbour and an embarrassment to his peers in the subregional body, he was eventually pushed out by the Economic Community of West African States, ending his 22-year rule. He has since been in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

After nearly four decades in power Angola’s Jose Eduardo Dos Santos did not seek reelection. But his ruling Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) retained power after winning the August presidential election. Dos Santos was succeeded by Joao Manuel Goncalves Lourenço, his former Minister of Defense.

Zimbabwe provided the finale to an eventful year when, in a battle for succession, Robert Mugabe was forced out by a faction of his ZANU-PF with the help the Zimbabwean Defense Forces. Emmerson Mnangagwa, his long-time ally, and vice-president, took over the country. Mnangagwa has announced that elections this year will be ‘free and fair’. He is expected to retain power and his ZANU-PF to keep control of the national assembly.

Different fortunes

Rwanda, Kenya and Liberia all presented tales of different presidential fortunes.

After the December 2015 constitutional amendment allowing Paul Kagame to run for a third term and potentially remain in power until 2034, he was, without a surprise, reelected in august 2017 with almost 99 % of the votes. Kagame, touted by many as the providential leader who has stabilised and redressed a country emerging from genocide, is also criticised for muzzling all forms of opposition and restricting civil liberties.

In Kenya, Chris Msando, head of information, communication and technology for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, was tortured and murdered a week before the presidential election. Following the august 8th polls, the opposition coalition known as NASA and led by Raila Ondinga, contested the reelection of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta. Despite international observers (including the African Union) finding no major issues with the polls, the Kenyan Supreme Court annulled the results and called for a new election in October.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

Uhuru Kenyatta was eventually reelected president in October, after NASA’s refusal to take part in the election without addressing the key issues raised about the electoral commission.

Kenya has since sunk into a political and institutional crisis, aggravated by the recent inauguration of Odinga as the ‘peoples president’.

Africa’s presidential electoral year ended in Liberia, on 28 December, with the passing of the baton between the ruling-party’s candidate Joseph Nyumah Bokai and Georges Oppong Weah. The former soccer star turned politician and senator, won in the second round with more than 60% of the votes taking over from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s 12 year rule. He will have to redress the resource-rich but yet poor nation, in the wake of a debilitating Ebola outbreak.

Lessons to take into 2018

In the three emblematic cases of ‘handover’ – Angola, Zimbabwe and The Gambia – it’s difficult to say whether the democratic deficit is less serious today. But if ZANU-PF and the MPLA don’t renew themselves, systems that don’t have a stellar record in the rule of law and good governance departments could easily be perpetuated.

Gambians, for their part, can hope that the coming to power of a novice in politics will bring them a better life.

Ensuring democratic and good governance, free and fair elections, and peaceful transitions to power are no longer optional.

Stability in several countries will indubitably be jeopardised in 2018 if some governments do not deliver free and fair elections. Similarly, undertaking constitutional changes that contradict the rule of law, the separation of powers and don’t uphold political agreements, will further entrench instability. From this point of view, Africa’s regional organisations will have to manage the post-electoral crises from previous years – including Kenya – and try and prevent those on the horizon this year.

The African Union must, more than ever, have all its member states sing to the tune of democracy. This can be facilitated by a reform of the organisation. But this, in turn, hinges on the political will of those who will have to endorse the necessary changes. Unfortunately, they remain, for the moment, the guardians of the old order.

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