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Democratic transitions going on in Africa are slow and timid. However, there is reason to believe that something substantive is happening. 

Something is happening in Africa. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly a democratic revolution might be under way. Over the past six months, we have witnessed an unprecedented spate of turnovers in leadership, strikingly in countries not exactly reputed for smooth successions. Most of these exits have been more forced than voluntary. Eduardo dos Santos of Angola stepped down in September 2017, bringing an end to years at the helm of the Southern African oil-rich state. Shortly after, Robert Mugabe, who looked set on becoming the president-for-life of Zimbabwe, was eased out by his own ruling party. A fortnight ago, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, long embattled by corruption allegations finally found himself in an untenable position and with no more allies in his party; he resigned. Just days later, erstwhile Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly announced his resignation as mounting political and ethnic unrests threatened to tip Africa’s second most populous country into chaos.

One way of interpreting these events is to see them as examples of democratic currents prevailing over executive obduracy; the pressure of people power finally overwhelming and dispatching sit-tight leaders. In 2015, while addressing the African Union, United States President Barack Obama said, “Nobody should be president for life.” Reportedly, there was profuse applause from the public gallery while the front rows, which were occupied by heads of state, were enveloped in a sullen silence. At the time, nine African leaders had been in power for more than twenty years. The events of the past six months suggest that the tide is turning against such stagnation in national leadership.

In an earlier trip to Ghana in July 2009, Obama had famously asserted that, “the continent does not need strongmen but strong institutions”. In the light of this resonant statement, we can also read these sudden transitions as the triumph of party supremacy over the cult of the personality in power. In both Zimbabwe and South Africa, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the African National Congress (ANC) respectively, identified the continuity of the heads of state in office as politically costly and took measures to reset governance by seeing them out of power. In both instances, the parties asserted their primacy as institutions and affirmed the transience of occupants of high office.

The ANC, which is over a 100 years old and thus older than most African nations, showed how a party effects a course correction by jettisoning an underperforming and scandal-prone president. Too often African parties act like mere appendages of those in power when they should provide an ideological platform for those in office and a framework of scrutiny for holding political leaders accountable. By easing Zuma out of office, albeit belatedly in the view of some critics, the ANC proved that it is willing to play a role that is consistent with its impressive pedigree.

In Ethiopia, Desalegn’s exit also paves way for his party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to pick another leader and rethink its approaches to managing ethnic discontent, which has occasionally led to violence. Political parties in African nations need to take a cue from this and take themselves more seriously as democratic institutions.   

This flurry of resignations has occurred at the same time that Liberia’s President Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson stepped down after two terms to be succeeded by George Oppong Weah. Her preferred successor, Vice President Joseph Boakai had been defeated by Weah. Her quiet departure and the seamless transition that ensued was a welcome and pleasant compliance with due process. This followed earlier transitions including the eviction in 2017 of the Gambian dictator Yaya Jammeh and the election of Nana Akufo-Addo in Ghana in a transition that further consolidated one of Africa’s finest democratic traditions. Perhaps, democracy is gradually becoming the only game in town and African elites as well as publics are realising that disrupting democratic processes holds no possibility of progress. Beyond merely holding elections, there is a growing desire for all political actors to adhere to the rules of the game. This paradigm shift has been long awaited.

On another note, the passage of Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai recently reminds us of the steep price of democratic change. Tsvangirai prosecuted his struggle to unseat Mugabe and the ZANU-PF in the early 2000s at great cost to his physical wellbeing including enduring physical assault by regime agents, which undoubtedly helped to broaden the democratic possibilities in his country. That he should be outlived by his nonagenarian adversary, seems one of those cruel ironies of life and politics.

These transitions have been hard won. In Zimbabwe, despite Mugabe’s departure, the liberation generation is still in place and the next chapter of her journey of democratisation must surely be a transference of power from this particular cohort to another generation and ideological tendency. It is still too early to declare a total victory for democracy on the continent. There are still places in which recalcitrant leaders are making a last stand or where both incumbents and their challengers demonstrate a less than wholehearted fidelity to the rules.

In Kenya, the elections, which returned President Uhuru Kenyatta for a second term, were rejected by his opponent Raila Odinga who has since declared himself “The people’s president” in a parallel inauguration ceremony. Given Kenya’s previous record of political violence, there are concerns that such partisan obstinacy could trigger widespread unrest. In Togo, activists have rallied civil society to demand the exit of Faure Eyadema from power, widen the democratic space and bring an end to the decades-long reign of the Eyadema family over that country.

Finally, these resignations are significant in that they have generally occurred stealthily. They are instances of regime changes achieved without the drama of violent unrest or street protests, as was the case in the “Arab Spring”. Indeed, some critics have sought to downplay these developments as merely intra-elite power dynamics that do not necessarily alter the texture of peace and development on the continent. On the other hand, these transitions show that elites can check their errant peers and use institutions to propel change. Not all forms of regime change have to be driven from the streets. It is an encouraging signal to civil society that encouraging broader participation in formal political institutions creates genuine pathways to power. Change can be driven from both within and without the system and those genuinely seeking the transformation of the material conditions of the people must leverage both avenues.


* Akin Rotimi is a diplomacy and strategic communications professional writing from Abuja, Nigeria.