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The departure of long-serving African leaders in Zimbabwe, Angola and The Gambia in 2017 ushered in measured hope for change and a desire for more such changes. Can new leaders in those countries meet people's high expectations? 

Last year, 2017, had witnessed a number of political events unfolding in the continent, which for many had brought joy and grief to some. Several longstanding regimes had reached their end, and brought hopes of a better, democratic and constitution-abiding Africa. Many have viewed and still believe that it is a step towards change and should be embraced by everyone, though someone warns that we still cannot be comfortable with that feeling just yet, but it was not a scary image to go to sleep with, as we have entered a brand new year.

It all started on 1 December 2016, when The Gambia held a historic election, which would later see the 24-year regime of Yahya Jammeh going into history books.  At last, the man who ruled with an iron fist finally met with a “kick-off” from a then 50-year-old political neophyte, Adama Barrow. It was undoubtedly a hard blow in the face for the self-proclaimed lifetime ruler who believed no man could unseat him without his will. Joy took over The Gambia with immediate effect upon the announcement of poll results that declared the Britain-educated realtor a winner. The country went to standstill and people got out in celebration of the end of the tyrannical rule of Al-Hajj Jammeh.

In an event that was not expected, the chief of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of The Gambia, Alieu Momar Njie did not blink to announce the name of the genuine winner despite awareness he was jeopardising his carrier and, most assuredly his life. It was a heroic act by him to put national interests before his brutal appointer’s. An end had to come and had to be brought by someone; this man did it. Njie should be treated as a hero since, he, in a common African context, had all the power resting in his hands to clear the path for the dictator given that his position was a very tiny portion in Jammeh’s monster cake. Jammeh, in fact, hired him to that position, but he proved his integrity and loyalty to the people of The Gambia.

It was indeed the day that everyone in The Gambia, particularly the poor, and all pro-democracy communities in and out of Africa felt the need to rejoice. The era of extrajudicial executions, deep-rooted corruption, human rights violations along with all other types of power abuse at least came to an end “until further notice”. Another event that was even more exciting is when the defeated dictator attempted to deny defeat and raised concern of some African leaders who consequently made a diplomatic move in attempt to settle the issue without arms, but Jammeh briefly upheld his defiance, a move that led to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc deploying troops to oust him. He finally conceded on 21 January 2017, and jetted into exile leaving behind a badly damaged economy for Barrow to fix; Score 1 for democracy and 0 for tyranny. ECOWAS demonstrated a perfect exemplary image to be mimicked by other regional blocs in matters of enforcing proper political ways. I wonder if the East African Community [where I am from] could ever do that to any of its “royals”.

The string of news of such magnitude did not cease, and months later the continent saw another precedent being set in the judicial system following the Kenyan general election held in August 2017. For the first time in Africa, on 1 September 2017, the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified the election results, which declared Uhuru Kenyatta winner over his diehard opponent, Raila Odinga. Raila had challenged the victory based on the grounds that the electoral process had been marred by irregularities. What made this issue draw worldwide attention here was not cancellation of results, but rather who made the ruling and who suffered from it. Normally, you don’t dare doing that in Africa unless you are on a suicide mission – incumbents cannot be challenged!

The move by the Kenyan highest judicial body met with fierce condemnation from the Uhuru-led political coalition and its supporters but, on the other hand, it appeared to be a highly celebrated victory for Odinga and his backers as well as the international community. This was regarded by many as the beginning of the long-coveted autonomy of governmental institutions in the continent. The jury led by Chief Justice David Maraga faced a myriad of accusations of incompetence, bias and alleged death threats, but the world looked at them as commendable heroes who had actually earned Kenya so much credit.

Some months later, a re-election was held again as per court ruling and now the opposition boycotted the poll, which went ahead anyway. Despite the stunts pulled by the opposition side, the same jury made sure of fair ruling and consequently, a month or so later, the court upheld Kenyatta’s victory. All these happenings seemed as absurdity but very important history was marked; the fact that autonomous institutions in African governments can actually perform their duties free of interference from the executive, which often carry out the appointing task. Thanks to the Kenyan constitution Justice Maraga cannot be dismissed at the president’s pleasure.

In Angola once lived a regime, which lasted for decades without clue of when it would end. José Eduardo dos Santos ruled the country for 38 years since 1976 being the only leader most Angolan knew of. On 23 August 2017, another blessing fell upon the continent; it was the first election in 38 years without dos Santos’s name appearing on the list of candidates. He had willingly decided to quit running for the office though he remained chief of his ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a position believed to be equally as powerful.

Both Angolans and the international community have appreciated Santos for his contribution in the stabilisation of the economy in his country since the end of the war, elevating it to the position of the third biggest economy in Africa. It is without doubt that this Africa’s second largest oil producer has made major economic strides during Santos’s time as head of state.

Despite his contribution in transforming Angola’s economy during his tenure, Santos has been accused of amassing a great personal fortune, most of it said to come from his country’s oil. He is one of the richest presidents in Africa with a considerable amount of shares in financial, telecommunication and energy sectors of Angola while his family was holding key positions in the country. His daughter, Isabel dos Santos, 44, is the richest woman in the continent while her brother, José Filomeno, 39, heads Angola’s US $5bn sovereign wealth fund. More than 70 percent of the country’s population still lives below the poverty line.

In September 2017, João Lourenço, a former Minister of Defense and Vice-President of the MPLA, was announced the winner in the general election, giving a chance for the country to experience a touch of a new leader after nearly a four-decade leadership of dos Santos. Lourenço fulfilled his campaign promise to uproot nepotism by firing key figures in the government including the governor of the central bank, Walter Filipe Duarte da Silva, and the president of state-owned oil and gas company Sonangol, who is also the daughter of his predecessor. This brought hopes that Africa is slowly moving towards new ages of democracy.

On a rather astonishing event in November 2017, Zimbabwe’s Comrade Robert Mugabe finally found himself under fire after the military takeover, which saw him being confined in a move that was explained to target enemies around the 93-year old president. Images of army generals appeared on the national broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, calling Zimbabweans to stay calm, stressing that the president was in safety and that his security was guaranteed, while the Secretary General of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) Youth League and several other ministers faced apprehension.

This move by the military unleashed huge demonstrations into the streets of Zimbabwe demanding their long-time comrade to step down. The pan-Africanist had served as head of state for 37 years, and was the icon of liberation and symbol of patriotism and confidence to many in the continent, but his denial to relinquish his grip on power largely affected his support at both home and abroad; he was now considered an enemy of democracy, abuser of the rule of law and human rights, and had finally lost endorsement of his own party members; at least that is how it looked like in the end.

Mugabe’s days came to an end when he was stripped of his chairmanship in the ruling ZANU-PF of which he became its leader several decades ago. The party demanded his resignation or would have to face impeachment. Within less than 48 hours after issuance of the party’s call, the Africa’s oldest head of state handed over his resignation letter to the parliament, and that is the moment that every Zimbabwean drew a sigh of relief with hopes of a fresh start and prosperity.

Arrangements for swearing in of his successor were made for him to move in and rescue the situation in the economically ruined South African country. The man who was to take over was Emerson Mnangagwa, a long-time right-hand man to comrade Mugabe, and had served in several ministerial capacities before his appointment to the position of vice president. Mnangagwa, aka The Crocodile, has been a very controversial figure in the politics of Zimbabwe, having been associated with staging assassinations and torture of hundreds of people including opposition leaders.

At that moment, Zimbabweans did not really want to know who was going to take over after the 37-year-old regime of Mugabe. All they wanted to see was for him to be gone so they could start afresh. Some are still sceptical if The Crocodile will deliver the expectations of the majority while others believe he is capable. Capable or not, but change of power has occurred and that is what Zimbabweans have longed for in decades. It is high time for ZANU-PF to sort itself and pick the best for delivery to the people to at least prove that the move initiated by the military was not just another political stunt that will leave Zimbabweans sobbing forever.

Africa can actually do better. There is no need for leaders to be bulldozed out of presidential palaces. Regional blocs have a great role to play for their respective regions, instead of becoming presidential clubs to look out for one another.

* Mweha Msemo writes from Tanzania.