People across Africa are speaking out, but are their leaders listening?
Posted on 18th August, 2020 in Director's Blog
One of the main trends throughout Africa in 2019 was that people across African countries were starting to insist their voice be heard by their governments. In Sudan, Algeria, Uganda, Togo, Ethiopia, it was clear that “the people’s voice is growing louder” (see Director’s introduction to the RAS Annual Report for 2019).
This trend has accelerated in 2020. We hear it louder in Zimbabwe, where citizens can no longer bear the corruption and incompetence of the ZANU-PF government which President Mnangagwa leads just as corruptly and incompetently as President Mugabe before him and which is driving the country once more to wrack and ruin. #ZimbabweLivesMatter is trending on the streets as much as in social media. We hear it in Tanzania, where the return of opposition leader Tundu Lissu – a brave man if ever there was one – has been greeted with massive enthusiasm by huge crowds despite the official media’s pretence that nothing is happening. And in Mali, the inability of President Keita or his government to deliver the basic need for security of his own people has led them too onto the streets to demand his removal and replacement with someone at least competent.
How have the respective leaders responded? With blatant repression in Zimbabwe; with suppression of the truth and every sign of an intent to manipulate the coming elections in Tanzania; and with an obliviousness to the country’s problems that defies belief in Mali.
Citizens in these countries are looking for a new liberation. Not, this time, from the shackles of colonialism, but from the incompetence and tyranny of those who replaced them – liberation movements and nationalist parties that evicted the colonialists in order, it seems, simply to eat for themselves. And what the people are demanding this time is not independence or revolution, but simply responsive, competent and accountable government.
The longer the leaders concerned take to listen to these voices and make a positive response, the easier it is for those who do want simply to overturn the existing political structures in order to impose their own, often religious, worldview to find eager recruits for their cause. Violent jihadist groups in West Africa and the Sahel do not seem short of volunteers, and not only there. Such problems exist too in the Horn of Africa, including in the form of ethnic-based separatism in Ethiopia.
The test of every political system is whether it allows genuine accountability and a legitimate means of political succession. That is the fundamental difference between successful and unsuccessful systems, and the difference all too often depends on the calibre of the leaders. Good leadership and a sound political system tend to go together (not always – the best test of a political system is how it copes with a bad leader, as the US is finding). We know that power corrupts. Almost nobody gives it up willingly. So there has to be an accepted process for choosing a successor when it is time to change. For centuries this was heredity, tempered by violent overthrow when this failed to deliver competence. Over time, democratic elections were found to be a more reliable and more peaceful way of choosing a successor to the person in power, as well as providing a way to ensure leaders did not outstay their welcome. This is not an argument for term limits – Mrs Merkel has been Chancellor of Germany for 15 years because she has retained the confidence of the German people; and it is they, not she, who will choose her eventual successor. Theresa May lasted barely two years as British Prime Minister because she was so obviously not up to the job. Only time will tell how long her successor lasts.
A legitimate succession is one that is accepted by the majority of the people. It therefore has to be transparent. Losers are always sore, but sometimes, if an election is blatantly rigged, they may be justified in feeling so. And in those circumstances a political system ceases to function effectively, disillusion sets in, and violence may come to seem the only way out of the impasse.
Malawi has been a striking recent case of a political system that has salvaged itself. The government were doing badly; people wanted a change; the government tried to steal the election; people protested; the judiciary agreed the opposition’s challenge; the elections were re-run, this time transparently; and the opposition won a striking victory. People were happy and the result was accepted. Now, of course, the hard work starts to tackle the heap of problems the previous government had tried (maybe) but failed to solve. The problems are no easier, but the government has at least the backing of the people – and an expectation – that will help.
Elsewhere in Africa other countries have evolved systems that enable change to happen peacefully – through elections in Senegal and Ghana, through diverse means in Kenya and (with luck) Ethiopia.
“Political settlements theory”, currently all the rage amongst political scientists, argues that a political settlement will be stable if it constitutes either an acceptable bargain between political groups and elites that enables them to satisfy their constituencies, or a stable balance between robust organisations in a society that guarantee stability (there is still debate over which and how: see the articles by Mushtaq Khan and Tim Kelsall in African Affairs, vol 117, No. 469 (Oct 2018). One needs both a balance between groups, and institutions robust enough to enforce accountability and hold individuals to account for their actions. But above all, to last, any settlement needs legitimacy – that is the trust of the citizens they purport to rule. That is what is lacking when people feel forced to take to the streets in protest, and what must be restored before any stability can be assured.
At the end of last year, I thought the demographic pressures in Africa meant that current governments had maybe 5-10 years to find a more effective way of building the economy to create work for the growing population of young people. It became clear this year (see my recent blog of 11 May) that the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated this trend. Without more rapid reform, political as well as economic, some African governments will find themselves facing something that looks a lot more like a revolution than a protest. And that will help nobody.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.