The power of incumbency is such a hot topic for political debate in Africa. A sitting African president appearing on national TV, not for any other purpose, but to read out a resignation speech, is typically not an African thing. But when this happens, like we recently witnessed in South Africa, how should we tell a paradigm shift from a set of isolated occurrences?
President Jacob Zuma’s presidency came to a halt the evening of February 15th. Although his party, the African National Congress, had decided to recall him about a week earlier, Zuma had remained defiant. With his potential replacer already determined, Zuma’s plea to be left to complete his term would be disregarded. Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as the new ANC Chairman seemed to cause a rift in the party, let alone a power struggle between him and Mr. Zuma. The other somewhat obvious reason why ANC party members chose to recall Zuma is the his dwindling popularity. President Zuma’s presidency was riddled with controversy, one corruption scandal after another. From the moment the party secretary general made the decision to replace him as president public to when he threw in the towel, Zuma’s exit was seen as the only alternative. Not even his enviable record of surviving over 8 no confidence votes in parliament could save his situation.
In a press brief made few hours before his resignation, the seventy five year old leader lashed out at members of his party whom he blamed for wanting to force him out of office for no clear reason.
“It’s not a new matter. I need to be furnished with what is it that I have done and unfortunately nobody has been able to tell me what is it that I’ve done. There are processes in the ANC that need to be followed if I have been doing something wrong,” Zuma told media on Tuesday.
Had Zuma refused to resign, his party, the very party that had defended him at his worst of times, had vowed to impeach him on Thursday. To avoid such unforgettable embarrassment, he braved himself and addressed his seemingly tired nation.
“Even though I disagree with the decision of the Leadership of my organization, I have always been a disciplined member of the ANC,” he emphatically said, adding that he had been disturbed by instances of violence which had resulted from difference in views of the ruling party.
“No life should be lost in my name and also the ANC should never be divided in my name. I have therefore come to the decision to resign as President of the Republic with immediate effect,” he announced.
Barely 24 hours after Zuma’s announcement, former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his resignation letter to parliament. This came at the height of tribal conflicts that had ravaged the humble nation located in the horn of Africa, for years. In his letter, Hailemariam noted:
“I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy…I believe my party and government will make history again by conducting peaceful power transition.”
However he would remain an interim prime minister until the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party and Ethiopia’s parliament determined his replacement.
Africans from allover the globe were busy on Social Media. Hashtags such as #ZumaHasFallen and #desalegn instantly went viral. The conversations spanned from the the immediate aftermath of the then apparent resignations and the possibility of more such occurrences in Africa. The series of peaceful transition as seen in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia and Liberia among others, have seemingly inspired a new desire for political succession among other countries on the continent. However, what is not yet certain is whether this desire, vividly expressed in the mainstream and social media, will translate to a wave of civic action that cuts across all political parties in Africa, including those in opposition. What we have witnessed in the last five months seems like a mere rotation of power within ruling parties.
- In November 2017, a purely internal power contestation within ZANU-PF, over who would succeed Robert Mugabe led to a military which overthrew the status quo.
- In South Africa, the president Zuma fatigue and desperate anticipation of the upcoming 2019 elections, led to the premature termination of Zuma’s term. The question of whether opposition parties and the wider South African community are genuinely satisfied with the continued ANC rule, still lingers.
- In Ethiopia, there aren’t any signs yet that the opposition has prime chances in the next government. Following the release of close to 6000 political prisoners and the subsequent resignation of the Prime Minister, a state of emergency was declared, which has heightened political uncertainty and insecurity since. According to Merera Gudina, the chairman of the party in opposition, Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Ethiopia is far from realizing a fundamental change. According to him, Hailemariam’s resignation is a culmination of internal contradictions within the ruling party, the EPRDF, and not a complete transition of power.
In countries like Cameroon, Angola, Uganda and Equatorial Guinea, where leaders have stayed in power relatively longer, the anxiety can be understood. Though current dynamics do not point towards the possibility of resignation or transition in these countries in the short run, political opposition parties across Africa continue to suffer from ineffectiveness, often caused by disunity, despotic regimes, power struggle and poor organization. It is such weaknesses that limit their potential to cause change.
It is uncertain whether this so-called “wind of change” may just be some media hype that could dissipate over time, or is a more important movement than anyone can see.