Out With The Old, In With The New: Africa’s Version of the Arab Spring


Ethiopia’s prime minister resigned amid widespread public protests (Tiksa Negeri/Daylife)

Contagion, defined as the spillover effect, of political and physical processes across international borders is often associated with the Arab Spring. The actions of a young Tunisian ignited a revolutionary flame which quickly spread across the Middle East and resulted in a wave of democratization. At the core of this movement, however, is the basic notion of a political shift from the immediate consequences of independence, where one strives to invoke deep nationalist sentiments and self-reliable power, to the next stage, where there is a focus instead on the creation of a free, developed, and economically stable state. Despite not being as clear-cut as the Arab Spring, some of the most influential countries in Africa have seen a significant political turnover since October 2017 as new leaders have emerged across the continent. Through the resignation of Jacob Zuma in South Africa, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and Hailemariam Desalegn in Ethiopia, along with the controversial election of Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya, we are able to see a developing trend. There is clearly a subliminal political shift occurring, in which moving away from leaders exerting a more post-colonialist perspective is becoming a prominent tendency in the region. Recognizing this shift might give us an insight on what to expect from Africa in the coming years.

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest shifts in African politics has been the recent ousting of Mugabe. It is arguably the start of the new trend incentivizing people across Africa to mobilize their efforts and create political changes. After almost 40 years in power, Zimbabwe’s former president stepped down in November 2017 after an impeachment process against him was initiated by parliament partnered with the internal pressures from his party, ZANU-PF. He was succeeded by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president of the country, who is also part of ZANU-PF. Known as Zimbabwe’s longest reigning political leader, Mugabe had been in power since the country’s independence back in 1980.  During the early period of his presidency, Mugabe was praised for his work towards key societal developments like bettering services as well as building schools and hospitals. Whilst doing this, however, he also simultaneously engaged in a severe crackdown of his political opposition. The crackdown led to a high number of casualties and was eventually halted by a peace agreement formed in 1987. With it also came a change in the structure of the government, converting Zimbabwe’s political system to a presidential one in lieu of a ministerial-parliamentary system. Since then, Mugabe has won every election, controversial or not. His repeated wins started getting attention from international media after the 2008 elections where he defeated Morgan Tsvangirai, who became prime minister in November 2017 but recently died of cancer. The violent outbreaks after those elections brought attention to domestic issues in Zimbabwe and has led to extensive news coverage of the country since.

Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties after being one of Africa’s richest nations in conjunction with  Mugabe’s growing health concerns paved the way to his resignation. The contenders for succession were Mugabe’s present wife, Grace Mugabe and Mnangagwa. In early November, things started shaping up for Grace Mugabe when the ZANU-PF’s internal power struggle led to the expulsion of Mnangagwa who then sought refuge in South Africa. Shortly after his departure, the military seized power of the country and placed the president under house arrest. Coined as a presidential coup by Mugabe, the military stated that it was not necessarily a coup but a means by which to assert pressure on the president to resign from his position. In fact, that is exactly what happened. Unable to withstand the pressures caused by an increased number of demonstrations, the leader stepped down. Mnangagwa re-appeared in Zimbabwe and was soon after declared president.

This concept of power shifting away from initial post-colonial governments to new regimes in search of development and political restructuring was highlighted once again by the events which unfolded soon after in South Africa. After nine years in power, Zuma agreed to step down from his presidency in early February 2018. In a move primarily ordered by the African National Congress Party (ANC) in partnership with opposition parties, strengthened by the backing of the country’s citizens – Zuma found himself in a predicament. The no-confidence vote used to threaten the former president comes after years of corruption, scandals, and controversial legal actions that have jeopardized the country’s development.

A presidency that began as a sliver of hope for many South Africans turned into one that was primarily concerned with the gross misconduct and corruption accusations facing the president. Zuma gained international notoriety for getting away with some of the biggest corruption scandals to have taken place in public office due the protection from prosecution his presidency gave him. Reuters reports that, given his resignation, the former president is now facing the consequences of 783 counts of corruption from a government arms deal that was arranged in the late 1990s. The charges were dropped when Zuma was originally running but were reinstated last year. South Africa’s High Court reinstated the charges in 2016, a decision which was upheld by the Supreme Court last year. The Supreme Court also rejected an appeal made by Zuma, claiming that setting aside the charges would be an “irrational” action.

Although the legal implications of Zuma’s presidency are an important factor in his resignation, the greater implications fall on the symbolic nature of his presidency and what his time in office reflected on Africa as a whole. Zuma entered the political arena as a vibrant, charismatic, anti-apartheid candidate who was known for being jailed alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben island. His candidacy represented a turn for many young South Africans who had faced immense wrongdoings during the country’s apartheid years. However, like many countries that undergo drastic political and societal change, there comes a time when the concepts of nationalism and re-building a nation can no longer be used to defend the lack of attention given to the development of the country.

South Africa, known to be one of the most influential countries in the African continent due to its commitment to science, technology, and innovation, is now seen in a much dimmer light due to its weak economy and lagging development. Allegations that Zuma was possibly facing impeachment also surfaced recently when news broke out about the mistreatment of public funds that essentially were used for Zuma’s personal needs. These events all led to Zuma’s party pressuring him to step down, after which Cyril Ramaphosa, voted in as the ANC’s new leader in December 2017, immediately took office as the acting president. Unlike situations in other countries where the entire government is broken apart and replaced, the ANC – South Africa’s current governing party – is still in power. Ramaphosa has been said to better represent the ANC’s interests and is likely to lead them in a direction with better electoral prospects. With this said, there is no doubt that South Africa will see a rather monumental change in governance with a new emphasis on re-structuring the ministerial positions. Since his takeover, President Ramaphosa has already announced a total of 30 position changes including bringing back a political appointee who had been removed from office by Zuma. This move was strategically performed to distance Ramaphosa from the previous president and symbolically represent the shift towards a government that wishes to re-shape the country.

Both the events in South Africa and Zimbabwe demonstrate the beginning of the political shift in Africa. They are still in the developmental phase of this change based on the fact that both parties in control before the resignation of the two countries’ leaders are still in power. However, it is clear to see that the current situations in Kenya and Ethiopia can also be applied to this growing concept of a contagious political shift in Africa. The events in Kenya and Ethiopia demonstrate the growing trend of revolutionary tendencies developed by citizens as a way to voice their concerns. Back in 2011, the demonstrations that took place in Tunisia in response to Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation introduced a method of retaliation that had not been widely used in the region. The act of protesting and the creation of revolutionary ideals quickly caught on in countries like Egypt, Libya and Syria, not because they were all experiencing similar problems but because the peoples of these countries needed an outlet to express their feelings about the actions of their governments. Being countries that just recently came out of a colonial era, the idea of standing up to the actions of one’s government hadn’t be pursued very much. When there was evidence that this method of retaliation existed and was successful, it was not long before others took to it. Similar to the events in the Arab Spring, each country in Africa is having to fight its own battles. Also having been victim to colonial rule, the people residing in many African countries are not necessarily accustomed to taking actions against their governments. Therefore, this trend might very well develop into a continental movement. The recent events in Kenya and Ethiopia help strengthen this claim as they take the cases of South Africa and Zimbabwe one step beyond the initial stage of political shift – showcasing civilian unrest which has been taken to the streets.

In a symbolic act that doubled as a political statement against Uhuru Kenyatta, who is still the leader of the country, Kenyan Opposition leader, Raila Odinga inaugurated himself as the President of Kenya’s people.  The political crisis in Kenya, one of Africa’s richest nations, has been boiling up for the past year after a controversial Supreme Court ruling went against the expectations of many regarding the August 2017 elections. Despite only having been around for a couple of years, the Supreme Court applied its jurisdiction wholeheartedly by voiding the results of the August elections stating that the irregularities witnessed during the elections might have shown preference towards the incumbent, Kenyatta. Due to this circumstance, the Court decided to order new elections to be held in October of the same year. In response, the opposition party, led by Odinga, decided to drop out of the race and boycott the re-run elections claiming that the election committee hadn’t undertaken any reforms to the election system. The lack of opposition thus led to the re-election of Kenyatta, who had also won the first round of elections.

There was a significant amount of political unrest following Kenyatta’s second term inauguration which led to tensions that are still present to this day. Many of Odinga’s supporters believe that the actions taken by the opposition leader to question the authority of the Kenyatta’s government might lead to a more inclusive government, one which includes the presence of opposition parties and allows them to engage in political discourse. However, the government has announced that by inaugurating himself, Odinga has crossed legal boundaries and committed treason, a crime punishable by death in the Kenyan legal system. This opinion has been supported by the legal branch of the government, who – as previously seen – does not always act in the interest of the government in power. As a result, there is much uncertainty in Kenya’s future. There are a few possible outcomes of the symbolic act led by Odinga; it could lead to an increase in public unrest. In the past few months, protests have stemmed mainly from pro-opposition camps so there is a possibility that they actually decrease. However, tensions might grow within pro-government factions, causing the two groups to quarrel.

In addition to the situation in Kenya, Ethiopia – one of the most promising African countries in terms of development and financial prosperity – having recently seen a booming economy is now also facing political trouble. Being the most recent in the lineup of political shifts, Ethiopia found itself in a state of emergency which was declared the day after its Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, unexpectedly resigned from his position. He stated that he was doing so because of the “unrest and political crisis” going on in the country.  This state of emergency is the second one enacted in recent history, with the first being the 10-month state of emergency which ended in August 2017.

This prior 10-month long state of emergency was lifted after hundreds of people were killed whilst taking part in anti-government protests demanding more political freedoms, inclusion, and an end to various human rights abuses in the country. Due to this history, many currently find themselves reluctant to believe that an imposed state of emergency is the best way to deal with the prime minister’s resignation. In Ethiopia, a state of emergency restricts the public’s ability to engage in actions that might be seen as being disruptive by the government. These actions include but are not limited to protesting, displaying information that incites violence, and closing down any service or business that is run by a citizen that does not support the government.

Despite the fact that the Cabinet of Ministers released a list of reasons for declaring this state of emergency, there is not much evidence to reinforce their statements. One possible reason is that they are doing this to ensure a smooth transition of power between Desalegn and the new candidate for prime minister. Desalegn was not only the prime minister but also the head of the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement coalition, the country’s ruling political party. The coalition has been on rocky footing since the death of the previous prime minister back in 2012. Many within the political sphere in Ethiopia have criticized Desalegn for being weak so this resignation could be seen by the coalition as an opportunity to put in place someone they see as being stronger. One of these options would be to put someone from the Oromo community in power. The Oromo community is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and yet the country has never seen a prime minister from that community. By replacing Desalegn with an Oromo candidate, there would be a decrease in protesters from this community regarding the marginalization of their people.

The addition of Kenya and Ethiopia as case studies strengthen the argument made at the beginning of this political commentary regarding the growing political shift in this continent. They both add a rather tangible element to the disconnect between the current governments and their citizens. The political consequences of the various events taking place in the four countries mentioned above are still to be determined and many things could change in the next couple of months depending on what actions are taken by the new leaders of these countries. Whether it will end up similar to the current situation in the Middle East is something harder to predict but definitely a possibility. With tensions rising in all of the countries mentioned above including others such as Sudan, Egypt and Somalia, it is quite possible that one of these small flames will turn into a fire and fires tend to spread fast where sparks exist. If not for human natures’ dissimilar tendencies, political trends such as the one in the Middle East and now in Africa are repetitive in nature and could very well be avoided – as Hegel once said, “We learn from History that we never learn from History.”

Leave a Reply