Continent of unrest

Print edition : February 03, 2017

A policeman escorting a man and his children in the Mathare slum in Nairobi on January 2, 2008. After the 2007 election results were announced, there were weeks of ethnic bloodshed in Kenya. Photo: Karel Prinsloo/AP

A group of refugees who fled the civil war in South Sudan at a borewell in the refugee settlement in Bidi Bidi, Uganda, on December 10, 2016. Photo: Justin Lynch/AP

The interior of the Parliament building in Libreville, Gabon, after it was burned in post-election protests. A September 20, 2016, picture. Photo: Edward McAllister/REUTERS

President Yoweri Museveni rode roughshod over the opposition to win his fifth consecutive term in office in February 2016. Photo: /James Akena/REUTERS

President Paul Biya of Cameroon has been in office since 1982. Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP

At the age of 93, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbambwe, who has been in office since the country's independence in 1980, has not given any indication that he plans to demit office. Photo: Jekesai NJIKIZANA/AFP

President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea has been running the oil-rich country since siezing power in a coup in 1979. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

President Eduardo dos Santos of Angola has been in office for more than four decades. Photo: Herculano Coroado/REUTERS

From the Horn of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope, political unrest and a general anti-establishment mood have prevailed among the people of Africa in the past one year.

OVER the past year, there have been turbulent scenes of political unrest across the African continent. From the Horn of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope, a general anti-establishment mood prevailed among the people. The low price of oil and minerals in the international market has hit the economies of countries such as Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Angola and Algeria. Ethiopia, advertised in the Western media as the continent’s rising star, has been wracked by violence. Hundreds of protesters and opposition activists have been killed by security forces. In neighbouring Uganda, long-serving President Yoweri Museveni rode roughshod over the opposition to win yet another term in office, his fifth consecutive one.

There are, of course, other African leaders who have been in office much longer. President Paul Biya of Cameroon has been in office since 1982. Robert Mugabe has been at the helm of affairs in Zimbabwe since the country gained independence in 1980. At the age of 93, he has not given any indication that he plans to demit office. Teodoro Obiang has been running the oil-rich nation of Equatorial Guinea since seizing power in a coup in 1979. President Eduardo dos Santos of Angola has been in office for more than four decades and has finally announced that he is retiring this year.

In Kenya, tribal fault lines are opening up again as the country prepares for general elections in August 2017. After the 2007 election results were announced, more than 1,300 citizens died in weeks of ethnic bloodshed. The Kenyan Parliament had passed laws banning hate speech, but they seem to have had little impact on the country’s politicians. Kenya’s election commission, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), recently issued a warning saying that the rising number of incidents of hate speech were jeopardising the chances of fair and free elections. “Free and fair elections cannot be held in an insecure environment. The commission therefore regrets the growing prevalence of hate speech that is polarising the country,” said Ahmed Issack Hassan, the IEBC Chairperson, in a recent statement.

South Sudan

South Sudan is awash with blood. The oil-rich country was woefully unprepared for independence in 2011. It took only a couple of years for the country to descend into full-scale civil war. Thousands of people have been killed and more than two million displaced since the interethnic bloodletting broke out in 2013. South Sudan was until 2013 one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Rwanda continues to be on the growth path, but President Paul Kagame brooks no political opposition. He has announced that he will be seeking yet another term in office. Kagame has been in power for more than 20 years. Despite his track record of running roughshod over domestic critics and jailing and killing opponents, he is a darling of the West. President Bill Clinton of the United States described him as “one of the greatest leaders of our times”. Neighbouring Burundi, too, has a dictator who won another term in office despite being constitutionally debarred from running. President Pierre Nkurunziza has since survived a coup attempt. Opposition leaders have been selectively targeted and some have been assassinated. Burundi, like Rwanda, had experienced a prolonged civil war that pitted the more numerical Hutu against the minority Tutsi. In Burundi, the Hutu have the upper hand as of now. In Rwanda, it is the minority Tutsi who are in command. The international community has termed the massacres that occurred in both countries “genocide”.

In West Africa, Gabon and the Gambia have been experiencing political turmoil after elections were held in 2016. The two countries were under authoritarian regimes. In Gabon, according to most observers, the opposition candidate, Jean Ping, a former chairman of the African Union, had swept the polls. But President Ali Bongo Ondimba, aided by a pliant election commission, held on to his post. Ondimba allegedly won by a margin of fewer than 6,000 votes. He succeeded his father, the long-serving dictator Omar Bongo, in 2009.

Ping has appealed to the international community to intervene. The French government, which has considerable influence in its former colony and had a big role in propping up the Bongo dynasty, has so far refused to intercede despite the European Union questioning the legitimacy of the election result. The French have intervened militarily in many of their former colonies in Africa, including Gabon. In the past few years, the French army has influenced events in Libya, Ivory Coast and Mali. Ping, meanwhile, is fighting a lonely battle in court. But it is a fact that no court in any African country has overturned the election of a sitting head of state even when clinching evidence of voter fraud was presented.

The Gambia, which went to the polls in December 2016, has been under the authoritarian rule of Yahya Jammeh, a former military man who seized power in a coup 22 years ago. The opposition was not given much of a chance at the hustings, but to the surprise of international observers and Gambians themselves, the Gambian strongman allowed the conduct of fair and free elections. The opposition candidate, Adama Barrow, was declared the winner. Gambians were even more pleasantly surprised when Jammeh accepted the verdict as soon as the results were announced. But he did a volte-face a week later, stating that he would not step down. Jammeh had once said that he would rule “for a billion years, Allah willing”. The regional grouping the Economic Community of West African States is now mulling military intervention to get the recalcitrant dictator out of the way.

Elections in the West African state of Ghana, however, went smoothly. Opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo won the presidential election on his third attempt, handily defeating the incumbent, John Mahama. Ghana has enjoyed political stability since its transition to multiparty democracy in 1992, with the two major parties alternating in power.

Ivory Coast, another West African country, which had seemingly regained political stability, has been rocked by a mutiny staged by sections of the army in early January this year. President Alassane Ouattara had to do some firefighting to bring the situation under control. Ivory Coast, which was once touted as an economic success story in the region, underwent a spell of civil war in the last decade. The floundering economy was being stabilised when the latest crisis erupted. The soldiers captured the second biggest city, Bouake, and the mutiny spread to other cities, including the capital, Abidjan. The mutiny only ended after the President himself promised the soldiers a salary hike and better living conditions. It is clear from the recent events that the Ivorian military is far from united. The soldiers who revolted belonged to the rebel grouping that helped Ouattara claim the presidency in 2011 when the then President, Laurent Gbabgbo, refused to acknowledge Ouattara’s electoral victory. The civil war resulted in the death of more than 3,000 people. Gbagbo is currently facing trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague on charges of committing war crimes.

But it is the simmering political crises in the DRC and Ethiopia that are the most worrying for the international community and the region. President Joseph Kabila of the DRC, whose term officially came to an end in December 2016, has been reluctant to hand over power to a caretaker government or to announce dates for the presidential election. Violent protests erupted in the capital, Kinshasa, and other cities, resulting in many deaths. The influential Catholic Church had to intervene and mediate a deal between the President and his opponents. Under the deal, the President, who is only 45 years old, will step down at the end of the year after 16 years in power. He had succeeded his father, Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated while in office. Elections will be held by then along with the release of political prisoners.

Given the extremely bloody recent history of the country, political stability is of the essence. The civil war in the resource-rich country between 1996 and 2002 resulted in the loss of more than a million lives. Some historians say the actual toll was much higher. Many African states have intervened in the war on behalf of their local allies. Laurent Kabila emerged as the victor with the backing of Angolan and Zimbabwean forces. The last thing the DRC needs is another fratricidal war, wracked as it is today by corruption and mismanagement.

Ethiopia, meanwhile, continues to be on edge. The violence triggered by the neoliberal policies of the government and its authoritarian mindset has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Protesters have burned down foreign-owned factories and farms, which has left the economy in a tailspin. Ethiopia was the fastest-growing economy in the continent after 2010. The two largest ethnic groups in the country, the Amharas and the Oromos, seem to have decisively turned against the government, which is dominated by the minority Tigreans.

The Ethiopian government declared a six-month state of emergency in October last year. “Vital infrastructure, businesses, health and education centres, as well as government offices and courts have been destroyed,” Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said in an address to the nation while making the announcement. The government is now promising electoral reforms that will give the opposition representation in Parliament. The Prime Minister admitted in October that the current electoral laws had marginalised vast swathes of the population.

The Ethiopian, Kenyan, Rwandan and Ugandan governments are close allies of the U.S. and are actively collaborating with U.S. special forces in the region. The U.S. Military Command for Africa (Africom) has drone bases and military outposts all over the continent.

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