People Power and Political Transitions in Africa.

The phenomenon of people power and political transition, and how it happened in Zimbabwe and South Africa of recent. Which lessons we draw from these cases.

Political pundits are amazed at the strength of citizens’ influence and people power in framing the future political landscapes in many countries across Africa these past few years.
This method of ‘power change’ is not new in other continents.
Latin America and Central Europe is known to have championed such political transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy that occurred in the late 1980s. Also known as the ‘third waves of democracy’, this phenomenon will certainly spread to other countries in the African continent within the next coming years.

Zimbabwe, a new dawn

The regime of the ailing former President, Robert Mugabe, 93 started in the year 1980, when they gained independence from their colonial masters. The country had been under a fist grip, an authoritarian system of government for over three decades, with the high-master, Robert Mugabe in control. The grievances had been enormous: very high level of unemployment, high rate of inflation, land reforms challenges, and you name the rest.

In mid-November 2017, people power in Zimbabwe took advantage of the split and rivalry within the ruling Zimbabwe National Union-Patriotic Front ( ZANU-PF) party to succeed  the ailing President Robert Mugabe. In effect, the Zimbabwe Defense Forces ( ZDF) seized control  and the command of key national political and military installations as well as facilities. The Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) then initiated efforts to force and push President Robert Mugabe to resign.

They reversed Mugabe’s recent dismissal of the vice-President, Emmerson Mnamgagwa in favor of Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe. They also halted ZANU-PF’s purge of the supporters, followers and sympathizers of the vice-President, Emmerson Mnamgagwa.  As the drama unfolded, and in the wake of affairs, ZANU-PF removed President Robert Mugabe as party leader. Mnamgagwa was appointed interim successor and ZANU-PF also expelled Grace Mugabe and many of her supporters from the party.

On the 21st of November 2017, President Robert Mugabe resigned. This was a tactical move to pre-empt an imminent impeachment from office due to the mounting pressure in and out of the country. Reactions from Zimbabweans, political observers, civil society, the international community etc were broadly positive on the resignation and exit of Mugabe. As Nicolas Cook, a specialist in African Affairs puts it, in Zimbabwe,’ it is people power under a military-compelled transition’. This saw a new dawn in the political history of great Zimbabwe.

The Chairman of the African Commission, Minister  Moussa  Mohammed Faki of Chad, welcomed President Robert Mugabe’s decision to resign and recognized the ‘will of the people’ for a peaceful transfer of power in a manner that secures the democratic future of the country.
This is just one of the many statements made by inter-governmental organizations, foreign entities and other international development partners, acknowledging the strength of people power in the political transition in Zimbabwe.

South Africa, the most unequal countries in the world

The story of the recent political transition in South Africa is very peculiar. The country has undergone a dramatic transition from apartheid to non-racial democracy. Under apartheid, over 80% of the land was held by 13% of the population and 80% of Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE ) was controlled by 5 companies. The vestiges of apartheid, to the best of our knowledge, and the structures still deserve to be totally dismantled. After several decades, in the year 1994, the country experienced its first elections open to all citizens.

The African National Congress (ANC ) swept the election with over 60% of the vote. Twenty four years after Nelson Mandela rose to power, South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world.  For one thing, President Jacob’s nine years in power was a negative legally- he failed to deliver on the promises of post-apartheid South Africa.

For another thing, President Jacob Zuma, 75, was embattled with five main scandals within his nine years in office. First, the 2006 rape charges and the HIV episode. Secondly, the Nkandla Costs, where he ‘unduly’ benefitted from the so-called security upgrades to his residence in his rural Nkandla residence in KwaZulu – Natal Province, worth over $24 Million. It includes a swimming pool, a cattle enclosure etc. Thirdly, the Guptagate. Zuma maintained a corrupt relationship with a wealthy family of Indian immigrants headed by three brothers- Ajayi, Atul and Rajesh Gupta, who built a business empire in mining, media technology and engineering in South Africa. Fourthly, the arms deal.

During the 1990s, President Jacob Zuma received over 783 documented payments as bribes and kickbacks for arms purchased by the government. Over 800 counts of corruption related offences hang over his head in relation to the arms deal. By then he was the Deputy President. Finally, the Omar Al- Bashir affair. President Jacob Zuma allowed Al –Bashir to attend the 2015 African Union ( AU) Summit in Johannesburg defying a pending  international arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal court(ICC) at The Hague against Al-Bashir for genocide and other crimes against humanity. All these sparked worldwide international furor against President Zuma.

Against these entire backdrops, President Zuma’s enemies had previously sought to topple him with Parliamentary votes of ‘no confidence’ but to no avail. On the 15th of February 2018, President Jacob Zuma resigned under pressure from the ruling ANC party. His deputy, business mogul, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa took over. This marked a dramatic end to a controversy-plagued   and corruption- scandal decade of the regime of Jacob Zuma.

Which lesson to be learned?

The first lesson is that the message is clear: the tide is turning very fast against such stagnation in national leadership in African dictatorships like Togo, the DR Congo, Gabon, Chad and a host of others.

Secondly, the resignations generally occurred stealthily, without the drama of violent unrests or street protests as was the case in the ‘Arab Spring”. The inference is that the ordinary man on the street is getting politically matured as the day goes by in Africa. This is thanks partially to the spread of ICT and an increase in political education.

Thirdly, elites in African countries can effectively check excesses of their peers and use national institutions to propel positive changes.

Finally, the youth equation in these countries cannot be neglected. Any stagnant regime will have to face the no-nonsense strength of the ever growing youth population, which is the main force behind people power in all countries.

And now which way forward? It is for the new leaders to meet up with the challenges of sustainable development. Ensuring future free, fair and credible democratic elections, reversing negative economic trends, cut down unemployment, inflation, promote the rule of law, respect of human rights and combat corruption. By so doing, Africa will come at tall in strides to accelerate their development. This will help reduce social tensions in African countries which usually provoke people power.

Mukete Tahle Itoe
Judge in Cameroon






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