ARAB SPRING GOT GLOBAL ATTENTION. It changed the configuration of the Middle East and North Africa geopolitically in the context of governance. Ten years ago and thereafter, many influential despots were toppled, some countries had their political system tweaked and some have entered into hostilities and conflicts lingering till now. The younger generation would no longer tolerate the practices that have characterised the authoritarian and monarchical governance in their countries and rose spontaneously against the status quo of oppressive regimes and a low standard of living. Their actions had no colouration of tribal or religious sentiments. They simply demanded an end to a system that neither gave them immediate benefits nor a promise of good prospect for the future. Rightly or wrongly, they challenged the system and got a diversity of results – some expected, others unintended – and varying degrees of success. The Sub-Saharan Africa too has been in the throes of deprivation, poverty, economic crises, compromised health and productivity much of which owe their origin to bad governance. Perhaps agitators of Arab Spring had an alibi.
The great stories of Africa’s potential remain in the realm of imagination and statistical projections despite all the opportunities for such a great continent. The Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the poorly integrated regions globally, with many countries’ political systems predominantly driven by despotic leaders, economies mostly commodity-based and micromanaged by few privileged, beset with brain drain, widely characterised by infrastructural deficit and pockets of wars and skirmishes. African Union (AU), the central body bringing all African state leaders together, is yet to prove its relevance well enough. Its inability is also a result of the weaknesses in all the states making up the continent, operating under various magnitudes of development challenges.
Events have shown – in line with the realisation that all politics are local – that much of the development challenges in Africa have their roots more in ethnicity and religious sentiments than in colonial history or even lack of knowledge or technical expertise. The Sub-Saharan Africa seems fettered by these strong sentiments to the detriment of collective development. The case of violence in South Africa in the past week reveals some deep-rooted issues, not peculiar to the country but applying also to all other African nations south of the Sahara. The cult followership of Jacob Zuma, erstwhile president of South Africa, and the interpretation given to his present ordeals by his sympathisers and admirers clearly prove a point. He is seen as a hero under threat. Endowed with the uncanny skill of escaping blames, Zuma’s malicious defiance once again came into full display. A man reckoned as neck deep in corruption still seems to consider himself as a hero.
While the judicial authorities – under clear separation of powers – found Zuma culpable of wrongdoing, he and his followers thought differently, alleging politically motivated persecution. A major win to South Africa’s democracy and functionality of its operational arms of government is about to be squandered if Zuma escapes the law in this instance. The same Zuma, as vice president, in his guile, apologised with straight face to South Africans after admitting he had sex with an HIV/AIDS patient and still proceeded to contest and win a subsequent election to become president instead of resigning as vice president and quitting public office. His followers saw the public outcry against his misdeed as political vendetta and turned the Zuma’s issue into an ethnic crisis. In the recent ordeals with the courts, the Indian community in South Africa has suddenly become mass victims. The looting of their shops by the irate rioters has exposed further the wider ramifications of ethnic divisions in South Africa and the discontent with the government’s past and present failures to buoy the economic for the benefit of all. This hostility got to a crescendo as unemployment rate rose to a new record high of 32.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2021 from 32.5 per cent in the final quarter of 2020 – meaning that only one in every three employable adult is earning a decent living. Those with pent up obsession against operators of big commercial outlets went on looting shops of Indians in places among which is Durban. People are creating “chaos merely as a cover for looting,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, as the riots increasingly reveal hidden racial divide. Although the conditions were blamed on poverty, with the riots, South Africa’s democracy is now at crossroads.
South Africa is currently the most advanced in Africa and it owes this to the prolonged presence of the apartheid rule till early 1990s. Since the exit of Nelson Mandela, the true colour of the familiar African leaders has again resurfaced in Zuma who – in a power struggle – had to hasten Thabo Mbeki’s exit out of office to make way for himself. And South Africa has been the worse for it. It was during Zuma’s rule that xenophobia became brazenly widespread in South Africa. In the twilight of apartheid and early post-apartheid years in South Africa, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, a South African politician and Zulu tribal leader who founded what became the Inkatha Freedom Party, gave the African National Congress (ANC) a run for its money in the race to produce the first African president. Africa seems to be losing a shiny exemplar of democracy and self-rule in South Africa, especially with a bad precedent that Zuma is setting by acting like someone above the law and as someone who can destabilise a country on the basis of ethnic followership.
President Ramaphosa has reportedly classified the unrest that enveloped South Africa as ethnic mobilisation, an allegation that was rejected by the 92 years old Buthelezi who slammed President Ramaphosa for what was considered a defamatory remark about Zulu people. This is familiar in Africa. Great countries build enduring institutions, not powerful men. They could produce heroes on a good cause, but the heroes are inextricably linked with great, lasting and memorable achievements. Producing powerful and untouchable men who are above the law is a bad omen for any country. And Africa has them aplenty. And failure of public institutions to rein them in effectively is Africa’s major undoing. This reinforces and incentivises corruption as the perpetrators most of the time escape public scrutiny, accountability or justice. They distract attention, seek, and often find, refuge under primordial sentiments of ethnicity or religion – or sometimes both – as a way of evading retribution. Zuma’s defiance therefore sets a dangerous precedent for South Africa, in which case the hope of having an unparalleled epitome of democracy could grow dim.
Nigeria, another country hitherto presented as the giant of Africa had lost even a measure of example of democratic governance it seemed to have since the return to unbroken democratic governance some 22 years ago as ethnicity and religious sentiments have long dominated its system of producing political leaders. At the national level, this sectarian style has been characterised by a fixation and continuous emphasis on regional interest by one particular regional hegemony to the extent that it seems to some as if that is far more important than nationalistic zeal. It has fuelled corruption so profoundly in that region above others to the extent that its development has been severely arrested despite its stranglehold on levers of power at the centre. It is noteworthy that, at the national level, corruption has become so widespread such that institutions of government set up to promote development, safeguard security or fight corruption have become so corrupted and are unable to perform their statutory roles free from perverse influences and prevalent mediocrity.
It has therefore become so difficult to hold the avaricious, extravagant public officers and growing number of culprits in financial crimes to account for their misdeeds in public office. Like Zuma, many of such individuals with corruption baggage hanging on their necks easily secure greater office appointment or elective positions. Offenders who are unlucky to be caught or unable to navigate their ways craftily enough now go to court in company of cheerleaders who stay outside chanting songs and praises for their illustrious sons undergoing ‘undeserved’ trials. Aware of this, more and more people in positions of power become emboldened to abuse the public trust associated with such offices, embezzle and mismanage public funds with no immediate or any possible future possibility of being called to account. And the vicious cycle of corruption continues. To firmly secure their loots and be free from litigation, such corrupted public officers take refuge under religion or tribe which they find such convenient, expedient and safe. Public sentiments are therefore easily swayed in their favour irrespective of the gravity of their misdeeds.
Ethipia’s Tigray region has been dominant in power for decades. Recent developments have shown the fragility of Ethiopia as ethnic and tribal sentiments have flared up. Among many different tribes in the country, the Tigray people have been up in arms against the government of Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister. The conflagration that got escalated since November of last year still smoulders despite a unilateral ceasefire by federal government a week ago after months of assaults against Tigray people by the combined forces of a neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopian central government. This is an example of where tribe and ethnicity play a key role in igniting and sustaining a war. In Ethiopia, Africa is frittering away great promises through the sleight of hands of leaders with poor knowledge of dispute resolution, and who are easily swayed by tribal and religious sentiments. It is on records that many avoidable civil wars have been waged in many countries of Africa with underlying tribal and religious sentiments.
Africa desperately needs leaders who will rise above the parochial sentiments, not trying to see the wider world through their own individual narrow and blurred lenses. Africa will benefit more from leaders who are not out to cut larger-than-life images for themselves but would want the countries within the continent to be first among equals in all areas of human endeavours. It will be heartening to henceforth see leaders emerge who don’t see themselves as above the law, but who would serve as examples worth emulating by other compatriots and citizens. We would gladly welcome leaders who don’t want others to remain poor and backward; leaders who see themselves as fathers of their respective nations, not those who provide cover for their own tribes to wreak havoc on others or who simply use their followers to climb to lofty heights and play them against others or against the state.
The new dawn for the continent would have arrived when vision for nations’ greatness is the driving force behind the quest for high public offices and not self-preservation or self-aggrandisement. Great leaders who live for themselves die and are buried with their greatness, but great nations prosper when great leaders put their nations first. When Mandela led South Africa, the country prospered. When Zuma led, the country became chaotic. Many present African countries are Zuma’s type in many respects. Their nations cannot be great with their styles of leadership. Investors of foreign or local origin gauge the political temperature and social progress before committing their resources. Economies grow and people prosper when political leaders send the right signals. The opposite happens when wrong signals are sent out. African leaders would do well to put their countries and the continent first, not themselves as individuals, or their religious and ethnic sentiments. These two, wrongly deployed have done Africa a great disservice. Its continuation will continue to put the continent in the harm’s way. No magic can turn Africa’s economy around for better except political leaders make the various countries of Africa peaceful, habitable and conducive for productive social and economic engagements irrespective of tribe or religion. Let the change begin with them now.