As Leaders Step Down, a Cautious Hope Rises on the African Continent

Street art downtown Nairobi in Kenya in 2014 Image by Pernille Bærendtsen. Used with permission.

As the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics. And nothing would bear this out more than recent events in Ethiopia and South Africa.

After months of pressure on the ruling administrations in the two countries, their heads of state resigned: Jacob Zuma from the presidency of the Republic of South Africa and Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia as chairman of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Zuma and Desalegn’s falls from grace, though brought about by differing circumstances, have ignited the talk and hope of democratic change in many African countries with high-handed rulers.

Zuma, the fourth president of South Africa, has been in power since 2009. He resigned on February 14, 2018, from the leadership of a nation that has been ready for his exit for years. The eternal target of allegations of corruption, Zuma nevertheless survived numerous votes of no confidence by parliament. His forced exit last week was championed and executed by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), which gave him an ultimatum—resign or face another no-confidence vote. Seeing the writing on the wall, Zuma gave a lengthy surprise interview to the national broadcaster, SABC, where he claimed he had done nothing wrong.

Hours later he caved in, resigning “as President of the Republic with immediate effect.”  Zuma's deputy and head of the ANC, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the richest men in South Africa, was sworn in as president, announcing in his initial address that “a new dawn is upon us.”

Ethiopia's Desalegn inherited a complicated situation when he took power in 2012 after the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Zenawi had held on to power using the most repressive means while promoting the idea of a “developmental state” concerned only with economic growth. Desalegn also inherited  Zenawi’s “Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan”, which extended the limits of Ethiopia’s capital city into the territory of the Oromo people, the country's largest ethnic group, who have long been marginalised by the ruling Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Even though Desalegn himself belongs to a minority ethnic group, he was part of a government that did not serve the interests of most Ethiopians.

Ethiopia has been gripped by protests since 2015 over the mass imprisonment of politicians, activists and journalists, including the bloggers of the Zone 9 collective. The Oromia and Amhara regions, Ethiopia's most populous, have been the centre of sustained protests and many casualties, though the unrest spread to the rest of the country. In early 2017, a government-sponsored commission reported that over 700 people had been killed in a violent crackdown on the protests. This government responded by imposing a state of emergency for ten months. A few weeks before resigning, in January 2018, Desalegn announced that his government would release political prisoners. So far, 7,000 people have either had the charges against them dropped or been pardoned.

It is not clear as yet who will take over from Desalegn, or whether his departure will bring any real meaningful change, as the party structure that has maintained the repression is still intact.


The departures of Zuma and Desalegn come barely three months after Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was forced out of power after 37 years by an army backing his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The change was executed by the military and the baton passed to a Mugabe crony, but this was nonetheless an important step, allowing Zimbabweans to organise and push for change in the next election, slated for this year.

Who’s Next?


Togolese citizens have been rallying in the streets since August 2017, and the protests have not let up. The people have mobilized in response to an appeal from a coalition of 40 opposition parties demanding that the president step down, as his current—and third—term is in violation of the country’s constitution.

Faure Gnassingbé has held power in Togo since 2005 when he succeeded his father Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was president from 1967 to 2005. In November 2017, armed militias labelled “self-defence committees” by the government were mandated to carry out reprisals against the demonstrators, giving observers of Togolese politics and human rights activists great cause for concern. The escalation of the violence has been invoked by the government as a reason to suspend the right of citizens to demonstrate, which has only fuelled the opposition’s anger.

Encouragement on the streets of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya ahead of elections. Image by Pernille Bærendtsen. Used with permission.

Still hanging on


Ugandans welcomed the news of Zuma and Desalegn’s resignations just as they did Mugabe's exit last year—with both excitement and longing, many wondering when their own country’s turn will come. President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for 32 years and shows no sign of relenting. At the end of 2017, he signed into law the controversial constitutional amendment popularly known as the age limit bill, that removes the age cap for presidential candidates. Having earlier removed the presidential term limit clause, the 73-year-old Museveni has positioned himself to contest the next presidential elections.

Museveni’s corrupt and patronage-based governance has had a huge impact on Uganda, where the median age of the population is 15 years. The age limit bill was strongly opposed across the country, but with enticements of money here and a bit intimidation there, his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), which has a majority in parliament, defied the people’s will.

Equatorial Guinea

In late 2017, there was a failed coup against Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has held the presidency in Equatorial Guinea for 39 years. Mbasogo blamed the plot on unspecified opposition-backed foreign powers. Although oil-rich Equatorial Guinea has the highest per capita income in Africa, poverty and repression persist. Mbasogo’s son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue serves as the country's vice president.

The Continent’s Despots Look Out for Each Another

Equatorial Guinea granted asylum to former Gambian dictator Yahayah Jammeh, who reluctantly stepped down as president in 2016 after 22 years after being defeated in an election.

And the Mbasogo government's surviving the 2017 coup attempt is largely credited to Uganda's intervention. President Museveni reportedly dispatched troops to bolster security after the coup. The Ugandan army said the troops were part of a one-year renewable mission under the Status of Forces Agreement with Mbasogo's government. These days Mbasogo frequents Uganda, notably during prominent public holidays.

A change here, a relapse there


“There is a strong wind of change in Africa,” tweeted Zitto Kabwe, leader of the Tanzanian opposition party Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) on February 15, referring to the resignations of Zuma and Desalegn. The tendency to cling to power is also present in Tanzania, but here it is less about individuals than about the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, which has dominated politics since independence in 1961.

Although Julius Nyerere, the country's founding father, set a precedent by stepping down voluntarily in 1985, the CCM remains in power and its rule under current president John Magufuli has become increasingly authoritarian.

While Magufuli rejected a call to extend rule beyond a two-term limit, it appears that the more CCM's position is challenged—for example, by more competitive elections—the harder the party and government work to repress those challenges. The period since the 2015 elections has been a tough one for the Tanzanian opposition, which has experienced the banning of opposition rallies and the stifling of independent media through a mixture of sanctions against certain media outlets, intimidation of media actors, and the punishing of citizens for criticising the president. Prominent opposition politicians have been enticed with new high-profile government positions. On Friday, February 16 in Dar es Salaam, a young student was killed allegedly by a stray-bullet, and several others were injured as the police dispersed an opposition rally. Both directly and indirectly, such actions contribute to an atmosphere of intimidation, self-censorship and fear of expressing alternative views about the country’s leaders.

Clenched fist at an opposition rally in Tanzania in 2012. Image by Pernille Bærendtsen. Used with permission.


Nigeria’s 73-year-old Muhammadu Buhari was elected president in 2015 amid a groundswell of hope. The “enormous goodwill” that heralded his ascent to power has been almost depleted by what some perceive to be “glaring failures” by his government. The Nigerian leader has been described as “parochial and clannish” in his appointments to public positions in the country. The government’s ineffectual response to the communal violence between herdsmen and farmers in Adamawa, Benue, Taraba, Ondo and Kaduna states has also been criticized as “inadequate, too slow, ineffective, and in certain instances, illegal.” According to Amnesty International, over 700 lives have been lost to the violence since last year.

This is the backdrop against which two former Nigerian heads of state have publicly asked Buhari not to seek a second term in office. Buhari’s first four-year term expires on May 29, 2019, with presidential elections due to take place in early 2019. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo in a public letter pointed out that Buhari was not only clannish but above all, lacked the capacity to “bring discipline to bear on errant members of his nepotic court.” Obasanjo advised Buhari to take “a dignified and honourable dismount from the horse” because “without impaired health and strain of age, running the affairs of Nigeria is a 25/7 affair, not 24/7.” Similarly, former military head of state, Ibrahim Babangida, publicly advised President Buhari not to stand for re-election because “there comes a time in the life of a nation, when personal ambition should not override national interest.” Babangida stated that Nigeria of the 21st century needs to “tap into the resourcefulness of the younger generation.”

Ripples of Cynicism or Hope?  

The mood on the continent is one of hope, on the one hand, and of palpable restraint and scepticism on the other. People remember the hard lessons of the Arab Spring, where tyrants were replaced by another set of tyrants or nations collapsed altogether, as in the case of Libya, where a brief period of protests led to western intervention that fractured the country. While the 2016 change of government in the Gambia was welcomed with jubilation, there is growing disillusionment with current president Adama Barrow, who succeeded the dictator Jammeh. After just one year in office, Barrow illegally detained a university professor for criticizing his administration.

In Kenya, similarly, changes in leadership have not led to changes in the system or the dislodging of ruling cliques. Uhuru Kenyatta's recent re-election following a firm action by the country's Supreme Court which nullified his earlier win is one of the many reasons African citizens to remain sceptical. As president, Kenyatta has heavily censored televisions networks for political reasons in defiance of court orders, actions unprecedented since the democratic dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi. He has also deported political opponents, a move reminiscent of colonial powers who exiled many African chiefs and leaders for dissent. Kenyatta will most likely struggle to retain legitimacy until the end of his term.

Even as leaders change, there's continued contestation of power in the face of growing inequalities within African countries. It takes time to dismantle the systems built by repressive leaders and regimes and build real democracies, and the process is rarely linear, moving in some cases both forward and backward. The departure of Jacob Zuma will bring neither an abrupt end to corruption nor much-needed opportunities for black South African youth, but it is a step. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, it remains to be seen what the departure of Desalegn means, especially for the role of the TPLF and the fight for control of the country in the face of the uprisings across different federal regions.

But in many ways, the cynicism is no match for the hope that has been ignited in many African countries where strongmen still hold power. Zuma was thrown out as a result of a growing democratic consciousness in South Africa. And the resentment in Ethiopia has coalesced into the kind of collective action that is essential for the “destructive creativity” that helps institutions develop into stable democratic cultures. These are palpable signs of hope.

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