Change is in the air.
Ethiopia’s prime minister this week announced his resignation. No doubt it was a collective decision of the ruling coalition of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Addis Ababa had promised reforms in the wake of widespread protests that started in Oromia. The government reacted by declaring a State of Emergency and much later a promise to release all political prisoners.
But this was slow in coming and the protests persisted culminating in a national strike that suddenly this week turned into celebrations as the most prominent of Ethiopia’s political opposition leaders were released.
Meanwhile, farther afield in South Africa, a decision of the ruling African National Congress also saw, finally, the resignation of Jacob Zuma as national president in favour of the new party leader Cyril Ramaphosa.
Unlike those of Ethiopia’s EPRDF, the ANC’s deliberations played out in full public view, with almost blow-by-blow accounts of night meetings, negotiations, demands, threats and eventually compromise by top party leadership.
Outside the ANC, the Judiciary had already pronounced itself on no small number of related matters. The political opposition had already seized upon the same, that the decision to postpone the annual State of the Nation address rested, at least in part, on memories of the chaotic scenes inside and outside parliament last year.
The private sector worried about the ever-decreasing credit ratings. And the public was clear that while the majority still support the ANC, Zuma had to go.
It may be odd to compare two countries whose histories, relative states of openness and economic development are so different. But Ethiopia and South Africa are both, albeit in different ways, living under revolutionary movements gone astray. As in Ethiopia, all the restiveness outside the ruling party played a role in South Africa.
However, as also in Ethiopia, in the end, it was ultimately the party’s decision. And, just as in Ethiopia, containment is not the option for the ANC either. There are a range of real political as well as bread-and-butter issues on the table that will need to be prioritised moving forward. For example, inclusion understood in ethnic terms in Ethiopia and in class terms in South Africa.
The other not-so-dramatic and more-dramatic leadership changes we’ve seen in Africa recently — in Angola and Zimbabwe respectively — have also come from the party, also revolutionary movements gone astray.
We should also remember the contradictions, trials and travails of Zimbabwean political opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who died on Wednesday.
So while all these changes cannot be termed “transitions” in the real sense of the word — and the euphoria around them needs to be tempered accordingly — they still provide little cracks in which useful things could potentially be done.
The question then for those of us without parties firmly in control, and not derived from a revolutionary tradition is, have we gone astray?
Power may act as though it’s beyond constraint. Ultimately, it’s not. Everything ends, everything falls. We just need to do our respective bits to check power wherever we are, and to remind power that nothing can contain the people’s will forever — or our visions for what lies beyond.
L. Muthoni Wanyeki is the Africa director of the Open Society Foundations. [email protected]