The biggest stories in the past two weeks are about the resignation of embattled former South African President Jacob Zuma and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Zuma was forced to resign on February 14, after his party threatened to support a vote of no-confidence in parliament if he didn’t heed his recall and, a day later, on February 15, Desalegn announced his own resignation.
The exit of the two leaders attracted a lot of debate especially because it came on the heels of another “forced” resignation of long-ruling former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe barely three months ago.
Many speculated about the resignations with some even linking them together. Some said the events herald a new era of democratisation, while others claimed the events illustrate “people power” akin to the “Arab Spring” that left a number Arab rulers like Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya unceremoniously chased from office.
Those who see similarity between these events and the “Arab Spring” where ordinary citizens drove long-ruling dictators from power in 2010-2012 also speculated on a possible “sub-Saharan Winter” that would bring to an end the rule of similar rulers on the continent.
The Daily Monitor reported on February 19 that former Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi told Ugandans to “expect regime change soon.”
Objectively though, while the resignations give hope to people in countries on the continent still ruled by edict, they neither represent a new wave of democracy nor illustrate people power.
Instead, the events illustrate three related factors working in tandem. The first is the power of the elite that’s normally less acknowledged in debates, but which helps to perpetuate dictatorial rule on the continent.
Secondly, this elite power helps to expose the myth behind the claim that “the people rule” and “the people have spoken” merely because elections are regularly held or the constitution says so.
Finally, the resignations also tell us that if democratic reforms or change are to take place in countries where liberation movements captured state power as is the case in the three affected nations, it has to be engineered from within the same movements or ruling parties not from opposition parties that many democracy activists tend to pin their hopes on.
So, why don’t these events illustrate “people power” or a new era of democracy?
First, prior to the resignations, there were demonstrations in all the three countries running for years against the incumbent for alleged misrule, corruption, unemployment, marginalisation, etc.
However, these demonstrations neither forced Zuma to resign nor Mugabe or Desalegn.
Instead, in the former two cases, the resignation was only possible after the elite in the ruling party withdrew their support from the incumbent after calculating that it was no longer in their political interest to support him.
In Zimbabwe, Mugabe lost power only because the military intervened to stop what it claimed were purges in the ruling Zanu-PF party while in South Africa, Zuma resigned because, if he didn’t, he would have been humiliated with a vote of no-confidence in parliament supported by his own party.
While the Mugabe fate is possible in parts of Africa still under dictatorship, the Zuma scenario is nearly impossible due to lack of internal democracy in many ruling parties on the continent; lack of checks and balances between arms of government; electoral fraud and politicised militaries.
The most interesting resignation is that of Desalegn in Ethiopia. While he faced over three years of relentless demonstrations, he resigned due to lack of real power to deal with the challenges partly because of his failure to win the support of powerful elites in his party after he succeeded the charismatic former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012.
Desalegn’s statement that he resigned to allow ‘democratic reforms” to place is a rare and clear admission of failure to democratise as well as an admission of powerlessness to change things.
This shows us that not all resignations are due to democracy; in some cases, its lack thereof.
While the South African case illustrates democratic consolidation, we don’t know what Mugabe or Desalegn resignation will bring. It could bring democracy or dictatorship.
Zuma lost his job not merely because of unpopularity or corruption, but because ANC has internal democracy and he couldn’t call in the army or the police to save him once the elite withdrew their support.
Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website:www.mgcconsult.com