Zuma, Mugabe, Desalegn: Elite survival or democracy fighting back?

Thursday March 15 2018

Who would have guessed this time last year, that by year end the world’s oldest head of state, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 93 years old and 37-years in power, would be out of office?

Add to that the odds of South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn being booted out of office within 60 days of Mugabe’s ouster and it would have sounded like a mad man’s wager.

In January 2017, Mugabe was unassailable. He had a long record of out-foxing his opponents.

Jacob Zuma next door was always unpopular with the powerful elites in the ANC and his appetites invariably led him astray. Yet his grip on the party’s grassroots gave the impression that he could survive any crisis, at least till the 2019 election.

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF, never looked as secure as his more autocratic predecessor, Meles Zenawi, but the EPRDF had neutered its opponents so comprehensively, it would have been unthinkable that Desalegn would be forced out by a popular uprising.

Expect breathless and hyperbolic claims from the talking heads about what these civilian coups mean. Extravagant claims that are not justified by the facts are already being made. Expect more of what has gone before.


In 2000, The Economist judged Africa too soon and saw hopelessness where significant changes had already happened but not filtered through to economic statistics. McKinsey and co. were surprised by Africa’s resilience in the face of the 2008 global financial meltdown and immediately tooted a renascent continent that The Economist sanctified with its ‘Africa Rising’ cover.

Arab Spring Moment

In 2011, the Arab Spring was trumpeted as a harbinger of popular revolutions eastwards to the gulf and southwards to sub-Saharan Africa.

The problem, as always, is lack of a granular understanding of the forces behind events in Africa. The events in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia are hardly tipping points towards democracy. In Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, the ruling elites fragmented on how best to secure their parties’ long-term interests.

Against the interests of those who had kept him in power for so long, Mr Mugabe wanted a bigger say in the future of a Zimbabwe that his age won’t let him be part of.

The new South African commercial class feared that a few more months of Zuma would hurt their party’s long-term interests, perhaps even erode their base so much that they might need a coalition partner in 2019.

In Ethiopia, the EPRDF has been hit by a perfect storm that its generally smug leadership never saw coming. Mr Hailemariam’s precipitate exit suggests that party bosses have been freaked out by the depth and persistence of the Oromiya rebellion even as they have grown frustrated by his ineffectual leadership.

Only now, since the Oromiya crisis begun three years ago, has the EPRDF seen the danger those protests pose both their hold on power and to Mr Meles’s legacy.

Let us drill down into each of these three cases.

Where uniforms rule

In Zimbabwe, the Mugabe state is intact even after his exit. Mugabe is out of power from the foibles of age mixed with romantic folly and oligarchic blindness.

He tried to smooth his wife, Grace Mugabe’s, path to the presidency against the interests the power men — and they are all men — who had kept him in power these last few years.

He misunderstood the tacit bargain on which their support rested: They would let him live out his days in office if he let them settle on his succession.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who has replaced Mugabe was the Zanu-PF enforcer, a man with strong links to the security machinery.

The mantra ‘anyone but Mugabe’ ducks a crucial question: How does Mr Mnangagwa represent change? Mnangagwa and the army — backed by veterans — have cleverly re-framed the ouster of Mugabe as remedial, an action targeted at the “criminals” around Mugabe “who are committing crimes” that cause “social and economic suffering in the country.”

The truth can’t be plainer — that as in Egypt, the men in uniform are running the show. As before.

The Ethiopian crisis, the worst in the country since the Tigrayan-dominated EPRDF came to power in 1991 begun in Oromiya in 2015. In 2016 it caught on in parts of Amhara.

And therein lies the worry: the two regions hold 62 per cent of Ethiopia’s 96 million people but their grievances are different. Amhara wants Tigrayans — who form 6 per cent of the population — to give back some of the land that they are holding.

Oromiya just wants an end to northern dominance. Though hundreds have been killed the crisis did not look as serious to outsiders, thanks to a news blackout, a government-controlled media and widespread repression. Even now the EPRDF is still rather back-handed: it has imposed emergency rule, again.

Shades of truth

It is trying, again, what it did in 2016, pre-selecting which Oromo leaders to talk to, actions that further alienate the Oromo and the Amhara and feed their already fractured trust.

In the early days of the protest, Ethiopia called the protesters lackeys of foreigners — read Eritreans — who Ethiopia fought a border war with — and Egyptians — who are unhappy with Ethiopia for building the Renaissance Dam and affecting the flow of the Nile.

The conflict arises from Ethiopia’s dangerously bifurcated state. Political power has always been with the north — in the Tigrayan and Amharic heartlands of old Abysinnia — whilst economic power lies in the Central and the Southern regions, especially Oromiya and the Southern Nations and Nationalities People’s Regional State, SNNPRS.

Mr Meles’s authoritarian bargain — repression in return for prosperity — was always fragile because economic progress could only be achieved by the efforts of regions excluded from political power.

Mr Hailemariam is from the South but he was a marginal figure at the heart of Ethiopian politics and Zenawi’s tokenist gesture to a region he never quite understood.

The Oromos resent Amharic and Tigrayan historical dominance of Ethiopian politics.

Tigrayans and Amharas have often mythologised their privileges by their supposed links with King Solomon and his consort, the Queen of Sheba.
Their rival claims pan out as follows:

The Tigrayans, probably the first people to use the name Ethiopia, are heirs of the Aksumite Kingdom, 100 AD to 940 AD, a sophisticated trading society that minted coins widely used in international trade and built the impressive stelae for which Ethiopia is famous.

Axum, their capital, is supposedly the home of the lost Ark of the Covenant. It is also said to have been home to the Queen of Sheba.

The Amharas also claim a link to Solomon. They say that the founder of the historical Amharic dynasty, Menelik I, king around 950 BC, was King Solomon’s son with the Queen of Sheba.

There is little evidence for this except claims made in the Kebra Negast, an Ethiopian creation myth described by one scholar as “a gigantic conflation of legendary cycles.”

The Amharic link to Solomon goes back to the 13th century when Yekuno Amlak I came to power claiming descent from Dil Na’od, the last King of Axum with a link to Solomon.

It is Yekuno Amlak I that re-established the dynasty that ruled Ethiopia till 1974 when it was overthrown by a Marxist Leninist junta, the Derg, headed by Mengistu Hailemariam.

Mr Mengistu, the “butcher of Addis Ababa”, resented the Tigrayan and Amharic elite whom he thought of as racist slavers. His excesses united many traditional foes into a common cause against the Derg.

At one point, the Tigrayans from Ethiopia and Eritrea — then a region of Ethiopia — formed a fragile alliance with the Oromo Liberation Front, an Oromiya rebel group founded in the early 1970s to fight Amhara dominance. The Oromo wanted to secede from Ethiopia but were persuaded to stay partly because the 1995 Constitution recognised a right to secede.

Mr Meles then managed Oromiya by divide and conquer tactics and by crushing the Oromo Liberation Army.

He centralised power, controlled and manipulated elections, harassed and jailed the opposition but fobbed off western critics by his commitment to honest government and his impressive development record.

Lost cause

When he died in August 2012, the centre gradually lost coherence as competing elites jostled for influence. Desalegn is a Wolatya, a small ethnic group from the SNNPRS.

He neither had the authority of Zenawi nor the necessary links to the structures of Tigrayan power. Religion is an unstated factor.

Mr Hailemariam is a Pentecostal, a group that forms fewer than 10 per cent of the population even when combined with Evangelicals. A majority of Ethiopians, 44 per cent, are Ethiopian Orthodox, a faith dominant among the Tigrayans and Amharas.

The Protestants are dominant in the SNNPRS — making up more than 50 per cent of the population — and Oromiya where they form 20 per cent.

Kicking out Mr Hailemariam will not address the roots of the crisis. In the short run, the EPDRF will continue flailing unconvincingly against foreign enemies. The reforms that the government now promises are likely to be a re-shuffling of the elite at the centre of power in Addis Ababa.

That, unfortunately, will not set Ethiopia on the path to democracy any time soon.

Mandela succession

South Africa is different.

Nelson Mandela left the country on the path to democracy. Its post-apartheid constitution has been impressive.

The constitutional court has turned out much quoted case law including the decisions that have undermined Zuma to the point where his continued leadership of the ANC is untenable.

A canny politician with formidable grassroots skills, Mr Zuma’s unrestrained appetites, his relationship with the notorious Gupta family and a truckload of unsavoury cases eventually destroyed his standing in the ANC.

His Zulu name, Gedleyihlekisa, the BBC points out, means “the one who smiles while grinding his enemies.” He seemed set to grind out all his more educated competitors, including Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor.

He had initially outfoxed Cyril Ramaphosa — the new President — formidable trade unionist-turned capitalist who finally manouvered him out of the ANC.

In the end Mr Zuma lost because he waged war on the South African constitution.

His attempts to compromise and weaken institutions — including parliament and the judiciary — all to stave off his personal problems risked the ANC’s hold on South African politics.

With elections due in 2019, the ANC must have noted that since 2004 support for the party has been dwindling. In 2004 the party won almost 70 per cent of the vote. That fell to 62 per cent by 2014. In the 2016 municipal elections the ANC got a real scare from Democratic Alliance.

The Alliance won in Pretoria and only narrowly lost in Johannesburg, where with only 44 per cent of the vote, the ANC barely scraped through.
This was the first time that the ANC had lost in the capital.

The outlook for 2019 was bleak. Thanks to South Africa’s parliamentary presidency — the president is elected by parliament and so by the party with the largest number of MPs — the ANC was able to oust Mr Zuma before his escalating difficulties irreparably damaged its chances for 2019.

In all three cases then, the power elite got rid of the leader to preserve itself but with this difference: In South Africa, the ANC had to credibly recommit to democracy and honest government to avoid an electoral catastrophe in 2019.

In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, the incumbents became a threat to elite control of the state.

The changes in South Africa are likely to help reclaim South African democracy. Those in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia will not.