On July 25, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied suspended parliament for a month and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi.
A dangerous power grab and a threat to democracy? The opposition in Tunisia certainly thought so, calling it a coup.
The people, those fellows who gave birth to the Arab Spring by pouring onto the Tunisia streets in 2011 to oust strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had other ideas. They came out to celebrate Saied’s action, with a woman interviewed by an international TV, all sweaty, saying it was the best thing she had ever seen a Tunisian president do.
Tunisians are angry at one of Africa’s worst virus outbreaks, and at a bickering political class that has hopelessly failed to solve the county’s economic problems, but seeing them celebrating a president suspending an elected parliament and concentrating all power unto himself, was still unsettling.
Yet, Tunisia is not alone. In many places in Africa, we are seeing a sharp increase in disillusionment with elected government and parliament.
It can sometimes take very strange turns. In early July, violence and a frantic wave of national looting whose aftermath was visible from outers space, broke out in South Africa.
It followed the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. When Zuma was president from May 2009 to February 2018, South Africa was nearly eaten to the bone.
Zuma refused to show up at the commission probing the corruption of his government and was hit with court contempt charges.
Yet the same people he and his cronies allegedly stole from, and who were abused by his government, came out to protect him — and looted the country while at it. Of course, it is more complicated than that. South Africans are angry at the ruling ANC, and even those who said expressly that they hated Zuma, still came out to loot as a form of wealth redistribution.
Then, in Ivory Coast, former president Laurent Gbagbo returned to a hero’s welcome.
When he left the country in 2011, it was in ignominy. In short, an election was held in 2010. His rival, current President Alassane Ouattara won it. Gbagbo refused to hand over power, and there was another flare-up in a civil war in which 3,000 people were killed.
In April 2011, Gbagbo was cornered and arrested by pro-Ouattara and French forces in a hole in State House, where he had made his last sad stand. His captors hauled him out nearly half-naked. Gbagbo was extradited to The Hague in November 2011, where he was charged with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court in connection with the post-election violence. In January 2019, an ICC panel dismissed the charges against him.
When he returned (with a new wife), the frustration with Ouattara had turned him into a beloved figure.
The anger at the failure and corruption of “democratic” governments, the sham of elections that don’t result in a change or are stolen, have taken a toll. At best, there is the most serious re-imagination of what democracy means is happening in parts of Africa. At worst, we are probably headed for a new age of dangerous demagogues.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]