Africa This Month: A Welcome Time For Change


© Shutterstock

March 31, 2016 11:47 EDT

Benin’s successful elections and peaceful transfer of power along with the ICC’s first conviction for rape as a war crime set new precedents for Africa.

In times of crisis, two heads are usually better than one. It seems that leaders of the two largest African economies, Nigeria and South Africa, have taken this creed to heart. Hence, they are taking steps to bury the hatchet after a period of frosty relations. Both countries are in disarray because oil prices have crashed and commodity prices are falling. As the global economy stumbles, Africa’s biggest economies are taking a beating.

Thus, it makes sense for both countries to get together to cook up responses to the economic crisis engulfing them. It helps that both countries are far away and do not share any borders. They might have frigid relations but are not quite at war. Yet there is another reason why they are patching up. South African President Jacob Zuma is facing intense political heat at home. His state visit to Nigeria, which was inspired by the two countries’ efforts to find common ground, also served as an apostrophe to his domestic tribulations. He desperately needs some good news.

Zuma’s Guptagate

Zuma is facing allegations of corruption yet again. “Guptagate” is his latest scandal. As per allegations, the wealthy and influential Gupta family wields undue influence over Zuma and his government. Toward the end of 2015, Zuma caused outrage by sacking Nhlanhla Nene, who was a rather well-respected finance minister.

Now, outrage has turned to shock. Mcebisi Jonas, South Africa’s deputy finance minister, has recently alleged that members of the Gupta family offered him Nene’s position. Zuma’s son is under a cloud. The police are investigating him and the Guptas for wielding improper political influence. The secretary general of the African National Congress (ANC), Zuma’s own party, has declared that South Africa risks becoming a “mafia state” unless it can deal with corruption.

Corruption in poor countries revolves around a simple point. There is a divergence between the law of the land that proclaims public interest and political actions that further private endowment. In the case of South Africa, the absolute domination of the ANC has allowed Zuma to put his hands in the cookie jar repeatedly.

Furthermore, Guptagate reveals that South Africa might be suffering from the crony capitalism that has plagued countries like Russia and Indonesia. Politicians hand over public resources to big business that, in turn, fills their private coffers and funds their election campaigns. The heavy hand of the state remains along with the inequalities of flawed markets, creating a deeply inequitable society.

Election Season

In February, Niger’s elections were in focus. They continue to remain important. President Mahamadou Issoufou is running for his second term just like many presidents around the world. The only twist is that Hama Amadou, his opponent, has been locked up in jail. It turns out that Amadou is now not in his prison cell, but has been flown to Paris for medical treatment. The opposition have decided that enough is enough. They allege gross electoral violations and are boycotting the elections.

Multi-party elections are a new-fangled thing in Niger. They have been around only since 1990 and continue to be flawed. Issoufou is a mining engineer who is referred to as “the Lion,” while Amadou is a comeback veteran who is hence nicknamed “the Phoenix.” This uranium-rich land continues to be trapped in poverty with armed groups operating in the northern desert areas bordering Libya and Algeria, while Boko Haram wreaks havoc in the south along its border with Nigeria. Political turmoil will not help Niger mitigate poverty or control conflict. Unsurprisingly, religious groups, tribal leaders and trade unions are appealing for calm.

Jacob Zuma

Jacob Zuma © Shutterstock

Niger could emulate Benin, its much smaller southwestern neighbor. The presidential elections have gone rather smoothly. For a start, Thomas Boni Yayi, the incumbent president, decided to respect the constitution and retire. By contrast, this month, incumbents were re-elected in Congo-Brazzaville, Cape Verde and Tanzania’s Zanzibar islands. In a continent of strongmen who try to sit on the throne until their last breath, Boni Yayi has earned much respect for his abdication.

Benin’s election attracted more than two dozen candidates. Eventually, two were left standing. Lionel Zinsou, the sitting prime minister, took on Patrice Talon, a local entrepreneur, and lost. Zinsou is an urbane fellow who studied at Ecole Normale Supérieure and the London School of Economics. He has been an investor, a merchant banker and a speechwriter for Laurent Fabius when he was prime minister of France. Zinsou has dual nationality and holds a French passport.

Talon is more of a rough and tumble operator. He is a self-made entrepreneur who is known as “the king of cotton.” This lover of designer glasses, flashy clothes and sports cars was accused of plotting to poison Boni Yayi and fled to exile before the outgoing president pardoned him in 2014. He painted Zinsou as a “yovo” or “the white man” during the campaign. His dual citizenship was also used against him as a question mark on where his loyalties lay. The tactic worked. Zinsou found it hard to shake off the tag of France’s candidate and lost. He has graciously conceded defeat.

Talon has promised to generate jobs. People believe him because he has a track record of creating wealth. The entrepreneur has also promised to decentralize powers currently concentrated in the hands of the president. Talon has also promised to introduce a five-year term limit, a radical new development. Whether he delivers or not, Talon’s victory reveals that his country wants the colonial centralized model to change. Citizens are yearning for a more bottom-up system with greater public participation and accountability.

Many Forms of Violence

Terrorism is a global phenomenon that afflicts cities from Baghdad to Brussels. Countries from Pakistan to France are facing wanton attacks of violence. African countries are no exception. Ivory Coast experienced an attack by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Six gunmen attacked a resort in the sleepy town of Grand-Bassam and killed 14 people. Soldiers rushed to the scene and killed all the gunmen. Two soldiers lost their lives in the daring rescue.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) delivered a landmark ruling on March 21. It convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel-turned-opposition leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who has been found guilty of crimes, including rape and murder…

The attack is part of a pattern wherein terrorists are targeting soft civilian targets to create a climate of fear. Ivory Coast is cooperating with France to stymie the rise of AQIM and is home to the main French base in the region. The country has taken strong measures against AQIM in the Muslim north of the country. It banned foreign Muslim preachers from entering the country and suspended the construction of mosques because they were deemed to be breeding grounds for terrorism. Inevitably, Ivory Coast is a target and expected fanatical Islamic terrorists to attack sooner rather than later. Just like Europe or Asia, Africa faces a terrorism problem. States, religious organizations, tribal leaders, civil society and regional organizations have to cooperate closely to tackle it.

This attack was spectacular but not as worrying as the violence in South Sudan. In recent months, medical facilities have come under increased attack. Patients are killed, hospitals are looted and structures are torched in acts of wanton cruelty that constitute war crimes. Medical organizations are pulling out and already poor health conditions are worsening without adequate care. Malnutrition is rife, causing terrible damage to young children. A terrible tragedy is unfolding as South Sudan’s civil war rages with ever greater ferocity. As of now, there seems to be little hope in the immediate future.

Finally, drone strikes against al-Shabab have been the subject of a vigorous debate. In March, the US reportedly killed 150 militants in airstrikes involving both manned and unmanned aircraft. Supporters of airstrikes claim that they weaken al-Shabab. This brutal and ruthless organization has been ambushing Kenyan soldiers and killing innocent civilians at will. Therefore, airstrikes in general and drone strikes in particular have a key role in defeating al-Shabab.

Opponents point out that nobody knows the identities of those targeted and the killing raises three big issues. First, the legal justification for summary execution by presidential fiat of whoever occupies the White House is slim at best and nonexistent at worst. Second, it is more than possible that drone strikes kill innocents or, to use the politically correct term, cause collateral casualties. In 2014, US drone strikes targeted 41 men but ended up killing 1,147 people. Third, drone strikes might be helping al-Shabab instead of hurting it. The number of its fighters has doubled since 2013 despite successful airstrikes. Abukar Arman, Somalia’s former special envoy to the US, has called the drone strikes a “priceless propaganda tool for al-Shabab.”

The Hague

The Hague © Shutterstock

ICC Makes History

The International Criminal Court (ICC) delivered a landmark ruling on March 21. It convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel-turned-opposition leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who has been found guilty of crimes including rape and murder, which were committed by his troops against civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR).

The ruling is significant for three key reasons. First, Bemba is the most senior political leader to have been convicted by the court. At the time of his arrest in Brussels, Bemba was a senator in Congo and the big boss of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC). He also served as one of DRC’s vice-presidents in a unity government. In brief, Bemba is big fry and his feet have been held to the fire.

Second, Bemba is the first person to be convicted for committing these atrocities in a foreign country. His militia crossed the border into neighboring CAR to assist then-President Ange-Felix Patasse in crushing the rebels trying to depose him.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, “it is the court’s first conviction for rape as a war crime and establishes the principle that commanders are responsible for the actions of their subordinates.” In the month that celebrates International Women’s Day, the ICC ruling provides protection for women’s rights that have been violated since time immemorial. It situates women’s rights at the very heart of such customary international law norms to which humanity permits no derogation. It sends a powerful message to military commanders and militiamen that, henceforth, they will be held responsible for acts of sexual violence.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Vladimir Dvoynikov / Albert H. Teich / Jan Kranendonk /

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