Opinion: Africa and the specter of pluralism | Africa | DW | 28.12.2016
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Opinion: Africa and the specter of pluralism

2016 was hardly a triumphant year for Africa. The economic situation worsened. Young electorates voted for change but it failed to materialize, writes Claus Stäcker.

Former mathematics teacher Faustin Touadera could have become a beacon of hope for the continent of Africa. He won the first round of long-awaited free elections in the Central African Republic (CAR) on February 14, nurturing expectations of a promising year for the continent but the euphoria evaporated quickly. Few signficant signs of change for the better were to emerge from Africa in 2016.

Just four days after Touadera's election victory in CAR, hopes of democratization elsewhere were dashed when Uganda's longtime president Yoweri MUseveni resorted to coercion and the use of force to secure a fifth term in office.  In Chad, President Idriss Deby was reinstated, also for a fifth term, under similar circumstances. In August, Gabonese President Ali Bongo was returned to power with a wafer thin majority of 4,000 votes. How he was able to secure 95 percent of the vote with a turnout of 99 percent in his home province of Haut-Ogooue remains something of a mystery. After the election, the small but oil-rich country, was on the verge of rebellion. Young Gabonese wanted change, but Bongo remained

Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema extended his 36-year rule when he was re-elected with 93.7 percent of the vote in April. This went almost unnoticed elsewhere. Burundian autocrat Pierre Nkurunziza was also forgotten by the international community and was able to secretly secure his hold on power. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe is to run for office again in 2018. By then he will have reached the advanced age of 94. His unquenchable thirst for power is one of the continent's ever recurring tragedies. It is undignified for Mugabe for whom not even the state-run media can hide his mental and physical decline. It is also depressing for the legions of well-educated  Zimbabweans who are desperately hoping for generational change, a paradigm shift, in their country's leadership and an end to the inertia that is paralyzing Zimbabwe.                     

Falling stars: Buhari and Magufuli 

Ethiopia also waits in vain for radical change. An ambitious, younger generation is demanding with growing vehemence a bigger say in the running of the country and the economy. Discontent has grown to the extent that the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) saw no alternative but to declare a state of emergency. Thousands who were arrested in the October crackdown are expected to be released at the end of the year in what is, perhaps, a tentative sign of moderation and common sense.

The sheen has gone from two new African rulers in whom many had placed their hopes in 2016. The public support that Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari and Tanzania's John Magufuli enjoyed on taking office has now largely dissipated. Buhari has acquired a mania for regulation and often appears confused and ill-informed. Magufuli is fighting increasingly solitary battles in which he has provoked the wrath of the media, civil society, the judiciary and other, often well-meaning, democratic elements of Tanzanian society.  

Stäcker Claus Kommentarbild App

Claus Stäcker is the head of DW's Africa service


The situation is not any better in South Africa. Scandals involving ministers and shady deals are fast transforming the country into a banana republic. Africa's oldest liberation movement, the 105-year old African National Congress (ANC) appears incapable of taking control or of internal renewal.

And yet all is not lost on the Cape of Good Hope. South Africa's economy, judiciary, media and civil society have displayed a remarkable resilience to the government crisis unfolding around them. At municipal elections in August, the ANC suffered its worst results ever.  Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay are now being governed by new coalitions. They will have to show that they are more competent than the ANC.

More pluralism

Africa should risk more pluralism the likes of which we saw in Ghana. Future President Nana Akufo-Addo succeeded in being elected on his third attempt. Much hope is being placed on the shoulders of the 72-year-old. Ghana has witnessed three democratic transitions since 1992, yet so far they have brought the country minimal economic and social progress. Corruption has even increased.

Change in Africa - in Ghana and elsewhere - can only come from within. The political elites must cast aside their fear of pluralism. Political and economic concepts should jostle in competition and that should be the norm. Not every election is a matter of life or death as many rulers like to suggest; it's generally about the peaceful competition of ideas, trust in the state and its institutions. In the DR Congo, President Joseph Kabila, finds this difficult to accept. Gambia's dictator Yahya Jammeh introduced marbles into his country's voting system to stop fraud.  Now the marbles are no longer rolling in his favor. In a gesture of rare and unusual clarity, the African Union,  the regional bloc ECOWAS and the United Nations demanded that this bizarre ruler Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa make way for his democratically elected successor. Nobody knows what will happen on January 19 when the transition is scheduled to take place. ECOWAS troops in neighboring Senegal are on alert. But would West African troops really invade the country?

It would be a sign of hope if the African Union, whose level of activity often fails to live up to its rhetoric, were to assist in a breakthrough in which the wishes of the electorate in the tiny country were respected. It would be a sign of hope for Gambians, whose average age is approximately 20 years, and for young Ethiopians and Zimbabweans as well. It would also be a hopeful sign for Kenya, the site of Africa's most important elections in 2017. The message is a simple and timely one. Your vote is worth something, not only inside the polling station but outside it as well.               



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