2015: Africa for Optimists

By Simon Allison 16 December 2015

There has been plenty to celebrate in Africa this year, from successful elections and brave new leaders, to winning the fight against Ebola. SIMON ALLISON looks at the best stories from an eventful year.

Burkina Faso brings it back from the brink, in style

There was a moment, in September, when it looked like Burkina Faso’s revolution was in tatters. General Gilbert Diendéré, head of the presidential guard and right-hand-man to exiled President Blaise Compaore, had thrown the interim government into jail and seized power for himself. This was the ultimate sting in the tail of the counter-revolution, and it came weeks before elections were supposed to usher in a new democratic era. But Burkina Faso was having none of it. Within days, it was Diendéré and his henchmen who found themselves in detention, unable to resist a potent combination of popular protests, firm regional diplomatic protests and an army that remembered that its first duty was to people, not politicians. There was no doubt, in this case, that the people had spoken.

They would speak again, in the postponed ballot which was eventually held in November. This was a joyous, cathartic affair. The winner, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, may not have represented a huge change from Compaore – after all, he was Prime Minister in the ancien regime – but that is not the point. What really matters is that for the first time in their history, the Burkinabe got to choose their leader for themselves, and his identity is their prerogative.

Tanzania: What would Magafuli do?

John Magafuli was not really supposed to run for president of Tanzania. He was the ruling party’s compromise candidate, a second or even third choice after the main contenders cancelled each other out. Nor was his election entirely secure, thanks to a strong challenge from an energised opposition coalition. Once in power, however, he wasted no time in showing that he meant business. On his first day in office, he rocked up at the finance ministry unannounced, publicly berating the numerous officials who were not at their desks. On another surprise visit, to Dar es Salaam’s main hospital, he found patients sleeping on the floor, and promptly sacked the hospital director and board.

At the same time, he declared extraordinary cost-cutting measures designed to end wasteful government spending: no more travel, for example, or lavish state banquets. He even cancelled Independence Day celebrations, opting to personally sweep the street outside a fish market instead. His actions have made him an instant hero across the continent. On Twitter, it did not take long for the #whatwouldmagafulido hashtag to start trending, as users compared him to their own leaders.

Cynics may say that his headline-grabbing antics are just clever publicity stunts, and that he hasn’t yet gone after party bigwigs who have grown rich off corruption (and, incidentally, funded his election campaign). They may be right. Nonetheless, Magafuli is single-handedly changing the norms around what citizens can expect from their president, and all for the better. Even if it is only symbolic, it is a wonderful symbol.

Bye-bye Ebola!

This year, both Liberia and Sierra Leone declared themselves free from Ebola, the deadly virus that devastated their populations and destroyed their fragile economies last year. Guinea, although not quite Ebola-free, is nearly there. This disease has been defeated, albeit at great human cost – the final death toll is 11,300.

In Liberia, the announcement was greeted with scenes of jubilation at a massive festival in the capital. People danced in the street, and cried, because no one had been left untouched. In Sierra Leone, this catharsis was captured in the most wonderful music video you will ever see: watch everyone from the president to fisherman to the nurses in the Ebola Treatment Centre do azonto, the West African dance, in joyful, tearful celebration.

Nigeria’s peaceful transition

The doom-mongers were out in force before the Nigerian election. Boko Haram was going to wreak havoc. The electoral commission was compromised. The ballot was rigged. President Goodluck Jonathan was going to hang onto power, no matter what.

In the end, the election was wonderfully ordinary. People voted. The votes were counted. The party who got the most votes won. It just so happened that, for the first time since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1999, the ruling party did not get the most votes. Defying the cynics, and huge internal pressure, Jonathan opted not to stick around – almost certainly averting serious unrest and bloodshed in the process.

His successful opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, has been president before. He was a military dictator in the 1980s. But he insisted that a leopard can change its spots, and the Nigerian public agreed, so who are we to quibble with his past? His identity, in any case, is less significant than the precedent that has now been set: in Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, power has been transferred peacefully and democratically. Where it’s happened once it will happen again. And if Nigeria, with all its corruption and geographical divides and religious differences, can get this democracy thing right, then surely other countries can.

The third term debate

You might think this subject belongs in the “Africa for Pessimists” column. It has been a bad year in terms of presidents hanging on to power, or preparing the way to do so. Burundi is the obvious example, where Pierre Nkurunziza’s stubborn insistence on a third term has led to hundreds of deaths and created a refugee crisis. Following closely in his footsteps is Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Congo-Brazzaville, Joseph Kabila in Congo-Kinshasa and Paul Kagame in Rwanda. So far so typical: these are new presidents-for-life in the making, and we should be worried, right? Indeed. But we should also be encouraged, because none of these power grabs are passing without comment or censure. The fact that we’re talking about the problem of unconstitutional term limit extensions at all is a sign of how far the conversation on this has progressed.

Take the African Union’s reaction to Burundi. Sure, the continental body could not do much to stop Nkurunziza – without guns or purse strings, its influence is necessarily limited – but it was outspoken in telling him that he was making a mistake. In doing so, the African Union is slowly but surely creating a new norm, one that says that constitutions are sacrosanct and leaders must leave when they’re supposed to.

It is not just the African Union, either. In May, West African regional body Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) tabled a motion to outlaw third terms across the region. Ten countries voted in favour, and only two against. The motion failed, because it required consensus, but the conclusion is inescapable: while they still exist, and will for some time to come, presidents-for-life (and the countries that accept them) are becoming an endangered minority. DM

Photo: Tanzania’s then President-elect John Pombe Magafuli salutes members of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi Party (CCM) at the party’s sub-head office on Lumumba road in Dar es Salaam, October 30, 2015. REUTERS/Sadi Said

Further Reading

  • How and why term limits matter on African Arguments
  • Kagame’s third term: Better the devil we know? on Daily Maverick
  • Analysis: How Burkina Faso foiled the coup on Daily Maverick
  • After a year of turmoil, Burkina Faso heads for the polls on the Guardian
  • Tanzania’s president targets corruption with surprise visits and sackings on the Guardian
  • Bye Bye Ebola! The feel-good video of the year on Daily Maverick
  • 2015 Africans of the Year: Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari on Daily Maverick

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