2016 in review: Africa for Optimists

2016 in review: Africa for Optimists

Amid all the doom and gloom of this year, there have been a few good news stories. SIMON ALLISON reminds us that not all is lost.

A war criminal accounts for his crimes

In Dakar, Senegal, extraordinary scenes as former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré was charged for crimes committed during his rule – and, eventually, found guilty.

Hissène Habré, the court finds you guilty of summary executions, forced disappearances, torture, murder. Some victims who are still alive still suffer from the effects of his regime – the crimes committed against them… He [Habré] created a system where impunity and terror reigned. He did not show any compassion toward the victims or express any regret about the massacres and rapes that were committed,” said Senegalese judge Gbertao Kam.

The verdict was groundbreaking on several counts. Habré is the first African head of state to be convicted in Africa, and the first head of state anywhere to be convicted of crimes against humanity by the courts of another country. After a long and difficult struggle by victims’ groups to bring the dictator to justice, that justice was finally done. “The feeling is one of complete satisfaction,” said Clement Abeifouta, president of a Habré survivors association.

Habré’s historic conviction sends mixed messages to African dictators

The Gambia’s shock upset

On December 2, the results of Gambia’s election were announced. President-for-life Yahya Jammeh – 22 years into a self-proclaimed “billion year” rule – had lost.

This is the story that no one saw coming – not even a furious Jammeh himself, or his bemused opponent, Adama Barrow. Jammeh was a dictator of the old school, and had been expected to fudge the numbers to keep himself in power. Or, failing that, to simply sit tight in the Presidential Palace and let his army do the dirty work.

But the army wasn’t playing ball, and neither were the numbers, which showed such a clear opposition victory that even Jammeh could not dispute the result. He conceded defeat, saying he’ll retire to his farm.

Except it was never going to be as easy as that, was it? Jammeh has sinced reversed his concession. He said the election was flawed, and a new election should be held.

But he’s not getting much support in this. Previously cowed institutions have decided to speak up, including the Bar Association and the electoral commission, telling Jammeh he must accept the results. Even more tellingly, west African leaders – including the presidents of Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone – have been unequivocal in their condemnation of his attempt to hold on to power. This is an important reminder of how continental norms around hanging on to power have shifted in recent years.

The situation in Gambia remains tense, and unpredictable. But whatever happens, Gambians have already sent a strong message to the rest of the continent: that people power counts, that dictators are fragile, and that no regime is infallible.

The Gambia: Jammeh’s defeat shows voting does count, and dictators do fall

The dictator’s club turns on one of their own

When President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo began his machinations to keep himself in power, he knew that the usual suspects would be unhappy: rights groups, opposition political parties, western superpowers. But he also knew he could count on the support of presidents in the region, who have – almost without exception – already gone down this road themselves.

Not so fast. As protests against Kabila’s continued rule grew in size – precipitating a bloody government response – so Kabila’s would-be allies began to turn on him. Behind the scenes, other dictators were telling Kabila that his time was up, and that he needed to make a plan to leave office.

Presidents Denis Sassou Nguessou of the Republic of Congo and Jose Eduardo dos Santos were the main instigators of this regional policy. Of course, they have their own motives, namely that an unstable DRC could wreak havoc on their own countries.

Without the support of the region, Kabila will be forced to look for some kind of compromise arrangement, with the latest reports suggesting that he really will step down before new elections are held in 2018. This is good news for the country, and a significant blow against the presumed powers of incumbency – never mind that the blow in question was itself struck by a collection of powerful incumbents.

More contestation and uncertainty for the DRC

All aboard the Addis-Djibouti express

There is an understandable fascination in African policy circles with “leapfrog technology” – technology that can allow underdeveloped African countries to skip entire phases of technological progress. The best example of this is, of course, the mobile phone, which brought telecommunications to the masses without having to install an unwieldy and expensive system of landlines.

But there are some technologies that cannot simply be leapfrogged. Transportation is one of them. To get people from A to B, and, more important, to get cargo from A to B, you need physical infrastructure which is expensive to build and difficult to maintain.

So when ambitious, region-spanning infrastructure projects are completed, they should be lauded. In October, the Addis-Djibouti Railway was officially opened. The 750km long stretch will link Ethiopia’s landlocked capital with Djibouti’s bustling port, and should dramatically reduce the price of imports to and exports from Ethiopia – Africa’s second largest country by population. They will also reduce the time it takes to get goods between Addis and Djibouti, down from several weeks to just a single day.

Although expensive – built by China at a cost of $3.4-billion – the project should re-energise Ethiopia’s already impressive economic growth. If so, it will be cheap at the price.

All aboard the Addis-Djibouti express!

Zimbabwe’s energised resistance

Pastor Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag movement – accidentally birthed in a passionate Facebook video – may have captured most of the headlines this year, but Zimbabwe’s energised resistance movement is about far more than just one man.

#ThisFlag did play a major role, of course, in re-engaging citizens who were jaded with the same old opposition parties doing the same old things. But the movement’s success would have been impossible without a large cast of supportive individuals and organisations who worked together to mobilise against Robert Mugabe’s regime. These include the established opposition parties, especially Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, which remains the only political organisation (outside of the ruling party) with established national structures.

Together, this resistance movement has properly rattled the regime. In response, security forces have ratcheted up the torture and intimidation, with record incidents of political violence recorded this year.

Change is in the air in Zimbabwe. After 36 years of Robert Mugabe’s rule, citizens are starting to believe that something better is possible.

Zimbabwe: Dreams from a post-Mugabe future

South Africa’s Constitution

This may seem counterintuitive, but bear with me here: 2016 has been a good year for South Africa. Yes, the country’s economy is sluggish, the president is corrupt, and a dodgy family from India seem to have their hands in every pie. But these are exactly the kind of setbacks that South Africa’s Constitution is designed to withstand – and, so far, the Constitution is living up to its reputation as the world’s best.

Forget about the day-to-day scandals. It’s the long-term picture that really counts, and what stands out the most is that the checks and balances are working – no matter how hard the president has worked to dismantle them.

Three institutions in particular deserve an honourable mention.

First, the judiciary. The Constitutional Court’s job is not to play politics, but to apply the law, and it has done so this year in exemplary fashion – even when its decision on Nkandla brought it into direct confrontation with the executive branch of government.

Second, the Office of the Public Protector – a position that most South Africans did not know existed until a couple of years ago – played a pivotal role in exposing President Jacob Zuma’s misdeeds.

Third, the independent media lived up to its role as watchdog, ferociously exposing scandal after scandal, forcing action to be taken.

Zuma remains in office, and there is no doubt that he is doing all he can to circumvent his constitutional responsibilities. But even as it stretches to breaking point, the iconic document remains a model of how to establish and protect a democratic government, and will once again provide the foundation for South Africa’s recovery. DM

Photo: People gather outside the Harare Magistrates courts 13 July 2016 as they attend the court case of Evan Mawarire, a jailed pastor who called for the mass stay away from work and shutdown last week, Harare, Zimbabwe. EPA/AARON UFUMELI


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