Hope and hopelessness in Africa

| October 16, 2021 | 0 Comments
Hakainde Hichilema’s election as president of Zambia represents a triumph of popular democracy in an Africa that is increasingly politically fraught. (Photo: White house)

Hakainde Hichilema’s election as president of Zambia represents a triumph of popular democracy in an Africa that is increasingly politically fraught. (Photo: White house)

Hakainde Hichilema’s resounding victory in Zambia’s August presidential poll proves that Africans can abandon identity preferences, resist intimidation by an incumbent regime and oust a sitting autocrat accustomed to rigging elections. Voters in that one southern African country removed president Edgar Lungu, a despot who had increasingly brutalized opponents, curtailed free speech and assembly and wrecked the nation’s economy while lining his own pockets and the pockets of cronies.
Hichilema’s success represents a rare triumph of popular democracy in an Africa increasingly fraught with vicious ethnic disputes and intranational rivalries. Ethiopia, the continent’s second most populous country, with 110 million inhabitants, is a poster child for such internal antagonisms; as a result, Ethiopia is in danger of dissolving into its separate ethnic sections thanks to misguided policies pursued since 2020 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the nation’s arrogant leader.
The two leaders and their policies represent the disparate poles of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa discourse: Will the post-colonial nations of that continent hold together and eventually become full nations, or will they continue to remain pre-institutional states dominated by particularly populous or influential ethnicities intent on marginalizing minorities?
Zambia has never elected someone from its neglected south to high office. But, because Lungu, backed by the country’s Bemba majority, ruled high-handedly, mismanaged the country’s economy, borrowed lavishly from China and Europe to finance extravagant infrastructure projects, and threatened to extend his term of office beyond constitutionally permitted limits, voters tossed him out and thus ended northern (Bemba) hegemony in Zambia. Hichilema, a CiTonga-speaker, promises to unify Zambia, end corruption and restore prosperity in a land long dependent on the export of copper and cadmium.
Zambia defaulted on its bond payments to Europe in 2020, Africa’s first victim of profligacy. Whether Hichilema can persuade the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to give Zambia the massive loan it needs to pay off its remaining debts to Europe and China and stabilize an economy, now running wild deficits remains to be seen. Under Lungu, Zambia’s public debt as a share of GDP doubled from 66 per cent to 113 per cent, the value of the local kwacha currency fell precipitously, food prices soared and copper production slumped. The austerity that the IMF will demand promises to make Hichilema’s early governing efforts unpopular.
Nevertheless, Hichilema has already accomplished the bringing together of a state long organized along ethnic lines. He could be the unifier and nation-builder that Abiy is not, and his election and efforts in office could advance the cause of democratic modernization in a continent otherwise still focused largely on ethnically acquired spoils.
Ever since winning a Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy, a member of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group of 38 million people, has led his country in exactly the opposite direction. The successor as prime minister to the Tigrayan junta that had organized and fought a guerrilla war to take Ethiopia back from an oppressive Marxist regime that had assassinated Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and ruled all of Ethiopia despotically until 1991, Abiy tried and is still trying to conquer Tigray (one of his country’s 10 regional governments) and extirpate Tigrayans (6 per cent of Ethiopia’s population) in 2020 and 2021. By attempting to gain control over Tigray and thus end a theoretical threat to his personalist rule, Abiy has revived contentions among all of the country’s other large ethnic entities, and engaged in wholesale ethnic cleansing (a precursor to genocide) in Tigray. As many as half of Tigray’s 8 million inhabitants are now hungry and starving.
Abiy has prevented humanitarian aid from reaching Tigray and his actions have driven 150,000 Tigrayans across the border into impecunious Sudan. Meanwhile, a Tigrayan militia regained control of the region, thus further nullifying Abiy’s efforts to become a new paramount ruler of a now-divided Ethiopia, but deepening internal schisms. Abiy’s forces bombed and invaded Tigray again, in October.

Patriotic Front (PF) leader Edgar C. Lungu casts his ballot in the Zambian election. His opponent, Hakainde Hichilema prevailed. (Photo: flickr)

Patriotic Front (PF) leader Edgar C. Lungu casts his ballot in the Zambian election. His opponent, Hakainde Hichilema prevailed. (Photo: flickr)

Whereas Hichilema can conceivably build upon his unexpected electoral triumph to unify and modernize Zambia, a Texas-sized country of 18 million inhabitants, Abiy’s actions have accentuated fissiparous tendencies in Ethiopia, a mixed Christian and Muslim entity 1.6 times the size of that same American state. Many other African polities are still struggling — 60 years after independence — to build real nations. Most default into their ethnic components, and fight elections on the basis of identities, not policies.
Nigeria harbours an extreme version of this ethnic favouritism. Africa’s most populous place, with more than 200 million people, and by 2050 about 400 million, Nigeria is home to an Igbo irredentist movement in its southeast quadrant that seeks to revive the fortunes of Biafra, a secessionist state that fought and lost a bitter war against the rest of Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. To the southwest of the area that was once Biafra, in and around the Niger River delta, is the homeland of the increasingly restive Ijaw people. West of this area and west of the Igbo homeland is Yoruba country, already exhibiting another ethnic upsurge. These three peoples, and others such as the Ibibio and Ogoni (near the Ijaw) and the Tiv (in mid-Nigeria), collectively resent the predations and pretensions of northern Muslims (about half of the country’s total population), and especially of Fulani herders who are increasingly moving south into what was once considered the fertile lands of Christian and animist agriculturalists.
Nigeria’s northeast corner, spilling over into Niger and Cameroon, also suffers from a long-running insurgency that has pitted Boko Haram (now split into two fundamentalist groups) irredentists against the massive (but ineffectual) Nigerian army for control of Borno state and the littoral of Lake Chad. Boko Haram and gangsters farther west in Muslim Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara states (Nigeria has 36) have kidnapped schoolchildren repeatedly, disrupted farmers and even raided towns and cities such as Maiduguri.
Nigeria, a classically failed state, will doubtless continue to stagger onward despite its many separatist-inclined peoples and ambitious ethnically driven politicians. President Muhammadu Buhari’s leadership is lacking, so a ramshackle country that should advance Africa’s interests globally and continentally falters endlessly without finally falling apart.
Nearby Cameroon also suffers from separatist endeavours on the part of its long-discriminated-against English-speaking minority. Currently, 20 per cent of Cameroon’s people speak English rather than French, the residue of different colonial experiences. Since 2017, the English speakers have been fighting to create Ambazonia, a new state to be carved out of Cameroon’s southwest corner. But so far, even with a ruler of 39 years (President Paul Biya) who lives most of the year in Switzerland, French-speaking security forces have managed to prevent Ambazonia from splitting away from Cameroon.
The Central African Republic, just east of Cameroon, has been mired for at least a decade in a pitched battle between Muslims (the Séléka) from the north and Christians (the anti-Balaka movement) from the south. Likewise, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, north of Nigeria, endure almost weekly attacks by criminal Islamists loyal to the Islamic State in the Sahara/Maghreb. The insurgents have been growing stronger in recent months, especially as France, Britain and the United States have focused their military attentions elsewhere and the local armies have proven incapable of recovering the lands of the Sahel (and the Sahara) from militants with access to Libyan arms. This whole area could soon fall, Afghanistan-like, to armed gangs based mostly beyond Timbuktu.
In many more African states, governments discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. Uganda favours southwesterners loyal to its autocratic president, and systematically persecutes those from its one-time dominant kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro. Kikuyu rule Kenya, often with little consideration for the wishes of those of, say, Luo, Kamba, Samburu, Maasai or Kipsigis origin.
Possibly in southern Africa, given Hichilema’s ascent, Zambia can join Botswana in becoming a fully unified nation, rather than an embryonic state. South Africa, long a full nation, would seem exempt from all of these concerns. But president Jacob Zuma’s calamitous rule from 2009 to 2018 exacerbated residual ethnic preferences. As a Zulu, a member of the most populous peopling of South Africa, Zuma shifted governmental employment preference and access to illicit profits to fellow Zulu, thus opening up the Pandora’s box of ethnicity almost for the first time. His efforts, and the “selling” of the state to a cabal of Indian capitalists and Zulu entrepreneurs, divided the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the entire nation in ways that president Nelson Mandela himself warned against before his death.
Zuma, now on trial for peculation and influence-peddling from as long ago as the 1990s as well in the 2010s, is still trying to protect himself and his mercantile interests by raising the Zulu ethnic flag and, with his supporters, by opposing the valiant, but so far still inconclusive efforts of President Cyril Ramaphosa to unite the nation and rebuild it economically despite the massive damage of COVID-19, the Delta variant and inexcusable vaccine shortages. Ramaphosa is a Venda, a smallish and much-derided ethnicity in northern South Africa.
Woe be to South Africa and Africa if Ramaphosa is unable to contain the Zulu and ANC separatists. Like Nigeria, South Africa is the tribune of Africa and, under a democratic, well-intentioned leader such as Ramaphosa, it theoretically should be able to hold together and prosper on behalf of its 60 million inhabitants and for the rest of Africa.
Africa’s future depends on triumphs such as those of Hichilema, and the stalwart endeavours of Ramaphosa. But there are power hungry leaders, such as Abiy and Biya, and inept ones such as Buhari, whose maladroit efforts may drive Africans more and more apart.
Things have, at least, come together in Zambia at last, a hopeful harbinger for much of the rest of Africa.

Robert I. Rotberg is the founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict and was Fulbright Distinguished Professor at Carleton and Waterloo universities. He wrote The Corruption Cure (Princeton University Press, 2017) and published Anticorruption (MIT Press) and Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness in the Twenty-first Century (Oxford University Press) in August.

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Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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