For Africa in 2017, watch the politics

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Just a few weeks before the new year, events are already shaping up towards what may be a politically tense 2017. Never mind that an already impatient American president-elect Donald Trump would be quick to make his presence felt everywhere, after his inauguration on 20 January. With presidential elections due in at least five African countries – Angola, Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and hopefully the Democratic Republic of Congo – during the year, 2017 promises to be interesting on the African continent certainly.

Jubilee beware
As if similarly impatient, the Kenyan parliament had a violent session in the penultimate week to the end of 2016, as lawmakers from the ruling Jubilee Party passed amendments to the electoral law that didn’t quite sit well with their counterparts from the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD). Why are they fighting again? For elections on 8 August, Jubilee wants a manual back-up to the electronic electoral system it earlier agreed to via negotiations with CORD, after protracted protests by the latter. The ruling party now fears its supporters, in areas – about 1,300 polling stations – that may not be covered by the 3G mobile phone network needed for the system to run effectively by election time, could be disenfranchised. CORD, which wants the registration, identification, and verification of voters and transmission of results to be fully electronic, disagrees. By amending the electoral law to accommodate a manual back-up, and successfully passing them in the absence of CORD lawmakers who boycotted the vote, Jubilee has reneged on the deal. CORD is not amused. Its leader, Raila Odinga has called for non-violent mass action in early January. Considering how hopeful one had become, as Mr Odinga and Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, came together, as statesmen should, to resolve their differences over commissioners of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) not too long ago, this is a concerning turn of events. The clergy, which brokered the earlier deal, is urging President Kenyatta not to sign the amendments into law. I wonder about that though: it is very unlikely the lawmakers would make such a brazen move without the blessing of Mr Kenyatta. In any case, details emerged over the weekend that suggest he likely sanctioned the move.

Extra time for a crisis
Violence also erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo this past week, as Joseph Kabila, the country’s president remains in office despite his term expiring on 19 December. A score died, after authorities opened fire on anti-Kabila protesters. His continued stay in office comes with the imprimatur of the country’s constitutional court though, which ruled in May that President Kabila could stay on if elections were not held in November; a likely possibility due to budgetary constraints, the government then argued. In October, the same court approved a request by the electoral commission to postpone the elections to April 2018. The opposition would have none of it, hence the protests on 20 December and consequent violence. There is hope now though, as opposition members have agreed a transition deal in principle with Mr Kabila. He will stay one more year, during which polls are to be held to elect his successor. Despite supposed complications, expectations are high that a final deal would be struck before the end of the year. Regardless, one is typically wary when dictators get extra time. That is, even as Mr Kabila is expected to appoint a prime minister from the ranks of the opposition, if all goes according to plan. Also bear in mind, the Gambian impasse remains, as Yahya Jammeh, the country’s president, refuses to accept the results of recent elections. (See earlier columns for views.) Widely known for his belligerence, President Jammeh may want to test the will of the international community. Thankfully, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has firmed up its threat: Senegal would lead a military operation to forcefully oust Mr Jammeh should he choose to push the limits. Thus, January could prove to be particularly tense in the African political space indeed.

Weary heads
In South Africa, the race to replace Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, has begun in earnest. The focus in 2017 would be the December (or earlier) leadership contest in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), an almost sure step towards clinching the country’s presidency. The top contenders, Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s deputy president, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the outgoing African Union (AU) Commission chair, are already targeting their speeches at party faithfuls. Considering how divided the ANC has become under the rather underwhelming and controversial stewardship of President Zuma, the winner would have a huge task on his hands. And in Nigeria, one would be greatly surprised if the Muhammadu Buhari government is allowed any breathing space in the coming year. Already, key contenders for the presidency in elections due in 2019 have started making comments targeted at regions disgruntled with the incumbent. President Buhari is unpopular in the south for being unabashedly sectional and exclusionary. For instance, one of the potential candidates, Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president, has been harping on the need to negotiate the federal structure of Nigeria. It is probably all just strategy: one is sceptical that Mr Abubakar would be any more inclusive than Mr Buhari. More interesting is talk of a mega party soon to be launched by disgruntled elements in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the factionalized but still leading opposition party. The alleged leaders within the ruling party are still operating in the shadows though, playing both sides, as taking on Mr Buhari too early may be ‘dangerous for their political health.’ Mr Buhari’s potential headaches may be born closer to home. There are one or two members of his inner circle who do not want him to run in 2019. They may choose to covertly sabotage his government to ensure he sees the wisdom of their counsel. Not without support of his own, never mind an almost fanatical followership within the security services, which he has made sure to fill with people loyal to him first, Mr Buhari may bring the full force of state power to bear on his opponents regardless. And therein lies the risk.

Statesmen needed
Incidentally, much of these concerns could well be assuaged if the principal actors choose to show leadership. Mr Jammeh could simply leave office when his term expires on 18 January. So far, he has not shown any indication he intends to do so. Mr Kenyatta could do more to rein in his party’s hawks. The most recent skirmish likely had his acquiescence nonetheless. And Mr Kabila could simply hand over to a caretaker government, like the opposition wants. This is wishful thinking, however. The likely scenario is that Mr Kenyatta and his Jubilee party would do everything in their power to win upcoming elections, Mr Jammeh would test the wills of ECOWAS and AU by refusing to leave office in January, and Mr Kabila may engineer a crisis to justify his continued stay. Still, it is too early to tell how any of these events would play out. But it would be wise for stakeholders on the continent to brace up for what could be a volatile political environment. It could also be that all these are much ado about nothing. And that would be just as well.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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