Mhambi has been redeployed.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Afro-pessimists are restless

The Mail and Guardian blog sections have published two interesting posts yesterday. In one Percy Zvomuya pessimistically asks, in reaction to events in Kenya What is wrong with Africa?.

He should have been more careful because in another post, The new is not yet born: The battle for African democracy, Stephen Friedman calls these "Afro-pessimists — a long, fancy word for people who don’t believe black people in Africa can run anything." But concedes that they have no shortage of ammunition right now.

In the first comment underneath Steven post Ivo Vegter retorts: "The real problem is that in all the racist analysis, everyone gets cast as either an Afro-pessimist or an Afro-optimist. Critics and racists alike go into the first category, and those who vote their racial loyalty or guilty conscience go in the latter. Oddly enough, this feeds off the notion that Africans are somehow different, that the question of whether Africans are capable of self-government is still unanswered. Of course Africans are capable of self-government. Why wouldn’t they be?"

Ivo wants us to argue about the policies of these governments and put the lables behind us.

For a long time Mhambi has agreed with Steven's central contention however. What has transpired in Zimbabwe and in the ANC were signs of democracy. He states this case better:
"In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s government ruled largely unchallenged until 2000, when it lost a constitutional referendum, a thinly disguised signal that the people wanted it gone. This forced it into a lengthy attempt to stay in power despite the people’s judgement. Since then, politics in Zimbabwe has been about the elite’s desperate and often violent attempts to shore up their power in the face of democratic forces’ attempt to win change.

In Kenya, tensions were suppressed (but simmered below the surface) while Daniel arap Moi imposed his will on the people for two decades. Democracy was partly achieved when some members of the elite, most notably current President Mwai Kibaki, went over to the opposition and won the last election. But the Kibaki government proved far more like the one it had replaced than Kenyan democrats had hoped and so the ODM emerged to challenge Kibaki. Despite the mealy-mouthed response of the international community, the evidence suggests that the ruling elite thwarted this attempt to deepen democracy by creatively embellishing the election results. Again, the conflict is caused by democratic pressures and the old elite’s response to them.

In Nigeria, a new push for greater democracy began with the fall of the Abacha junta. Previous president Olusegun Obasanjo was elected at the polls but tried to change the Constitution to give himself a third term. Parliament rejected the attempt and so he relied on a strategy also tried in some other countries — he stayed on as head of the ruling party and hand-picked its presidential candidate. But he continues to face resistance, both because the election in which Obasanjo’s choice, Umaru Yar’Adua, won was riddled with irregularities and because Yar’Adua has not turned out as compliant as his predecessor had hoped (a problem that also faced some other presidents who tried to control their successors after their terms were up). Again, the cause of the conflict is the push for more democracy and the elite’s reaction to it.

Here, Jacob Zuma’s victory was prompted by claims that Thabo Mbeki was not accountable enough to the ANC — and fears that a third term would entrench him further. We do not know whether the new leadership will be more democratic than the old — but it remains possible that ANC activists will hold it to account if it is not.

The pattern is clear. The “right” of African presidents to rule for as long as they like, regardless of what their people may think, is under threat.

Mhambi hopes Steven Friedman is right, Mhambi himself is struggling to keep the faith at times.

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