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COMMENT: Africa’s fallen liberators

South Africa has safeguards against ruling party decay, Ethiopia can’t be saved from its ruling party

COMMENT | BINIAM BEDASSO | The leaders of two key African countries resigned their posts within 24 hours of each other in mid-February. South Africa’s Jacob Zuma finally buckled under pressure from his own party to resign the presidency. The following day, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his decision to step down in the face of sustained mass protests and political turmoil.

In both cases, two of the oldest liberation parties in Africa, which have remained in office since first coming to power a quarter-century ago, were forced by deep popular discontent to push their leaders aside. The historical trajectories of both parties are largely similar. Nevertheless, the effects of their leaders’ exit could not be more different.

Yes, both the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) grew complacent and corrupt, and suffered political decay, over the past quarter-century. But whereas South Africa had put in place a robust set of institutional safeguards in the wake of its transition from apartheid, Ethiopia, after the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship, never managed to build national institutions strong enough to save the country from the ruling party.

Despite obvious differences in the two countries’ histories and economic conditions, the way their dominant parties conduct business, and the economic model they claim to have adopted, are strikingly similar. Both the ANC and the EPRDF espouse the Leninist principle of democratic centralism, according to which party members are expected to abide by the policies established by the central party leadership. Both parties deploy cadres widely to ensure that the civil service carries out political decisions. More recently, party elites in both countries have moved to embrace heterodox economic policies.

The ANC has been accused of losing touch with its impoverished voters in one of the most unequal countries on earth. Making matters worse, the massacre in 2012 of 34 miners by police in Marikana revived memories of the apartheid regime’s contempt for blacks. Regardless, the ANC, accustomed to winning well above 65% of the vote (mainly owing to its liberation credentials), continued to back the embattled Zuma, who faces accusations ranging from bribery to rape. Governance deteriorated as the economy stagnated and corruption and state capture proceeded apace. The party of Nelson Mandela risked succumbing to internal rot – and taking the country down with it.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, the EPRDF harangued the public about how it freed the country decades ago from a brutal military dictatorship, even as millions of young people born and raised under the party’s rule face crippling unemployment. The EPRDF continues to imply that any failure by its leadership does not undermine its right to govern the country, while political challenges by opposition groups are portrayed as treasonous. Like the ANC, the longer the EPRDF remained in power, the less it could imagine Ethiopia without it at the helm.

When Zuma announced his resignation, the South African Rand jumped to a three-year high. But after Desalegn announced his decision to step down, Ethiopia’s dollar bond fell to a six-month low. These indicators, however, are just the start of the divergent implications the two resignations have had for their respective countries’ politics and economics.

The ANC and EPRDF, like many of Africa’s liberation movements in the 1960s, stopped responding to evolving political and economic demands, while predatory politicians and their cronies hid behind the party’s banner. But while Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, promised a “new dawn” for South Africa when he addressed Parliament within days of Zuma’s resignation, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency around the same time, amid widespread concern about whether the state would survive the ethnically charged power struggle to succeed Desalegn.

The crucial difference is that South Africa had visionary leaders who were aware of the danger that an out-of-touch dominant party could pose. Mandela reportedly urged newly enfranchised black South Africans, “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” This sentiment was reflected in the democratic checks and balances enshrined by South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution.

Ethiopia, however, has not been so fortunate, particularly because the current regime spent its first decade in office shoring up its precarious power base and fighting a war with neighboring Eritrea. But the EPRDF made matters worse by undermining the constitution that it helped promulgate, and appearing to have no plan for nation building beyond supposedly rectifying historical inequalities between ethnic communities (though it succeeded in stimulating faster economic growth than the country had ever recorded in modern times).

The most telling indicator of how differently the two countries’ democratic institutions responded to the perceived decay of their dominant parties is the recent election results. The ANC kept losing electoral ground to rival parties as its leadership failed to manage South Africa’s multifaceted problems. It was to stem further electoral losses that the party decided to push Zuma aside.

The EPRDF, by contrast, turned Ethiopia into a de facto single-party state. The country began its descent into political turmoil a few months after the party claimed to have won, together with its allies, all parliamentary seats in the 2015 elections. In mid-February, South Africa’s democratic institutions appeared to have saved the ANC from itself. Ethiopia is unlikely to be so fortunate. Too few institutional guardrails have survived the neglect or active dismantling that the EPRDF brought about.


Biniam Bedasso is a Global Leaders Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

One comment

  1. Mambo…,

    Vipi? I have these discussion on how Pan Africanism along with the black conscious movement not to mention the non alignment movement helped leaders fight for autonomy and to establish sovereignty to African nations. It is sad how we turned their backs, after the labor and the struggle Africans faced during colonialism. From Robert Mugabe, to Kwame Nkrumah, to Nyerere, to other leaders I having trouble to think of at the moment.

    Yes things then were different from they are now, but would Africa be truly Africa if the likes of Nelson Mandela and his belated wife Winnie Mandela didn’t go through blood, sweat and tears. It is a fact that, Africa would be something completely un-unique. Yes the leadership and the enemy was a common… the people were united, towards the enemy. However, once the leaders got what they wanted, they tried damn hard… to fight and steer their respective nations towards the right direction….. Yes policy failures, which had a lot to lack of public of interest, and modem of conflict of interest reigned supreme. Issues of autocratic leadership, control and rule with an iron fist, led many nations downhill, resentment between ethnic tribes led to wars within the nation… favoritism such as that of the Rwanda & Burundi genocide with the Hutu and Tutsi led to ethnic cleansing.

    Who is to blame truly if one is to ask? Really, a leader who fought for our rights… and lost himself along the way…… and became a power hungry leader or the people who complain that things are not going away yet does nothing to change his situation. I hate to bring old wounds and I don’t want to upset Ugandans but Idi Amin, and his deporting of Asians trying to give jobs to the people of Uganda deep down is seen as a vile issue yet the issue was justified to boost the economy and increase the living standards of the Ugandans.

    Nowadays, the youth who do not take much or give two f’s about politics need to know that, it rules the world. Whether one admits it or not,me, if you’re out you then you’re your utterly clueless. Money yes rules the world, but how do you get to the money if it isn’t but politicking or the government, or looking for jobs or starting businesses whether in the private sector. How do you know what you know if it wasn’t for education and ministry of education, board of education, how do you survive if it isn’t or the best buereacrats, politician should finding ways to better the nation through human development, or just better health care, ministry of health, infrastructure, and the likes, politics brings jobs which generates money and job opportunities which ought to have trickle down effect.

    Politicians, should and knew that, equality, no terms of civial services plus not necessarily all but ngos help… researching what ways and means of alleviating poverty. Then again it depends on the type of leadership. As mentioned autocratic leadership is a top down approach. Decisions made by the executive branch. Are good in situations where which are in need of snap decision. However lack support because of the people… lack the know how.

    As for the democratic leaders, it can be said they are open to some extent, willing to have a bottom up approach or grass root approach, informing the citizens of policies making them aware of the outcomes, involving them in decision making. When you know better you do better as the adage goes. It helps if the government and the constituents are in some part of synergy… Can avoid corruption or bad governance… and turn nations which may result in lacks of rule of law into attractive place places or investment ultimately produce high capital returns in forms of foreign direct investment.

    The wrong I see the leaders doing is simply just not giving a damn, and feeding their families, and you would do or would have done in their situation…. then again we don’t know till you are in their position it’s as natural as that. The only thing we can do is to pray that the future leaders adhere to their promise to the constituents, go through the Mo Ibrahim Foundations or listen the the afrobarameter to their people and needs.

    The administration needs a major shake up, whether this is by having decentralization or not, or rather local districts or regional districts or municipalities, or having a central government where the people answer to the one body , which deals with taxes, problems, services and is in charge of tax payers money and responsibilities in terms of delivery of services in a proper manner. Such as police, roads maintenance and hospitals.

    I feel for the leaders of Africa, their is clearly a power struggle going on, longer constitutions, rent seeking, plus corruption.

    Once human now beasts and have become what they’d fought against.

    Absolute power corrupts.

    Oh while I am on this website of the Cranes of Uganda I would like to give a shout-out to Lidya who is in Uganda, my brother Manzi Rwegasira. Who have or been there to Uganda.


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