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Zambia and Burkina Faso compared

By Andrew M. Mwenda

What creates enduring political institutions that can ensure peaceful transfers of power from incumbents to new leaders?

Two important events happened in Africa last week that provide important insights into our continent’s political evolution. First, was the death of the president of Zambia, Michael Sata. This was followed by a constitutional and peaceful transfer of power to his vice president, Guy Scott. The second was a mass uprising in Burkina Faso. Angry mobs marched down the streets burning down cars and buildings including parliament. This led to the forced and ultra-constitutional removal of President Blaise Compaore, who had ruled that country for the last 27 years.

Why did Zambia have a peaceful transition but Burkina Faso a violent one? May be it was in the way these presidents gain power and exercised it. The first president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, ruled that country for 27 years like Compaoure. But he had been an elected founding father. But when demands for multi-party politics became loud, Kaunda rose to the occasion and accepted political reform. He held a free and fair election which he lost. And Kaunda gracefully conceded.

Under Kaunda’s successor, Frederick Chiluba, Zambia introduced two-term limits on the presidency. Chiluba and his allies sought to remove this clause but were stopped by peaceful demonstrations. Again, Zambia managed this major political landmark in a mature and peaceful way, a factor that young nations find difficult to achieve. Therefore, in spite of his long rule (Kaunda) and in spite of his polarising politics (Chiluba) both bequeathed unto their nation a political tradition that makes that country manage political transitions peacefully. The defeat of Kaunda and Chiluba also demonstrated that the political balance of forces in that country favoured peaceful transitions. Thus when Sata defeated incumbent president Rupia Banda in 2011, the transition went without a hustle.


Zambia’s neighbour, Malawi, has behaved the same way. When Kamuzu Banda (who had ruled for 30 years) was defeated in the 1994 elections, he conceded defeat. When his successor, Bakili Muluzi, attempted to remove term limits, he was also stopped by popular protests. And only this year, we saw an incumbent president in Malawi, Joyce Banda, lose elections and concede. We find parallels to this experience in Senegal and Tanzania. There, the founding presidents Leopold Senghor (in Senegal in 1980) and Julius Nyerere (in Tanzania in 1985) retired peacefully long before anyone asked them to do so. Since then, these two countries have gone through regular peaceful changes – in Senegal, twice (in 2000 and 2012) the incumbent has been defeated.

Yet it is not always a sure deal that when an incumbent retires peacefully, the country will acquire a culture of peaceful transitions. In 1982, President Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon peacefully retired and handed power to Paul Biya. Thirty two years later, Biya is still in office. In 1996, Biya accepted term limits on the presidency which he removed in 2008. In Sierra Leone, President Siaka Probyn Stevens came to power in 1971 but voluntarily retired in 1985, handing over power to Gen. Joseph Saidu Momoh. Sierra Leone later degenerated into civil war, a coup leading to state and economic collapse. Somalia was indeed the first country in Africa to enjoy a peaceful transfer of power from one president to another after electoral defeat. But later it degenerated into a coup, civil war and the break-up of the country.

In some countries like Kenya and Botswana, the founding fathers died in office but still enjoyed peaceful transitions. Today, their sons are presidents and in both cases after two presidents. In Gabon, Togo and DRC, presidents died in office only to be replaced by their sons through peaceful transitions. It is therefore possible that the peaceful transitions in Zambia, Malawi, Senegal, Kenya, Botswana and Tanzania had something to do with the contribution of their founding fathers. But it may also be a culture embedded in the social tissue of these countries.

In Ivory Coast, the founding president died in office after a successful project of state/nation building and economic prosperity. Since then, Ivory Coast has degenerated into a basket case of coups, civil war leading to state and economic collapse. May be countries that have had military men rule them find it difficult to organise peaceful transitions. The only exceptions to this rule are Ghana, Nigeria and Benin.

Let us come back to Burkina Faso. Between independence in 1960 and the coup that brought Compaoure to power in 1987, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volter) had suffered seven changes of government – giving its leaders an average of 3.5 years. So Compaoure’s contribution in that country was to offer it a long and unbroken period of continuity characterised by political stability, leadership predictability and certainty. But as the events of last week demonstrated, he overstayed his welcome. Political decay led to mass mobilisation and organisation that forced him to leave.

Compaoure came to power via a coup where he assassinated President Thomas Sankara. Is this kind of power grab a predictor of future events i.e. it leaves behind a legacy of blood? Well when Rawlings captured power via a military coup in 1979, he publically executed four former presidents in a firing squad. Some people believe that this is what has given Ghana its stable political dispensation. Equally interesting is that not all peaceful transitions lead to stability. Liberia enjoyed more than 100 years of peaceful political transitions before it collapsed into a coup, civil war and the almost complete collapse of the state. Countries like Mali and Madagascar show that poorly organised transitions can produce disaster.

The lesson from the above experiences is that a country’s political future may be shaped by its history. But how these historical events play out leading to stability or civil war, we do not know for sure. What we can conclude is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to political stability on our continent. States and their politics are not generic. They vary in their political dynamics. What may be good for Kenya may be dangerous for Togo.

Therefore, each nation needs to be left to evolve its political institutions and practices to reflect its political realities. Text book theories about what ensures a stable political dispensation have to be weighed against the hard political reality lest they bring a nation to tears. Zambia has succeeded because of a specific constellation of factors. That does not mean that if Somalia or CAR followed a similar course, they will succeed.

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