The explosive power of reform
Reactions to attacks in Zim and Ethiopia will reveal new leaders’ commitment to reform
As long as there have been revolutions, there have been counterrevolutions. Whatever the nature of political change, someone always wins and someone always loses — and usually, the losers fight back.
Over the past six months, both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe have gone through shattering, seismic changes to their political systems.
In Ethiopia, popular protests against the government prompted the resignation of the prime minister and the appointment of a new one, Abiy Ahmed, a young, energetic politician from the historically marginalised Oromo ethnic group. Although he has been in charge for less than three months, the pace and scale of Abiy’s reforms has left even his supporters in shock.
He is, according to the Financial Times, Ethiopia’s Nelson Mandela.
“Mr Abiy has overseen the release of thousands of political prisoners, ended a state of emergency that was imposed to quell two-and-a-half years of deadly antigovernment protests and announced an economic liberalisation plan, including partial sale of state telecom and airline assets.
“More recently, he has reorganised the once-untouchable intelligence services and admitted publicly that the authoritarian government has committed acts of torture and terrorism on its own people,” according to the publication.
Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa is a little older — 75 years compared with Abiy’s 41 — but his brief tenure as president has been no less revolutionary, not least for the simple fact that Mnangagwa is not Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country for nearly four decades and was expected to leave office in a coffin.
Change is much slower in Zimbabwe, and not all of it is necessarily positive, but it is happening: opposition parties have been allowed to campaign relatively freely, the government is aggressively courting foreign investment and Parliament has promised to get tough on fighting corruption. Behind the scenes, Mnangagwa and his vice-president, Constantino Chiwenga, the former army chief, are realigning the security forces to dilute the power of the police and the feared Central Intelligence Organisation.
So far, so smooth. But, on Saturday, explosions in Addis Ababa and Bulawayo shattered any illusions that political change is easy.
In Addis Ababa, Abiy was addressing a huge audience of supporters in Meskel Square, the heart of the capital city, when an explosion ripped through the crowd. At least two people died and 156 were injured. Abiy himself was unhurt.
Several hours later and 4600km away, Mnangagwa had just finished addressing a rally in Bulawayo when an explosion went off. He escaped unscathed but Chiwenga’s wife and other senior figures were among the 49 injured. Mnangagwa described the attack as an assassination attempt and hinted that his rivals in the ruling elite may have been responsible.
“These are my normal enemies. The attempts have been so many. It’s not the first attempt on my life,” he said.
We don’t know yet who is behind either blast, or what the attackers’ motivations might have been. There is no suggestion that the attacks are in any way linked.
But what we can conclude with a fair degree of certainty is that the attacks come in response to the enormous structural changes taking place in both countries. By targeting such crowded areas so close to the new heads of state, the attackers were sending a clear message that change will not be easy; that reforms come at a price.
There will now be a temptation from both heads of state to deal with their enemies: to declare a state of emergency, to arrest indiscriminately or to use violence to justify a return to the old-school autocracy that has long been a hallmark of both states.
This would undo all the good work that has been accomplished so far and reveal their true intentions for their respective countries.
This, then, is the real test for Abiy and Mnangagwa’s reformist credentials. The tragic explosions will force them to show their true colours and show us whether they are genuinely committed to the change they espouse or whether their proposed reforms were simply an engine for good propaganda. Nigerian pop star Davido (David Adedeji Adeleke) walked away with the Best International Act at this year’s Black Entertainment Television Awards. Davido — an artist at the forefront of the Afrobeats movement — described Africa as being “blessed to influence other cultures” and called for more collaborations between artists from the continent and the world. South African artist Sjava (Jabulani Hadebe) won the Viewers’ Choice Best International Act award.
EU keeps an eye on Zim polls
The European Union has started deploying election observers in Zimbabwe for the first time in 16 years ahead of the elections on
July 30. There will be 140 observers on the day of the polls, who will cover the 10 provinces in rural and urban areas. They will keep an eye on the whole election process, which has previously been marred by fraud, intimidation and violence.
‘None of your business’
Rwanda has defended its multimillion-dollar deal to sponsor the Arsenal football team. Rwanda reportedly paid the club $40-million to have Arsenal players wear the “Visit Rwanda” tourist board logo on one sleeve. Some politicians in European donor countries criticised the decision by an African nation that received more than $1-billion in foreign aid in 2016.
But Foreign Affairs Minister Olivier Nduhungirehe said the money came from tourism income, not aid. “It’s none of their business,” he said.
Reaching out: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a rally in in Addis Ababa on June 23, at which a bomb killed several people. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. Photo: Yonas Tadesse/AFP