The ex­plo­sive power of re­form

Re­ac­tions to at­tacks in Zim and Ethiopia will re­veal new lead­ers’ com­mit­ment to re­form

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Si­mon Al­li­son

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

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