African politics are not trusted to be perennial. Many examples of the continent’s history have showed that a change of leadership can prove unstable. However, the past decade or so has also demonstrated that the trend is shifting towards stabilisation and non-violent modes of succession. Hence, repeatedly arguing that the transitioning African state is at risk of destabilisation or civil war should not be the main component of a political analysis anymore. Often, it should not even be part of the analysis at all.
Here is a link to a pertinent opinion piece criticising, among other things, the unfortunate shortcut too often made that leads from African leaders’ death to national and sometimes regional instability. Last December 12, 2012, after former South African President Nelson Mandela was admitted in hospital for a lung infection and other health issues, Nathan Greffer argued against the idea (which had appeared in UK’s Telegraph) that all hell would break loose in South African politics when Mandela would die. That, in other words, South Africa would end with Mandela, the guardian of “good behaviour” at the ANC.
Interestingly, this argument has been made or suggested a number of times this past year, as 2012 has proved relatively deadly for African leaders (Ghana, Malawi, Ethiopia and Guinea Bissau all lost their acting political leaders). Risks of political relapse are, in some cases, to be considered. It is not to say that the occurrence of a coup would be absurd, or the idea of unrest totally uncalled for. It is for me (and apparently also for Greffer) rather to say that we could, really, start taking into account that an African state can also outlive its political leadership. Surely though in the case of South Africa, Mandela is no any leader. A key actor of the 20th century, responsible for defeating an abomination of a regime and stabilising a country engaged in civil war, let’s not forget that he still remains a man, a great one, but a man. He might be used as a concept the ANC is surfing on to maintain its legitimacy in the face of accusations of corruption and general mediocre records, his end is likely not to be the end of South Africa as we know it, a country with a strong civil society and institutions to preserve people’s constitutional rights.
Similar considerations were articulated or only hinted in the case of Ethiopia. With Prime Minister Meles’ death in August 2012, observers feared, for instance, a halt, if not the end of the talks to resolve disputes between Sudan and South Sudan. Both actors have indeed heavily relied on Meles’ assistance to meet and seek peaceful solutions to major border issues. It appears, however, that parties are still meeting under the umbrella of new Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. As for Ethiopia itself, Hailemariam succeeded to Meles in September 2012 and is expected to remain in office until the next general elections in early 2014. Could African politics just be rational?