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African Regimes at a Crossroads

African Regimes at a Crossroads

2017 Protests in South Africa (Reuters)

New hope is blowing across the African continent against the backdrop of toppled heads of government and state in South Africa and Zimbabwe and a rejuvenated government that is pursuing ambitious reforms in Ethiopia. Other recent examples of transitions from long-sitting governments have also played out in Burkina Faso and The Gambia where the sitting presidents’ ambitions to remain in power (beyond their constitutional mandates) sparked a popular uprising in the former, and a military intervention by regional forces in the latter.

However, with this new dawn comes growing risks of instability and conflict which threaten to derail any attempts at moving the region towards more inclusive democracy and lasting peace; gains which could eventually facilitate better development prospects for the ordinary population, most of whom were not even born when their presidents took office.

Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Uganda are all countries where the incumbents have held power since at least the 1980s. All of their leaders oversee authoritarian regimes; two of them took power by force, while the other two succeeded governments with dictatorial tendencies.

Aristide Zolberg, an influential U.S.-based academic on migration, who passed away in 2013, warned early on, in the post-colonial context, that liberation struggles could quickly translate into civil conflict. This was due to the inability of new governments to move their countries in the direction of national unity and integration and ensure a trajectory of progressive socioeconomic development. Instead, local elites have in many places across post-colonial Africa simply replaced the former patronage networks that were in place under European colonial powers.

A number of aged leaders across Sub-Saharan Africa are now nearing their natural end. In addition, all four governments are dependent on rents and revenue from crude oil and gas extraction. Although Angola holds the second-largest proven commercial reserves on the continent after Nigeria, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea together produce almost 400,000 barrels per day (bpd). To join the club, Uganda discovered commercially viable oil reserves in 2006 and is expected to produce 230,000 bpd when production is at full capacity, likely after 2020. Despite their natural resource wealth, their societies remain highly unequal.

In Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down as head of state and relinquished his chairmanship of the ruling party earlier. In his departing speech, he admitted to making ‘mistakes’ during his rule of almost 40 years, a tenure which has been characterized by the centralization of power and national wealth. This fact underscores dos Santos clan’s control of the country’s wealth and political power. His successor, former general João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, has promised to clamp down on corruption. At the same time, Lourenço has hit out at Portugal in relation to accusations since 2012 by Portuguese prosecutors that Manuel Vicente, a former vice president and current advisor to the incumbent president, has committed acts of bribery and money laundering.

Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya (in office since 1982) is increasingly under pressure to bring back stability to the far-northern regions, where the Nigerian Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram, has terrorized the local population for years, as well as to the south-western Anglophone regions of Northwest and Southwest, where a secessionist political movement last year took up arms against the central government. Accusing the Francophone authorities in the capital Yaoundé of ethnic discrimination and attempting at reducing their cultural autonomy within the federation, the Anglophone  ‘Ambazonia’ (a term used locally to describe what was formerly known as the Southern Cameroons) independence movement could be one of Biya’s toughest tests so far.

With Biya being the only candidate with a realistic chance of winning the presidential election in October—thanks to his patronage networks and the continued dominance of his ruling RDPC party—the prospect of instability once Biya eventually vacates office can only increase. While it is pretty clear that Biya will still be Cameroon’s leader, the lack of apparent successor and the likely power vacuum that will emerge means there is a real stability risk in Cameroon.

Although the quality of GDP data across Sub-Saharan Africa is often limited, Biya’s Angolan and Equatoguinean counterparts will leave behind a somewhat better legacy. In Equatorial Guinea, per capita GDP has increased from USD208 in 1979 to USD8,333 (compared to Cameroon’s GDP per capita which has remained stagnant at just over USD1,000), making it the highest income country of the continent. But despite this apparent success, 76.8% of Equatorial Guinea’s population continues to live in poverty, while political elite figures such as the president’s son and vice president, Teodoro ‘Teodorin’ Nguema Obiang Mangue, lives in opulence. Obiang Mangue has been investigated by both U.S. and French authorities for embezzlement and money laundering; and last October, a court in Paris sentenced the vice president in absentia to 3 years in prison, with EUR30 million in fines for laundering EUR150 million between 1997 and 2011.

Finally, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni is entering his 34th year in office and has removed a 75-year age limit on presidents in the constitution, which means that he could run for another term in 2021. Meanwhile, many are suspicious that he is slowly promoting his son to be his heir, particularly after he was promoted as a special advisor last January. However, Museveni’s authority has also come under increased pressure from musician-turned-politician, Robert Kyagulanyi (more commonly known by his stage name Bobi Wine) who is appealing to Uganda’s young population, which is increasingly frustrated by Museveni’s regime and possibly, dynastic ambitions.

Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Uganda are now approaching critical inflection points where the liberalization of strategic sectors of the economy could bring about new opportunities for better wealth distribution. However, this also carries significant risks of fueling corruption in some of the world’s worst-ranking countries, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (2017). Equatorial Guinea ranks at 171 (out of 180); Angola at 167; Cameroon at 153; and Uganda is the best ranked at 151.

The longevity of these governments means that local elites have benefitted from patronage for many years, and the end to such revenue streams is likely to motivate some actors into more unpredictable actions, such as taking power by force. This could, in turn, fuel local armed strife between competing groups, exacerbating the security situation in the various jurisdictions.

As tired old post-colonial local elites leave the stage one by one, the question to be asked is what will replace them? Will it simply be new local elites, equally focused on self-aggrandizement and creating networks of patronage? Or will it be a new breed of leaders, young, charismatic and genuinely committed to inclusivity and socioeconomic development?

While staunch criticism has been directed against all these four governments, one cannot but admit they have all emerged out of extremely challenging contexts. Most of their experiences carry similarities, but the mixed performance of their recent governments should also be taken into account when attempting to understand their countries’ future trajectory. Where power networks have been more opportunistic, and where wealth has been spent carelessly, instability risks are likely to continue growing.

While maintaining sustainable growth is problematic, it is likely that more diversified economies will be more resilient to short-term shocks, most likely as a result of regime changes. This is the challenge facing many parts of western Africa’s Atlantic coast. Its outcome will determine whether the region embraces new hope or descends deeper into instability and conflict.



Fadi A. Haddadin

Fadi A. Haddadin is a Jordanian economist and policy analyst who serves in the macroeconomic desk of Wikistrat and advises the MENA Council of Dubai on the economic and geopolitical aspects of the Middle East. He has worked at the Prime Ministry of Jordan, the Cato Institute (Washington D.C.), the World Bank (Washington D.C.), and the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (Aqaba, Jordan). He currently blogs for The Times Of Israel on economic policy, policy matters, liberal thought, and Arab-Israeli affairs. He is also a regular contributor at Entrepreneur Middle East focusing on the literature and economics of entrepreneurship.

Haddadin was selected by the Heritage Foundation as a leading Public Policy Expert in Washington D.C. He is also a Charles G. Koch Fellow (2005). He was a regular commentator for BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera, CNBC Arabic, Al Hurra, and Jordan TV. His op-eds frequently appeared in many international and regional publications and newspapers. He also founded and managed his own private enterprises in the food and beverage sector.

Haddadin got his degrees from the University of Chicago, the London School of Economics, and the American University of Beirut, in addition to completing two executive degrees from Harvard University and Princeton University.

Areas of Focus: Economic Policy, Policy Analysis in International Affairs, the Middle East, and Africa.

Follow him on Twitter @PolicyFads