In August last year when Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos handed over power to a protégé, very few analysts suspected that it was the onset of the Southern Africa Spring. For one, the process lacked the socio political upheaval of the Arab Spring which threw out leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, hitherto thought untouchable. Also, the process was internal to the ruling political circles. The 74 year old former liberation fighter, was stepping down after 38 years in power. He was Africa’s longest serving head of state. Only Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema has lasted longer in power.
Pressure from within the ruling Movimento Popularde Libertacao de Angola (MPLA), hardly visible to the outside world led to Dos Santos, increasingly frail, stepping down to allow his defence minister Joao Lourenco to carry the party’s flag in the presidential elections. This ended what was increasingly becoming his family’s capture of the state.
Analysts began to take notice when the new leader, far from being a stooge of the Dos Santos family as feared, moved against their control of state institutions. First, he sacked Isabel dos Santos, the president’s first daughter who is also Africa’s richest woman as the chair of the state’s oil company, Sonangol. Coming barely three months in office, this took many people by surprise. The new leader was not done. In January this year, he also sacked Jose Filomeno dos Santos, his predecessor son, from the country’s sovereign wealth fund where he was the head. The younger Dos Santos is now under investigation, facing possible trial for the transfer of $500 million from the country’s central bank to the UK.
It is not known what impact the Angolan experience had on the political elite in Zimbabwe and South Africa. It is plausible that the courage of the new Angolan leaders in moving against their former and revered leader emboldened certain factions in Zimbabwe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party to move against their own revered leader. In what looked like a coup that was not a coup, Mugabe was forced to resign. This not only ended his 37 years rule, it also aborted a plot by his wife, Grace, to succeed him. The only man standing was Jacob Zuma, a politician with the proverbial cat’s nine lives. Our cover story tells the story of the end for Africa’s liberation leaders who were revered for their role in liberating their people but overstayed their time in power.
What was common in the exit from power of the three leaders was that they were engineered from within the ruling parties. It tells volumes of the grip the leaders and the erstwhile liberation movements turned political parties had on their countries, that years of attempts by the opposition came to nought. The changes indicate that the younger generation of Africans are demanding higher standards of governance from their leaders.
The spread of social media is giving lots of younger Africans a voice and a platform to challenge what was hitherto political wisdom. Some of the leaders have hung on to power by spreading fear of what would be the outcome of their exit. For many Africans, stability has been traded for good governance. People are beginning to realise that stability and good governance are not exclusive outcomes. If anything, good governance is best guarantee of a country’s stability. It is better for a country to b well run based on the rule of law, transparency of the leadership and mass participation than to tie its fate for four decades to one mortal, no matter how well intentioned.
The truth is that the end of the African big man has come although most of the leaders still hanging on to power are yet to get it. Very soon the spring of political change will reach the African francophone regions where some of the leaders are surviving in office on the back of French security support. As a Senegalese proverb puts it: no one can hold the ocean with his hands. The yearning for good governance in Africa is like a surging ocean: one can hardly think of what can control it.