International Policy Digest

Jesse B. Awalt/U.S. Navy
World News /15 Apr 2019

Regime Change or System Overhaul: Reviewing the ‘African Spring’

Revolutionary change in government appears to represent popular culture in many African states at the moment. Long-serving rulers in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Algeria have been deposed under different circumstances following protests by the citizens. In 2010, leaders also fell in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. These movements have been celebrated as triumphs for democracy. However, one must be wary of being too eager to regard such movements as progressive. At the moment, Yemen is still facing a major humanitarian crisis. Libya remains in a state of unrest and rebel factions remain unappeased.

The same applies to Egypt with Tunisia being regarded as the lone success story. This just shows that incoming administrations are as important as outgoing ones. The widespread coverage of administrative changes are not often followed up with an investigation into the suitability of incoming regimes and as a result, it is easy for existing problems to persist.

Perhaps the reason why achieving truly democratic ideals in these states may be problematic is based on two key issues. First of all, the replacements for each government are not necessarily different from the outgoing government. The current Zimbabwe president, for instance, Emerson Mnangagwa, is a 75-year old associated with some of the worst atrocities committed under the ruling political party and was a key member of the Mugabe administration.

Many accuse him of having blood on his hands. Does this make him significantly different from the ousted Robert Mugabe? Not necessarily. Sudan’s president was ousted via a military coup led by some of his erstwhile associates. While the removal of a president who has served for over 30 years may appear to be good news for democracy, the key question is whether the replacement will be any better. The same applies to Algeria whose president only resigned after almost 20 years of being in power. Reservations are being expressed about those who are taking over the government in these countries. Although the military claims that support will be given for a transition towards elections and members of the ruling elite will be prosecuted for corruption, doubts remain as to whether this promised change will be affected. Elections have been fixed for July 4 in Algeria and the conduct of these elections will be significant in determining the political outlook in the future.

Secondly, the systems that have kept the ruling elite in power are hardly challenged or overhauled with a change in government. In many cases, the ruling elite are beneficiaries of a flagrant disregard for constitutional provisions and lack of electoral transparency. The Algerian constitution, for instance, allows for re-election to the office of president just once. Bouteflika only resigned following protests in his fifth term. In other cases, electoral and constitutional arrangements enable a ruling elite to retain power. A pertinent example in this regard is Nigeria. Since its return to democracy in 1999, the office of the president has been occupied by a former military head of state for at least 12 of the 20 years. Barring a dramatic turn of events the current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is likely to be in the office till 2023. His opponent in the last elections, Atiku Abubakar, was vice-president for 8 years (1999-2007). Individuals regularly defect from one party to another, depending on which party is in power. Neither of the two parties are particularly defined by any economic or political positions and while elections are duly conducted every four years, there is hardly any meaningful change in relation to the system of government.

Previous experience has also indicated that seeking independence or autonomy is not necessarily the way forward either. South Sudan, for instance, is still characterized by economic and socio-political struggles nearly 8 years after obtaining independence from Sudan with significant conflict and human rights abuses reported in the region.

In Sudan, the defence minister has claimed that the army would oversee a two-year transitional period followed by elections. This transition period will still be overseen by the military and fears remain that no power will be handed over to civilian rule. Can the military be trusted to keep this promise? This remains to be seen. There was a successful transition from military to civilian rule in Nigeria between 1998 and 1999.

One can only hope that there will be a similar experience in Sudan. More importantly, an incoming government must begin to take steps towards moving the country in the right direction economically and politically. Constitutional provisions and the rule of law must be strictly adhered to. The electoral space must also be reformed in such a way as to ensure that every citizen has a voice in the electoral process. Transparent and accountable decision-making must also be ensured and judicial independence must be protected. Otherwise, the ‘African spring’ may only create new problems without solving the old ones.