The Africa portrayed by the media shows us a continent plagued by poverty, disease, rampant corruption, and violence. If we take into consideration President Trump’s recent comments about Africa, it is clear that these stereotypes are alive and well. However, the recent demise of two high profile—and incredibly corrupt—African leaders, along with several governmental changes in other Sub-Saharan countries, may indicate that corruption, at least, will no longer be tolerated as the status quo. If the trend continues, the region may be poised for a drastic change.
On November 21, 2017, cheers rang out over Zimbabwe’s capital as thousands gathered to celebrate Robert Mugabe’s forced resignation. Throughout his 37-year rule, Mugabe’s tyrannical policies and abhorrent corruption devastated what was once considered the breadbasket of Sub-Saharan Africa. The resource-rich country experienced inflation rates of up to 89.7 sextillion percent (yes, that is a real number), while some areas of the country plummeted into an astounding 96% poverty rate.
Now, with the resignation of the “Old Man” and with his wife and vice-president “Gucci Grace” barred from replacing him, Zimbabwe may be on the brink of a new horizon: real democracy. Partially fueling that hope is the ease of the peaceful transition; former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, rather than a member of the Defense Forces that orchestrated the resignation, will become president in the interim. General elections are due in late 2018.
Similar events in South Africa correlate with a strong new desire to derail corrupt leaders. While Zimbabweans celebrated Mugabe’s downfall, South Africans waited to see if President Jacob Zuma would face a similar fate. Although Zuma survived eight votes of no-confidence, numerous allegations of corruption and an accusation of rape throughout his nine-year presidency, recent outrage over his use of $23 million in state funds for security upgrades to his private residence—including a swimming pool he claimed was necessary for “fire safety”—led South Africa’s top court to investigate. In December of 2017, their ruling triggered impeachment procedures.
At the same time, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, or A.N.C, held a pre-emptive conference that aimed to replace Zuma as party leader. In post-apartheid politics, the presidency of the A.N.C. is closely tied to national presidency. In essence, the A.N.C. president becomes President of South Africa and is only prevented from completing his presidential term if another A.N.C. leader is elected and a recall is issued. On December 18, 2017, deputy-president Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as A.N.C. president, and rumor immediately spread of a presidential recall. With both his own party and the Supreme Court planning his exit, it is increasingly unlikely that Zuma will finish his term.
While South Africa and Zimbabwe have dominated international media coverage, such events are hardly isolated to these two countries. Within the last 18 months, 16 presidential and general elections have been held in Sub-Saharan Africa, in some cases deposing leaders who have abused constitutions to retain power and in others restarting democratic elections after years of violent, political turmoil. For example, in early 2016 the Central African Republic welcomed its first democratically elected president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, since a governmental overthrow three years ago. On December 2 of the same year Yahya Jammeh, president of The Gambia for 22 years and frequently accused of corruption and human rights abuses, lost the general election and conceded the country’s presidency to a real estate company owner. The upset victory and uncontested transition stunned the nation.
In September 2017, newly-elected João Lourenço became president of Angola after Jose Eduardo dos Santos’s 38-year rule. Although Lourenco is part of old guard politics, it seems he is trying to reinvent himself and perhaps create some distance from the previous government. Central to this is Manuel Vicente, vice-president of Angola under dos Santos, who faces prosecution in Portugal over charges of corruption and money laundering. According to Transparency International, Vicente paid £760,000 to a Portuguese prosecutor in a poor attempt to cover up illegal real estate deals. Vicente’s case has caused mounting tension between the two countries, and Angola’s refusal to cooperate could still buy him immunity. However, Lourenço has vowed to take a hard stance on corruption.
So what does this mean for Sub-Saharan Africa? Could a new trend be emerging to replace the status quo? Perhaps. That two prominent leaders such as Mugabe and Zuma could be peacefully deposed shows a will, at the very least, for a new direction. As other countries in the region follow suit, we may see a move towards more democratic politics, which in turn may enable nations to prioritize development.
However, this view may be rather optimistic. Many corrupt leaders remain in place throughout the region and newly elected hopefuls may not keep their promises. Uganda’s president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has been in power for over three decades. He recently awarded $77 million in state funds to his private residence and is said to be openly preparing his son to succeed him. Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi, seen as a bright new star when he replaced Armando Emilio Guebuza in 2015, bought a £7 million private jet just last month despite auditors’ discovery that the country is missing $2 billion in government loans. Then there is the trickle-down effect. According to Transparency International, approximately 75 million citizens in Sub-Saharan Africa are forced to pay bribes for government services as simple as civil marriage or driver’s licenses. A problem of this magnitude cannot be solved easily. Thus, even if the region’s newly-elected leaders choose paths far different than those of their predecessors, Sub-Saharan Africa has a long way to go before corruption becomes a problem of the past.