There is a discernible behavioral shift in some of Africa’s ruling parties, particularly those that emerged out of national liberation movements. Two events signpost the unfolding political era. First, the “nine presidential lives” of Jacob Zuma recently came to an end with his resignation on February 14, and second, Hailemariam Desalegn’s sudden resignation in the same month as prime minister of Ethiopia.

In December 2017 South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), elected Cyril Ramaphosa as its new president at its 54th National Conference. Ramaphosa’s election is an attempt by the ANC to renew its image after a decade-long series of corruption cases that led to accusations of “state capture,” exemplified by Zuma’s questionable relationship with the Gupta brothers. In Ethiopia, the ruling multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been accused of sidelining the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group which makes up thirty-five percent of the population. There have been protests against the dominance of the Tigrayan minority within the EPRDF coalition since 2015, which have been a source of widespread concern. Desalegn’s resignation was widely seen as a step taken to pave way for reforms within the ruling coalition, with the hope being that the new prime minister Abiy Ahmed from the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) can stabilize the ruling coalition.

“There is a discernible behavioral shift in some of Africa’s ruling parties, particularly those that emerged out of national liberation movements.”

In November 2017, a major power shift occurred within Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF. The “November soft coup” witnessed the transition from long-time leader Robert Mugabe to Emmerson Mnangagwa, his one-time vice president. Internal party schisms rooted in succession politics led to Mnangagwa’s ouster in early November 2017. Former First Lady Grace Mugabe was being prepared to take over from Mugabe, but lost out to a military-backed faction of the party, culminating in Robert Mugabe’s resignation and Mnangagwa’s ascension to the presidency.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2018, Mnangagwa pledged Zimbabwe’s re-engagement with the international community after decades of Western-imposed isolation during Mugabe’s reign. He also spoke about domestic political and economic reforms, which included a pledge to deliver a free and fair election in 2018. With the death of long-time opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai, which coincided with the day of Zuma’s resignation, ZANU-PF’s renewal and possible consolidation appear ominous for a divided opposition.

Internal reforms within ruling parties

The wave of political change in some African ruling parties can also be seen in political trends in Angola, Mozambique, and Tanzania. The new Angolan President João Lourenço has also been transforming the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), since his election in August 2017. Despite being the handpicked and anointed successor of former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Lourenço appears to be his own man. He has made radical changes in many sectors of the country, including firing former first daughter Isabel dos Santos from the state oil company Sonangol, which signaled that Lourenço would not be a puppet of the former president. Mr. Lourenço has also promised to break up monopolies controlled by the former first family.

Similar changes have been taking place in Mozambique. President Felipe Nyusi, through a careful political balancing act, has been changing the way the country’s economy is managed. Nyusi has also taken up the fight against corruption in government and within his party, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). In March 2018 Mr. Nyusi inaugurated a strategic plan to combat corruption in order to improve transparency and public accountability.

In neighboring Tanzania, the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) has been undergoing internal reforms initiated by President John Magufuli, who came to power in October 2015. President Magufuli has openly spoken about the elite corruption within the party and its networks. CCM’s dominance was weakened in the 2015 elections and President Magufuli, through an internal party renewal strategy, has begun a recalibration of the party dubbed “CCM mpya” (new CCM). CCM’s reform strategy includes among other things, party finance reform, reclaiming lost party assets, revamping the party’s constitution, and removing unnecessary party positions. CCM has also weakened the opposition through clandestine co-opting of the opposition leaders and curtailing political freedoms. Magufuli has used populist and demagogic rhetoric to win support for his political strategies.

“With the wave of democratization and opposition pushback, ruling parties are finding new ways of consolidating power.”

There are a number of reasons that could explain the changes within African ruling parties with origins in liberation movements. First, these changes are mostly happening to renew their legitimacy and consolidate their hold on power. Incumbent parties continue to seek a central role in transition processes alongside other political parties. 1Rachel Beatty Riedl, Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). As such, faced with the reality of losing power, many incumbents, and especially liberation movements-turned-political parties grapple with anxiety and apprehension. Secondly, these changes have been driven in large part by personalities, for example, Army Chief Constantino Chiwenga, who was later appointed vice president of Zimbabwe, and President Magufuli in Tanzania.

Internal reforms or Power Consolidation?

Historically, African ruling parties and elites have used neo-patrimonialism and clientelism to shape their political systems. 2See, for example, Nicholas van de Walle, “The Path from Neopatrimonialism: Democracy and Clientelism in Africa Today.” Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies Working Paper No.3-07, 2007. But with the wave of democratization and opposition pushback, ruling parties are finding new ways of consolidating power. Re-affirming liberation legacies has been a key part of their political survival, especially among rural uneducated voters.

The ANC whose vote share in the municipal elections fell from 66.3 percent in 2006 to 55.7 percent in 2016, is faced with an ascendant opposition in the form of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the new radical party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In Tanzania, a challenge from a consolidated opposition saw CCM drop from 62.8 percent of the vote in the 2010 presidential elections to 58 percent in the 2015 elections. In 2008, the Zimbabwean opposition party MDC managed to get into a coalition government with ZANU-PF after an election that was marred by controversy.

The wave of political reforms is yet to run its full course. Despite the symbolism and rhetoric of reform and change, the situation looks and sounds more like a game of musical chairs. Even as parties begin to recalibrate their hold on power, there is for the moment at least, more continuity than change.

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