We are only two weeks into 2011and already several momentous events with potentially widespread consequences for Africa have already taken place.
The most recent has been the resignation and flight of ex-Tunisian President, Zine el Abedine Ben Ali at the end of last week. Before that there was the secession referendum in South Sudan.
After many days of street protests about unemployment and corruption in which the police shot and killed many people, the long-serving president seems to have run out of options to control the protests short of a real massacre. He cut and run.
Protests and riots about rises in the price of bread and rice are quite common in North Africa. They have happened in Egypt, Algeria and Sudan. Usually, after a few days of rioting the government backs down and announces a revision of the prices. Rioters go back home and calm returns to the streets.
Not so this time, maybe because the issue was not just about food prices, but one about jobs, corruption and a regime that had lost touch with the people. There was no solution in sight. The president had no offer. The protests went on. Deaths occurred. The only alternative for the president was to continue cracking down on the protests and risk a full-scale massacre or leave. He left.
President Ben Ali’s flight will be seen as victory for the people against dictatorship and will be toasted as such by the many democracy advocates across the world. It is also a confirmation that over time rulers may lose touch with the people, and despite appearances of invincibility, really become weak and can easily be shoved aside.
The unfolding situation in Tunisia is being watched with a lot of interest from neighbouring countries in North Africa and the wider Arab world. Leaders of these countries where political and economic conditions are similar to those in Tunisia must be wondering about what to do with their own restive populations. Do they maintain the status quo, clamp down hard or make reforms? Whatever choice individual countries make will have a huge impact for good or ill on the region and beyond.
The change, however, may not necessarily result in greater democracy. In Tunisia, for instance, talks are going on about the formation of a government of national unity. But the talks are between members of the same political class. They all belong to the same generation and are unlikely to offer a radical change from what the situation has been.
There is also the likelihood of religious fundamentalists seizing the opportunity to take control of the state. This is certainly the fear in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood have long been a strong opposition to the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak. It is the same in Algeria whose experiment with electoral liberalisation was not a happy one. When elections in Algeria were won by an extreme Islamist organisation, the government in power at the time refused to accept the results and many years of violence ensued.
The second major event was the referendum in South Sudan on whether to remain part of Sudan or to secede. Although official results will not be announced for quite a while, the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. The South will secede and become an independent country. This will be the second successful secession in Africa after Eritrea – well, the third if you count the yet to be recognised Somaliland.
The referendum in South Sudan is significant. It is part of the implementation of a peace agreement that came after a lengthy armed struggle. The overwhelming turn up in a region with hardly any infrastructure, where the state is nearly absent in most of the country and the orderly, peaceful and patient voting was a resounding endorsement of secession. The spirit seemed to be: what is a week’s wait when you have had to wait for over a century to break free?
The significance of the South Sudanese plebiscite was best captured by the story of Rebecca Kadi Loburang Dunduch, a woman reported to be over 100 years old. She was taken to the polling station in a wheel chair. She waved the South Sudanese flag and was quoted as saying, “let us separate. It is better after separation because everyone can live in peace. If I die now I will be very happy. The best time is here today.”
Every commentator on South Sudan talks of the country’s great economic potential because of its oil wealth and fertile soils. The question on most people’s minds is whether this wealth will catalyst for development or a curse as has happened in other African countries. It will depend on how the government manages its resources and international relations.
For a start, South Sudan begins its statehood with immense goodwill from most of its neighbours and some of the most powerful countries in the world. That should be good.
But there is the also the danger of another kind of dispossession. Business interests from some of these countries may look at South Sudan as good game which must be felled and carved up into pieces which each will gobble. The vulture instinct is already in evidence.
Another danger may come from NGOs which will certainly descend on the new country in hordes. The government will have to beware of these do-gooders. They come with heavy baggage from a different world. They can create a permanent state of dependency. In many instances they may create structures to rival the state. What is certain is that because they can offer better salaries, they will take the brightest from government service.
The birth of the new country will significantly affect East Africa as the region is its logical trading partner. And with talk of a desire to join the East African Community, the regional block stands to benefit, not least because it will be bringing with it a virgin market and huge resource base.
These are eventful times for Africa. Change is happening. An out of touch Ben Ali is out of Tunisia. Salva Kiir is in in South Sudan. He will do better to heed advice and learn from events further north.