Editorial | Exit African leaders
This week's ousting of South African President Jacob Zuma, the surprise resignation of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and before that the forced resignation of Robert Mugabe, 93, as president of Zimbabwe, call for a reflection on the current political scene in Africa.
History recalls that men like Zuma and Mugabe belonged to the generation of leaders who helped defeat colonialism and contributed to the liberation of Africa. The fact is that Jamaica and the rest of the world felt a great sense of hope when South Africa held its first multiracial elections in 1994.
But the long tenures in office of many of these leaders have, for the most part, been marked by charges of rights abuses, electoral shenanigans, economic ineptitude, oppression and corruption. Many of these countries remain poor and often fall very low on the United Nations' Human Development Index.
Zuma, who famously said he would be president until the day Jesus comes, was mired in various scandals, found guilty of misusing public funds to erect a mansion, and was indicted in 2016 for failing to defend and respect the Constitution. Mugabe, too, promised that he would be leader until his death and was only forced out by the military after 37 years.
Many of these postcolonial leaders have dug in their heels, reluctant to relinquish power even after free and fair elections and have sought to secure longer terms by modifying their country's constitution or proposing amendments to allow them to extend their time in office.
The greatest contrast was seen in Nelson Mandela's conduct, for he declared that he would be a one-term president of South Africa. His advanced age may have played a part in that decision, but we prefer the argument that he was following the African heroes' exhortation that it's best to leave the dance floor while still the star rather than risk overdoing it and boring the audience to the point where cheers turn into jeers.
Why should Jamaicans care about these political events on the African content? For one thing, South Africa is one of the few countries to which Jamaicans can travel without first obtaining a visa. Our interests are aligned. During the anti-apartheid struggle, Jamaica's voice was strong and unequivocal in all international gatherings, urging an end to that evil system. Our artists and entertainers rallied for the cause. The Andrew Holness administration has not so far articulated an African policy. Indeed, many have questioned whether the Government has formulated a conscious and thoughtful overall foreign-policy strategy.
For example, Jamaica's abstention in the vote relating to the United States' controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel continues to be a major puzzle. The prime minister's attempt to explain the non-action during the recent visit of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just added to the confusion because it sounded like we took the coward's way out.
We urge the administration to ensure that there is a sound foreign policy and that its diplomatic machinery is well oiled and capable of advancing the mission of improving the economy, making valuable contributions to the international community, and advancing our culture.
That aside, there are some important lessons to be learnt from what is happening in these countries. Lesson number one is that countries will outlive their leaders, so it's best to have in place mechanisms for peaceful and democratic transitions.
Lesson number two: Increasingly, ordinary citizens and civil-society groups are demanding accountability, and they expect leaders to be circumspect while holding public office. These social movements are invoking the power of citizens to effect change.
Lesson number three: It can happen anywhere.