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The people can’t wait: Democracy on trial

In many African countries, forces for change are searching for new kinds of leaders that will bring about positive transformation, improve livelihoods, reduce deprivation and…

In many African countries, forces for change are searching for new kinds of leaders that will bring about positive transformation, improve livelihoods, reduce deprivation and combat poverty. Elections alone may not serve as the turnaround when people’s expectations are met.

Coming after Senegal and South Africa, Kenya has become the latest African country where the worsening conditions of livelihoods have pushed the population to question the authenticity of promises for progress and development made by their leaders during electoral campaigns.

“I concede and, therefore, I will not sign the 2024 Finance Bill and it shall subsequently be withdrawn,” Kenya’s President, William Ruto, said a few days ago in a speech to assuage the anger of protesters against the bill, led mostly by young people. “The people have spoken,” he added.

Time will tell whether the speech has the desired effect of calming the spiralling protests across the country.

Less than two years ago, then Vice President Ruto promised during his electoral campaign that he would improve the living standard of the people. He claimed that he was like every poor person; that he rose from poverty and had lived as a “hustler”.

Ruto (57), a long-time politician and controversial leader, won the election pitted against the combined forces of two leading political dynasties of then President Uhuru Kenyatta and frontline politician, Raila Odinga. The masses were ecstatic that their “hustler” would become the new president and expectations were high.

As soon as Ruto took office, he began implementing taxes and financial policies that would lower income and raise economic hardship, particularly for the most disadvantaged. He argued that the measures were essential for improving financial stability and reducing the heavy tax load.

Just about a month before the protests in Kenya, South Africans stunned their political leaders in an election that dethroned the historic domination by the African National Congress (ANC). The party of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, ANC, had been ridden with internal disagreement and rivalry. Exposes of massive corruption were rife and poor performance of its government in various sectors led to deepening poverty and unemployment in South Africa.

Amid serious allegations of corruption and state capture, President Jacob Zuma was forced to resign in February, 2018. His Vice President, Cyril Ramaphosa, assumed office as the new president with fresh hopes and expectations to stem the downward slide of the economic and social situation. Ramaphosa was re-elected in 2022 for a second term despite the deteriorating state of affairs.

The disappointment with Ramaphosa (71), a millionaire who is also the leader of the ANC, cannot be more evident than the setback that his ANC witnessed in the May 2024 election. For the first time in 30 years, the party lost its majority in parliament and needed to form a coalition to retain the presidency.

Unexpectedly, Zuma (82) became more attractive to his core and other constituencies, and his newly formed party, Umkhonto we Sizwe or MK, came surprisingly third among the 50 parties that contested the election. MK won 58 of the 400 seats in parliament.

Earlier in July, 2021, a violent uprising in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu Natal against his imprisonment was joined massively by unemployed and disgruntled young people. Many people died and there was large-scale destruction of businesses and property.

“Our people have spoken,” Ramaphosa said after the election. “Whether we like it or not, they have spoken. We have heard the voices of our people and we must respect their choices and their wishes,” he added.

Time will tell whether life will get better for the growing discontented and impoverished population of South Africa under the weakened President Ramaphosa government.

In April, in Senegal, restless youths and discontented masses forced then President Macky Sall (62) to recount his interest in pursuing a third term mandate. Earlier, he manipulated the parliament to change the constitution to support his intention.

When the protest and civil disobedience rose beyond his power to suppress it, Sall tried to bid his time by playing a waiting game of not scheduling the regular election that was due. It took the highest court of the country to force his hands and ruled that the voting must be held as stipulated by the constitution.

Sall came into office in 2012 as a populist, anti-corruption and committed critic of his predecessor and former ally, President Abdoulaye Wade. At the time, 86-year-old Wade had become very unpopular for seeking to extend his term in office after ruling for 12 years.

Power and lack of vision clouded Sall’s judgment. He did not learn from Wade’s undoing. Sall left office in April, 2024, as a discredited leader. He handed over to the youngest African President, Bassirou Diomaye Faye (44), who won massively in the election held about two weeks after he was released from imprisonment orchestrated by Sall.

In less than five months in 2024, Senegal, South Africa and Kenya, all democracies with credible tradition of elections, have confirmed that while the people may elect their leaders with the hope that a new momentum for improving the country is at hand, the harsh truth is that flawed policies can overturn those hopes.

It has become clearer from these experiences and similar others in the African continent that elected officials must contend with a restless population that refuses to tolerate ineffective governance or deepening poverty.

The pleas by political leaders that the economic and social realities of the world impose poverty on African countries is becoming less appealing to the youths, especially those who see the political elite live in opulence and over-abundance amid general penury of most of the people.

African countries have a youthful population of about 70 per cent below the age of 35. At their most productive age, the youths are unemployed and under-employed. Many have no hope of a better future. Large numbers are forced or choose to migrate to developed countries, and many more do not have such an option.

In today’s age, information on the sad reality of life for most of the population spreads faster than ever; thanks to social media and widespread availability of smart phones. In the same breath, social media is a veritable organising medium to mobilise young people to coordinate and carry out civil and violent actions.

In our modern era, the widespread use of smartphones and social media has led to the rapid dissemination of information about the harsh realities faced by the majority of the population. Additionally, social media serves as an effective tool for organising and motivating young individuals to engage in both peaceful and aggressive demonstrations.

Education in key African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda and Angola no longer guarantees a secure future as elected leaders are increasingly blamed for the hardships faced by millions of citizens.

Therefore, any more poor decisions by the leaders could quickly lead to chaos.

Conceding that his government made many mistakes, Ruto said, “I am directing for immediate austerity further measures to reduce expenditure starting with the office of the president, the entire presidency…reduce travel, hospitality, further purchase of motor vehicles…in the executive arm of government. I also propose for parliament and county (state and provinces) to live within their means and carry out austerity measures.”

He added, “The loud message on dealing firmly, decisively and expeditiously with corruption is a matter that we have discussed and agreed that it will take the front burner as we go into the future.”

It should not take such a massive uprising for political leaders to acknowledge the signs and act to reverse the suffering by the people.

 

Makinwa is an international consultant and adviser to governments

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