UPDATE: On July 30, over 5 million Zimbabweans peacefully cast their votes in the general election after this story went to press. President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the Zanu-PF party was in a close race with Nelson Chamisa of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance. Tentative results showed the ruling Zanu-PF party gaining the majority of seats in parliament, although violent clashes have broken out between police and MDC supporters amid claims of vote rigging and delays in releasing the results of the presidential contest. If neither Mnangagwa nor Chamisa wins 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held in early September.
Nations across Africa are experiencing dramatic, and historic, change that stands in stark contrast to the stereotypical portrayal of a continent hobbled by strongmen and sclerotic regimes.
As The Diplomat reported in February, political upheaval has touched many corners of the continent. Last September, Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after 38 years in power. While many thought his handpicked successor, João Lourenço, would be a puppet of dos Santos, the new president has purged corrupt elements of the old guard and vowed to make the country more investment-friendly.
In December, Liberia experienced its first peaceful democratic transfer of power when soccer star George Weah defeated the sitting vice president in the country’s presidential election. And in February, South Africa’s embattled president, Jacob Zuma, was replaced as leader of the African National Congress by Cyril Ramaphosa and resigned as president on the heels of a no-confidence vote.
Two transitions on the continent, however, have been even more revolutionary and provide a study in contrasts.
In Ethiopia, widespread protests eventually led to the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the rise of his popular successor, Abiy Ahmed, 41, who has already been compared to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, 94, was pushed out of power after ruling the country for nearly four decades. His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has pledged to help Zimbabwe shed its pariah status by re-engaging with the West and rebuilding the economy. Like Abiy, Zimbabwe’s new leader has raised hopes for much-needed reforms. Unlike Ethiopia’s transformative new prime minister, however, Mnangagwa is a product of the brutal dictatorship before him, not a break from it.
Beginning in late 2015, rural farmers in Ethiopia’s Oromia region began protesting the government’s reallocation of land to a private developer, according to a report by Hamza Mohamed for Al Jazeera. The land grab was part of a larger plan by the government to dramatically expand the capital of Addis Ababa, at the expense of potentially displacing millions of Oromo residents. Even though the government backed down in the face of protests, demonstrators elsewhere were motivated to voice their grievances and protests quickly spread across the country.
Those grievances were largely fueled by the Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, who were joined by ethnic Amharas. The Oromos have long complained of discrimination and repression at the hands of ruling elite, comprised largely of the Tigrayan minority. (The Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups make up 35 percent and 27 percent of the population, respectively, while Tigrayans account for just 6 percent.)
The government cracked down on protesters, imposed a state of emergency and announced a series of reforms, but it failed to quell the three-year uprising and in February, Desalegn abruptly resigned. In his place, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) elected Abiy Ahmed as its leader. Abiy, an Oromo, adapted to Tigrayan rule early on, learning the language and serving as a former army intelligence officer and minister within the coalition government.
On April 2, Abiy was sworn in as Ethiopia’s first leader from the ethnic Oromo group. Since then, he has wasted no time upending the status quo. He promptly cancelled the state of emergency, released thousands of political prisoners, lifted censorship bans on websites and media, fired corrupt officials and ordered the partial privatization of massive state-owned companies.
He’s also vowed to heal ethnic tensions that have threatened Ethiopia’s vibrant economy. While the nation of 100 million boasts one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies — with growth averaging about 10 percent between 2005 and 2015 — poverty remains a big problem and the recent ethnic unrest has crippled the tourism sector and foreign investment.
But perhaps Abiy’s most enduring achievement will be his outreach to Ethiopia’s archrival, Eritrea, with which it fought a two-year border conflict that killed tens of thousands of people. The historic rapprochement could end 20 years of hostility and help authoritarian Eritrea emerge from international isolation.
In Zimbabwe, history was also made when longtime dictator Robert Mugabe was forced out of office under the threat of impeachment in what has widely been described as a palace coup.
In November 2017, Mugabe fired his First Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, which was seen as a move to elevate his wife Grace as his chosen successor. The military moved quickly to take control of the capital, Harare, and placed Mugabe under house arrest. A week later, as parliament debated his impeachment, Mugabe resigned and Mnangagwa was quickly named president by the ruling Zanu-PF party. He now heads into elections scheduled for July 30 as the frontrunner.
While Mugabe was revered by many as a hero in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle against British colonialism, in recent years his seizure of white-owned land, economic mismanagement and cronyism decimated what was once considered the breadbasket of Africa. Mnangagwa has vowed to open Zimbabwe back up to foreign investment and protect democracy and human rights.
But in this case, experts see more of the same. Mnangagwa, nicknamed “The Crocodile” by friends and foes alike, is considered just as ruthless as Mugabe — if not more so.
A guerilla fighter alongside Mugabe during the country’s independence struggle in the 1960s and ’70s, Mnangagwa led a group called the “Crocodile Gang” that staged attacks on white-owned farms and other targets (he was allegedly tortured by Rhodesian forces as a result).
During Zimbabwe’s civil war in the 1980s, Mnangagwa, often described as Mugabe’s right-hand man, served as the country’s national security minister. As spy chief, he worked closely with the army, which carried out lethal campaigns resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians, according to the BBC.
In short, “Mugabe’s gone but the regime is still there,” John Campbell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, told The Diplomat.
Forces Behind the Change
The recent transitions in Africa are not comparable to other mass uprisings like the Arab Spring, which saw one country have a domino effect on another. The changes in Africa have been localized and usually unique to each country’s individual politics.
The changes in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and others seem “to be all tied up in local factors,” according to Campbell, who is now a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But there are common threads in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, according to J. Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
“Change has been able to happen peacefully in both cases,” Pham said.
In Ethiopia, there were protests and then a resignation. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe resigned the day before he was to face impeachment charges.
But transformative change often comes with inherent dangers, as entrenched elites feel threatened and push back. Already, both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe have weathered bomb attacks months after the new leaders took up their positions.
On June 23, a grenade went off at a rally for Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party. Mnangagwa suggested it was an assassination attempt by factions loyal to Mugabe’s ousted wife Grace. But others fear it was staged by the government to justify a crackdown on the opposition weeks ahead of the election, according to an op-ed by Tafi Mhaka for Al Jazeera.
Abiy was also present at a large June rally in support of his reforms when a grenade exploded, killing two people and wounding over 150. Speculation has swirled that disgruntled members of the Tigrayan elite were behind the attack, which will test Abiy’s efforts to bring together the Oromo, Amharic and Tigrayan ethnic groups.
Ultimately, the failed assassination attempts likely solidify the two leaders’ positions whether they were meant to or not.
A second common thread in the two countries’ transitions, according to Pham, is that the changes in leadership came from within the ruling parties in both countries. They were managed transitions.
“The elites in power decided change was necessary,” Pham told The Diplomat.
Even in Ethiopia, where the change has been more dramatic, Abiy’s rise to prime minister was an “internal change,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who served as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs from 2013 to 2017.
She made clear that it was not a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another, a historical marker seen in Ghana in 2016 and Liberia in 2017.
Interestingly, no expert The Diplomat spoke to pegged the changes in Ethiopia or Zimbabwe on larger trends often discussed in regard to African politics: the large youth population, the rapidly growing digital economies on the continent, the threat of terrorism or the growing influence of Chinese investment.
But there is a significant difference between the revolutionary changes that Abiy has brought to Ethiopia in his short time in power and the way in which Mnangagwa has sought to consolidate his own power.
On July 9, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed an agreement formally declaring an end to their countries’ two decades-long war. With the agreement, Ethiopia and Eritrea reopened their embassies, resumed flights and restored telephone lines that have been severed for 20 years following a border conflict between 1998 and 2000 that killed an estimated 80,000 people.
Since then, Eritrea has named its first ambassador to Ethiopia in two decades: Semere Russom, who once served as envoy to the U.S. Meanwhile, Abiy was scheduled to visit Washington in late July and has asked the U.N. to lift sanctions against Eritrea.
As Justina Crabtree reported for CNBC, the breakthrough could help landlocked Ethiopia strengthen its role as a manufacturing hub by opening up new trade routes. It could also pry open Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, whose forced military service and rampant poverty have led tens of thousands to flee the country, often to Europe.
Experts agreed that Ethiopia’s opening to Eritrea was stunning.
Talks had been ongoing for some time, according to Pham, but the speed with which Abiy has moved them forward was unexpected.
“It’s surprising, but highly positive,” Campbell told The Diplomat.
To end the hostilities, Ethiopia accepted an international ruling that handed over the disputed border town of Badme to Eritrea.
While many Ethiopians and Eritreans cheered the end of one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, not everyone was happy with the decision to cede disputed territory to Eritrea, according to Jennifer Cooke, director of the Institute for African Studies at The George Washington University.
“Many lives were lost fighting on that border,” Cooke said.
Indeed, there were reports of angry protests breaking out in Ethiopia’s northernmost region along the border. Abiy will also have to contend with the influential faction that dominated the ruling coalition government since 1991: the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which still wields considerable clout within the military and intelligence services and will resist reforms that might erode its power. It was the TPLF’s clash with the Eritrean government that sparked the border war in the first place, and despite the recent reconciliation, thousands of Ethiopian troops remain stationed in Badme. It remains to be seen if Abiy can unilaterally withdraw those troops without triggering a confrontation with TPLF hardliners.
Nevertheless, an Eritrean delegation was welcomed with a red carpet and a large crowd when it visited Ethiopia recently, said Thomas-Greenfield, who happened to be in Ethiopia on previously scheduled travel plans at the time.
People in the street told her, “It’s been too long,” Thomas-Greenfield recalled to The Diplomat.
Ethiopians had more or less forgotten the history of hostilities with Eritrea in the face of domestic concerns like the economy, said Thomas-Greenfield, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012.
To many, reconciliation with Eritrea seems symbolic of a more significant shift underway in Ethiopia — and Abiy is an avatar of the political winds they have been wishing for.
Ethiopians that Thomas-Greenfield spoke to referred to Abiy as “our new Obama” or “our Mandela.”
As the regional hegemon, Ethiopia could “afford to be magnanimous [to Eritrea],” said Pham. “Ethiopia doesn’t face a threat from Eritrea,” he said, noting Ethiopia’s much larger population and more sophisticated military. However, Ethiopia stands to gain economically from access to an Eritrean port that was part of the peace agreement, he added.
It is more difficult to make out what tangible benefit Eritrea gained from the deal.
The real question, according to Pham, “is whether Eritrea’s government will be able to cope with the change.”
Eritrea had long exploited the threat from Ethiopia as a “bogeyman,” declaring a permanent state of emergency and drafting its young men into national military service, Pham said. When that threat disappears, the need for the draft will disappear with it — and then Eritrea will have many unemployed young men in search of work.
If the oppressive regime can’t adapt to these changes, it could foment an economic crisis of its own on Ethiopia’s border.
Righting Zimbabwe’s Economy
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s economy is also in urgent need of investment and reform. As Alec Russell reported for the Financial Times, “Years of government profligacy and the elite’s plundering of some prime economic assets have led to soaring indebtedness, fiscal imbalances and a chronic liquidity crisis.”
Zimbabwe experienced hyperinflation twice between 2008 and 2017. Last year, the inflation rate was 348 percent, according to Forbes.
Under Mugabe, the country also pursued a controversial program of land expropriation, seizing land from white farmers, violently at times, to return it to African farmers who had owned it generations before.
The move led to widespread food shortages, but Mnangagwa defended the program in an interview with CNN.
“We don’t regret the actions we took,” he said. “We fought a war of liberation for more than 15 years to regain our land — it was a situation where 1 percent of the population owned 75 percent of the land.”
But one consequence was that Western investors, already skittish about business ventures in corruption-addled Zimbabwe, feared their investments could be seized. International sanctions further isolated the battered economy.
In January, Mnangagwa traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos to deliver the message that Zimbabwe was “open for business.”
It is part of a larger campaign by the new president at home and abroad to make clear that the economy is his top priority and that he plans to reopen Zimbabwe to the West.
“The country needs to be open for business,” said Pham. “The country’s in desperate need for investment.”
Mnangagwa realizes that, to maintain power, “the economy has to be functioning or [else] the patronage machine breaks down,” Cooke told The Diplomat.
“It’s a calculation that if they don’t get the economy right, Zanu-PF will be in trouble,” Cooke said.
Mnangagwa may be succeeding: The Zimbabwe Investment Authority has approved investment projects worth over $1 billion in the first quarter of 2018, according to a report by Victor Bhoroma for Newsday. There is a chance that net foreign direct investment into the country could surpass $500 million for the first time since 2014, according to the report.
But the degree of change is exaggerated, said Campbell.
“I haven’t seen evidence of private U.S. investors upping their participation,” Campbell told us.
He also noted the large population flight from the country — a fourth to a third of Zimbabweans are living outside the country, he said.
Other investment hurdles include endemic corruption, bureaucratic red tape, a severe lack of infrastructure and possible political turmoil surrounding the July 30 vote.
An Election of Hope and Fear
Mnangagwa welcomed election observers from the Commonwealth and the European Union for the presidential elections set to be held as The Diplomat went to press.
“We want fair, free, credible elections,” Mnangagwa told the Financial Times.
As the newspaper noted in its report, “Free presidential and parliamentary elections, endorsed by a range of credible independent observer missions, are a critical demand of international donor bodies if they are to consider much-needed debt relief for Zimbabwe.”
Experts who spoke to The Diplomat said they did not expect any dramatic upsets in Zimbabwe’s elections, with the Zanu-PF party — which enjoys control of the state-sponsored media and backing of the military — all but assured of victory. But, if the elections proved to be legitimate, Campbell foresaw some hope for progress.
“If the elections are seen as reasonably credible by Zimbabweans themselves, then there is the possibility of real change,” he said.
The opposition, however, is not convinced that elections will be credible. While there has been no major violence so far, past elections have been marred by allegations of fraud, military interference, beatings and even death threats. This time around, voters worry about subtler forms of intimidation by the ruling party and ballot-rigging.
Thousands have demonstrated in Harare calling for greater transparency in the election. The government only released the voter registration list to opposition parties and the public after intense pressure and a court ruling.
For Mnangagwa, “there’s a recognition that change is coming with or without him,” Thomas-Greenfield said. But “we are not going to see a democracy come out of his government,” she cautioned.
As in each country’s political transitions, unique local factors are at play.
“I’m really positive about what’s going on in Ethiopia,” said Thomas-Greenfield. “I’m guardedly positive about Zimbabwe. It is a government that knows it needs to make change.”
According to Cooke, the real question in each case is, “When the ruling party is truly challenged, what will the reaction be?”
“In Ethiopia, you wonder if the old guard who has lost out will push back,” she said.
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.