muhammadu-buhari-health-nigeria-president
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari with government officials after Friday prayers at the presidential palace in Abuja, Nigeria on May 5, 2017. Nigeria's 74-year old president has emerged to attend Friday prayers after missing a number of public engagements and three straight weekly cabinet meetings because of poor health.  Sunday Aghaeze—Nigeria State House/AP

The 5 African Countries Where Change Isn't Coming, for Better or Worse

May 12, 2017

Change is in the air in countries from France to South Korea, both of which see new presidents take office this month. But for the moment, at least, not much political change is to be found in Africa. A lack of change can reflect stability, but it can also reflect stagnation — as the populations of these five African countries are discovering:

Kenya

Nearly a decade after post-election violence there killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands, Kenya has become one of sub-Saharan Africa’s better stories. President Uhuru Kenyatta remains broadly popular, and while the country’s fractured opposition once hoped it could put forward a single candidate to challenge Kenyatta, political egos got in the way. Elections will be held on Aug. 8, Kenyatta’s path to reelection is clear, and the vote is likely to pass relatively peacefully.

But it’s not just the political stability that spells good news for Kenya. Kenya’s central bank is now helmed by the hyper-competent Patrick Njoroge, who continues the fight to bring inflation under control (currently at 10.3 percent). He will get a boost from the weather of all things—while drought conditions have caused food prices to spike (the price of maize is up 30 percent), the coming “long rains” season will provide some relief. And just in case state finances become precarious, the IMF is standing by to assist with a yet-untapped $1.5 billion program.

Angola

In oil-rich Angola, we’ll see a new president, but the same party of power. The center-left People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) is expected to remain the majority in this August’s legislative elections, paving the way for Joao Lourenco, the current Defense Minister, to assume the country’s presidency.

Lourenco is a competent technocrat with a relatively scandal-free reputation, critical in a country as resource-rich as Angola (45 percent of the country’s GDP comes from oil, as does 95 percent of its export revenue). Expect an anticorruption push as soon as he assumes office, part of a concerted effort to encourage foreign investment and boost the business environment.

Outgoing president Jose Eduardo dos Santos has ruled the country for 38 years—his departure inevitably brings some political upheaval, especially for investors who had grown accustomed to Dos Santos’ centralized decision making style. But it’s a managed transition, and Dos Santos will remain chair of the party and a formidable political presence in the country. Not bad—if only all leaders who’ve ruled for nearly four decades bowed out so gracefully.

Rwanda

Paul Kagame has been in power since 2000; this August, he will win his third seven-year term as president. There’s not much suspense; last time Kagame ran in 2010, he won 93 percent of the vote. Kagame is no doubt a ruthless leader, but as far as most Rwandans are concerned, he’s the only political game in town—and many have made their peace with that.

Kagame grew up as a refugee in neighboring Uganda, and rose to political power as part of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that would eventually end the Rwandan civil war. He has ruled with a strong hand since assuming power, cracking down on the free press in particular (Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 159th out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index). He’s poised to continue doing so for the foreseeable future; the new constitution allows him an additional two five-year terms through 2034. His hanging on will probably drive another violent transition before 2034—it’s just very hard to predict when or how.

Nigeria

As the health of 74-year-old president Muhammadu Buhari continues to deteriorate, Nigeria is caught in a holding pattern. A political crisis has been averted for the time being, with Buhari handing power to his vice president while he returns to London for medical treatment of an undisclosed illness. This virtually assures that the country won’t undertake much-needed economic and business reforms until the February 2019 elections are over.

Having a president with frail health is always difficult, but it’s especially problematic in Nigeria. By the terms of an informal agreement dating back to when democracy was restored in 1999, the presidency is meant to rotate every eight years between a Muslim northerner and a Christian southerner to reflect the country’s demographics (roughly 50 percent of whom are Muslim and 40 percent Christian).

That hasn’t worked out great for Northern Muslims, as their first president Umaru Yar’Adua died in office in 2010 after serving just three years. Should Buhari (a Muslim) die in office, his Christian vice president Yemi Osinbajo will assume the presidency—which is exactly what happened in 2010. Osinbajo will face pressure to step aside for a Muslim candidate in 2019 should it come to that. Combine that with an economy that just saw its first economic contraction in 25 years and a government that continues to battle the Islamist Boko Haram, and the short-term prospects for Nigeria aren’t looking great at the moment.

South Africa

Jacob Zuma, who leads the African National Congress (ANC)—the party once-led by Nelson Mandela—remains in office despite almost 800 charges of corruption leveled against him. Given his continued control of the party, he is likely to survive the vote of no confidence slated to be held in the next month or so.

The twist to this story is what comes next. At the moment, Zuma’s most likely successor is his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a capable politician in her own right who has just completed her tenure as chairperson of the African Union, the regional organization that coordinates pan-continental politics. She is likely to use Zuma’s existing political network to vault to the presidency, and has been careful not to criticize the patronage network that backs Zuma and which has drawn the ire of political opponents and international observers. For Zuma, anointing Dlamini-Zuma his successor gives him some protection from prosecution once he leaves office, and it prevents the more market-friendly traditionalist faction within the ANC from renouncing him entirely.

Unfortunately, this won’t change the fact that the South African economy continues to stumble (unemployment is at around 27 percent and the economy grew just 0.3 percent in 2016), and major ratings agencies are poised to downgrade the countries investment rating—already at “junk” status—even further. For the country hailed as the continent’s success story just five years ago, it’s a major fall from grace—and it has further left to fall.

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