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A season of resignations

By Obadiah Mailafia

LAST week was a rather unusual week in our glorious continent of Africa. It was the week of Valentine, as February 14 has always been since time immemorial. The week of love, the week in which lovers re-avow their affection to each other and exchange gifts.

That same week saw resignations by leaders of two of the most important countries in our continent, namely, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia. As it happens, I have followed both gentlemen in the course of my career.

President Zuma

On Wednesday 14 February, Jacob Zuma succumbed unrelenting to pressure from his colleagues in the ANC and decided to throw in the towel. It had been a long drawn-out battle. Zuma had done his best to ensure he could outlive his traducers. But it was not to be.

I met Jacob Zuma as President of South Africa in April 2013 when he came on a state visit to the European Union in Brussels. I was privileged to accompany my boss Dr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas to visit Zuma in his hotel room. We were accompanied by a young woman colleague, a beautiful princess from the Bangwamanto Kingdom of Botswana.

We had jokingly warned her to be on her best behaviour, as we were made to believe the man was on a hunt for Wife No. 5. As it turns out, our colleague confessed that, as a woman, she could perfectly understand  why women would easily fall for a guy like that. Jacob Zuma was smooth and charming. He had a way of making you feel at ease. Unlike Thabo Mbeki, he had no basis to feel any intellectual arrogance. At a personal level, I found Zuma to be a sincere, down-to-earth and very likeable person.

Jacob Zuma never had a real education beyond primary school. He learned everything he knew from the trenches of the bitter struggles between the ANC and the ruthless Apartheid government of South Africa. But through dint of hard work and commitment he found himself in the upper echelons of the party, rising to the exalted position of Vice-President, and subsequently, President.

When, as Vice-President, he began to indicate that he had interest in succeeding Thabo Mbeki, the latter placed all sorts of stumbling blocks on him, believing he did not have what it takes to occupy the high magistracy of the South African state.

It had the opposite effect. Jacob Zuma became the underdog. He drew the sympathy of the masses, and particularly youth leaders like Julius Malema, leader and founder of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, EFF, party.

Unfortunately, after he was sworn in as president in May 2009, it soon became clear that he had immense deficits both in character and intellect. He was charged for corruption and racketeering as a result of his links with his financial advisor Schabir Shaik in April 2009. He illegally committed state funds for the renovation of his palatial home, Nkandla, in Zululand.

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma has been a disaster for South Africa. A man who has been charged for rape, corruption, fraud and racketeering certainly is unfit to lead such a great country. He is definitely not in the same league as Thabo Mbeki, not to talk of Nelson Mandela. He has brought nothing but disgrace to South Africa.

I am pleased that he has been eased off and my friend Cyril Ramaphosa has been sworn in as President of South Africa. I first met Cyril in a hot summer day at Montreal International Airport in Quebec, Canada, in July 1986. We got introduced and sat together for coffee. He introduced himself as a leader of the labour movement and that he was in Canada to undertake a course in labour unionism and industrial relations.

I explained to him that I was a Nigerian intern working for Lavalin International in Quebec, having been posted from my institution in Paris, Institut International d’Administration Publique, now known as ENA-IIAP. We exchanged personal details and we all went our personal ways.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, I was astonished to see that the person that was closest to him besides his then-wife Winnie Mandela was none other my friend Cyril Ramaphosa.

The whole world knows that Cyril was Mandela’s favourite to succeed Madiba as President. Unfortunately, the high echelons of the ANC overruled.

There had been an unwritten rule that the highest positions of the leadership were reserved for those who had either been in prison in Robben Island (the Robben graduates) or those who had served the organisation in exile. Although South Africa does not suffer the kind of rabid ethnic bigotry that we suffer in Nigeria, there was also no doubt that ethnicity did matter.

The Xhosa political elites have tended to dominate the ANC, from Nelson Mandela to Walter Sisulu and the Mbekis. Cyril is a Venda, one of the smallest of the tribes in South Africa. As a matter of fact, Zuma himself had played the ethnic card in warning that the Zulus were single largest majority and he had to have his way.

Cyril Ramaphosa disappeared from the political scene for about two decades, where he went into mining and other sectors. He made himself a billionaire. The white Afrikaners found him a man they could do business with. He is an enormously gifted man.

A lawyer by profession, he is known to be a tough negotiator as well as a consummate administrator. He has skilfully camouflaged these gifts by appearing like a simple, smiling fox. He will serve his country with distinction.

There is also the case of Ethiopia. I have been to that country more times than I could remember. I can manage a smattering Amharic. I met Prime Minister Desalegn when he visited the African Caribbean and Pacific Secretariat, of which I was Chief of Staff.

He came across as a mild-mannered and decent statesman. He had the composure that is so much a character of the Ethiopian people.

He had been a former Dean of a University before pursuing a political career that saw him rise to the exalted position of prime minister.  His resignation came as a shock, because no leader in the history of the Ethiopian has ever retired from government.

Ethiopia has much in common with Russia, both of them members of the Orthodox faith. Their political traditions do not allow for any kind of liberalism. They have tended to admire and respect only strongmen. The late Meles Zenawi was a strongman.

But he did well for Ethiopia. Desalegn was a career academic who easily caved in as a result of the unprecedented demonstrations and riots throughout the country. The young people of Ethiopia are demanding more freedom and more liberty. It is not enough that remarkable progress has been made on the economic front.

There are serious underlying political problems. Out of Ethiopia’s 90 ethnic groups, the dominant ones are the Oromia (37%) and the Amhara (30%). The Tigrinya trail behind at 6 percent. But it is the latter that have dominated the state and economy since 1991, after the fall of the Mengistu dictatorship.

The people of Ethiopia deserve greater freedom and political participation to enjoy the fruits of development and social progress. Political reforms are needed to expand the possibility frontiers of liberty as well as social justice for all.

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