Friday, 21 November 2014

Parliamentary punch-ups

Suddenly the political action has shifted to Africa's parliaments, as party alliances crack and legislators target the executive authority of presidents. The latest parliamentary fracas, in Nigeria, pitted the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) against riot police and ended in masked officers firing tear gas into the main lobby of the building on 20 November.

The clash started when the APC's latest recruit, Aminu Tambuwal, who has defected from the governing People's Democratic Party, turned up at the National Assembly. His attempt to carry on in his post as Speaker of the House of Representatives affronted his old allies and they locked him out of the building. Undaunted, opposition members of parliament scaled the walls to force a way in for Tambuwal. After hasty consultation, Senate President David Mark adjourned all sessions until 25 November.

A week earlier, riot police stormed South Africa's Parliament to remove Ngwanamakwetle Mashabela, an MP from the radical Economic Freedom Fighters. African National Congress MP and House Chairman Cedric Frolick ordered that she be forcibly evicted after she refused to withdraw her accusation that President Jacob Zuma was 'a thief'. More bizarre still, the centrist and hitherto mild Democratic Alliance MPs joined forces with more radical oppositionists and tried to shield Mashabela. Now the DA claims its MPs were injured in the ensuing altercation.

What lessons from these parliamentary punch-ups? Firstly, the use of force against political dissidents strengthens opposition morale and cooperation. Secondly, those who have seen police act arbitrarily against others may now spare some sympathy for parliamentary protestors.

Friday, 7 November 2014

A tide of anger

Last week's street protests in Burkina Faso, which toppled President Blaise Compaoré, recall the Tunisian demonstrations which launched the rebellions across north-east Africa four years ago. There are some clear parallels. Compaoré, like Tunisia's President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, were seen as political fixtures, running a crony capitalist network while servicing the security needs of Western governments. Yet they were chronically unaware of changing political realities: how tougher local and international economic conditions were driving up unemployment and hostility to the cushioned ruling elite. Mobile telephones and the internet outmanoeuvred state censors as bloggers and tweeters broadcast their criticisms of the regimes.

All three faced a tide of public anger. Brought together by old-style political campaigning combined with mobiles and social media, tens of thousands of people hit the streets, overcoming their fear of soldiers and the police. Sometimes grudgingly, sometimes with a fellow feeling for the demonstrators, soldiers stood back and lowered their guns. As in Tunisia and Egypt, in Burkina Faso it was the securocrats who struck the last blow, pushing their leader through the door.

Twenty five years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union prompted popular uprisings against one-party states in Africa. Demands for national conferences to draw up new constitutions quickly morphed into movements to overthrow autocrats such as Mathieu Kérékou, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Denis Sassou-Nguesso and Mobutu Seso Seko. Today, almost every African state runs a form of competitive elections. Yet multipartyism has failed to hold governments to account. Instead, veteran leaders have become expert at using a show of democracy to perpetuate their rule. After Compaoré's fall, their success can no longer be taken for granted.