The winds of change may blow in several directions across Africa this year as a host of countries prepare for elections. But a change in power isn't always synonymous with change in governance. In Africa, very often, a new face in power doesn't signal change of the system of governance.
The continent is set for a busy 2018 electoral year. In the past presidential, legislative, or local elections, or a combination, have had a destabilising if not devastating effect due to pre and post-election transparency issues and accompanying protests, violence and political instability. But when conducted well, elections have also brought hope for a better future. Ghana and Benin are good examples.
The year ahead won't be any different. On the one hand the expected end of Joseph Kabila's tenure in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) might bring momentous change to the country. On the other it's more difficult to foresee better days for South Sudan. Others might also depart before elections.
All eyes are on Pretoria where the ruling African National Congress has asked President Jacob Zuma to resign following the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president and South Africa's next president. As of February 13 he was showing no signs of doing so.
And seven years after the Jasmine Revolution that ousted the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians are back on the streets. The wave that took away Ben Ali now threatens to sweep the government of Beji Caid Essebsi.
Presidential seats at stake
The DRC has added more instability to its already complex situation. The country has been embroiled in a political and institutional crisis since Joseph Kabila extended his term in office, after failing to amend the constitution to remove the disposition preventing him from running for a third term. He has twice postponed presidential elections, despite signing the December 2016 agreement whose main clause was to have presidential and legislative elections held by December 2017.
Kabila's failure to hold elections by the December 2017 deadline has led to mounting national protests, which the regime has crushed. Increasing national and international pressure might see Kabila out in 2018 unless he amends the constitution.
In Cameroon, Paul Biya, 85, in power since 1982, should be up for reelection in October. Although there is no indication that he will relinquish power, he has faced dissensions and separatist claims from so-called anglophone Cameroon and is believed to have ill-health. The current lack of succession plans if Biya does not run, leaves room for speculation and uncertainty.
In Madagascar, concern reigns in the run-up to the presidential election at the end of this year, which should see incumbent Hery Rajaonarimampianina face up his two predecessors Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina. The island, with a tumultuous history, has been prey to institutional instability since 2001. There are fears this will happen again.
Three countries, South Sudan, Libya and Mali, plagued by instability for some years, are expected to hold presidential elections this year. Strong uncertainties prevail in South Sudan and Libya where negotiations for peaceful settlements have yielded little tangible results. In Mali the government doesn't control large parts of its territory and is not immune to terrorist attacks.
No surprise will come from Cairo where, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, will certainly be reelected president of a country he now controls unchallenged.
Longevity and power sharing dilemmas
In West Africa, Togolese Faure Gnassingbé appears as a poor student in the field of democracy. He came to power in 2005 in a quasi-dynastic political 'transition', replacing his father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had been in power for 38 years. Reelected in 2015, he has, since August 2017, faced massive and sustained popular protests demanding institutional reforms and the end of his family's 50-year rule.
The Economic Community of West African States is trying, through negotiations, to restore calm. An uneasy situation is emerging given that Faure is the current chairman of the organization until June 2018. But if he completely loses the support of his peers, he might be on his way out. Legislative elections are scheduled to take place by July.
Like Togo, Gabon experienced a similar 'transition' from father Omar Bongo, who died in power in 2009 after 42 years of rule, to his son Ali Bongo, who replaced him that year. Once a haven of peace in an unstable Central African region, Gabon has tumbled into a serious crisis since the highly contested presidential election in 2016 which was marred by widespread fraud and deadly repression. Jean Ping, leader of the opposition and former chairperson of the African Union Commission, continues to claim victory.
The hardening of the Libreville regime has recently resulted in a constitutional amendment that the opposition characterises as a 'monarchisation' of power. Legislative elections planned this year will certainly be a turning point for the country.
In Guinea Bissau, the power of José Mario Vaz is in troubled waters, with the appointment of a seventh prime minister since 2014. The opposition has decried the president for overstepping his constitutional prerogatives by monopolising power, in violation of the Conakry agreement signed in 2016, under the aegis of the regional west African body.
Vaz runs the risk of sanctions, in which case he would definitively lose the support of the organisation and the protection of the regional troop deployment. This would precipitate his departure and could plunge the country into chaos, in a state that has mostly known military coups and instability. Legislative elections are expected to take place this year.
In Chad, the crisis that has affected resource-dependent countries has plagued the economy. This is coupled with Idris Deby's stronghold on power and his repressive methods. Despite facing civil unrest, he is unlikely to be shaken even though the country is expected to hold legislative elections this year.
Ghana setting the pace
Over the past 20 years, since the John Kofi Agyekum Kufuor presidency, Ghana has epitomised democracy south of the Sahara (aside from South Africa). Its institutional stability and peaceful transitions of power are commendable.
What the continent needs most are strong institutions, which will only come about with a regeneration of its leadership as well as its political class. This renewal must be rooted in a paradigm shift as embodied with determination, class and panache by Ghanaian president Nana Akufo Addo.