Ghana/ Ethiopia: When leaders’ death tests institutions’ strength

Across Africa, we have witnessed time and again countries where sudden death of a leader has been cause of a major human tragedy. This was the case in Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Egypt only to name a few, and this at different times of their recent or past history.

Unfortunately, not many cases have differed from that dramatic picture, which associates death of a leader with that of a sizable number of their subjects like in ancient pharaonic myths. 

Exemplary Ghana

Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama

Ghana, in Western Africa, has been exemplary in many ways on the African continent. And Africans wherever they are should regard that country with some respect and as a role model, particularly in political leadership.

In 1957, Ghana became the first African country to gain independence from colonization. In addition, it gave to Africans one of their most illustrious son Nkwame Nkrumah, ardent and passionate advocate of Pan Africanism. With his ideas, we [Africans as a people] would today certainly be an established global powerhouse, if CIA hadn’t plotted and managed to oust him from power in 1966.

On July 24, 2012, John Evans Atta Mills, the late successor of Nkrumah and president of Ghana died unexpectedly. He had been elected in office in 2009. Within hours of his death, his Vice President John Dramani Mahama was sworn in by Ghanaian judiciary to replace the departed as new president. The country has recently completed its official national mourning and it is business as usual, only with a different head of state.

Despite the sad death of John Atta Mills, presidential elections which were scheduled for December 2012 are going ahead. And even Ghanaian civil society, with funding from external donors, is working on ensuring, the election is fair and free from corruption. In that regard, three local NGOs, the Ghana Integrity Initiative (GII), the GhanaCenter for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) and the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC) have produced a report from their initial findings.

“The report drew attention to the growing practice of providing high value gifts to individuals, religious and traditional leaders, as well as some youth groups in the build-up to the 2012 general election. It said acts of providing such gifts could amount to “vote buying’’ which could impact negatively on the integrity of elections and the legitimacy of governments.”

Uncertain Ethiopia

On the other extreme corner of Africa, exactly in Ethiopia, which is as well a country of historical significance for the continent, particularly for standing strongly for African interests against invaders from other places, we are contemplating a scenario of a leader probably dying, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose death could ignites the entire nation.

He came into power in 1991 with the help of his rebel forces of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). For the last 21 years he has led a pro-Western dictatorship responsible of severe abuses of human rights, and in some cases certain voices claim that he could be even culprit of genocide against some Ethiopian tribes.

Human Rights Watch describes Ethiopian human rights situation this way:

“… Government has severely restricted the rights to freedom of expression and association. Since late 2011, 11 journalists and at least 4 opposition supporters have been convicted under the country’s overly broad anti-terror law. A draconian civil society law severely hampers independent human rights work. The government’s development policies, including large-scale commercial agricultural, has led to forced resettlement of indigenous populations, who not only lose their livelihoods in the process, but who are also subjected to arbitrary arrests and assaults by the armed forces. For their part, international donors to Ethiopia have been too quiet about Ethiopia’s deteriorating rights situation.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

Since the early months of the year, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi health has been deteriorating. What is more worrying is not so his illness, – we are all subjects to the laws of human nature-, but what could happen when his death became certain.

The Ethiopian prime minister holds most all political powers under his control. Because of such situation, uncertainty looms over the country. Chaos might erupt. There are no institutions strong enough and independent that could guarantee a peaceful transition of power.

What can be learnt?

The case of Ethiopia, with the scenario of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi dying without any well rehearsed formula to replace him should concern Africans interested in seeing sustainable progress for the continent.

Since there is a lack of strong institutions in the country, every gain [economic, social, and other] that Ethiopia has made over the years may be lost in a flip of a coin.

For aspirant political African leaders, Ghana and Ethiopia cases, as highlighted here, should make them seriously think on how to prepare the future of their respective countries, if they really care.

Overstaying in power does not do any good to a country, or even for those concerned leaders who find difficult to leave once accustomed with comfort and honours which go with the position.

African leaders that Africans should support are those who for example would put in their political manifesto, how from day one once in power, they will be working on how to leave power. And the only straightforward way is one of having shown their democratic credentials in their own political parties, two by ensuring from the start that they strengthen institutions that make them accountable.

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