Leaders for a new Africa? A new ISPI Report

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The Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) just published its new Africa Report – Leaders for a new Africa. Democrats, autocrats and development – which can be freely downloaded here. The Report looks at leadership dynamics and their relevance for the unfolding of sub-Saharan Africa’s political scenarios and development prospects.

Politics in sub-Saharan Africa has long revolved heavily around individual leaders, arguably more so than is normally the case in some other areas of the world. Today, leadership dynamics remain crucially important. Yet some fundamental changes have taken place since multiparty politics was introduced across the region in the 1990s. For a start, despite mainstream media attention indulging on long-serving power-holders, Africa has become less and less a place for overstaying rulers. Electoral mechanisms have been adopted and have taken roots across African regimes, albeit with a wildly diverse spectrum of situations in terms of actual respect of political and civil freedoms. In many countries, such mechanisms helped regularize periodic leadership handovers, and sometimes even allowed turnovers between political adversaries to take place.

Do leaders make a difference?

In what remains the world’s poorest region, however, a key question is whether leaders do make a difference in terms of their impact on the social and economic progress of the countries they rule. One way of addressing this question is by looking at the general picture and asking what types of leaders have proved most successful, south of the Sahara, since independence in the 1960s. Development progress in Africa generally benefited from the shift to pluralist arrangements and electoral incentives, partly also where the new practices did not truly amount to democratic advances. This, however, should not be taken as a one-size-fits-all finding. Rather, it is a broad trend that still allows for a variety of real-life trajectories and the presence of a number of outliers. The region’s pre-multiparty history includes some unelected autocrats who were somehow able to pursue their countries’ economic growth. Even during the subsequent era of pluralist politics, the fastest growing countries in post-2000 Africa comprise the likes of Ethiopia and Rwanda, both ruled by strongmen who were only elected under clearly non-democratic conditions. These countries owe a large part of their recent successes to their single-minded leaders, however, which makes the recipe difficult to replicate when such out-of-the-ordinary individuals depart from office. Electoral institutions as a mechanism for selecting leaders and exerting a degree of pressure on the way they behave – on the other hand – can be a helpful, transferable, replicable and adaptable tool that more often than not supports development efforts.

The advent of new leaders in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and South Africa – the focus of four case studies in the Report –  tells different stories, each one specific to the politics and society of the nations they rule, but they do share some commonalities as well. Key among them is that the rise and early steps of these leaders came as a reaction to the prevailing circumstances, an effort to try and sort out some major challenges facing the country.

Ethiopia’s leadership handover represents arguably the most dramatic, fragile and consequential case. Abiy Ahmed’s appointment as Prime Minister must be traced back to the country’s growing instability and the related dynamics unfolding within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Abiy’s surprising rise went beyond expectations and ushered in an entirely new season – promoting both political and economic changes, with wide-ranging implications at the domestic as well as the regional level – if a frail one whose outcome remains highly uncertain.

South Africa and Angola

In South Africa, Ramaphosa’s rise was strictly intertwined with the crisis of governance observed during the years of Jacob Zuma, whose presidency was associated with the spread of questionable practices. An ‘insider’ fully integrated in the national political and economic system, Ramaphosa was deemed by many the country’s safest bet to fight the misuse of public resources and institutions and to restore the rule of law. The African National Congress thus demonstrated a capacity to respond to a profound leadership failure and offer a degree of renewal at the top, albeit the Zuma network still retains influence within the party as well as the government.

The reforms that are required to “regenerate” Angola after nearly forty years of uninterrupted rule by one single individual are even deeper and more far-reaching. Upon taking office in 2017, João Lourenço displayed an unforeseen assertiveness as he began head on to dismantle key elements of José dos Santos’s power networks and huge business interests. This surprised observers who had expected that the dos Santos family would keep pulling the strings. Lourenço swiftly moved to ensure fuller control of the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola and made the need to differentiate the economy away from oil a priority in his reform agenda. Lourenço represents an unforeseen case of change within continuity.

A historic leadership also came about in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Notwithstanding Joseph Kabila’s effort to cling on to power, Félix Tshisekedi was sworn in as the country’s new head of state, but observers reported widespread irregularities and tampering with the vote. A backroom deal purportedly led to the candidate less hostile to the outgoing president being declared victorious. Kabila’s inner circle is trying to resist a diminished role: control of a large parliamentary majority will be the main asset for the former president to retain political influence. Yet in spite of several adverse starting conditions, some of Tshisekedi’s moves seem to hint that he is trying to be his own man. He will need that if he is to address the innumerable challenges faced by one of Africa’s most complex and troubled countries.

Outliers and insiders

The true outlier among the case studies in the Report is actually very much an insider of contemporary African politics. Having ruled Rwanda for over two decades, Paul Kagame restored stability to a country devastated by genocide and war, and went on to bring about impressive social and economic transformations. The one key area in which Kagame continues to draw strong criticism, however, is the political realm: a leadership style and a political set up that only allows for political openings at the margins. Yet not all observers agree with the prevailing narrative. Dissenting voices stress how, under the dramatic and divisive circumstances left by the genocide in a small, poor and landlocked country, some gradual political openings have actually been allowed – including a decision-making process that involves a broader number of participants and intermediary bodies – and represent the safest way forward for this tiny nation in the middle of the region.

The ascension of these and other new leaders in today’s Africa has fed great expectations. Their room for manoeuvre, true goals and actual impact will vary greatly. Yet many of them will likely contribute to defining not only the political horizons of the continent, but also its development prospects.


Giovanni Carbone is Head of the ISPI Africa Programme and Professor of Political Science at the Università degli Studi di Milano. Camillo Casola is an associate research fellow at the ISPI Africa program.

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