Egypt’s Uprising: Elsewhere in Africa

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EgyptAs the Egyptian government and opposition figures met for talks earlier this month, the country’s financial system, businesses and traffic seemed to begin to creep back toward normal. The massive protest against 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, insisting that he step down, sparked outflows of funds and a clamor for the U.S. dollar, weakening the Egyptian pound. Analysts at French investment bank Credit Agricole said the turmoil was costing Egypt at least $310 million a day.
 
Fueled by fury over financial deprivation, the unrest in Egypt threatens to diminish the country’s economic growth. The stock market plummeted 20 percent within a week as investors fled in droves, undermining a vibrant private sector led by a construction boom and vibrant.
 
The protests in Egypt, inspired by an uprising in Tunisia that led to the departure of President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power, spotlight popular distaste for “Big Man” politics elsewhere in Africa, where autocratic leaders are increasingly resisting change and struggling to hang on to power at all costs. These leaders may not last very long, however.

“The region is being battered by a perfect storm of powerful trend,” warns U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “This is what has driven demonstrators into the streets in Tunis, Cairo, and cities throughout the region. The status quo is simply unsustainable.”

Among recent holdovers: Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, accused of stealing an election and plunging his country into a deadly civil conflict in late 2007; Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, accused of doing the same in 2008; and Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, who lost elections in November but has so far refused to hand over power to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally-backed winner.

“Could the tumult that has happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan strike Kenya? Absolutely,” writes Randall Smith in a Feb. 4 Daily Nation opinion piece.

“A major disruptive force is the idea of a true democracy and a system of justice. Once that idea runs through the streets, the elites…will find that they have few options. They will start offering, as Mubarak has done in Cairo, options that should have been done long ago,” Smith says. “Kenya is no different from many countries in the world. The question is whether its leadership will address its problems before or after the next and most certain crisis.”

A column in The Citizen, Tanzania’s leading English language daily, expresses similar sentiments.

“What is relevant for the rest of us in the developing world or Third World is what lesson we pick from this uprising in North Africa and the Middle East,” the author writes. “We have a serious, if not a very serious, problem of rising unemployment in this country. In fact thousands if not millions of able-bodied young people are roaming about in urban areas doing nothing but hawking all sorts of goods, which are mostly foreign-produced.

But the leadership is looking away or pretending all is well…Nobody is worried of the fact that this country is actually sitting on a powder keg or time bomb.”

On Feb. 18, Ugandans are scheduled to go to the polls to choose their next president. Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country or a quarter of a century, is said to be busy muzzling his opponents to ensure he retains the job.
 
Earlier this month the opposition petitioned Uganda’s Constitutional Court to disqualify Museveni from participating in the presidential election, accusing him of breaching the constitution to give himself undue advantage ahead of the polls. State-owned Sunday Vision newspaper reported that the petitioners accused Museveni of leading a government that recently passed a supplementary budget of $260.8 million, much of which was diverted to fund ruling party campaigns across the country.
 
The opposition claims that Museveni’s government has deployed security personnel throughout the country to intimidate people to vote for the ruling party or to abstain from voting.  Some speculate that part of the reason Museveni doesn’t want to retire is because Uganda, Africa’s largest robust coffee grower, recently discovered commercial oil reserves along its western border.

Too often, oil and other natural resource wealth has encouraged corruption and made bad leadership even worse. Shrugging off a threat of military intervention by other West African countries, Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, has resorted to “stealing money” from companies through extortion in order to pay the salaries of those who back his hold on power, says U.S. ambassador to Ivory Coast Phillip Carter.

Cocoa exports are the country’s biggest source of government revenue. Trade has fallen to a trickle after Ouattara called for an international boycott last month. Both main ports, Abidjan and San Pedro, have also been put on a European Union sanctions list and general commerce has declined sharply.

In mineral-rich Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s government has been working without success to attract international investors to revive the country’s failing economy. After he tried to nationalize private farms and businesses in recent years, investors aren’t sure their capital will be secure in that country. Many companies need to recapitalize and the government has put up a couple of state corporations for sale, but so far there are no takers.
 
The concern that leaders like Mubarak, Mugabe and Gbagbo may have outlived their usefulness is real. This year, 18 African nations are holding presidential elections. Will the next bunch of losers cede power, asks Samantha Spooner, senior research editor at Nation Media Group in Kenya.

“There are the countries where you know trouble is brewing. Places where the old-timers just seem determined to remain, despite the outcome of the elections,” she writes in EastAfrican. “But we also have hope. In some nations the incumbents are not changing the constitution, determined to stick around until the fat lady sings.” 

Rosalind McLymont contributed to this report.