OPINION | Poor governance frees up genie in African bottle

Long serving Cameroon President Paul Biya
Long serving Cameroon President Paul Biya
Image: Reuters

Poor governance, corruption and not spreading develop ment widely have unleashed secession bids in many African countries.

Recently, there have been renewed calls by people in the state of Biafra, in the southeast of Nigeria to break away from the central government. Biafra is mainly populated by the Igbo community, who claimed the central government did not include members from their community in government nor develop the region and that it harshly represses opposition.

Nigeria is divided between northern Muslim and southern Christian communities. The Igbo, one of the three largest communities in Nigeria, is mainly Christian.

President Muhammadu Buhari, from the Northern Muslim community, was elected in 2015. Biafrarians complained he favoured northern Muslims.

In Cameroon, English-speaking regions have taken up arms in their battle to break away. They now make up a fifth of the population, dominant in two of the country’s 10 regions. The eight other regions are French-speaking. French and English are the two official languages. Paul Biya, 85, is one of the world’s longest ruling dictators, having been in power for 36 years, and is seeking to extend his term in October presidential elections. He amended the constitution in 2008 to end term limits. Biya has launched a terror campaign against Anglophone regions. His autocratic leadership is one of the main reasons for secessionist calls and for the rise of Boko Haram Islamist extremism in the country.

In 2017, he switched off the internet and blocked social media for 93 days in the English- speaking provinces after public protests.

Ethiopia is facing multiple breakaways. In August 2003, the Ethiopian government issued a surprisingly honest assessment when it stated the country was in crisis because of lack of democracy, poor governance and entrenched poverty.

Ethiopia, with its 100 million people is Africa’s second most populous nation and has experienced high growth rates in the past 25 years. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been in power for 27 years. It has 100% control of parliament.

Former prime minister Meles Zenawi ruled for 17 years, marginalising civil society, suppressing independent media and jailing the opposition. Some regions complained they were not benefiting from growth, were politically marginalised and were suppressed when they complained.

The government is dominated by the Tigray ethnic commu nity which makes up 6% of the population.

The Oromo and Amhara communities, which together make up 61% of the population, have charged they are marginalised.

The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, led by Zenawi, took over as part of a multi-ethnic coalition organised within the EPRDF in 1991.

The coalition includes parties of four ethnic groups – the Tigrayan, Oromo, Amhara and the southern nationalities.

However, the Tigrayan controlled the movement and the government. In 2016 the government implemented the Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan which expands the capital into land owned by the Oromo, displacing the community, disrupting farming and undermining customs.

The community was not consulted. When they protested, they met repression. The government eventually postponed the development.

The country’s second largest community group, the Amhara, protested over lack of title deeds to their lands.

Members of some disaffected communities formed armed groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ginbot 7.

The government labelled these groups terrorists. Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn, who took over after Meles died in 2012, was an ethnic Wolayta and his appointment was to be the start of a more ethnically inclusive government.

Ethiopian national leaders have played ethnic groups against each other to maintain central control, unleashing further inter-ethnic conflict. Except for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s constitution gives ownership rights to ethnic groups in specific regions where they have majorities. This means there is often hostility between groups perceived to have “ownership” rights and “outsiders”.

In February, Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn resigned and the EPRDF appointed Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo leader, as its chairman and new Prime Minister – the first Oromo Prime Minister in the 27 years the EPRDF has ruled.

The 42-year-old Abiy Ahmed, one of Africa’s youngest lead ers, introduced dramatic democratic reforms. Last month the ONLF rebels declared a ceasefire, halting their bid to have the Ogaden, break away.

Ethiopian governments must share power with all ethnic communities. They should give greater self-rule to states. Whoever governs Cameroon, must do so more inclusively, accountably and prudently. Nigeria too needs a looser federation. More importantly, governments must govern inclusively, spread development equitably and be more honest or they will face many more secession bids.

• Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, Wits university and author of SA in Brics.