AS BUHARI HEADS FOR WIN, A FLASHBACK: The military men are back: The rise, and fall, of the African technocrat president

Just two years ago the region was celebrating the ascent of the professional politician to power. What happened to their promise?

FROM JANUARY 18, 2015: THIS week, Madagascar’s president appointed a military man as his prime minister, following the resignation of the Indian Ocean island’s government.

Jean Ravelonarivo, a serving air commodore, will replace Roger Kolo, a surgeon and radiologist by trade and who had been in office for just nine months.

The issue that led to Kolo’s downfall—crippling national power blackouts—was especially ironic: it was a roll back of a much-heralded trend that saw technocrats rise to head governments all around Africa, with much optimism that they were better aligned to tackle the continent’s developmental challenges.

In 2012 for example no less than six countries, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Senegal, Tunisia, Somalia, elected engineers to top political offices, bulking up the ranks of others such as Nigeria and Eritrea whose leaders also had technical training. The import of the rise of this professional cadre during the technocrats “golden years” of 2011-2013 to top office was that the remarkable story of Africa Rising could only fortify.

The party  appears to have ended before the kola nut had been broken. This year, as ten countries—which together account for nearly half of the region’s Gross Domestic Product, hold elections, the reversals in the fortunes of the technocrat class are stunning. 

Security trumps infrastructure

Military men and hardcore politicians have quickly reclaimed their space, coinciding with the emergence of security—and not infrastructure—as the continent’s pressing concern. 

The trend took hold last May with the election of Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi to power in Egypt, a retired field marshal who while trading in his military fatigues for a power suit, left few in doubt as to which institution was really in charge.

The man he removed, Mohammed Morsi, an engineer, was the first democratically elected president in the country’s history. So admired was Sisi’s strongman approach that he was thunderously applauded by African leaders attending a summit in Malabo at what was his first foreign trip. 

In Tunisia, medic Moncef Marzouki last month lost elections—the country’s first free ballot —to the 88-year-old veteran Ben Ali-era politician Beji Caid Essebsi, sparking murmurs that the country’s revolution had gone full circle.

The generals’ queue grows long

In Libya, electrical engineer Abdurrahim El-Keib took the reigns from the deposed Muammar Gaddafi to much acclaim, but only lasted a year before the country fell to the rule of the brigands. The North African country is for all intents run by a Gaddafi era general, Khalifa Haftar.   

In Somalia, while the technocrat president is hanging on, prime minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed, who has a background in science training, was last month voted out by parliament, to be replaced by career diplomat and politician Omar Sharmake.

Angola’s succession battle pits a technocrat, Manuel Vicente, the vice president, against a military man, Joao Lourenco, the former head of the ruling MPLA who was last year appointed defence minister. Angola’s spending on defence and security is more than that of education and health combined.

And in Nigeria, former army ruler Muhammadu Buharri is challenging zoologist Goodluck Jonathan in what is a tight race that could be decided on margins. 

Ironically, in Ethiopia, engineer Hailemariam Desalegn looks set to buck the trend of technocrats stumbling, having considerably strengthened his position not unlike a soldier, with the opposition struggling to even register for May elections. Only one legislator of the country’s 547-member parliament is not from the ruling party.   

In elections in Algeria, Mauritania and Botswana, there were no such pretensions, with long-serving military men retaining their positions, while veteran politicians in Namibia and South Africa kept the status quo party going.

The trend looks set to continue this year. Former Mozambique defence minister, Filipe Nyusi, was Thursday sworn in as president. While he is also a technocrat, he has military training and owes his momentous rise to his liberation party-movement Frelimo, given his previous obscurity.

Edgar Lungu, Zambia’s defence minister and who has some military training, is the frontrunner in the country’s January 20 election. The army is said to have influenced his candidature following the vacuum that developed following the death of Michael Sata last year. 

In Zimbabwe, vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa owes his strength to his years-long acceptance by the county’s powerful generals, acting as their bridge with the ruling ZANU-PF party.

Even Riek Machar, who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering, has since gone back to arms in South Sudan, while in Tanzania, the ruling party career politicians are essentially jostling within themselves to succeed Jakaya Kikwete, whose second terms ends in October. In neighbouring Kenya a cabinet of technocrats has slowly been bumped aside by a president who has recently taken a sudden liking for military ways.

Extinction of technocratic species

What happened to the promise of the technocrats? For one, their decline looks to have coincided with the emergence of security and non-state actors without return addresses as the continent’s major concern. 

Terrorism is gradually bumping big energy finds and technological gains from the headlines, threatening billion-dollar investment and government support.  Nyusi on being sworn in pledged to prioritise peace as a precondition of economic development.

This concerns have seen the line between security and development become blurred, leading to preferences for “stronger” types.

However many are being accused of  exploiting this new “securitised” environment to shrink political space and criminalise dissent. Foreign powers more concerned with protecting their own interests—especially post Cold War— have not been too supportive either, sending a flurry of mixed messages.

Many of the “traditional” leaders also have deep pockets, which few technocrats can match, a major determinant in Africa’s brand of handout and crony politics.   

Further, the (now receding) oil boom promise, also did a lot to sink the technocrat. It opened doors for populists, as they are better able to promise wealth redistribution, without resorting to talk of “macroeconomic” considerations. Minorities, fearful that democracy would gift bigger bigger ethnic groups and marginalise them, particularly fell to the spell of redistributive strongmen.

All is however not lost for the technocrat class yet. A major hope was that they would provide a bridge to democracy, in a continent shorn of natural leaders. Most of the returning soldiers and veteran politicians have opted for the ballot box as the path of least resistance to power—with a few exceptions like in The Gambia where coups are still fashionable.

In Burkina Faso the military man who seized power after long-time president Blaise Compaore was ousted is now prime minister, in charge of organising elections that few expect him not to run in. It is a “sanitising” model perfected to great effect by leaders like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé.


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