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African Broadband Revolution 2005- 6 to 8 April 2005, Johannesburg SA

Is Zuma fit to succeed?

Published: 12-MAY-05

As the much-publicised trial of South African businessman Shabir Shaik for alleged corruption and bribery draws to a close, many are awaiting the outcome not so much to see whether Shaik is found guilty but whether, by proxy, his close associate Deputy President Jacob Zuma is considered guilty.

Even if corruption is ultimately not proven, the trial has brought to light a tangle of conflicts of interest and lapses of judgement.

Yet – perhaps in an attempt to shift the focus of the public – some voices are suggesting that the trial is not fundamentally about corruption but about succession within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and specifically for the Presidency.

The suggestion is that the corruption charges were engineered to weaken Zuma’s chances of succeeding current President Thabo Mbeki, whose second and final term of office ends in 2009.

And there is growing concern, at least in certain sections of the media, about the Deputy President’s suitability for the job, given the current cloud over his associates.

However, the potential rivals for Deputy President Jacob Zuma are not yet entirely clear. Some sources within the ANC go further, suggesting that Zuma’s succession is already seen as a done deal, not needing to be discussed any further. This apparent attempt to shut down debate and secure the position for Zuma has not prevented the ANC Youth League from taking the interesting step of nominating several candidates, including former apartheidera Foreign Affairs Minister, Pik Botha.

Perhaps we should be grateful that succession is so openly debated in this country – and that there are few indications that President Mbeki will not follow the lead of his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, in stepping down when his time is up. The question may not be so much whether Zuma is the man for the job, as whether such a question can be asked at all.

Presidential succession is not up for discussion in many African countries – indeed, some have tried to avoid it altogether by changing their constitutions to run for extra terms (leading to the socalled third term debate), while others simply appoint their own successors, who are often family members (as appears to be happening in North Africa and a few other countries). As a result, while elections are rhetorically referred to as expressing the will of the people, often they do little more than rubberstamp the will of the elite.

Indeed, governments in many African countries are trying to control the succession process through extralegal and extra-constitutional means. There seem to be no meaningful term limits on President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and questions are still being asked about Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo’s plans.

And Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni – who has now ruled for nearly 20 years – seems to be disregarding his own injunction: “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power” (his inauguration ceremony, 29 January 1986).

Succession is an important issue because it is intricately linked to the stability of a country. The current instability in several West African countries, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire among them, can be attributed in part to the leadership vaccuum experienced after the death of a long-time leader, who had made no provision for succession. But are the people allowing the rulers to get away with this? At times, it seems not. In Zambia, a bid to change the constitution to allow Frederick Chiluba to run for a third term was defeated after stringent opposition.

A similar attempt was made in Malawi on behalf of President Bakili Muluzi, but this was also unsuccessful. In Uganda and Nigeria, there is growing opposition to perceptions that their presidents are looking at the possibility of “selfsuccession”. Clinton Chukwu, arguing for restraint on the part of President Obasanjo, notes that, “It is not the number of years that we serve that matter, but how well we serve” (Vanguard, 28 April 2005). Africa’s leaders would do well to keep this in mind when considering the delicate matter of passing on power.

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