Cyril Ramaphosa has a big job. Being president of South Africa in the middle of a pandemic and a global economic crisis demands his full attention. But this year, Ramaphosa is also chair of the African Union. This is not a ceremonial position — especially during a pandemic and a global economic crisis.
Now, more than ever, Africa needs an engaged and energetic leader. In this week alone, while we were distracted by the spectacle of the US elections, a series of reverses threatened the stability of some of Africa’s most influential countries.
In Uganda, opposition leader Bobi Wine was arrested on trumped-up charges again. In Tanzania, an election marred by gross irregularities was followed by the intimidation and arrests of opposition leaders. In Zimbabwe, journalist Hopewell Chin’ono — who exposed corruption scandals involving high-level government officials — was thrown in jail yet again.
In Côte d’Ivoire, President Alassane Ouattara “won” a third term in office in a vote that was boycotted by opposition groups, who argued that the country’s constitution limits presidents to two terms. But Ouattara forged ahead anyway, and now opposition leaders are threatening protests and appealing to the armed forces to switch sides. In a country where 3 000 people were killed in a civil war sparked by a contentious election as recently as 2011, this situation is a powder keg.
More serious still is the situation in Ethiopia, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — who a year ago was awarded a Nobel peace prize — has launched a military offensive against the provinces of Tigray following months of tensions between the regional and federal governments. Analysts have warned the country is on the brink of a civil war.
Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa is also the home of the AU headquarters. There can be no excuse for the AU not to intervene to de-escalate the situation before it spirals. For that to happen, Ramaphosa must make it clear that going to war against one’s own citizens is never acceptable, and use his continental leadership role to urge all sides to back down.
The Mail & Guardian asked the president for comment on each of these situations, but received no response prior to going to print. The only public comment Ramaphosa has made in recent weeks is to congratulate President John Magufuli for his re-election and praise Tanzania for “upholding democratic principles and holding peaceful elections” — which might come as news to the families of the nine opposition supporters who were allegedly killed by state security forces in Zanzibar in the run-up to the vote, or the leaders facing spurious criminal charges.
Ramaphosa has only a few months left before his chairmanship of the AU expires. It is not too late for him to make it count.