Politics in the Eastern Africa region, stretching from Addis Ababa to Dar es Salaam, Nairobi to Kigali and Mogadishu to Bujumbura, seems to be in a state of paralysis.
Not a single country in the region is enjoying political stability. This has been worsened by the state of flux that the East African Community (EAC) finds itself in 17 years after its revival.
The biggest economy in the region, Kenya, has been in political paralysis since the nullification of the August 8 presidential election by the Supreme Court. Efforts by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to put together a new presidential poll have been frustrated by disagreements between the key players, the National Super Alliance (NASA) flag-bearer Raila Odinga and Jubilee Party candidate Uhuru Kenyatta.
The two leaders have put the country in a perpetual campaign mode for the last two years, leaving Kenya nearly cash-strapped.
Go to court
This was only made worse by the nullification of the presidential election in which Kenyatta had been named the winner.
The Constitution, which the country adopted in August 2010, while described as progressive, has also been cited by some experts as source of the legal quagmire the country has often found itself in.
The Constitution virtually allows any citizen to go to court on any issue, leaving most institutions hamstrung and unable to move forward. Many are the times when the legislature and executive have found themselves literally stuck due to matters pending in courts.
Indeed, the current political impasse is as a result of the court process taken up by the opposition at the egging of the President as Raila protested what he termed rigged elections.
It is often said that when Kenya sneezes, the rest of the region gets a full blown cold. This seems to be the case across the region.
In neighbouring Uganda, the parliamentary brawl over the age-limit debate paints the worst case scenario since President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) ascended to power after a bush war in 1986.
The brawl, on whether to lift the 74-year age limit for presidential candidates, was perhaps the first in the region where MPs, armed with crude weapons including brooms, went for each other.
Musevenei, who rode to power on promises of fundamental changes in the running of Uganda’s affairs, has made major concessions on his main agenda.
He gave Ugandans a constitution, but was quick to amend it when he realised his two-term limit was not enough. Instead, he plugged in the age-limit clause, hoping to lock out his opponents who had attained the magical 74 years or were staring at it menacingly.
While the age limit worked for Museveni at the time, nearly 10 years down the line, his determination to stay in power puts him in the same category of African dictators that have no respect for the rule of law.
Unless he steps back and retraces his steps to 32 years ago, he risks going down in history as the dictators he loathed, including his own nation’s Idi Amin Dada, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, outgoing Angolan president Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, just to mention a few.
The brawl and fisticuffs in the Ugandan parliament leave Uganda as one of the most divided countries in the region since Museveni ascended to power in 1986 after ousting a military regime.
But it is not Museveni alone who is seen as clinging to power in East Africa.
In Rwanda, Paul Kagame was elected with 98.6 per cent of the votes cast in August.
Kagame, Rwanda’s de facto ruler since the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,00 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered, believes he has a patriotic mission to fulfill for his country.
The August 4 election was his third term, following the constitutional amendment in 2015 allowing him to run for three further terms, meaning he could theoretically remain in power until 2034.
According to official results, the amendment was approved by more than 95 per cent of voters in a referendum. The opposition claimed the vote was rigged. The President was following in the footsteps of his mentor and one-time comrade in arms, Museveni.
Kagame’s opponents accuse him of being the latest in a long line of authoritarian rulers in Africa, after his regime brutally suppressed the opposition. The president’s allies vehemently deny.
The Rwandan president’s supporters attribute political stability and economic development after the horrors of the 1994 genocide to his leadership but his critics - most of whom are outside the country - say he rules through fear.
Kagame, who has been in power for 17 years, was challenged by Frank Habineza, from the Democratic Green Party, and Philippe Mpayimana, an independent. Businesswoman and rights activist Diane Shima Rwigara was disqualified by the electoral commission.
The remaining eight opposition parties did not put forward a candidate and instead backed President Kagame. The President previously called the election “just a formality”.
The Rwandan president is one of the first African leaders to set up a website with a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Flickr. He believes the IT revolution has meant there are “few excuses” for political intolerance and poverty.
The events in Bujumbura, Burundi, where the President was temporarily overthrown by some soldiers before fighting his way back to power in May 2015 while on a trip to Tanzania, can best be described as tragic.
The little said about the goings-on in Burundi where President Pierre Nkurunziza has trashed everyone and clung to power with an iron-fist the better.
Nkurunziza, a born-again Christian who spends his Friday evenings in kesha (night vigils) and a celebrated soccer player in Bujumbura, used the failed coup as an excuse to crush his opponents.
The opposition has literally fled from Burundi while the coup leader Major-Gen Godefroid Niyombare has joined a rebel group attempting to overthrow the Burundi leader.
The bone of contention in Burundi just as it is in Rwanda is the extension of the presidential term.
Nkurunziza, who had already served two terms in accordance with the Arusha peace deal signed in 2005, rejected calls to postpone elections in June 2015.
The 53-year-old former rebel leader argued that he was entitled to run for a third term because he was first appointed to the role by Parliament in 2005. The country’s court upheld Nkurunziza’s interpretation of the constitution.
Since 2015, Burundi has lost any semblance of law and order, while donors have pulled out, leaving the country economically on its deathbed. But that has not stopped Nkurunziza from clinging to power.
Tanzania, where Nkurunziza had gone to a regional leaders’ meeting on Burundi when he was temporarily deposed, elected John Pombe Magufuli as the successor to laid-back President Jakaya Kikwete in 2015.
Many Tanzanians had wished for a strong leader and they finally got one in the name of Magufuli. He walked into the office with focus and literally went to places where he wanted changes executed.
He had civil servants trembling in offices, not knowing when he would pay a courtesy call and have non-performing officers sacked on the spot.
Soon he had won accolades in the region for being the kind of leader that many had been craving for. Indeed, Magufuli became a role model for many people in the region.
However, his high-handedness seems to have run into the winds with the opposition, with one of the MPs terming him a dictator.
Days later, the MP who is also the president of the Law Society in Tanzania was shot in the abdomen by an unknown assailant. While the government was quick to distance itself from the attack, its timing was quite telling.
Godbless Lema, the MP for Arusha, was kept behind bars and denied bail for four months without any explanation while Esther Bulaya, a female legislator for Bunda in Mara region, was arrested because she was planning to address a public rally in a constituency other than hers. Her offence stems from an edict by President Magufuli forbidding politicians from holding public meetings except in their own constituencies. The fact that there is no law stipulating such a limitation did not deter the police from executing the illegal orders.
Under Magufuli, opposition parties and the media in Tanzania have not had it easy. While the MPs have been harassed and arrested on flimsy grounds, media houses and journalists have been either closed down or arrested for criticising the President or the ruling party.
Since 2015, Tanzania has slipped 12 places in the World Press Freedom Index. The highlight of the attack on media was the signing into law of the Media Services Act of 2016, which gives the government powers to shut down media organisations that violate their licences by confiscating printing machines.
North of the East African Community are three of the nations that have serious implications on the region.
Warlords reigned supreme
In Somalia, the country has not known peace since 1991 when the central government under another of Africa’s dictators, Siad Barre, collapsed. In its place, warlords reigned supreme before terror group Al-Shabaab found a haven in the Horn of African nation.
From Somalia, the terror group has carried attacks in Kenya and Uganda while it runs active cells in Tanzania, especially Zanzibar.
Attempts by the African Union and the international community to restore order in Somalia have not borne fruit but the situation is looking up since the election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo in February this year.
Next door neighbours, Ethiopia, are a known police state where opposition is hardly entertained. An attempt by Oromos to set up a breakaway state were met with extraordinary force.
South Sudan, which has its application for membership of the East African Community still pending before the Summit, has been in political turmoil since 2014 when civil war broke out in the country.
While everything looks gloomy in Eastern Africa, occasionally there is something to celebrate and put a smile on the faces of its citizens like the September 1, 2017 Supreme Court ruling in Kenya.
- The writer is a journalist and communication specialist