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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 25th June 2019

ETHIOPIA: Failed putsch presents tough choices for Prime Minister Abiy

Patrick Smith

We start in Addis Ababa in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt over the weekend, and then to Zimbabwe where the national dollar makes a comeback. In Nairobi, growing tensions between the President and his Deputy worry the business class. The murk surrounding international football federations casts a shadow over the African Cup of Nations tournament. In South Africa, President Ramaphosa doubles down on his support for the shaky power utility and in Mauritania, General Abdel Aziz shuffles his chosen successor into the presidency.

ETHIOPIA: Failed putsch presents tough choices for Prime Minister Abiy

The government's claims to have captured and killed on Monday (24 June) the organiser of the failed coup, in which five political and military chiefs were killed, is just the start of the fightback announced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Now, the test for one of the region's most feted reformers is whether he will stick to his plan to liberalise politics and hold credible elections next year.

At the heart of the crisis are cracks in the federal system, fights over the balance of power between the regions and the centre in Addis Ababa, and the legitimacy of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a shaky coalition of regional parties.

Regional party barons who fear the reforms will undermine them are making populist appeals to ethnic sentiment. One observer spoke of the risk of a 'slow-motion Yugoslav unravelling'.

In military fatigues, Abiy tried to reassure Ethiopians in a television broadcast on Saturday (22 June) just hours after the attacks. He said that Brigadier General Asaminew Tsige, the head of Amhara regional government's peace and security board released from detention last year, was behind the assassinations of the President of Amhara Regional Government, Ambachew Mekonnen, and a top advisor Ezez Waaie in the Amhara regional capital of Bahir Dar.

At the same time, a military bodyguard shot and killed General Seare Mekonnen, Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian National Defence Force and Major General Gezai Abera, a retired officer, in Addis Ababa. They were said to have been planning a response to the unrest in Amhara region in recent weeks.

Security officials say the attacks were coordinated to create the maximum impact. The head of Amhara region and the head of the army were key allies of Abiy.

Disputes over boundaries and resources in Ethiopia's nine regional states have multiplied over the past year. Some 2.9 million people have fled their homes because of regional clashes.

ZIMBABWE: When in doubt - ban the dollar

Bankers in Harare see history completing a circle with the announcement yesterday (24 June) that the US dollar and the South African rand would no longer be legal tender in Zimbabwe. The government's ban on the use of all foreign currencies is meant to stem inflation, now nudging 100%, its highest level for a decade.

From now on, everyone will have to use the resurrected Zimbabwe dollar – the Real Time Gross Settlement dollar – launched in February as the first stage in the return of the local currency.

Ten years ago, the argument went the other way. Then Finance Minister Tendai Biti, now a leading opposition politician, suspended use of the Zimbabwe dollar whose value had been devoured by stratospheric inflation running at hundreds of billions of per cent. In its place he allowed the use of a basket of foreign currencies, the most popular of which were the US dollar and the South African rand. Inflation disappeared but the new problem was liquidity.

Now, opposition politicians are sceptical that banning the US dollar can push back inflation. There isn't much faith in the revived Zimbabwe dollar which trades for about half its official rate of US$1=RTGS$6.2 on the parallel market.

Stocking up the foreign exchange reserves would help; the central bank says it has secured inflows of $500 million but these operations are shrouded in secrecy. There was another plan to raise the overnight lending rate to 50%, from previous levels of 15%, to boost demand for the revived local dollar.

If the IMF, with which the government has just signed a staff-monitoring agreement, endorses the new currency, that would boost some confidence.

But the key factor will be what is in the central bank's reserves. And the government will face growing demands for transparency over how it manages the hundreds of millions of dollars earned from mineral exports and from sharply rising fuel taxes.

KENYA: Whispers of a third term for Kenyatta raises tensions with his Deputy

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Vice-President William Ruto smiled for the cameras on Friday (21 June) in Eldoret, one of the VP's strongholds, but the battle over the succession is getting uglier.

Discord between Kenyatta and Ruto camps has been building since opposition leader Raila Odinga bounced back into a governmental role last year. After Odinga's celebrated handshake with Kenyatta in March 2018, which was an elite pact about the previous year's disputed elections, the two have been working together on a range of projects, to the dismay of Ruto's camp.

Ruto's allies accuse the President of reneging on the promised support for Ruto as his successor.
For the first time, there have been whispers among Kenyatta loyalists about changing the constitution to extend his presidency beyond 2022, although few believe that Kenyatta wants a third term.

Rift Valley leaders worry that the split between Kenyatta and Ruto – the governing Jubilee party's two principals – is bad for business. The party, whose parliamentary caucus has not met since the last election, is looking moribund. Several major infrastructure projects in the Rift Valley have stalled.

Early on Monday (24 June), it was announced that four cabinet secretaries were being questioned by police on allegations of threats against Ruto's life.

MAURITANIA: The general's election

It was another victory for military politician General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz who has transited from coup-maker, attracting sanctions from both the African Union and European Union, to elected civilian president, sitting at the high tables of international diplomacy.

Now, Gen Abdel Aziz has manoeuvred his protégé and defence minister, Mohamed Ould Cheikh el Ghazouani, into position as his successor. In last week's elections, Ghazouani won the presidency with 52% of the votes, enough to avoid a second round of the poll.

The lead opposition candidates – who did not contest the 2014 polls which re-elected Abdel Aziz – have all cried foul, accusing the electoral commission of bias.

Anti-slavery campaigner Biram Ould Dah Abeid, who was the main challenger and took 18.5% of the poll, described the result as 'like a coup d'état'. It's hard to see the results being challenged by the constitutional council.

The results should offer encouragement and a warning to the opposition forces, who recently ended an election boycott, that they need to work together. Abeid killed off the idea of a single opposition candidate early on when insisting that he would stand regardless of what rival oppositionists did.

FIFA: CAF-kaesque

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has again found itself in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, as its flagship tournament began in Egypt, with its President Ahmad Ahmad suspended pending a corruption probe. FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura has been appointed 'Fifa General Delegate for Africa' for six months in a bid to improve governance on the continent.

The Malagasy Ahmad faces a probe into the handling of previous Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, and the role of France-based Tactical Steel, which has become a key supplier of equipment to CAF.

While deeply embarrassing for the CAF – Samoura's appointment was announced the day before the start of AfCON – the move also exposes a rift within football's governing bodies. European governing body, UEFA, opposed FIFA's decision.

SOUTH AFRICA: Eskom too big to fail

President Cyril Ramaphosa doubled down on the importance of saving power utility Eskom in his first post-election State of the Union speech on 20 June, promising a 230 billion rand ($16 billion) support package. 'Eskom is too vital to our economy to be allowed to fail,' he said.

The money will be included in an emergency appropriations bill that the government hopes Parliament will pass in August.

Economic observers and markets appear to have been pacified by Ramaphosa's first State of the Union since May's elections – the main message of which was firing up an economy on the brink of recession. The struggling rand posted a modest gain against the dollar in the hours after the speech. But it's only a temporary respite.


SUDAN: Students and rights groups plan big protest on 30 June to push the military to hand power to civilian council

NIGERIA: Gaining power, central bank governor Emefiele announces a season of bank consolidation and reorganisation

SENEGAL: President Macky Sall's brother Aliou steps down after revelations over oil company payments