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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 3rd April 2017

SOUTH AFRICA: Close-run confidence vote looms after Zuma sacks Gordhan

Patrick Smith

Again, we start in the week in South Africa as the country and its politicians react to President Jacob Zuma's sacking of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. A different level of power play is going on in Abuja where the head of Nigeria's anti-corruption organisation has just launched a damning report on President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki. And then to Washington where Egypt's President Abdel Fatah el Sisiis due to meet with President Donald Trump and the other big summit in the United States is a Trump meeting with China's President Xi Jinping where some diplomats hope that Africa might provide one of the few points of agreement.

SOUTH AFRICA: Close-run confidence vote looms after Zuma sacks Gordhan
This time the numbers may not work for President Jacob Zuma. Under siege within the top echelons of the governing African National Congress after his peremptory sacking of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and deputy Mcebisi Jonasin a reshuffle late on 30 March, Zuma could face a tough no-confidence vote in parliament within ten days.

On 2 April, parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete announced she would return early from an overseas trip to consult on opposition party requests for parliament to be recalled – it is currently in recess until 3 May – to hold a confidence on Zuma.

Until now, Zuma and his acolytes, relying on the ANC's 62% majority in the 400-seat parliament, have easily seen off four confidence votes launched by the opposition parties since 2009. In the last such vote last November, several dissident MPs and ministers failed to attend the vote, but most of the ANC's  249-strong parliamentary caucus backed Zuma.

This time top ANC officials such as Vice-President Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary General Gwede Mantashe and Treasurer General Zweli Mkhize have publicly criticised Zuma, and several senior figures in the party have said they would vote according to their conscience. The South African Communist Party has publicly opposed Zuma's reshuffle, specifically the sacking of Gordhan and Jonas.

The timing of the vote could prove critical as Zuma's opponents would want to maximize the the current wave of hostility to the President. Their best chance would be to reconvene parliament before Easter.

At least 70 ANC MPs would have to vote against Zuma to get the simple majority needed for a no-confidence motion to succeed. That now looks possible with opinion in the country and party moving strongly against Zuma.

A successful vote of no confidence would trigger an extraordinary meeting of the ANC's National Executive Committee in which Zuma would be likely to face a motion for his recall. That was the fate of former President Thabo Mbeki, who was brought down in 2008 after an extended and skilful campaign against him by Zuma. The usurper then could now meet the same fate this year.

EGYPT/USA: El Sisi and Trump confer on anti-Islamist fight
An assiduous wooer of Donald J Trump, Egypt's President Abdel Fatah el Sisi will become the first Middle East leader to meet the new US President in Washington DC on 3 April. El Sisi, who was the first international leader to congratulate Trump on his election victory last November, seeks military and diplomatic backing for his fight against Islamist groups.

First prize for El Sisi would be for Trump to endorse the Eguptian leader's ban on the Muslim Brothers, Al Ikhwan el Muslimeen, with a declaration that the US would treat the group as a terrorist organisation. That would have serious consequences for the group's finances and its supporters in countries such as Qatar and Turkey.

El Sisi is also looking for US financial help. Egypt is a third of the way through a $12 billion adjustment programme backed by the International Monetary Fund but inflation is running at about 30% after the government let the pound float, and it has lost half its value against convertible currencies.

The two may also discuss the war in Libya where rogue general Khalifa Haftar, backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, has been trying to win US security and diplomatic support for his campaign against Islamist militias in the west of the country.

NIGERIA: Anti-corruption czar releases dossier on Senate president
The rumbling row between Ibrahim Magu, chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Bukola Saraki, the President of the Senate has escalated into a full-blown political clash over claims about the corrupt diversion of N3.5 billion (US$11 million).

Over the weekend Magu's office released a report accusing Saraki's aides of having used some N3.5 billion to bribe National Assembly members to drop an investigation into the whereabouts of overpayments made by state governments to the Treasury to meet debt service obligations. Following the government's negotiation of some $18 bn. of debt relief with the Paris Club of official creditors in 2005, state governments were owed a refund on the sums they had submitted to service the debts.
The EFCC report claims that part of the debt relief sent to the state governor's forum, chaired by Saraki at the time, was improperly diverted. But Senators such as Ali Wakili and Fatima Raji-Rasaki, both staunch allies of Saraki, have rubbished the EFCC allegations. This row follows the Senate's rejection, for the third term running, of President Muhammadu Buhari's request for Magu to be confirmed as substantive chairman of the EFCC.

There is now a stalemate between the Presidency and the Senate over the matter. The latest row between Saraki and Magu is unlikely help any resolution: in theory, Magu's candidacy is finished but it seems he still has some backing in the presidency.  Next stage may be some of the discreet negotiations in which Saraki is a specialist.

CHINA/USA: Could Africa be point of agreement in Xi-Trump summit?
When China's President Xi Jinping meets President Donald J Trump in Florida on 6-7 April, Africa policy could provide one of the few points of agreement. At least, that is the view of a new report put together by a team of senior diplomats urging a common China-US approach on key issues confronting Africa. So far Trump has shown less interest in Africa than in any other region. And it is an area where President Xi has far more knowledge and experience than Trump.

The diplomats arguing for better China-US cooperation in Africa include: Mohamed Ibn Chambaswho heads the United Nations office in West Africa; Zhong Jinhua, Beijing's former special representative on African affairs; and Princeton Lyman, a former ambassador for the US to Nigeria and South Africa. They mapped out substantive areas of cooperation which included: economic growth and development; mitigating conflict; enhancing political stability; and fighting violent extremism and organised crime.

There are a few examples of Sino-US cooperation in Africa such as the anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa and the their planned replication in the Gulf of Guinea. There may also be room for talks between the two leaders on other areas of security cooperation in Africa, backing local efforts against jihadists and other insurgents.

But Xi will want to know much more about the Trump administration's planned cuts to the UN and foreign assistance budgets, as well as its renunciation of the Global Climate accords reached in Paris in December 2015.