Developments in Pretoria and Abuja

South Africa, the wealthiest of the African states, and Nigeria, the most populous, are entering stages of political uncertainty.

SOUTH AFRICA: South Africa’s Constitutional Court is holding hearings on whether a planned no confidence motion against the government of President Jacob Zuma should be held as a secret ballot. The opposition parties have asked the court for a ruling in the hope that it can entice parliamentarians of the ruling African National Congress to turn against the embattled Zuma.

The case revolves around whether section 102 of the constitution which governs no confidence motion implicitly requires a secret ballot. The judiciary has so far seemed skeptical, noting that the constitution was explicit about the use of secret ballot when it came to electing a president, but silent on the subject of a no confidence motion.

The motion for a no confidence vote against Zuma was tabled by the main opposition Democratic Alliance two months ago. The vote was scheduled for April 18th, was withdrawn at the last minute. But other opposition parties moved to have the vote carried out by secret ballot which, in turn, led to the Constitutional Court being brought into the picture.

Zuma’s government, battered by corruption scandals and infighting within the ANC, still has a good chance of riding out the present political crisis. However, he will emerge from the crisis weaker and the South African economy more fragile.

The ANC has 249 of the 400 seats in the South African Parliament so it would take the defection of over 20 per cent of its parliamentarians to bring Zuma down. His loyalists also have a tight hold on the party’s national executive. Zuma’s dismissal of his widely regarded finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, in April and general unpopularity has led to calls for his resignation by the ANC’s trade union ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and coalition partner, the South African Communist Party. These related organisations were among his strongest supporters in the past.

Gordhan’s dismissal, the ANC’s poor showing in local elections and some populist economic rhetoric by ruling party officials, led credit rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch to downgrade the country two notches to junk rating.

The South African economy is coming out of a double whammy: a drought that devastated the farm sector last year and a global commodity slump that reduced its earnings from mineral exports. Zuma’s political problems have made foreign investors wary but signs of recovery means growth is likely to be slightly positive or neutral this year.

These domestic problems, and the rise of the black populist Economic Freedom Fighters party, have forced the Zuma government to move to the left in its foreign and economic policies.

Pretoria has put out a foreign policy narrative that Western powers are seeking to undermine South Africa because of the geopolitical threat posed by the BRICS, a view treated with skepticism even in South Africa given the obvious weaknesses of the BRICS as a group.

Within the BRICS, say Indian officials privately, South Africa is the member most closely aligned with China. Beijing was crucial in getting Pretoria into the group and its trade relationship with South Africa is far larger than any other emerging economy.

NIGERIA: Political uncertainty is also rising in Nigeria because of President Muhammadu Buhari’s deteriorating health. Buhari spent nearly two months, from January to March, in London for medical treatment. In May, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai issued a stern warning against politicians trying to influence army officers. All of this has fed a sense that Buhari may be unable to finish his term and led to an inevitable degree of political manoeuvring.

Buhari’s health took a turn for the worse earlier this year. The nature of his ailment remains a secret. But the president, on his return home, spoke of having never been “so sick” in his life and about having undergone a “blood transfusion.”

A truncated Buhari term is a problem because of the unwritten political understanding in Nigeria that the presidency should alternate between the northern and southern regions of the country. The last northern president, Umaru Yar’Adua, died in office just three years into his four-year term. His deputy, Goodluck Jonathan was a southerner who completed Yar’Adua’s last year and then went on to win the subsequent election and serve a full term afterwards. Buhari’s election was supposed to restore the balance, but his ill-health may see Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo come to power and potentially use this as a springboard for a presidential bid himself. However, Osinbajo is a southerner.

Northern Nigerians are already resentful that, due to various circumstances, 13 of the past 18 years have seen a southerner holding the presidency. Buhari’s health has become a matter of national concern. Northern Nigeria is largely Muslim while the south largely Christian. Northern sense of marginalization has helped lead to the rise of Boko Haram, the Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group, in the northeast of the country. These sensitivities led Buhari, when he was in London, to not declare Osinbajo acting president but instead designate him “coordinator of national affairs.” The net result, however, has led Nigerian politicians to begin preparating for the possibility of elections being held earlier than their scheduled 2019 date, leading to a drop off in legislative and policy-making activity needed to boost the sagging Nigerian economy.  

Both South Africa and Nigeria will become increasingly inward-looking for the remainder of this year. President Jacob Zuma’s government is likely to survive opposition attempts to unseat him. But the open split within the coalition that supports his government will mean he will be increasingly ineffective as a ruler. Nigeria will be similarly be paralysed until there is some certainty about the physical condition of President Muhammadu Buhari. Barring a full recovery of health, all the possible scenarios for the immediate future point to an Abuja focused on the next election cycle.  At a time both economies are in a trough thanks to depressed commodity prices, growth figures in both cases will remain low until the political uncertainty is gone. 


June 23, 2017

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About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhury

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.