The elite fracture theory of African politics

Former Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (L) gestures as South Africa's President Jacob Zuma looks on

First Zimbabwe; then South Africa; and then Ethiopia. In all these countries, a President or Prime Minister who was — to all appearances — firmly entrenched in power, suddenly found that he had been (in the phrase beloved of Kenyan commentators) “consigned to the dustbin of history”.

By Wtcliff Muga

There were differences, of course. Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was the classic African ‘Big Man’ and ‘President for life’ whose tenure was measured in decades. South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was due to retire in a year or so, but found he had to make an early exit. While the somewhat mysterious Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who faced no term limits, quite abruptly resigned.

This has led some opposition leaders to speculate that the Kenyan President they have refused to recognise, Uhuru Kenyatta, may be next to depart the political scene in ignominy. But that is an idle fantasy. We do not yet have the specific circumstances which existed in these other nations and made such an astonishing ejection of a serving President or PM possible.

Have you heard of the ‘elite fracture’ theory of political change?

Its core assertion is that although violent street protests; occasional politically motivated assassinations; mass evictions in the ‘opposition zone’ countryside; and other such political dramas which arise from a clash between two or more powerful political groups may make for good headlines in newspapers, they are not actually the predeterminant of political change.

Once in possession of the levers of state, a leader with authoritarian tastes can easily survive all such turmoil, and even go on to somehow ‘win’ future elections.

According to this theory, short of a successful armed insurrection, what really brings down an autocrat and his supporting cast of sycophants is a breakup within his inner circle. And this of course is what happened in all these three cases.

Mugabe was misguided enough to dismiss a VP who had serious support within the top ranks of the Zimbabwean army. This was a clear case of elite fracture — a breakup within Zimbabwe’s top leadership — and it is this which led to Robert Mugabe’s ouster.

In South Africa, too, the pattern of elite fracture reappears. If Zuma had been able to retain the loyalty of the majority of ANC delegates, no amount of street protests or parliamentary disapproval, nor yet claims of ‘state capture’ by Zuma’s rich friends could have dislodged him. Internal division within the ANC is what did him in.

In Ethiopia, the kind of continuing political agitation we have seen in Kenya for about six months now actually went on sporadically for three years, with both politicians and journalists imprisoned arbitrarily. This did not shake the PM. What did at last bring about the change the agitators had sought was an internal schism that we can only speculate about: The very definition of elite fracture.

And of course, the various key turns in Kenyan political history have much the same explanation: If the Jomo Kenyatta era ‘Kiambu Mafia’ who ruled on behalf of the ageing President had not experienced a break-up within their ranks, they would very easily have stopped Vice President Daniel Moi from ascending to the presidency. It was elite fracture that made it possible for power to slip away from a group that had openly declared (supported by appropriate oaths) that the presidency would never leave Central Kenya.

But Moi himself was to have a memorable — and televised — example of this phenomenon in due course. If his minister for Energy, none other than Raila Odinga, had not led a mass walkout from the ruling party Kanu in 2002, then who knows if Moi’s dream of 100 years of Kanu rule might not have come true? But Raila’s bold move led to Kanu breaking up — opening the way to its defeat by the newly formed National Rainbow Coalition. I could go on.

But the basic idea here is that some form of elite fracture within the Jubilee Party is the precondition for any sort of collapse of the Uhuru administration. And so far, there is no sign of that. – This article was first published by The Star