People power mushrooms across the continent

While the Ivory Coast situation continues to vacillate without an obvious outcome, “people” power has totally changed the political landscape in Tunisia over the past few weeks, as violent protests by Tunisians angered by poverty, repression and corruption forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on 14 January after 23 years in power.

Further changes were forced on the transitional government last week as Reuters reported it ditched 12 loyalists to its ousted president, a move which won backing from the powerful labour union.

It is hoped the purge will help quell unrest, though there still seems to be antipathy towards the Prime Minister in from the Ben Ali administration, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who has retained his post.

Inspired by events in Tunisia, Egyptians have staged mass protests since Tuesday. Egyptians are frustrated over surging prices, unemployment and an authoritarian government that tolerates little dissent. Many of them are young, as two thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are below the age of 30, and many of them have no jobs. About 40% of Egyptians live on less than US$2 a day, according to Reuters.

There have been calls for President Hosni Mubarak to resign his 30 year rule, with Egypt ally the US, through President Obama, avoiding signs of abandoning Mubarak but making it clear he sympathised with demonstrators. “I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform – political reform, economic reform – is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt,” Obama said.

The authorities have responded to the use of social media services by activists, with internet access being shut down across the country shortly after midnight. Mobile phone text messaging services also appeared to be partially disabled, working only sporadically.

Meanwhile in West Africa, Gabon security forces fired tear gas at hundreds of anti-government protesters in the capital on Thursday, witnesses said, two days after an opposition leader declared himself president. The usually sleepy central African oil exporter has been troubled since a 2009 election won by Ali Bongo Ondimba, but which the main opposition group – inspired by power struggles in Tunisia and Ivory Coast – is insisting was rigged. Hundreds of supporters of opposition leader Andre Mba Obame, who declared himself president on Tuesday and formed a rival government, gathered outside the local United Nations offices to demand recognition of Mba Obame as president. Ali Bongo responded to the ‘swearing in’ by saying, “At the end of my term, the Gabonese alone will decide whether I should stay or go, not just anyone who happens to have woken up one morning.”

With many more elections set for Africa in 2011, politics it seems will take central stage in a way we have not seen in recent years.

Article produced by the Imara Africa Securities team. Imara is an investment banking and asset management group renowned for its knowledge of African markets.