British politician and diplomat, Paddy Ashdown, in a 2012 TED talk, said that global power shifts take place among the nations of the world once every century. Such shifts are usually characterized by a cacophony of jangling conflicts and plenty of bloodshed. Mr. Ashdown says the last of the power shifts so experienced was from the old powers of Europe across the Atlantic to begin what he called the American Century.
He predicted that this one would come to its end within the next decade. While he seemed certain about the movement of power from American to other hands, there is no certainty as to whose hands that will be because the shift that ended the American century is characterized by a phenomenon not experienced before.
This is the increasingly important role of non-state actors in a new vertical movement of power that does not respect national borders or constituted authority. Lateral shifts at the apex of authority usually resulted in the replacement of one power by another in the position of pre-eminence. However the rules that governed intercourse among nations in peace and in war times remained broadly appreciated and respected by state parties. Nations and non-state actors are now embroiled in a confusing cocktail of violence, pogroms and demonization that leave one wondering whether to just toss up a coin to decide the good or bad guys.
The bewildering plethora of political, religious, economic, tribal, special and generalized interest groups that line up daily at the United Nations Office at Geneva to consult with the United Nations Secretary-General's special envoy for Syria is an indication of how intractable the vertical power shift can be. Gone are the days when one could just jet into Syria and do business with "Strong Man Assad" and consider it done. The mix of ISIS and anti-ISIS has become a dough whose ingredients it will take an alchemist to reconstitute. And some prophets believe this is just the beginning.
In Africa, the decade of "the wind of change" enters its century. Perhaps one needs to test Ashdown's theory here. Where has the power been in Africa during the American century and to where will it now shift?
The unfolding story of the peaceful transition of power from an incumbent president of the largest economy on the continent to an opposition candidate who was considered unelectable a few weeks to the presidential elections may give us a pointer or two. In the run-up to the Nigerian presidential elections, the two major political parties held their primaries. President Buhari's All Progressives Congress had several formidable candidates, one of who was ferrying delegates from the states into Lagos with chartered flights and private jets and distributing envelopes full of United States Dollars to party delegates. It is instructive that the delegates took the Dollars, enjoyed the largesse and voted Buhari who confessed he had no fistful of Dollars to distribute. Even if he had any, he would not have engaged in the distribution fray because he did not want to compromise any delegate's conscience. It was reported that some of the delegates, hardened politicians of many duels were shedding tears of empathy with this austere icon of integrity.
The Buhari nomination, and subsequent election victory, in a country that was fast becoming a byword for impunity should indicate a shift worth noting. One can easily say that from the time of African independence up to now, power in Africa has been entrenched in the lap of the elite that have taken on various guises. There was the generation of the sacrosanct "fathers of the nation" with larger than life stature. They were followed by "the inheritors" that were in most cases swept away by "the Messiahs" that can be divided into two: the "messianic" and the "diabolical". The messianic were generally dislodged very quickly if not deleted altogether. (The likes of Murtala Mohamed and Thomas Sankara.). Buhari's first coming was terminated because he was "too focused on Nigeria's national interest". Will his second coming mean a shift from the stranglehold of a kleptocratic elite steeped in impunity to a more responsible governance culture characterized by integrity and accountability? Can we dare to hope that the Buhari watch begins Africa's century of integrity?
We will have to wait in the patient womb of time.