African Dictators: A Danger to Democracy | Daniel Hawker
The recent Ugandan general election saw the incumbent President Yoweri Museveni win a sixth term with 58.6% of the vote, according to the Electoral Commission. Museveni’s win saw his main opponent, Bobi Wine refuse to accept the results, and claimed the election to be “the most fraudulent in the history of Uganda”. Unfortunately, this sort of result in an African election is all too common. A man with a long record of human rights abuses and anti-LGBT measures (which included a push in 2009 for capital punishment to be instituted for homosexuality), President Museveni is only one of several long-standing African leaders who’ve ruled over their countries with iron fists for decades, passing laws to ensure they stay in power whilst dismantling and eradicating all democratic systems that stand in their way, all of whom represent a deeply concerning trend of the global decline of democracy. Let’s look at Museveni and two others.
In power since 1986, President Museveni was initially praised in the mid-1990s by the West, heralded as being a part of a new generation of African leaders, along with others such of President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. However, since then he has fused party and state together and passed authoritarian reforms to Uganda’s constitution – one in 2005 scrapping presidential term limits, allowing him to serve indefinitely (and it seems currently, for life) and another in 2017 to scrap the presidential age limit. Both bills received their fair share of public outrage and protest, but law enforcement have successively arrested protestors fighting against the president’s totalitarian aims.
Whilst he maintains a positive image internationally (at least before this most recent election), especially as a result of sending in troops to fight jihadists in Somalia, it is brutally clear that Museveni’s domestic agenda is one focused on the crushing of political dissidence and the preservation and continuation of his position at the top of Uganda’s political food chain. Virtually all institutions and aspects of the Ugandan government are rife with blatant corruption, the judiciary has lost its objective judgement and the police and army are regularly called in to quash protests and demonstrations. Following the imprisonment of Bobi Wine (despite lack of evidence), the days-long social media blackout (following Facebook’s removal of accounts linked to Museveni’s election campaign) and the importing of tear gas to use on protesters, no-one can reasonably deny just how authoritarian President Museveni has become, and what lengths he is willing to go to in order to protect his position, including the eradication of democratic institutions and the freedoms of Ugandan citizens.
Second is President Paul Biya of Cameroon, who’s been in power since 1982. Following a coup in 1983-4 in which he consolidated his power and eliminated his major rivals, President Biya actually accepted the introduction of multiparty politics in the 1990s (within the context of a one-party-system). He has subsequently gone on to win re-election in 1992, 1997, 2004, 2011 and most recently, in 2018 (and all of which have been disputed amid allegations of fraud). Much like Museveni, Biya was initially thought to be a new and different sort of African leader. The man who had preceded him as President of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo (1960-82), established Cameroon as a single-party state, passed a decree that made it a criminal offence to criticize his regime and had many of his political enemies arrested and imprisoned on the grounds of ‘subversion against the government’.
However, just like Museveni, President Biya has turned away from democracy and towards autocratic rule, taking a major step in 2008 and (like so many totalitarian regimes) removed term limits, allowing him to stay in power indefinitely – and even if he leaves office, he’s made it so he’s free from prosecution. His ruling party (the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, or RDPC) also forced parliament to remove the power of the electoral body to announce election results – which has been largely credited as a factor in Biya’s continued electoral “success”. To consolidate his power and remove opposition figures from public view, Biya has also taken despotic measures, with state security forces having allegedly used violence, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions to prevent opposition figures from meeting – they’ve even been accused of killing up to 100 protestors in 2009. A thoroughly dangerous and despicable man, through constitutional reforms and brutality by law enforcement, Paul Biya has managed to remain in power for almost four decades, and is the longest-ruling non-royal leader in the world.
Third and finally there is President Teodoro Obiang of Equitorial Guinea, who’s been in power since 1979. Having gained the presidency by overthrowing the previous president Francisco Macías (who happened to be his uncle) in a military coup, Obiang had his uncle tried and then executed by firing squad. In what seems to be running theme with African dictators, Obiang declared how his new government would make a fresh start from the previous brutal and repressive regime – and, following the trend, he has himself become the head of a brutal and repressive regime, with widespread accusations (as is common with African dictators) of abhorrent human rights violations and government suppression of basic democratic freedoms, freedoms citizens of Western countries enjoy and take for granted.
When the government returned to civilian rule, Obiang instituted a new, slightly-less authoritarian constitution – one which allowed him the power to rule by decree. The entire country has, since 1982, been dominated by Obiang’s party (the Democratic Party of Equitorial Guinea, or PDGE) with virtually the entire legislature (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) being almost completely controlled by them (having held every Senate seat since its inception in 2013). Furthermore, in every election since 1982, Obiang has won with incredulously high shares of the vote – winning 98% in both 1996 and 2002, and 96% in 2009. President Obiang has established complete control over the government of his country, stifling the voices of the people and ensuring his continued rule over an increasingly poverty-stricken nation.
These African leaders, like so many others around the world, have come to gain their positions as leaders of their countries and decided they rather like the position and the power. They then proceed to establish one-party-control over all branches of the government, pass reforms to grant them more power and ensure they can rule indefinitely, crackdown on internal dissidence and then, crackdown on public dissidence and opposition to their regime, silencing figures and media outlets that don’t support their vision – until there is no longer democracy or freedom, but merely political conformity to the principles of the leader and widespread fear, anger and a feeling of hopelessness amongst the population. All these tools were used in the 20th Century by the most inhumane and despotic regimes the world has ever known, and continue to this day.
To these leaders, democracy and elections are a dangerous thing, a tool that allows for citizens to voice their displeasures about their leaders and have them removed and select a new leader. It is therefore unsurprising one of the most crucial aims of these African leaders (and many others globally) is to ensure their continued “electoral success”, to continue to present the image of having public support, despite it being a blatant façade to hide electoral misconduct, voter intimidation and blatantly lying about election results. Even the most notorious and centralised regimes, like North Korea, still keep up this façade of democracy, despite only having one candidate, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un.
The fall of many African nations into this pit of authoritarian rule can be credited largely to the history and still-felt consequences of colonialism many decades ago. One of the primary challenges that Africa has faced since independence is a lack of democratic political institutions which stems from the fact that many African nations merely adopted the system that was left behind by the former colonial powers. As Julius Nyerere, who was the first president of Tanzania, explained:
“In practice, colonialism, with its implications of racial superiority, was replaced by a combination of neo-colonialism and government by local elites who too often had learned to despise their own African traditions and the mass of the people who worked on the land.”
All is this is of course not to say that Africa isn’t democratic– the contemporary systems of governance across the continent are diverse. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Democracy Index Report, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana and Namibia are all at least ‘flawed democracies’ (the same as the United States and much of Europe).
However, looking at the evidence, it can be concluded and must be stated that the vast majority of African states rank in the categories of ‘hybrid regimes’ and ‘authoritarian regimes. As far as ranking continents by democratic strength, Africa is last, as even Asia have the flawed democracies of India, Japan and Mongolia (despite being home to the likes of China and the forementioned North Korea).
As nationalistic and authoritarian regimes become more and more of a concern for Western politicians, it will be crucial that they not only focus on the ones in Europe and Asia – we all know lots of attention is already paid to the likes of Poland, Belarus, China and much of the Middle East – but on Africa also. These African leaders represent the very worst of human imperfections, intent only on themselves, their power and their legacy, and are perfectly content with destroying their countries’ democracies to do so. For the good of their people, and all those oppressed under similar conditions with similar totalitarian regimes, the West must act.
With democracy becoming an increasingly rare and precious commodity (with the average global score dropping) and former President Trump’s failures to combat their rises (and in many cases, facilitating them), the need for united condemnation and action against these regimes is more crucial than ever before, if democracy is going to survive.