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Africa: Democracy and Despots
Mar 25, 2011 (110325)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"Many an African dictator is trembling in his (invariably dictators
appear to be mostly men) boots, following popular uprisings that
swept long-time rulers out of power in Tunisia and Egypt. ... But
will the domino effect of these popular uprisings also sweep
dictators out of power further south?" William Gumede
The day-by-day news in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen, as well as the
relative quiet in Morocco and Algeria, demonstrate that the
"contagion" effect is far from simple and automatic, even within
that region served by the unifying television coverage of Al
Jazeera Arabic. Wide generalizations are necessarily suspect,
particularly when applied to such broad and internally diverse
categories as "North Africa," the "Arab World," or "sub-Saharan
Nevertheless, such attempts at generalization are probably
inevitable, and can at least be useful in calling attention to
factors that may or may not apply to any particular country.
Today's set of AfricaFocus Bulletins contains two essays, by
William Gumede (in this issue) and by Wangari Maathai (see
http://www.africafocus.org/docs11/dem1103b.php), which do a better
job than most in combining overviews with nuance and are well worth
I am sure, however, that most AfricaFocus readers will have, as I
do, doubts about some of the generalizations. particularly those
applied to "sub-Saharan Africa" as a whole, beginning with their
failure to mention the many African countries where there have been
significant advances toward functioning democracies. A useful
corrective, with a wealth of empirical data, is the public opinion
survey series by Afrobarometer (http://www.afrobarometer.org),
including data from 2008 on 19 African countries, where 29% of
respondents rated their own country a "full democracy," 30% their
country as a democracy "with minor problems," 25% a democracy "with
major problems," and only 11% not a democracy at all or "don't
I have included some excerpts from two Afrobarometer reports at
http://www.africafocus.org/docs11/dem1103c.php. See also my short
checklist of "Caveats and Unanswered Questions" below.
African countries are indeed diverse, and the North/sub-Saharan
distinction is not necessarily the most salient or well-defined
marker predicting likely prospects for democracy. One
characteristic relatively easy to check empirically is that of the
many long-ruling incumbent leaders. Those states having a ruler
with over 15 years in power are not the majority but still an
impressive one-third of the 54 on the continent (see "Dinosaurs and
Dynasties" below. Arab and African identities, Elleni Centime
Zeleke notes in an essay in another AfricaFocus Bulletin posted
today (http://www.africafocus.org/docs11/dem1103b.php) are also an
important distinction to consider. But these labels are often
stereotyped as unchanging "Orientalist" categories rather than
based on historical political economies and variable both over time
and between and within countries.
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Dinosaurs and Dynasties
[compiled by AfricaFocus Bulletin]
Longevity is not the only factor discrediting incumbent African
regimes with their citizens, particularly the youth. But it is
certainly one feature that makes a highly visible target. As of
March 2011, in 18 of 54 African countries, incumbent rulers (or,
in five cases, their family dynasties) have been in power for more
than 15 years.
The number decreased by two with the departures of Hosni Mubabak of
Egypt after 30 years and Zine Ben Ali of Tunisia after 27. Muammar
al-Gaddafi, now being challenged, remains the dean of the
dinosaurs, with 42 years in power.
The following is a quick checklist of the diverse African countries
with leaders or dynasties who have arguably far overstayed their
welcome, in order by approximate number of years in power. Those
marked with * are now out of power.
Morocco: Mohammed V from independence in 1956 to 1961, succeeded by
son King Hassan II from 1961 to 1999, succeeded by son King
Mohammed VI in July 1999. 55 years combined.
Togo: Gnassingbe Eyadema from April 1967 to 2005, succeeded by
son Faure Gnassingbe. 44 years combined.
Gabon: Omar Bongo from December 1967 to 2009, succeeded by his son
Ali Bongo - 43 years combined.
Swaziland: King Sobhuza (King from 1921, but under British
authority, ruler of independent country from 1968 to 1982,
succeeded by son Mswati III in 1986 after an interim regency.
Mswati III now 25 years in power. 39 years combined.
Djibouti: Hassan Gouled Aptidon from 1977 to 1999, succeeded by his
nephew Ismail Omah Guelleh. Over 33 years combined.
Libya: Muammar al-Gaddafi from September 1969. Almost 42 years.
Equatorial Guinea: Teodoro Obiang from August 1979. Almost 32
Angola: Jos‚ Eduardo dos Santos from September 1979. Almost 32
Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe from April 1980. Almost 31 years.
* Egypt: Hosni Mubarak from October 1981 to February 2011. Almost
Cameroon: Paul Biya from November 1982. Almost 29 years.
Congo (Brazzaville): Dennis Sassou-Nguesso from 1979-1992, five
years in opposition, and again from 1997. 27 years.
Uganda: Yoweri Museveni from January 1986. 25 years.
Burkina Faso: Blaise Compaore from October 1987. Almost 24 years.
* Tunisia: Zine Ben Ali from November 1987 to January 2011. More
than 23 years
Sudan: Omar al-Bashir from July 1989. Almost 22 years.
Chad: Idriss Deby from December 1989. More than 21 years..
Ethiopia: Meles Zenawi from May 1991. Almost 20 years.
Eritrea: Isaias Afewerki from May 1993. Almost 18 years.
The Gambia: Yahya Jammeh from July 1994. Almost 17 years.
Some Caveats & Unanswered Questions
- About democracy:
As noted above, and at greater length in
http://www.africafocus.org/docs11/dem1103c.php, sub-Saharan African
countries have a wide diversity in their post-colonial experience
with democracy and despotism. The pattern of long-ruling dominant
despots or dynasties resistant to change is only one of the broad
patterns, which also include histories of instability, civil wars,
and coups as well as histories of democratic rule, more or less
- About new media:
Internet and new social media have undoubtedly
been among the factors in the events in North Africa, and are now
more widely diffused in North Africa than in other African
countries. If that were the only factor, one could be highly
optimistic for the medium term, as internet usage and new social
media are growing extremely rapidly in many African countries. But
media, whether new or old, may spread division as well as unity. A
social or political movement which lacks broad support or a clear
message will unlikely gain traction even with the maximum use of
Facebook and Twitter.
- About new "old media."
Arguably the Al Jazeera television
network, in both Arabic and English, has been as central to the
"Arab Spring" as have new social media, if not more so. The absence
of any Africa-identified television network with comparable reach
is a major obstacle to visibility and "contagion" of protest
movements, whether in a single African country, around the
continent, or at a global level. Although the data on TV audience
measurement in Africa is skimpy, it seems that CNN, BBC, and Sky
News currently rank ahead of Al Jazeera English
(http://www.synovate.com). And there are no networks that
effectively bridge the linguistic gaps of French and English, much
less other languages.
- About ethnicity:
Ethnicity and other subnational identities are
clearly important in sub-Saharan Africa. But the assumptions that
they are always and unchangeably the principal determinant of
political action, or that such distinctions are absent in North
African countries, is clearly false. Afrobarometer results from 16
African countries, for example, note that 40% of respondents said
that they would prioritize national over ethnic identities; 15%
took the opposite view, and 42% said that national and ethnic
identities were of equal importance. The same study (see brief
excerpts from this study at
About the military:
Generalizations that the military is always a
reliable ally of a despot, or that it is recruited primarily from
the leader's ethnic group, are questionable, given the history of
coups in many countries and the attempts by leaders to
institutionalize divisions within their own security forces.
- About youth:
Suggestions that youth wings of ruling political
parties represent wider youth constituencies or expressions of
radical viewpoints should be regarded with some skepticism.
Will popular rebellions spread south of the Sahara?
2011-03-17, Issue 521
- A version of this article was first published by the Foreign
- William Gumede is senior associate and programme director, Africa
Asia Centre, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS),
University of London. His forthcoming book, The Democracy Gap,
Africa's Wasted Years, is released in 2011.
Many an African dictator is trembling in his (invariably dictators
appear to be mostly men) boots, following popular uprisings that
swept long-time rulers out of power in Tunisia and Egypt.
Libyan people are rebelling against their ruler, Colonel Muammar
Gaddafi - and he is fighting back violently. Gaddafi has ruled
since 1969 when he took power in a coup, making him Africa's
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu PF has prohibited state owned
media from reporting the full extent of the Maghreb uprisings -
presumably lest its own people get ideas from the citizen of
Tunisia and Egypt. Robert Mugabe's government charged 45 students,
trade unionists and activists with treason, accusing them of
watching news videos of the uprising in Egypt and plotting to
topple Zimbabwe's autocratic president.
But will the domino effect of these popular uprisings also sweep
dictators out of power further south?
Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho and other Sub-saharan African
countries are also ruled by long-time autocrats and their people
are suffering as hard - if not harder - than those in Tunisia and
In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has been in power since 1980. In
Cameroon Paul Biya has been in the saddle for 29 years. Yoweri
Museveni has presided Uganda since 1986. Jose dos Santos has been
in power since 1979, and is preparing to stand for another term -
while, incredibly, grooming one of his children to take over. The
list goes on.
There are some parallels, but also some clear differences, between
societies in the north, and those South of the Sahara. The first
parallel is that both the Maghreb countries and those South of the
Sahara have allowed - in the words of South African Finance
Minister Pravin Gordhan, 'inequality to grow, allow(ed) joblessness
to accelerate (and is) about state(s) that doesn't actually perform
(and is) about a minority that accumulates things for itself'.
Economic Crisis, Elites and Uprising
All African countries are about to feel the delayed effect of the
global financial crisis, just as Tunisia and Egypt had. Typically
in countries, like Swaziland, Lesotho or Cameroon, leaders pride
themselves on the fact that they have supposedly not been so
harshly affected by the recent global financial crisis. However,
they are mistaken - the true effects are yet to be felt.
But many of those countries depend heavily on Western aid. With the
austerity in most of the major donor countries, this aid may either
dry up, or trickle into a drip. Even the budgets of international
organisations and NGOs heavily active in development projects in
these countries have been cut or will be reduced. In some African
countries more than 50 per cent of the national budget comes from
Combined with a perceptible rise in the prices of basic food and
living costs in most African countries, ordinary African people are
having it tough. Desperation is easily turned into the political
outrage. Just last year, high bread prices cause violent riots in
Maputo, Mozambique. With day-to-day living expected to become even
worse, such riots may this year turn into full-blown uprisings
against the ruling elites.
Like in Tunisia and Egypt, there is a deep gulf between the
relatively small ruling elite, living a 'bling' and elite
lifestyle, and a majority of the poor - a potent grievance, a
festering sore if one happens to be the unfortunate poor
The effect of the global financial crisis has also hit the
relatively small middle classes in countries south of the Sahara,
just as it also hit the Tunisian and Egyptian middle classes. In
Tunisia and Egypt the middle classes were also starting to feel the
pinch of difficult economic circumstances. Generally in these
regimes, the middle classes are locked into the system, and often
have much too loose opposing it. The combination of squeezed middle
classes, the usually long-suffering poor working classes and the
unemployed and underemployed youth are a potential explosive
cocktail - also in the countries south of the Sahara.
Youth and Unemployment
The demography of all African countries has changed so dramatically
since independence, so much so that young people now make up most
of their populations, whether the country is south, or north of the
Sahara. Young people were at the vanguard of the uprisings in both
Tunisia and Egypt.
Furthermore, young African people - those unemployed - now have
generally higher levels of education, although in most cases, not
with the kind of technical skills African economies now desperately
need, compared to a generation ago.
Globalisation and new technological advances, such as the internet,
social media, such as twitter, have meant that many people in
Tunisia and Egypt, including the youth can see how better-off their
peers in Western countries live, compared to them.
Media Freedom and Control
In most African countries most of the media is in state hands, so
ruling parties can ensure news about official corruption,
mismanagement or wrongdoing is kept out of the public domain.
Private media, where present, often does not have a wide reach.
Furthermore, such private media is often also financially
vulnerable. The state in many African countries still directly
controls most of the economy - whether in North Africa or Africa
south of the Sahara. And if they don't, they have indirect
influence, through their ability to restrict private companies
trading licenses, and so on, should they refuse to tow government
This means in most African countries the state is still the biggest
advertiser. If they are not, they can influence the private sector
not to advertise in print, broadcast or electronic media they
perceived to be critical of government - or risk losing government
contracts or operating licenses.
Radio is the largest medium in Africa, including South Africa, but
it is often controlled by governments. In many cases, independent
FM radio is frequently only given licenses if they do not cover
political issues. Although community radio is increasingly
proliferating across the continent, they often also have the same
restrictions - or they just refrain from covering politics to stay
on the good side of governments.
The news blackout in most African countries means that leaders and
political movements can stay in power for longer without many of
their supporters in the far-flung rural areas knowing the extent to
which these leaders abuse their powers. This is why the likes of
Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe can get away with blaming his government's
own bad governance on the work of Western 'imperialists', former
colonial powers, minorities or opposition groups supposedly linked
A flourishing private and independent media that conveys
information to citizens about the corrupt activities of leaders and
ruling parties, which is not conveyed to them by official media,
plays a crucial role in informing citizens of what is really
happening in their name. Not surprisingly, 'people power', the
phenomenon where African citizens finally kick out bad governments
that have ruled for far too long, often always coincides with the
growth of private independent media- that can provide citizens
(especially ordinary members of these parties) with the real story
- and a growing civil and opposition movement, that can offer an
The Role of New Technologies
The rise of the internet, social media, the mobile phone, has meant
there are now alternative means of communication outside that of
the state-owned media.
In the uprisings against unpopular governments in Tunisia and
Egypt, new social media, that can circumvent the official media,
and the rise of independent media, such as Al Jazeera, has done the
Although the internet is not as widespread in many African
countries south of the Sahara compared to Egypt or Tunisia, the
power of the worldwide web is still potent. In Zimbabwe's last
elections, people used mobile phones to text witnessed attempts at
vote rigging by Zanu PF strongmen at voting stations in remote
areas. This meant that opposition groups, international observers
and independent media could be informed more quickly than during
Mobile phones are more promising among poorer Africans. This
presents potential for the internet if most of these mobile phones
can be made internet capable.
Furthermore, the potential to bringing news via the mobile phone is
an attractive option for Africa.
So if a revolution is unlikely to arrive in most African countries
south of the Sahara via the internet, it may arrive via the mobile
Curbs on Migration
In Egypt and Tunisia many young people and professionals in the
past could migrate across the Mediterranean to Europe to seek
better prospects. However, economic difficulties in most of Europe
have meant that these countries blocked entry barriers for the
young from Africa - the phenomenon of 'fortress' Europe.
It is also now more difficult for young Africans to seek greener
pastures in Europe or the US. Of course countries neighbouring
South Africa, such as Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, also have
the option of exporting many of their young to relatively richer
South Africa. Yet, South Africa itself has felt the brunt of the
global financial crisis - all this after leaders initially claimed
the country rode the storm. Last year more than one million people
lost their jobs. In spite of all the talk by politicians that they
will create millions of jobs this year: looking at their plans it
becomes quickly clear this is half-baked and mere wishful thinking.
The opposite appear more likely; more people will lose their jobs
South Africa is also now tightening entry barriers for those
looking for jobs from neighbouring countries. This will force the
unemployed young at home - where they could become a potent force
Playing the Elections Game
One big difference between Egypt and Tunisia compared to other
African countries south of the Sahara, is that there are more
incidents of staged elections in the latter which on regular
occasions give the masses an outlet for their frustrations. The
recent presidential and parliamentary elections held in Uganda
springs to mind.
Furthermore, the opposition parties in these countries are so
irrelevant - little alternative policies, and generally clones of
the ruling parties and each other (the opposition political parties
in Nigeria are a good example); they are more of a stumbling bloc
to genuine democracy than anything else.
In the Ivory Coast presidential election that took place last
November strongman Laurent Gbagbo lost against Alassane Quattara,
but still insists he won. Whoever finally becomes president, there
is very little, if any, differences between their policy platforms
or even the outlook of the two - so it will in real terms be more
of the same.
Most of Africa's dictators are of course being propped by Western
giants or the new Eastern powers, such as China, in exchange for
oil, minerals or for strategic geopolitical reasons - Kenya is a
good example. Zimbabwe recently stated that China's Development
Bank will pump in up to US$10 billion of investment in the
country's mining and agriculture sector, a big boost for Mugabe
Over the past few years, Tunisia's supposed economic 'miracle' - in
spite of political autocracy - was toasted by multilateral
organisations and Western powers. Egypt was a strategic focus for
the US and the regime there was flush with foreign aid.
Even Libya joined the US-led 'war of terror' and became an ally of
Western powers - which shored up Gaddafi's powers ahead of the
recent rebellion against his rule by ordinary citizens of Libya.
It is instructive when US President Barack Obama pulled the plug on
Egypt the regime caved in. Many African countries south of the
Sahara have in the past either like Swaziland, kept on the right
side of the US, by claiming they are partners in the 'fight against
terror', or have been kept in power, by financial support from
China (who needs their minerals), as is the case of Zimbabwe, or
South Africa (in Zimbabwe because of historical ties as a fellow
Long-time strongmen Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Meles Zenawi of
Ethiopia have been the darlings of the West, in spite of their
autocratic behaviour. Recently Ethiopian economists and scholars
wrote an open letter to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph
Stiglitz, who is close to Meles Zenawi, to distance himself from
Most African regimes - whether north or south of the Sahara - have
been in power because the army has been loyal to them. These
regimes have generally showered the army with largesse to keep them
onside. With difficult economic times ahead it will prove
increasingly hard to keep feeding these armies.
Furthermore, in the cases of Egypt and Tunisia once it became
clear, to the army, that the regimes had lost the support of
powerful overseas backers, they changed allegiances, or at least
In countries south of the Sahara, the army still remains a
formidable obstacle. That is why in countries, like Zimbabwe, in
order to bring about change, the army may have to be bought off, or
at least given enough incentives, for example amnesty and job
security, to remain neutral.
Unity in Diversity
Tunisia and Egypt are countries that are relatively ethnically
homogenous. Except for perhaps, Swaziland and Lesotho, most
countries south of the Sahara are ethnically diverse. More
importantly, in most of these countries unscrupulous political
leaders and parties have played off different ethnic groups against
each other to remain in power, or did so on the back of the most
dominant ethnic group, or by forming ethnic alliances.
This means that in many African south of the Sahara countries,
people often perceived their problems in the context of the fact
that they are in the 'wrong' ethnic group, rather than blaming it
on their bad leaders or governments, no matter the ethnicity.
Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya are cases in point.
Liberation and the Liberated
Finally, in some African countries south of the Sahara, parties of
liberation and independence are still in power. Many supporters
vote for them mostly on the credentials they acquired as a result
of their struggles for independence.
The youth in many countries south of the Sahara, where liberation
or independence movements are still in power, are often mobilised
by youth wings of these ruling movements. The youth leagues are
often allowed to be more radical by the founding liberation and
independence movements, in order to periodically disperse popular
anger among the youth. A good case is the ANC Youth League, and its
leader Julius Malema or Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF, Mozambique's Frelimo or
Angola's MPLA youth wings.
In African countries ruled by independence/liberation movements,
the number of youth participating in civil movements outside these
leagues is small - though not insignificant.
Youth, like their senior activist predecessors, may protest against
incumbent liberation/independence movement now in governments, but
still see these movements as the parties of liberation and
Angry youth in such cases are not demanding for these
liberation/independence movement governments to be removed, but for
them to improve the way they govern - or to allow them to share the
spoils of government also. As the demography of most African
countries is increasingly becoming younger, these credentials
independence/struggle credentials are wearing thin.
This changing demographic means many young people have little if
any memory of yesterday's liberation struggle. And very soon, young
voters will have no recollection of the anti-apartheid or the
anti-colonial struggle, and may not simply vote for ruling parties
because of their historical liberation movement record. This may
herald the kind of youth-led rebellions seen in Tunisia, Egypt and
Revolution south of the Sahara may not come immediately, but it is
certainly on its way.
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