The iconic image of a young Sudanese woman demanding change from the roof of a car inspired hope of a new democratic dawn. The willingness of so many people to risk their safety to demand a better future served as a striking illustration of the widespread desire for more responsive and inclusive governments.
Africa’s increasingly young societies appeared to be serving notice to their geriatric leaders that the era of “presidents for life” was over.
The dictators factory
But for every dictator that has fallen, a new one is on the production line.
In Uganda, a man who once criticised other leaders for overstaying their welcome, now seems determined to remain in power indefinitely after President Yoweri Museveni removed constitutional and age limits and will contest for a sixth term in elections in 2021.
Rwanda’s Paul Kagame had adopted a similar approach and buttressed it by abducting his critics.
Both leaders are edging closer to Presidents Biya of Cameroon and Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea – currently the two longest serving leaders in the world.
Worryingly, Kagame and Museveni are not alone – over the next nine months another set of presidents will try and join this most exclusive of clubs.
In Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Zambia, leaders will bid for a third-term in office in elections that are unlikely to be either free or fair.
Further back, President Magufuli of Tanzania is only running for his second term but, determined to quickly rise to the top of the class, has started laying plans for a third term already. Although Magufuli has explicitly rejected the idea in public, in private his government is busy manufacturing the two-thirds majority he needs to change the constitution and remove presidential term limits ahead of general elections scheduled for 28 October.
So how do these leaders get away with it?
And why isn’t there greater opposition to the production of new “old men”?
One reason is that despite the clear implications for democracy, criticism of these power grabs is often muted.
This is puzzling.
On the one hand, surveys show us that a strong majority of citizens want to live in a democracy with multiparty elections and civil liberties in almost every African country.
On the other, President Kagame clearly has considerable domestic support to remain in office, while the recent coup in Mali deposed an elected president but was nonetheless celebrated in the streets.
What explains this discrepancy?
The most obvious answer is that many governments are highly authoritarian and so it is too dangerous to speak out. Another is that some people expect to benefit from the president remaining in office, either because they hail from the same community or have been integrated into government patronage networks.
These factors are critical, but in many countries something more subtle is also going on.
Whenever leaders try and justify a coup or breaking term-limits, they usually focus on the need to establish political order and deliver rapid development.
Such messages resonate powerfully with citizens, foreign investors and the international community. This is partly because many societies have first-hand experience of the dangers of instability and understand that maintaining peace is essential to build sustainable democracies. But it is also because leaders are experts at manipulating the threat of conflict to justify clamping down on critical voices. As a result, aspiring dictators often get away with slowly suffocating democracy.
There is nothing inherently “African” about this. It is human nature to prioritise short-term gains and overlook long-term risks – to “discount the future”, as economists would say. It is also common for those who have power to be reluctant to relinquish it.
The removal of term-limits in China will allow Xi Jinping to be a president for life. Vladimir Putin has now been in charge of Russia – one way or another – since 1999. But the fact that it is commonplace doesn’t make the efforts of a number of African leaders to consolidate their power any less of a cause for concern.
What looks like a good reason to sacrifice democracy today often turns out to have been a travesty tomorrow – even if you think that development is more important than human rights.
Age is not the issue
The problem is that the world’s old men rarely continue to deliver when they enter their second decade in power. The reason for this is not so much age but time in office. President Trump’s advanced years may help to explain some of his idiosyncrasies, but imagine how divided and dysfunctional the United States would if he was allowed to govern for more than 40 years with no checks and balances – as President Biya has done in Cameroon.
Leaders who cannot be held accountable are more likely to make policy mistakes, and less likely to correct them. When stagnating economies make it harder to sustain popular support and patronage networks, they also face fewer obstacles to using repression to remain in power.
The more coercion they use, the less willing they are to stand down and face possible prosecution for the abuses they committed in office.
As a result, repression begets more repression and ultimately undermines economic growth.
During the research for my last book How to Rig an Election, we collected data on countries around the world which showed that on average the longer a leader is in power the more likely it is that they will perpetrate corruption and rig elections.
Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe is a classic example of this trajectory. Initially lauded for his effective management of the economy, Mugabe ultimately left office having presided over crippling hyper-inflation and a cholera outbreak.
The Zimbabwean example reflects a broader pattern. For every “benign dictator” delivering economic growth, there are four or five leaders running their country into the ground.
The major challenge for pro-democracy activists is that the downsides of presidents for life only become clear when a leader has already become so entrenched that they are hard to remove.
As a result, there is a risk that the continent suffers from a kind of authoritarian Groundhog Day in which the same mistakes are repeated consistently – aided and abetted by an international development community that suffers from selective memory loss and so regularly provide high levels of foreign aid to aspiring authoritarians.
The value of changing government
As Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Zambia and Guinea head to the polls, it is important not to lose sight of the value of being able to change leaders and governments.
Transfers of power are not a silver bullet of course – they may just involve replacing a good and upstanding leader with a dubious one. But they have been shown to disrupt corruption networks, encourage leaders to respect the rule of law, and boost public support for democracy.
Countries that feature term-limits are less likely to experience conflict and more likely to enjoy stable government. The idea that “Big Men” must be allowed to stay in power to prevent chaos is simply false.
Recent developments in Malawi – where President Mutharika was defeated in presidential elections that had to be re-run after his initial victory was annulled by the courts – perfectly demonstrate this point. The new Tonse Alliance government of President Chakwera may end up repeating some of the same mistakes as its predecessor, but it has already identified and curtailed a series of corruption scams initiated during the Mutharika era that, had they continued, would have stymied the country’s development.
Meanwhile the civil society groups emboldened by the key role they played in holding Mutharika to account have promised to do the same with Chakwera if he fails to keep his promises.
In other words, while transfers of power don’t guarantee good leadership, they do help to prevent the continuation of exploitative and incompetent government.
Failure to halt the production line of dictators will mean that in twenty years’ time there will be more young people standing on cars across Africa trying to rid their countries of a new generation of authoritarian old men.
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