Africa: ‘Repression & resistance are two key trends heading into 2021’

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Tuesday, 22 December 2020 10:44
Opposition supporters celebrate after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner, in Lilongwe, Malawi, 4 February 2020. REUTERS/Eldson Chagara

The last twelve months have been as intense and breathless as any I can remember, both in Africa and around the world.

Intense, because so many major events came one after another, from the outbreak of COVID-19 through to contested elections in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Tanzania – and, just when it was looking like the firestorm of bad news had burned itself out, the conflict in Ethiopia.

Breathless, because so many struggled to breath under the weight of oppressive security forces, from the United States to Nigeria, while millions of people seriously ill with COVID-19 found themselves gasping for oxygen, dependent on ventilators to stay alive.

In some ways, Africa is one of the only continents to have emerged from this most challenging and exhausting of years with enhanced its reputation enhanced.

Contrary to some commentator’s expectations, the coronavirus did not decimate Africa as it did Europe and North America. Instead, early government shutdowns and the rapid closure of borders – along with younger populations and warmer climates – helped to contain the disease. As a result, Afropessimists around the world were left sorely disappointed, and spent the rest of the year trying to find the magical ingredient that would explain why the continent did not have to be saved by Western donors.

READ MORE Nigeria: #EndSARS movement avoids pitfalls of ‘leadership’

This represented a significant success story worth celebrating, not least because it is a powerful reminder that African states can act effectively and decisively to tackle major national challenges when it is in their interests to do so. However, lurking in the shadows of this more positive narrative is a more troubling one. In much, but by no means all, of the continent the effective response to COVID-19 came at the cost of human rights and democracy, further entrenching authoritarian regimes.

The real political story of 2020 is therefore not the containment of COVID-19, but the way in which this set in motion twin processes of repression and resistance.

A year of repression and resistance

The spread of coronavirus did not cause greater political violence in any simplistic sense – instead, it exacerbated existing tendencies. In countries like Kenya, South Africa and Rwanda, heavy handed security forces that have regularly been accused of human rights violations used extreme force to implement curfews, leading to numerous deaths. Meanwhile, authoritarian leaders that faced mass protests or elections – including in Guinea, Uganda, Zambia Zimbabwe – took advantage of the spread of coronavirus to manipulate social distancing requirements, constraining the activities of opposition parties and civil society groups.

The fact that COVID-19 dominated international headlines and attention also had a detrimental on democracy around the world. With the United States obsessed with its own election and the Trump soap opera, and the UK incapable of managing either the pandemic or Brexit, there was precious little pro-democratic leadership on the world stage. Sensing that there would be few if any international punishments for even the most blatant abuses, authoritarian leaders ceased trying to hide their repression.

Not content with manipulating the outcome of general elections in Tanzania, President John Magufuli’s government used mass arrests of opposition leaders and activists to try and stop post-election protests, while nine people were killed in clashes with the security forces on the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar.

READ MORE Tanzania: ‘Dark days ahead’ says opposition as Magufuli sworn in for second term

Perhaps emboldened by events in Tanzania, President Yoweri Museveni has already unleashed “unprecedented intense violence” in Uganda, even though the polls are still weeks away. Opposition leader Bobi Wine has been arrested multiple times, his car has been shot at, his bodyguard has been hit with a rubber bullet and it is believed that close to a hundred people may already have died at the hands of the security forces.

READ MORE Uganda: Bobi Wine suspends presidential campaign after violence

COVID-19 also led to an intensification of violence in a much less well publicised, but no less important, way. Across Africa, and across the globe, the closure of schools and restrictions on population movement placed women and girls at a much greater risk of gender-based violence (GBV).

In Malawi, school closures left girls at greater risk of abuse by “non-strangers” such as neighbours and family members during the day time. As a result, the number of child marriages in some districts increased by over 90%. Similarly, researchers from the University of Birmingham found that violence of women in Kenya increased significantly during the pandemic, while the average age of victims decreased.

LISTEN Melinda Gates: the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ of violence against women

This broader trend was sadly mirrored in the political sphere, with a series of horrific acts of violence against female activists and leaders that highlight the prevalence of a particularly misogynistic form of authoritarian rule. As Glanis Changachirere has argued, writing about Zimbabwe, “women’s bodies have thus become perfect tools of objectification, projecting the state’s and, by conflation, ZANU-PF’s desires of domination over the MDC-A opposition: their bodies are used as weapons of violence to send a deep message of political conquest to the contesting party.”

New forms of resistance

The rise in political violence and GBV has been saddening to watch, but this cloud had a silver lining that should give us hope for the future. Almost every act of repression has been met with an innovative form of resistance that has demonstrated the creativity and bravery of Africa’s opposition and civil society activists.

Police brutality in Nigeria inspired mass protests driven by a youth movement determined to bring about change. Government efforts to criminalise protest in Zambia and Zimbabwe inspired citizens to record individual acts of resistance away from the prying eyes of the security forces.

READ MORE Africa’s youth: Busting myths and creating change

When these “patchwork protests” were knitted together online, via Twitter and Facebook, they became another brick in the wall of opposition to authoritarian rule.

Moreover, in all of these cases, social media took protests to a global audience, as hashtags like #ZimbabweansLivesMatter and #ZanizbarLivesMatter both paid homage to the Black Lives Matter movement and demanded the same attention be paid to black lives lost in Africa. In turn, the fusion of diverse networks of resistance provided a shot in the arm for activists across the continent.

READ MORE Zimbabwe: The Mnangagwa squad

It is easy to be dismissive of these protests – after all, they have so far done little to remove ZANU-PF from power in Zimbabwe, or its namesake, the Patriotic Front, from power in Zambia. But this would be a mistake. Popular protests brought down the regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan in 2019 – and played a major role in forcing transitions of power in, among others, Burkina Faso, The Gambia, and Niger.

Nowhere was the power of protest more evident in 2020 than Malawi, where regular mass protests kept the flawed elections in 2019 in the headlines and increased the pressure on the country’s democratic institutions to respond. After the presidential election was nullified by the courts, a re-run held in June 2020 was won by a new opposition coalition. As a result of these changes, Malawi became the only country in the world to move towards democracy during the pandemic, and was subsequently celebrated by the Economist magazine as the “country of the year”.

READ MORE Malawi’s transformation under Chakwera: More governance, less power

Malawi also demonstrated the ability of civil society groups to challenge other forms of violence, as Oxfam Malawi worked with the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus to draw attention to the increase in child marriages and GBV, and to work with traditional leaders and schools to turn the tide. Sadly this battle, like so many others, is still being fought – but the fact that it is being fought by a new generation of brilliant, brave and compassionate leaders means that this should be a source of hope rather than despair.

The outlook for 2021

This pattern of repression and resistance is unlikely to end in 2021. If anything, it will intensify. For all the talk of the coronavirus not hitting Africa hard, its economic impact has been profound. As governments have increased spending on healthcare, revenues from tourism had fallen sharply, pushing an increasing number of country’s towards a debt crisis. Zambia has already defaulted and others are likely to follow.

READ MORE Zambia’s default shows new approach needed for Chinese debt

One of the typical consequences of unsustainable debt levels, sooner or later, is that governments have to cut spending in order to balance the books. In turn, this will intensify popular frustration at some of the continent’s most ineffective and corrupt regimes, inspiring further bouts of resistance and repression.

The outcome of these struggles will determine the degree of progress towards democracy – or lack of it. Recent years have seen a growing polarisation on the continent, with countries such as Tanzania and Uganda becoming increasingly repressive while some of Africa’s leading democratic lights have consolidated their gains.

Indeed, it is telling that while so many countries were sliding towards greater authoritarianism in 2020, Ghana held another election that – despite being close – was so well run and orderly that some correspondents characterised it as “boring”.

READ MORE Ghana elections: A hung parliament could haunt Nana Akufo-Addo

History suggests that in many countries repression will win out in the short term, but not forever. Every year an African country teaches us about the transformative potential of people power, and when that lesson is learned it stays learned. As a friend of mine commented, while arguing that I should strike an optimistic tone in this column, “Of course I believe in change, I’m a Malawian.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

The rise of Africa’s new ‘old men’

When Presidents Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan were brought down within a few years of each other, Africa appeared to be getting rid of the old men that had dominated the political scene for decades.

The remarkable power of African elections

Africa will see seven major elections over the next six months, from Guinea on Sunday through to Uganda in February next year. Almost none will result in victories for the opposition.

How Western companies undermine African democracy

As the recent election campaign in Tanzania reached a climax, opposition supporters began to notice something strange.

Africa’s growing criminalization of the opposition

As I sat down to write this month’s column opposition leader Bobi Wine was casting his ballot in the Ugandan presidential election.

The great Magufuli mystery: What a missing president tells us about politics in Tanzania

It seems almost impossible in this age of social media and ubiquitous camera phones, but no one seems to know where – or how – Tanzanian President John Magufuli is.

Politics of death: The way we mourn leaders reveals what unites and divides us

Two countries have been mourning the deaths of very different leaders recently.

Can the courts protect democracy in Africa?

Judges have hit the headlines this month for upholding the rule of law in the most difficult circumstances. Against a backdrop of growing concern about democratic backsliding during the coronavirus pandemic, the willingness of the judiciary to protect the constitution in the face of intense political pressure is a source of hope and inspiration.

Smaller African states do not necessarily make better democracies

After publishing 'Democracy in Africa' back in 2015, I spent the next few years answering all kinds of questions about the prospects for democratic consolidation on the continent.

We cannot defeat racism without decolonisation

It has been a depressing month to be English. The defeat to Italy in the final of the UEFA European Championship was the latest in a string of famous losses.

Lessons from Africa: Is there such a thing as a ‘good coup’?

Is there such a thing as a good coup?

Zambia: Why five is the magic number when it comes to opposition election victories

The victory of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema in the Zambian presidential election was as dramatic as it was comprehensive.

Why we should be more understanding of African political leaders

The release of the Pandora Papers on 3 October embarrassed high profile figures around the world, exposing the offshore accounts of 35 world leaders. According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it was their most expansive exposé of the secret financial arrangements of the rich and famous to date.

Chad, Guinea, Mali, Sudan… Can a coup be a springboard for democracy?

The recent spate of coups in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan has sparked a flurry of media attention and concern.

Africa in 2021: The end of democracy?

The headlines suggest it has been a worrying year for politics in sub-Saharan Africa. But from #EndSARS to the election victory of Hakainde Hichilema in Zambia, Africans are pushing more democracy - not less - argues Nic Cheeseman.

What would an authoritarian Africa look like?

Yesterday a journalist asked me whether it was possible for an African leader to be a good democrat and an effective leader at the same time. It wasn’t the first time, and won’t be the last.

Africa in 2022: The danger of hegemonic instability

The end of December is often a time for reflection – in 2021 as much as any year. After reading the sad news of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s passing, a South African friend sent me a letter that looked back on a tumultuous year.

Africa: Why ideas and ideologies matter for politics

Political ideas and ideologies shape how leaders behave and are central to efforts to legitimise the exercise of power. From Donald Trump’s exclusionary nationalism to Vladimir Putin’s warped understanding of Ukrainian history, it is clear that beliefs shape policies and actions, often with dramatic consequences.

How (not) to persuade Africa to support Ukraine and denounce Russia

The reluctance of some African leaders to condemn Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine has been the subject of a large number of column inches over the last month.

Before criticising democracy abroad, Britain should take a look at itself

The UK is quick to offer advice and criticism to African countries struggling with democracy. But a new slew of anti-democratic bills from the 'mother of parliaments' in the UK suggests that critics should search closer to home.

We need journalists now more than ever – so why don’t we do more to protect them?

When it comes to saving democracy and fighting for freedom, no one has a more important role to play than journalists.

Why Africa’s youth is not saving democracy

Year after year, the quality of democracy has deteriorated in African countries. The continent’s 'presidents for life' show no signs of making way for the younger generation. This raises fundamental questions, such as: Why is Africa getting more authoritarian as it is getting younger?

Kenya 2022: Lies, damn lies, and statistics

The outcome of the Kenyan presidential election now lies in the hands of the Supreme Court. William Ruto may be the president elect on the basis that he secured 50.49% in the first round of voting, but his hold on power is tenuous.

The rise of the opposition in Africa: Which governments are likely to fall next?

Governments in Africa are in trouble. Economic decline, more strategic opposition parties and increasingly sophisticated electorates have left ruling parties increasingly susceptible to election defeat.

Losing an election: The five stages of political grief

Losing an election can be traumatic. For candidates who have invested their hopes and dreams in winning office, it can be especially hard to take. Defeat at the ballot box is personally embarrassing, of course. But the sense of loss that some candidates feel is much deeper and more profound than that. It is the feeling that their whole vision of themselves and their future has been cruelly cut short, leaving them bereft and lacking purpose.

The failure of leadership in Britain: an update

The chaotic rollercoaster that is British politics took a new turn recently when it was announced that Conservative MP Matt Hancock will appear on the popular British reality television show 'I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here'.

Political year ahead in Africa: Which governments will lose power in 2023?

The dust is just beginning to settle on President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s farcical election victory in Equatorial Guinea. Not satisfied with ruling the country since 1979, he engineered one of the most one-sided elections the world has ever seen. This included giving himself 97% of the vote in the presidential election and preventing the opposition from winning a single legislative seat. Equatorial Guinea is now a one-party state in all, but name.

When Zimbabwe stops pretending to be a democracy

On Saturday 14 January, Harare based lawyer Kudzai Kadzere was beaten by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), leaving him with a fractured hand that required surgery.

Was the Nigerian election rigged?