The first half of this year, writes Professor Keith Somerville, has seen what would appear to be setbacks for hopes of the progressive development in states across sub-Saharan Africa of greater democracy, enhanced freedom of speech and the media, and the real possibility that populations could throw unpopular, incompetent or corrupt leaders from power. 

The Ugandan election – beset by harassment of opponents, severe restrictions on the freedom of the press and the use of violence and the advantage of incumbency to ensure victory by hook or by crook – gave Yoweri Museveni yet another term in office. Meanwhile, in Rwanda President Kagame, having successfully changed the constitution after a stage-managed referendum, signalled his intention to run for office yet again in 2017. And in Ethiopia, the EPRDF government showed no sign of loosening its grip on power or its tight control of the press and social media following the highly questionable election victory of the ruling movement in May 2015. Very public setbacks in three states that were the poster boys of the new politics in Africa in the 1990s and stars of the now increasingly discredited Africa Rising narrative.

The political trajectories of these states are clearly creating obstacles in the road of development or retention of meaningful popular empowerment, and suggest that the hopes for steadily developing democracy and accountability are a long way from being achieved. They demonstrate that three states which were at the forefront of Western hopes for regional stability, economic development, and new styles of political organisation purportedly involving greater inclusiveness and participation in ways that, as was declared by Yoweri Museveni, Meles Zenawi and Paul Kagame, would avoid the violence, fragmentation and rampant insecurity of the past, have certainly achieved something, but that something is not greater inclusiveness or accountability of government. Instead it is the controlled evolution of new forms of autocracy, backed by Western development and military aid and with leaders able to manipulate donors and use as instruments of hegemony, the supposedly democratic institutions established after those leaders came to power.

The non-party state proclaimed by Yoweri Museveni and the National resistance Movement (NRM) on taking power in 1986, involved the development of grassroots inclusiveness and the appearance of greater popular participation without the revival of the old political parties, which had fuelled division and violence. But the non-party model was dropped precipitately and the much derided multiparty model instituted when it suited Museveni’s ambitions and the strength of his developing patron-client networks in the army, the NRM and the economy.

He used the establishment of a multiparty system to cleanse the NRM and the army of influential leaders who had the temerity to challenge his limpet-like grip on power. The new multiparty system was, on the face of it, plural and involved competitive elections. But none of the hastily established parties could break the hold of the NRM in the first competitive elections in 2006. The network of patronage, economic hegemony and control of the coercive instruments of the state and of informal gangs of thugs that it could use to harass and intimidate its opponents, have ensured victory in the elections since and beaten down attempts to hold the NRM government to account.

The success with which Museveni had deployed these various weapons and the way in which he has been able to play on Western fears of regional instability to retain budgetary and military aid that bolsters Museveni’s ability to hold on to power, is set out well in David Anderson and Jonathan Fisher’s well-focused and argued contribution to a new study of the links between insurgent authoritarianism and Western aid in Africa – Hagmann and Reyntjens very interesting collection, Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa.Somerville2

Anderson and Fisher very clearly establish that despite the good governance mantras of the late 1980s and 1990s – echoes of which can still be heard periodically in Western statements on aid to African states –  the militarisation, centralisation and personalisation of power by Museveni and his supporters has created an repressive system of government in which elections are held, fixed and used as just another way of entrenching power, with the use of state and informal coercive instruments to ‘intimidate, harass and terrorize perceived opponents of the state’ (p.67). And, of course, anyone who seriously threatens Museveni’s dominance is automatically treated not as a legitimate opposition politician but a threat to the state.

This has happened most recently and overtly with the harassment, frequent arrests and denial of media coverage to opposition leader Kizza Besigey during this year’s election – one of the NRM leaders forced out by Museveni when he deemed a plurality of opinions within the NRM a danger to his hold on the movement and on power and the resources for the patronage and nepotism that keep in in charge. It is indicative though, that public opinion still has some force in Uganda, in that Museveni has strenuously sought to prevent media reporting of Besigye’s protests over the elections.

The Hagmann and Reyntjens volume is an interesting one. It is very successful – particularly when dealing with Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia – in highlighting the way that the regimes in those countries have successfully developed strategies to deal with donors to ensure that conditionality is on paper only, that the contribution of those countries to ensuring stability in a volatile region stretching from Congo to Eritrea, crucially including the ever troubling situation in Somalia, is paramount. And in presenting an image of planned and controlled development (a throwback to the modernisation and developmental approaches of donors in the 1960s that condoned or even supported authoritarian regimes in order to emphasise economic development over democracy and political accountability) the regimes can demonstrate in technical terms of efficacy of utilisation of some of the aid.

The chapters on the three countries are, along with Nicolas s van der Walle’s well-argued conclusion, the best parts of the collection. They show how the good governance slogans and conditionality clauses were just paper tigers and never had real bite, especially in the face of skilled and single-minded politicians like Museveni, Kagame and Zenawi. They cottoned on from the start that lip-service was all that was really required, especially as they were restoring stability and security in their own states and contributing to Western strategies for ending or limiting conflict in what had been a volatile region. They could argue that their non-party or ethnically inclusive approaches were long-term strategies for developing internal stability and indigenous democratic forms, while in fact using their political experiments to consolidate power. If this didn’t work, they would confront donors and in effect dare them to withdraw aid and see how far that got them.

In the wake of 9/11 and the launching of the ‘war on terror’, their ability to argue that they were sources of stability and key military allies in a region that could provide a foothold for Islamist movements antagonistic towards Western interests was an important part of their ability to resist conditionality and continue to garner substantial budgetary and military support. This support enabled them to entrench power at home and project power abroad (clearly to the detriment of their neighbours, as DR Congo has experienced at the hands of both Uganda and Rwanda, and Somalia at the hands of Ethiopia), while all the while being key links in the security chains the West wanted in place to shackling Islamist or other movements perceived as threats to regional stability and so to Western security.

That said, the book is not one bewailing the demise of democratic hopes in Africa or seeing all as gloom and doom. Van de Walle, like Nic Cheeseman before him in his nuanced and comprehensive look at democratisation in Africa, stresses that amid the resurgence of authoritarianism and personalised rule in some states, ‘there is no gainsaying that the region today enjoys a higher level of political competition and popular participation than at any time since independence’, something which has coincided with a general reduction in the number of violent conflicts in Africa (p. 161).Somerville3

This rather echoes Cheeseman’s observation, which is an important one when commentators and journalists writing about Africa are inclined to see all as gloom and doom, that ‘In the 2000s, elections and term limits replaced death and coup detat as the most common ways in which African presidents and prime ministers left office’ (p. 2). What the volume and Cheeseman’s book do, is once again emphasise that there is not a one size fits all model or timeline for political change in Africa. Each state develops according to its own history, political, economic and social factors and not to one Western-ordained pattern and speed. And it should also be remembered, when there are comparisons of the nature of political systems in Africa with those in Europe or North America, that it took from Magna Carta in 1215 to the passing of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise Act) of 1928 for Britain to move from the absolute power of a monarch to a fully-inclusive system of electoral representation. Too often, commentators have a very ahistorical view of political development and try to apply timescales and models that are not appropriate, and always to demonstrate some failing on the part of peoples or states in Africa. The books referred to in this article do not, and are valuable additions to the literature on political evolution in Africa and the relationship to aid and donor-based development.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. He teaches at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent and is the author of Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent, which was published in December 2015.

Image: Kangas drying in Zanzibar.jpg, public domain via Wikimedia Commons