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Tuesday 12 March 2019


Democracy’s difficult birth

  • For decades many African nations suffered misrule by dictators, often supported by the West for the stability they imposed
  • The tyranny favoured by that generation of leaders is gradually being replaced by subtler forms of repression
  • Now even these are being challenged by the rise of a youth-driven movement of political activism

By Fergal Keane

The spy I talked to at a Johannesburg cocktail party liked to describe himself as an “old Africa hand”. It’s a phrase I associate with hard-drinking veterans of the tumultuous period in Africa’s history that began with the Congo civil war in 1960 and lasted until the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. The time frame is arbitrary, but it seems to contain well enough the mindset I am trying to describe.

Full disclosure: I know this mindset well, and it dates me. My own Africa career has spanned the age of the dictators but also the emergence of a new continent in which the advance of an assertive civil society is transforming politics. This is the big change of the post-colonial era. In some countries – South Africa being the most obvious example – the activist generation is pressuring governments that have already embraced the principles of democracy. But there are many others where they confront dictators masquerading as democrats.

The “Africa hands” must struggle to comprehend this change. They trailed legends behind them. They weren’t just spies. They were mercenaries, freebooting “entrepreneurs” and foreign correspondents. Theirs was a world of coups, massacres, famines and spectacular corruption, a world that reeked of cordite and whiskey.

In this world, Africans were tyrants or victims. Africa was a place to be “felt”, not understood or analysed, for who in truth could understand that chaos?


A survivor of the Rwandan genocide at a post-war event confronting prisoners suspected of taking part in the killings

“You have to remember,” the spy said, “that Africans like a strong leader. It gives them a sense of security.”

This was a while ago, and spoken by a man who believed that power belonged in the hands of African elites. He’d spent time in Kenya, at that time groaning under the rule of Daniel Arap Moi. In Moi’s Kenya, a respected foreign minister could be murdered and the killers never brought to trial. Billions of dollars were stolen from the exchequer in the so-called Goldenberg scandal, through a scam which awarded credits for the export of gold. The fly in the ointment was that Kenya produced only a tiny amount of gold. There are doubts about whether gold was exported at all. If there was any, it is likely to have been smuggled into Kenya from what was then Zaire. Back in the late 1990s, I interviewed Kamlesh Pattni, the Indian businessman at the centre of the scandal, who told me he was being persecuted in the same manner as Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela. This was said with an entirely straight face. Such brazenness was par for the course in the heyday of Africa’s strong men. Who was going to hold them to account?

Their actions and legacies dominated the Africa of that time. In Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, I saw crowds line the streets chanting: “Mobutu c’est Lucifer”, until France and Belgium sent troops to end the chaos and keep the old monster in power. Restoring stability, you see. At any cost. Mobutu was eventually toppled and his country plunged into the biggest war the continent had ever seen. It has been unstable ever since.

Soldiers in the Democratic Republican of Congo patrol the streets of Kinshasa in 2014

We must ask, what has rule by strong men given Africa?

Is it the paradise of economic growth and stability that the dictator Siad Barre bequeathed to Somalia? What about that beacon of enlightened capitalism and social mobility that “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa created in the Central African Republic?

Ah, I hear you say, there is a new possibility: one we might call “enlightened strongmanism” of the kind exemplified by Paul Kagame’s Rwanda. The leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front was re-elected president with nearly 99 per cent of the vote in 2017 and, after parliament changed the constitution, was able to secure a third successive term in office. He came to power in 1994 after defeating a genocidal regime led by extremist soldiers and politicians.

Kagame’s fans in the West – they include Tony Blair – admire the clean streets of the capital, Kigali, offices that open on time, officials who don’t seek bribes, a burgeoning hi-tech sector (the nation recently launched a satellite), a two-thirds drop in child mortality and GDP growth rates of 5 per cent plus. (I should point out that researchers from the London-based Review of African Political Economy challenge the growth figures, and estimate that poverty increased in Rwanda by as much as 7 percentage points in the last decade.)

But even if we are to take at face value the claims of an economic miracle in Rwanda, does anybody seriously suggest that a country nine times smaller than the UK is a model for countries as vast as the neighbouring DRC, with its 84 million people spread over 2.34 million square kilometres?  Or Kenya, with a population four times Rwanda’s?

Paul Kagame was re-elected president in Rwanda in 2017 with almost 99 per cent of the vote

In a tiny country where the eyes and ears of security agents are constantly on the alert, the state can easily stifle dissent. Mr Kagame’s tools of control include locking up opposition leaders or anybody who might threaten his party’s hold on power.

Such levels of social control would be impossible in larger countries. Look at the failure of Sudan’s brutal autocracy to crush pro-democracy protests that are now entering their fourth month. President al-Bashir has all the instruments of torture and killing at his disposal but he cannot get the demonstrators off the streets.

Al-Bashir has not yet learned the tricks perfected by other autocratic leaders. The new strongman style is to take the institutions of democracy and subvert them. Nothing so crude as a military coup is needed when you can change the constitution to stay in power, or rig an election.

Yoweri Museveni became president of Uganda in 1986 after rebellions against Idi Amin and Milton Obote

Opposition candidates are allowed to run, but if ruling party patronage, intimidation and control of state media (possibly with an internet shutdown thrown in) doesn’t defeat them then fiddling the results in private can deliver the desired outcome.

President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda (in power 33 years and counting) has changed the constitution so that he can – theoretically – stay in power for life, or at least long enough for one of his family to succeed him.

In Tanzania – a recipient of £153 million in British aid this year – the government of President John Magufuli is clamping down on the free press and political opposition.

Supporters of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress in Kinshasa, 2018

But the most egregious recent example of democracy subverted was in Congo, where elections in January produced a winner completely at odds with results leaked by whistleblowers inside the electoral commission. A stitch-up by the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, is widely suspected.

His chosen man, Félix Tshisekedi, struck me as a genial enough figure when I met him. But he is not known for his political guile or inner steel. When he appeared ill and croaked the words “I am not OK” during his inauguration speech, aides rushed to help. It appeared that his flak jacket was too tight – as gloomy a portent as could be conjured. To nobody’s surprise, Tsishekedi has now formed a coalition government with Kabila.

In Zimbabwe, the ruling ZANU PF party has returned to coercive and violent business as usual after the coup that removed Robert Mugabe and led to last year’s elections. Here was another country where Britain opted for stability over ethics, when Mugabe first made war on his own people in Matabeleland in the 1980s. What a toxic legacy that proved.

It would be wearying to write this were it not for a very powerful alternative reality. The rise of civil society across Africa over the past 30 years – whether with the support of real democracies or the resistance of pseudo-democracies – has been slow but steady, and ultimately a revelation. With the help of millions of internet-connected smartphones it’s picking up speed and growing in breadth and depth. My hunch is it will be irreversible.

From small human rights groups in the Congo to the fiercely independent press of South Africa there are millions of citizens who understand that democracy without strong institutions is a sham. Consider the Sudanese Professionals Association, with doctors and lawyers leading daily protests against the Khartoum regime, and with woman to the fore despite the threat of rape in custody.

In Kenya, tireless campaigners – adept in the use of social media – continue to harry the government over corruption. My friend John Githongo called the government to account over the Goldenberg scandal and keeps up the fight now through the use of blog posts and open debates.

Kenyan demonstrators block the road to prevent voters from reaching a polling station in Nairobi, 2017

South Africa’s graft is being exposed to relentless public scrutiny, and former president Jacob Zuma has been forced into court because of activist pressure. It was civil society that forced the South African state to face its responsibilities to the millions of HIV/Aids sufferers after the denialism of the Thabo Mbeki years.

The Africans I meet have had enough of watching the West’s concern for stability become an alibi for tyranny. In any case, these days Western opinions are much less important to them than how they will organise to challenge their rulers.

Africa is ethnically, culturally, economically, politically and socially diverse. But the unifying thread is a sense of citizens grasping their power to challenge leaders on issues from land reform to gender rights, corruption to media freedom.

What is new about much of this activism is its adherence to reason. Ideological and ethnic politics are rejected. Populism has failed to take root because people listened too long to leaders who promised the world while robbing them blind.

Rally by supporters of Muhammadu Buhari, who last month was re-elected president of Nigeria

This is above all a youth-driven movement on a continent where demographics will define the future of democracy and economic growth. Africa’s population is set to double in the next 30 years. Think of the growing numbers of young people seeking education and employment. Their needs will not be answered by gerontocratic regimes mired in corrupt, clientelist politics. In Nigeria, nearly half the population is under the age of 35, yet the recent presidential election was fought between two men in their seventies at the head of parties steeped in the cronyism. This will not endure.

Contemplate the possibilities offered by a very different example. Ethiopia has the fastest growing economy in Africa and is led by a 42-year-old who has released political prisoners, appointed a former dissident to run the elections board and is busy opening up state monopolies to foreign investment.

I met Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at an industrial park in his home region of Oromia. When I asked him what he needed from the international community he shot straight back: “Let them come here and see how we are doing things.” Foreign leaders might learn something, he suggested.

Not all is rosy in Ethiopia. There are millions still displaced, and there are fears that Abiy is moving too fast and alienating some ethnic groups. But there is a dynamism apparent to any visitor, a sense of the possibility that is unleashed when people cease to be afraid. Politics without fear should be the goal, not the stability imposed by repression.


Further reading

Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics by Nanjala Nyabola shows how social media can empower activists and undermine state propaganda – in this case in Kenya

This recent FT interview with Ethiopia’s new prime minister gives a sense of the excitement he has kindled in ten short months

Nigeria’s election was complicated by fake stories given a megaphone by WhatsApp, as this Tortoise investigation showed

The Brookings Institution published this useful primer on subverted democracy in the DRC before the rigged election there