The staying power of sub-Saharan strongmen
WHILE the world was watching the triumph of the street revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, a much smaller revolution was struggling to be born in the African nation of Gabon.\r\n
The protesters who took to the streets of Gabon, inspired by the dramatic events in North Africa, were fighting the autocratic regime of a family that has ruled the oil-rich country for the past four decades – including the record-breaking 41-year reign of the late president, Omar Bongo, who made the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia seem like bumbling amateurs at the game of corruption and repression.
The protesters in Gabon, virtually ignored by the global media, were seeking to topple the ex-dictator’s son, Ali Bongo, who had become President in 2009 when his father died. But the uprising was quickly crushed by the army. The opposition leader, André Mba Obame, was forced to hide in a United Nations office, while other protesters were arrested and swept off the streets.
In the lands south of Egypt and Tunisia, people power is faltering. Even as Middle Eastern autocrats keep an anxious eye on the popular street uprisings that threaten their hold on power, the strongmen of sub-Saharan Africa remain largely in command of their impoverished nations.
Why have the people-power revolutions of North Africa failed to spread to the rest of Africa? Revolution is often a luxury of an educated middle class, and much of Africa is too rural and too poor to sustain a national uprising. Dictators in sub-Saharan Africa often defend their power through a politically loyal military – in contrast to Egypt, where the troops tolerated protest. Technology is another factor: Internet access is still relatively low in most of Africa, making it harder to organize protest. And the ethnic and religious rifts in many African countries are a huge obstacle to the organization of national protests.
From Angola to Zimbabwe, traditional “big men” are still in control of their people, aided by powerful armies and a ruthless readiness to use violence. While democracy has made inroads in some African nations since the end of the Cold War, many others are suffering under authoritarian leaders who have clung to power.
Zimbabwe’s former liberation hero, Robert Mugabe, will celebrate his 87th birthday on Monday, still comfortably ensconced in the president’s office after 30 years of rule. Even after losing an election in 2008 and being forced to accept opposition members in a coalition government, Mr. Mugabe retains power through his control of Zimbabwe’s army and the gangs of thugs who harass and beat opposition supporters.
Zimbabwe’s opposition leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has voiced his support for the people’s revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. But Mr. Mugabe’s allies have vowed to crush any Egypt-style protests, and they have increasingly used violence to pave the way for a new election, with Mr. Mugabe expected to run again.
In Uganda, voters went to the ballot boxes on Friday, but there is little chance of a defeat for President Yoweri Museveni, who has dominated Uganda for the past 25 years after seizing power in an armed rebellion. Uganda’s opposition leaders have warned of Egypt-inspired revolts in the streets if the election is rigged, but analysts don’t expect them to make a dent in the rule of Mr. Museveni, a former general who maintains a strong grip on the army.
In Angola, another military-dominated country, President José Eduardo dos Santos has been in power for 31 years. Last month, he changed the constitution to allow him to stay president until 2022 without facing a direct election. If all goes smoothly, he will surpass Omar Bongo’s record to become Africa’s longest-ruling leader, with 42 years in power.
At least 18 elections are scheduled on the African continent this year, yet only four of those do not have incumbents as the heavy favourites. If Egypt and Tunisia are subtracted, the number is even less impressive.
Most elections last year – including those in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sudan – were tightly controlled by the incumbent regimes. Opposition leaders were permitted no space in the media or on the campaign trail. The stage-managed elections have allowed veteran autocrats to remain comfortably in power, with lengths of rule ranging from 17 years (Paul Kagame in Rwanda) to 22 years (Omar al-Bashir in Sudan).
One of the few elections where the incumbent was defeated was in Ivory Coast – yet the President refused to step down. The President, Laurent Gbagbo, still remains in power today, defying the UN and using the army to crack down on the opposition.
One of Africa’s most notorious dictators, Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, was elected as chairman of the African Union last month, in a move that symbolized the AU’s willingness to tolerate one-party states. He has ruled his oil-rich country for 31 years, reportedly using torture and hundreds of executions to crush dissent, while the vast majority of his people subsist on less than $2 a day.
“In brief, he is the stereotypical big man,” says the latest bulletin of the Africa Progress Panel, a respected group of world leaders and activists headed by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.
“Obiang stands for everything that the AU, according to its own statutes, should vigorously oppose,” the bulletin said. “Obiang’s rise to the nominal top of the continent’s political establishment is only one sign of the returning prominence of big men across the continent. … While the quality of autocrats is definitely changing … little has changed in their thirst to stay in power.”
All of this is in stark contrast to the Middle East and North Africa, where the street revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have ignited a wildfire of popular protests against dictators and authoritarian regimes in Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Algeria, Libya and Jordan.
Yet there are huge differences between the Mideast and sub-Saharan Africa. One key difference is their colonial heritage. The boundaries of African nations, artificially created by colonial powers, have left so many ethnic and religious divisions that a national opposition movement is hard to build. Civil society groups, too, are weak and divided.
Money is another big factor. Middle Eastern nations have potential wealth and economic opportunities that are thwarted by corruption and despotism – a source of anger for their educated middle classes. But their average incomes are higher than in sub-Saharan Africa, where many countries are largely rural, poor and loyal to their ethnic identity, rather than their economic interests.
One famous study suggested that democracies rarely thrive in countries where the per-capita income is below $1,500. Many of Africa’s countries are below this threshold, while Middle Eastern countries are above.
While cellphones are common in most African countries, other forms of technology are lacking. The rate of Internet penetration is 34 per cent in Tunisia, compared to less than 10 per cent in Uganda and only 6 per cent in Gabon. Tools such as Facebook and Twitter are becoming better known in sub-Saharan Africa, but they are still far from their level of popularity in North Africa.
Finally, there is the role of the military, the best-organized institution in most African countries, including key countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and Sudan. “In sub-Saharan Africa, there tends to be a close relationship between the military and political power,” said Jon Elliott, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
He cited the example of Uganda, where Mr. Museveni is likely to keep power in Friday’s election despite a spirited opposition campaign. Although retired from the army, the Ugandan President still sometimes wears a general’s uniform at public events. “The army’s loyalties and internal culture are all about the President and the political elite,” Mr. Elliott said. “Its first priority is to protect the President.”
The contrast with North Africa could not have been sharper. In Egypt and Tunisia, the soldiers ultimately refused to protect their presidents – and two autocrats were toppled.