In many African countries, it's been a particularly tough time to be an opposition presidential candidate. Over the past several years, while some attempts to wrest power away from longtime African presidents have succeeded at the ballot box, many others have failed. Some of these failures have led to dire consequences for challengers, including arbitrary arrests and incarcerations.
Today in Uganda, for example, President Yoweri Museveni — in power for the past 30 years — was sworn in for another term after a tumultuous election campaign, during which the main opposition candidate was placed under house arrest and social media channels were blocked. Also today, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Constitutional Court ruled that President Joseph Kabila, who is seeking to have the country's constitution changed so he can run for a third term, could linger in office beyond the end of his mandated final term if national elections scheduled for November were delayed. These developments and others like it raise broader questions: Are some African countries stuck when it comes to democratic transitions? Or is unchanging autocratic leadership the natural order of things in those countries? And why are more African leaders making efforts to extend their time in office, often under controversial means?
If the primary objective for politicians is political survival, then that impulse is especially germane in some countries in Africa, where retribution for past political transgressions is a reality, given the profound weakness of some of the continent's institutions. Political power in many of these countries — even in the ones led by longtime strongmen — must not be viewed as a one-person show. Strong presidents such as Museveni, Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Rwanda's Paul Kagame, among others, are essentially chairmen of well-entrenched systems run by untold numbers of people who benefit from the continuation of the status quo. When ethnic or tribal divisions are added to the mix, the obligation to maintain the system's survival is that much more powerful. When a longtime African president faces re-election, his job is not the only one under threat — thousands of bureaucrats, business elite and tribal or ethnic groups depend on the continuation of the system.
Recent efforts on the part of many African leaders to stay in power relate to political trends thousands of kilometers away.