reflections

The Forces That Shape Africa's Strongmen

6 MINS READMay 13, 2016 | 01:58 GMT
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, riding with his wife to a campaign rally Feb. 16, has used his government's control over the nation's resources to remain in power for decades.
(ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, riding with his wife to a campaign rally Feb. 16, has used his government's control over the nation's resources to remain in power for decades.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

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.

During the Cold War, the overarching motivation of the West was to prevent the spread of Soviet influence and communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the strength of Western political influence and institutions pushed African authoritarians in the 1990s and early 2000s to adopt democratic reforms, including presidential term limits. Many of the same rulers who were in power then have begun to hit these term limits. The imperative to continue the ruling systems built around them has prompted several African presidents to try to amend constitutions to extend their time in office. And while Western governments and institutions may balk at the power grabs, there is little motivation to expend the political capital to resist such actions.
 
Museveni and Kabila operate in widely different political environments, but they share the urge of political survival. In Uganda, Museveni oversees a tightly run system built on the marriage of the government and the military. His administration firmly holds control of resources in the landlocked country, using that control to maintain its grip on the military and other key institutions, to support local constituencies, and to execute well-planned and targeted spending measures to increase local development. Museveni has opened the country's economy, which has blossomed under his rule, giving him relatively high levels of support despite tough tactics used against the opposition. This allows him to easily deal with a fragmented opposition that cannot challenge him in any meaningful way. He has wielded crackdowns and broad patronage in equal measure to attain longevity in office. The Ugandan military's prominent role in regional stabilization missions, such as in Somalia, helps keep Western criticism from turning to greater action.
 
In the Congo, on the other hand, Kabila faces a tougher challenge to stay on top. For one, the size of the country — roughly the same as Western Europe — has inhibited the full establishment of central authority. Regional uprisings are a frequent occurrence, and external influence from regional or international powers has historically fueled rebellions. Without central control, Kabila is unable to clamp down on dissent by withdrawing resources. For him to maintain a semblance of authority over the country, he must balance the divergent interests of numerous factions in a system that his father, the former president, assembled to form a government. That system, created by reintegrating various former rebel units into the armed forces, is fragile, and groups frequently split away. Over time, these defections divide the military. He must shuffle commanders from area to area so that no single faction or ethnic group dominates a single military unit. This juggling act weakens the unity of command and gives Kabila only precarious control over the military. It also undermines loyalty to his government. These factors help explain the pressure he faces to expand his power, even through dubious means. In his situation, to adapt the adage, if you're not at the head of the table, then you're likely on the menu.
 
Some African countries, such as South Africa and Tanzania, have been able to resist strongman rule. But while the person who holds the presidency in those two countries changes, the political party generally does not. The African National Congress, the liberation-era party of South Africa, has been in continuous control of the country since 1994. Tanzania's Chama Cha Mapinduzi is the longest-ruling party in Africa; it has been in power since independence in 1961. Thus, while the intraparty process might be competitive, the broader political system is less so.
 
In other African countries, such as Nigeria and Kenya, the opposition overcame entrenched powers, guiding those nations beyond both strongman and single-party rule. Nigeria saw a significant transfer in power from military to civilian rule in 1999, and the equally significant transfer from ruling to opposition party in 2015. In 2002, the Kenya African National Union gave up power after nearly 40 years of dominance, allowing a peaceful power transition.
 
While the strongman or single-party dynamic is a powerful force in Africa, the reasons it continues to hold sway in some countries has less to do with the continent itself and more to do with the decades-long maturation of political systems. This reality, however, likely gives little solace to many of Africa's opposition movements.

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