In the past year, there has been increasing commentary about the “rise of dictatorship” in East Africa.
It hasn’t been a good time, to be honest: more conflict, lopsided or disputed elections with incumbents taking a huge chunk of the vote, Internet shutdowns, crackdowns on independent media and civil society, and more such shenanigans.
That said, at least half of East Africa is still partly free. But what would an East African ruled by dictators look like? Might it have any benefits?
One area that would do well in an authoritarian East Africa is infrastructure. The decision on the path of the Uganda oil pipeline would have been taken more quickly.
Kenya’s bid for it was, in the end, hobbled by cost. And the high cost came partly from having to compensate people along whose land the oil pipeline would have passed, and how much that compensation would be.
In a good old dictatorship, you just send in the soldiers to bulldoze the homes along the path of new roads, railways, and pipelines, and shoot the people who protest, end of story.
The standard gauge railway would now long have passed through Kenya, and at the Uganda-Rwanda border beginning its journey toward Kigali.
There is a catch though. It assumes that all of East Africa’s six dictators would be enlightened. Secondly, that there would be zero corruption.
Otherwise, there would be no guarantee that the Kenyan, Ugandan, and Rwanda would all buy into the benefits of the standard gauge railway. They could change, if for example they woke up in a bad mood having quarrelled with the First Lady in the night.
Then, because there were no democratic restraints on them, they could decide to inflate the cost of the project and line their pockets. Most infrastructure projects, while they might get quick approvals, would never get built because they would be too expensive.
In addition, there would probably be no continuity once a dictator fell and was replaced by another one. The next tyrant could decide that he doesn’t like the idea of an East African passport, or one-stop border posts, and get rid of them.
The strange mix of a quarter-cum-half-democratic order we have today, means that the logic of representation is extended everywhere, and so you have the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). Though it doesn’t seem to much shape the architecture of the EAC, it brings together a choir that provides an important integration soundtrack for the region.
The extreme end
If we had lockdown dictatorships, I also suspect we would have more armed rebel groups in the bush fighting to overthrow them.
There would also be no digital economy of any sort, because the evidence seems to suggest that it, and Internet penetration, is partly driven by some level of democratic demand.
Citizens who have the space to blog without the fear that they would be killed by the secret police in the night for saying things or posting photos that haven’t been approved by the government, to tinker with creating things like payment systems, or to establish online stores, are the ones that drive digital investments.
So yes, democracy in East Africa is in the emergency room. However the day it dies kabisa (completely) you will know its gone because you will not read about it.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]