Strongmen or strong institutions? Obama just didn’t get it, did he?

Saturday June 25 2016

Frederick Golooba Mutebi


By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

There is a fashionable view about Africa that is slowly but steadily gathering momentum. As with all things fashionable, it has a huge clientele and so sells well and fast.

Things in Africa are really bad these days, apparently. Why is that? Well, apparently democracy on the continent has either stalled or is suffering serious reversals.

Outspoken proponents of this “things are bad” view point to specific trends to advance their argument. Governments in power, this argument goes, are led by despots who do not tolerate opposition.

Underlying this view is the idea that the failure by opposition parties or groups to make headway in their quest for power is a direct consequence of the intolerance of current power holders. And then, of course, sitting governments owe their electoral victories to fraud and rigging. Had they not rigged, they would never have won.

Underlying this position is the assumption that opposition groups are so popular that all it would take for them to take power are fraud-free elections.

Yes, it would be that simple, apparently. The story is selling well in Uganda right now. One hardly hears anyone challenging that narrative. And so, this has become the “truth” about Africa.

Democracy activists and those who love lamenting the death of democracy in Africa, also claim that there can be no democracy without “a strong opposition” or “strong institutions.”

Again, no debate; so it is all “true.” Over here in the Great Lakes region, Rwanda comes in for much bashing because “there is no opposition there” and, anyway, “it is a one-man show” where “everything depends on Kagame.” You want to question that? Only if you don’t mind the label: “Kagame apologist”.

Tanzania apparently elected a despot the other day. Tanzanians who only over a year ago were presumably drowning in democracy, were also unhappy about “lack of leadership” under Jakaya Kikwete who many criticised for being “too laid back” and unwilling to make difficult or unpopular decisions.

Today they have the Bulldozer, John Pombe Magufuli, who is famously allergic to many things, among them sloth, indiscipline, incompetence, corruption, and dirt. Since he came to power, Bulldozer has been cleaning up the place and doing so robustly, using the “no-nonsense” approach Tanzanians seemed to be looking for as they said good bye to JK.

The trouble is, opposition groups and other populists who stand in the Bulldozer’s way are being swept aside. Now the same Tanzanians who were hungry for “change” and for a leader who was “a man of action” and not corrupt, are unhappy.

“The man is a dictator,” is the new chorus from Tanzanians who have now decided they don’t like strong leadership after all. Would Bulldozer succeed with a strong opposition? Some evidence from Ghana, arguably Africa’s foremost democracy, suggests not. But that sort of reasoning does not sell well here.

A little farther north, there is Ethiopia. Its government gets things done and has a strong record of real achievement. Terrible dictatorship, nasty place, we are told. Why? No opposition. No democracy.

As for Eritrea, if ever there was an African gulag, that is where one finds it. In a recent BBC broadcast, a UN apparatchik who has not been to the country in a long time was emphatic about how generally nasty the place is.

However, a BBC journalist reporting from inside the country was a lot more nuanced, as were many Eritreans she interviewed. None of the Eritreans portrayed their president as an angel or their country as some kind of paradise. But also none said it was a generally nasty place, as the UN chap would have the world believe.

Some said they wanted to leave, others were happy to stay and help build their country. The broadcast, testimony to popular distortions and selective judgement, has stuck in my mind since.

Of course, there are exceptions. Ghana, with its highly competitive political system and regular changes in government, of which Ghanaians are justly proud, is one. Indeed, it was while visiting the country that Barack Obama coined his highly quotable and much-parroted phrase “Africa needs strong institutions, not strongmen.”

Listen to democracy activists and you’re likely to hear “Ghana is doing so well” and how “the rest of Africa” needs to emulate it.

So how good are Ghana’s governments, products of enviable political competition, at getting things done? There can be no simple answer to such a question. However, when it was put to him recently, a well-travelled Ghanaian academic used a simple example to illustrate his view that they aren’t that good.

Apparently, not too long ago, the current government decided it wanted a particularly filthy part of Accra cleaned up and rid of illegally constructed kiosks. The kiosk owners were not amused. The country’s “strong opposition” smelt an opportunity. They came out strongly to oppose the plans.

The kiosk owners cheered. The government, afraid of courting bad publicity, becoming unpopular and losing support, backed down. The opposition had won. The filth and chaos were preserved. Given all this, should we say: “Things are bad” in Africa? Clearly, it depends on where you’re looking and what you’re looking at.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]