East Africa sliding back to strongman rule despite major democratic gains

Saturday December 16 2017

While Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan

While Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan have been under authoritarian rule, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have been cited for clawing back on democratic gains. PHOTO FILE | NMG 

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East African states are experiencing what civil society bodies fear is a re-emergence of the African strongman syndrome.

While Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan have been under authoritarian rule, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have been cited for clawing back on democratic gains.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza have tinkered with or defied their constitutions to extend their tenures.

Western powers

And Western powers which used to keep African strongmen in check by putting pressure on the Bretton Wood institutions such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund to withhold loans, no longer have that leverage, thanks to easy money from China.

In addition, many African countries now finance development through sovereign loans.


Governance experts say that the United States and other Western countries appear to be developing fatigue combined with other pressing national issues such as race relations, migration, populism, gains by far right leaders and organisations as well as the decline of their economies.

All of these have forced Western powers to be more inward looking. For instance, President Donald Trump’s rallying call of “Make America Great Again” means that US policy is now focused on domestic rather than global affairs. 

Re-emerging dictatorship

According to Nicodemus Minde, a Tanzanian political commentator, the re-emerging dictatorship trend in East Africa is paradoxical because it is partly attributed to the growing strength of the opposition in the respective countries.

“Opposition political parties and civil society pressure groups have grown in strength, which has threatened the political establishment. For example, in the last elections in Tanzania, a consolidated opposition scared the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi, while in Kenya the opposition managed to overturn presidential elections through the courts for the first time in Africa,” he said.  

Mr Minde observed that in Uganda, the Forum for Democratic Change has narrowed the losing margin in national elections, although the credibility of the elections has been questioned, while in Burundi, the army almost overthrew President Pierre Nkurunziza.

“The emergence of strong opposition has forced the ruling parties to galvanise and in effect entrenched authoritarianism. The ruling parties have suppressed the opposition, curtailed media freedom, trade unions and civil society,” said Mr Minde.

Top on the list is the current concern among the Kenyan opposition that President Uhuru Kenyatta is adopting a high-handed approach to politics and national policy, despite the country having passed a new Constitution in 2010 that is considered one of the most progressive on the continent.

The opposition National Super Alliance (Nasa) led by Raila Odinga has vowed not to recognise Kenyatta’s presidency on the grounds that the October repeat presidential election was “a sham.”

Mr Odinga claims that more than 50 of his supporters have been killed by police since the August 8 presidential election was nullified, and that the country is sliding back to a dictatorship reminiscent of former ruling party, Kanu. Nasa boycotted the repeat presidential election of October 26.

Sustainable democracy

“What matters is that sustainable democracy must have very deep homegrown roots. Even a country like Kenya can at best only be described as semi-democratic or partially free. What is of concern is if Kenyans themselves ceased to yearn for democracy,” said Dr Minde.

In Uganda, President Museveni has moved from the liberator who rescued the country from two decades of political turmoil, progressively watering down the 1995 Constitution that was to correct the ills of former regimes, through self-centred amendments.

It started in 2005 when he removed the two-term limit. Currently, the Ugandan opposition is up in arms as the ruling National Resistance Movement is pushing for the removal of the age limit of 75 years for presidential candidates.

The Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee members in mid-December endorsed sweeping constitutional amendments that include the removal of the age limit and extension of presidential terms from five to seven years.

The NRM members maintain that there are many leaders all over the world who are above 75 and that many prosperous countries like the US don’t have age restrictions.

President Museveni has since supported the removal of the age limit and the seven-year term, although Article 105 (1), which provides for a five-year presidential term, was not among the earlier proposed constitutional amendments.

Tanzania's political agitation

Previously a politically placid society, Tanzania is now experiencing political agitation since President John Magufuli took over in October 2015.

Nicknamed “the bulldozer” for his strict leadership style and his fight against corruption, President Magufuli has adopted a high-handed approach, which started with the banning of political rallies by the opposition.

In early December, 38 members of the opposition, including two legislators were detained for almost two weeks while awaiting charges of illegal assembly, damaging property and incitement to violence.

However, President Magufuli has rejected recent campaigns by some CCM members to change the Constitution to remove the two-term limit.

Mr Minde says that President Magufuli has fallen victim of the prevalent personalisation of leadership in the region as witnessed in  Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tanzania is the sole East African country that has neither signed nor ratified the African Union Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

The charter, adopted in 2007, requires governments to manage their countries transparently, fairly and respect their constitutions without denying eligible persons the right to vote.

Pierre Nkurunziza

In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza — who contested the 2015 elections despite international protest — has now started a campaign to change the Constitution that could see him rule until 2034.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame maintains a firm grip on the country, giving little room to opposition politicians, some of whom have been charged with various offences for daring to contest against him.

Diane Shima Rwigara, who unsuccessfully tried to contest the August presidential election, is currently on trial on charges of forgery, non-payment of taxes, inciting insurrection and promoting sectarianism.

South Sudan on the other hand, remains untested since the country continues to experience political instability and civil war only three years after Independence in 2011.