Keith Somerville, University of Kent
Hopes of progression along a reformist democratic path in some key sub-Saharan African states appear to be receding. Greater democracy, enhanced freedom of speech and the media have all suffered setbacks in some countries where hopes of long-term change were high.
A number of African political systems have appeared to slip back from the promise of the 1990s. Hopes of more democratic and accountable systems in which the people would be empowered and able to hold leaders to account have begun to fade.
That is what has become of the three 1990s poster boys of the new politics in Africa – Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia. For a period they were held up as the stars of the now increasingly discredited “Africa Rising” narrative. They became repositories of hope that decades of conflict and, in Rwanda’s case genocide, would be replaced by accountable governments and systems of rule. But today their political trajectories are clearly blocking the path to meaningful popular empowerment.
Over time their leaders have strengthened their hold on power, entrenched themselves and reduced accountability. In doing this, they have been able to play on Western security concerns in eastern and central Africa. This has replaced the earlier good governance mantras. The “War on Terror” and fear of instability are greater drivers of Western policy than encouraging the rule of law and democratic freedoms.
This trend is set out well in a new study of the links between insurgent authoritarianism and Western aid in Africa, and is captured well in the very interesting collection, “Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa”.
But the contributors also observe that it’s not all gloom and doom. There has been progress in empowerment and accountability in some areas.
Playing the security card
Take Uganda. Echoes of the good governance mantras of the late 1980s and 1990s can still be heard periodically in Western statements on aid to African states. But, in fact, the country’s President Yoweri Museveni and his supporters have militarised, centralised and personalised power. They have created a repressive system of government in which elections are held, fixed and used as just another way of entrenching power. State and informal coercive instruments have been used to
intimidate, harass and terrorise perceived opponents of the state [page 67].
David Anderson and Jonathan Fisher’s well-focused contribution sets out the success with which Museveni has deployed these various weapons. They explain how he has been able to play on Western fears of regional instability to retain budgetary and military aid that bolsters his ability to hold on to power. His latest comments on withdrawing Ugandan troops from Somalia by the end of 2017 may be part of a new attempt to put pressure on the West to maintain support for him, despite misgivings about the election and moves against opponents and the free press.
He wasn’t alone in doing this. The volume highlights the strategies that regimes in Rwanda and Ethiopia have also developed to deal with donors to ensure a range of favourable outcomes. These include:
that conditionality is on paper only;
that the contribution of those countries to ensuring stability in a volatile region stretching from Congo to Eritrea to Somalia is paramount; and
in presenting an image of planned and controlled development the regimes can demonstrate – in technical terms – efficient use of some of the aid.
The chapters on the three countries, along with Nicolas van der Walle’s well-argued conclusion, show how the good governance slogans and conditionality clauses were just paper tigers. They never had real bite, especially in the face of skilled and single-minded politicians like Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
They cottoned on from the start that lip-service was all that was really required. This was especially as they were restoring stability and security in their own states, and contributing to Western strategies for ending or limiting conflict in what had been a volatile region. They were able to argue that their non-party or ethnically inclusive approaches were long-term strategies for developing internal stability and indigenous democratic forms.
In fact they were using their political experiments to consolidate power. If this didn’t work, they would confront donors and in effect dare them to withdraw aid and see how far that got them.
Their ability to resist conditionality and continue to garner substantial budgetary and military support was bolstered by 9/11 and the launch of the War on Terror. They were able to argue that they were sources of stability and key military allies in a region that could provide a foothold for Islamist movements antagonistic towards Western interests.
The support they garnered enabled them to entrench power at home while being key links in the security chains the West wanted in place to shackle Islamist or other movements perceived as…