Our continent has had its share of despots in the post-colonial era. There was a time when it looked like they were on their way out. Sadly, for the citizens of Uganda and a handful of other African countries, despotism is again on the ascendancy. Despotism and autocratic consolidation invariably destroy good governance. At Good Governance Africa, we contend that this governance deficit not only leads to reckless (if calculated) brutality, but ultimately to insecurity for the despot himself.
Harrowing scenes from Uganda shared across social media platforms show the human carnage behind the bland statistics that at least 28 people have been killed and 557 arrested, with scores more beaten, shot or maimed in protest action against the state over the weekend. Uganda goes to the polls in 2021. As the graph below clearly demonstrates, history is simply repeating itself. The cycle of electoral violence is mirroring, almost to a tee, the 2005 eradication of presidential term limits followed by extensive intimidation and repression of any form of opposition or protest in 2006. The 2016 elections were relatively peaceful by contrast.
Museveni came to power in 1987 and is fast approaching the record for the longest-standing autocrat on the continent. Like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola, who ruled for 37 and 38 years respectively, Museveni has followed the careful script of eradicating internal opposition to his rule. External opposition has been a mere irritation in Museveni’s political calculus. At every opportunity, he has accumulated more power to himself and, in the process, minimised the probability of an internal coup being launched.
Each power-grab eroded the integrity of the internal power-sharing mechanism, reducing the probability that remaining members of the ruling coalition would band together and oust him from office. With increased personal access to power and rents, Museveni could calculate just how large he required his patronage network to be to avoid disrupting the equilibrium. The prospect of impending oil wealth simply deepens this scourge and intensifies the probability of ‘successful’ autocratic consolidation.
Given this analysis, why do we contend that the resultant governance deficit is ultimately risky for the apparently ‘successful’ autocrat? Because Mugabe and dos Santos were both removed from their perch by bloodless coups launched by their own ruling coalitions, a relatively novel occurrence in our more recent context. Moreover, even though the Arab Spring did not produce lasting governance gains, autocrats do risk widespread popular grievance against their rule. This risk is increasingly concomitant with a rising risk of organised crime and terrorism proliferation.
Extremist insurgents take advantage of local grievances. Local grievances are almost always a direct function of poor governance. In the absence of governance, public goods cannot be delivered, and broad-based economic growth cannot occur. In resource-wealthy contexts, unscrupulous extractive industry companies are often willing to pay short-term rents to politically connected gatekeepers to gain access to the relevant resource. This exacerbates local grievances. This matching of short-term politics and short-term business thinking is an explosive cocktail that destroys the long-term prospects for both.
Museveni will rue the day he neglected good governance (even before he destroyed presidential term limits) when terrorists start blowing up Uganda’s oil fields. That oil companies off the coast of Mozambique have started to employ private military companies to prevent terror attacks is just one example of the growing trend. Only a few weeks ago, the Islamic State Central Africa Province, mounted an attack on Mtwara in southern Tanzania.
The best empirical evidence we have about the resource curse shows that natural resource wealth correlates with under-development in the absence of institutions that ensure good governance. What we don’t have evidence for yet, but that we strongly predict on the basis of the trends unfolding, is that the resource curse will no longer benefit elite insiders at the expense of the majority (the traditional resource curse), but instead destroy the prospects for the very autocrat who destroyed those governance institutions.
In Uganda alone, the governance deficit is clearly on display in the graph below. The country has not scored above 0 (where -2.5 is the worst possible estimate and 2.5 the best) since 1995, according to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators.
According to the Fragile States Index (powered by The Fund for Peace), Uganda has seen a near continuous improvement since its 2016 low (but with a preceding average deterioration from 2006 to 2016). In this instance, the past decade is a poor predictor of the future.
On the Political Indicator Trends, similarly, the apparent improvement of public service delivery is undermined by a poor human rights record and a poor state legitimacy score. The country’s failure to improve its governance scores, combined with Museveni’s iron grip on power, has not only led to despair for millions of citizens but will increase the fragility of Museveni’s own position within his ruling coalition. Junior members of the coalition, with longer time horizons (and therefore lower discount rates) will possess increasingly stronger incentives to overcome their collective action problem and overthrow the ruler.
This is especially likely to be the case if the risk of extremist activity proliferates. Given the current expression of citizen grievance, and brutal state response, over poor governance, this risk is evidently growing.
The bottom line is that abrogating good governance, while apparently a useful short-term bet for personal power acquisition, is likely to lead to longer-term insecurity for the autocrat. This is a lesson that all leaders across the continent should heed. It should also lead to stronger condemnation and action from regional bodies that seem impotently intent on allowing the status quo to continue ad nauseum.
In a historic US election, President Donald Trump was ousted from office by Joe Biden. Biden won 50.8% of the popular vote, while Trump still managed 47.5% in the largest voter turnout since 1908. The presidency of Donald Trump is widely viewed as anomalous, a monstrous blip in an otherwise healthy and deeply consolidated democracy. This would be a mistake. A deeper analysis reveals that populism can take root even in societies with relatively broad-based access to political and economic opportunities.
Globalisation, accelerating apace since the end of the Cold War in 1989, has resulted in a highly uneven distribution of the gains from trade and volatility from easy flight of capital. While global GDP has ballooned, inequalities have widened, with real income growth among the top quintile rapidly outpacing middle class wage growth. Local displacement has intensified. Outsourcing or automating jobs in the name of economic efficiency has created political ruptures in historically strong democracies. These dynamics have ploughed the soil for populism to take root. The populist playbook is to exploit the fears and disappointments of the economically marginalised and subvert democratic institutions in the process.
Trump’s tantrums over alleged vote-rigging and repeated court threats are simply part of the script. The phenomenon of democratic backsliding has so arrested the attention of scholars that between 2011 and 2018 alone, 1,700 academic articles were published on the subject. In the 40 years prior, a total of 1,500 articles covering threats to democracy appeared. The fact that Biden has won out against Trump may provide some reprieve for friends of democracy across the globe, but complacency is unwarranted. Otherwise strong democratic equilibria tend to be disrupted by socio-economic inequality, financial shocks, the exploitation of extreme political views by technological interference (read Cambridge Analytica) and the resultant perpetuation of echo-chamber social-media politics.
None of these trends show any sign of abating. Worryingly, they are also mutually reinforcing, which can create path-dependent trajectories away from democracy. As scholar Daron Acemoglu has pointed out, the global factors that have contributed to growing domestic inequality in the US have not been addressed, and policymakers are far from a consensus on how this can be done. Biden’s work is cut out for him to forge bi-partisan agreement that, for instance, higher federal minimum wages and a more redistributive tax system may be desirable. Even with that in place, though, the global trend towards distrusting scientific facts and resenting elites is strengthening. Populism thrives in such contexts.
Perhaps the most concerning element of Trump’s ascendancy was the willingness of Abraham Lincoln’s 150-year-old party to acquiesce to Trump’s proposition to ride on a Republican ticket. And, typical of populist incoherence, most of what he stood for and campaigned on were diametrically opposed to orthodox republican positions such as free trade. Nonetheless, as one commentator put it, Biden has ‘sleep-walked’ into the White House and the embers of democracy are still alive in the US. Notwithstanding the warning to avoid complacency, it remains good news because, on average, democracy causes economic growth. Why? Because its ability to remove leaders like Trump is one of its enduring attractions.
Consolidated democracy, for all its inefficiencies, respects the rule of law, insists on the separation of powers, punishes corruption, and gives the citizenry a voice that produces proper accountability from the elite. This institutional strength, in turn, results in economic dynamism, as contracts are honoured and businesses can flourish. Responsible players are crowded in while irresponsible players are either crowded out or deterred from engaging in corrupt activities. In a nutshell, good governance is more likely to take root in the context of robust political competition where the opposition has a fair and credible chance of winning elections.
While the world breathes a momentary sigh of relief, African countries continue to fight for democracy to take root at all, never mind worrying about whether it will consolidate. While the evidence suggests that democratisation across the continent is advancing, on average, a number of important red flags punctuate the trend. Tanzania, soon to be among the most populous countries on the continent, held its general elections on 28 October 2020. Incumbent President John Magufuli successfully rigged the process to secure for himself an incredible 84% of the vote while the main opposition managed to eke out 13%. According to the Polity V dataset, the country’s democratic score improved from 2 (out of a possible 10) to 4 from 2014 to 2015 (the year in which Magufuli came to power).
We expect that figure to move below zero once the next set of figures is released. Not only did Magufuli rig the elections, he has ruled with an iron fist of fear, initially rooting out some petty corruption – his populist ticket – but he has since crushed civil liberties and shut down opportunities for opposition parties to engage in politics. Post-election, Tundu Lissu, chief opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt in 2017, has had to flee the country after calling for protests against the election results; this in the midst of reports that at least 150 opposition leaders and members have been arrested since 27 October, with at least 18 remaining in custody. The frequency of abductions and/or forced disappearances has ticked up significantly since Magufuli came to power.
Economic growth has been sclerotic under Magufuli’s rule as he continues to be suspicious of the private sector and insists on white elephant megaprojects such as the Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project that the country cannot afford. GDP per capita growth initially fell to 3% in 2015 (from 3.6% the year before) before recovering to 3.7% the following year. It has since fallen to 2.7%.
Magufuli came to the presidency from a weak base within the CCM – the liberation movement of Julius Nyerere – and is working hard to purge elites from within his ruling coalition who would otherwise ensure some degree of power-sharing. There is every reason to expect that Magufuli will attempt to clinch a third term in office, which would violate the constitution. He would join a long list of those who long ago eschewed term limits, a fundamental governance limit on executive power. A fundamental problem is not only that autocratic rule tends to result in misery and squalor for the majority, but that governance-dismantling autocrats seem to spur each other on across borders.
Zambia’s elections are set for 2021, and President Edgar Lungu appears to be taking a leaf out of the Magufuli playbook but with some variety to spice up the mix, drawing on Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwean script too. It appears that his strategy for rigging the elections is to amend the constitution to allow coalition formation (instead of a runoff second ballot between the top two candidates) in the case of no candidate winning more than 50% of the vote. He brought this infamous “Bill 10” to parliament at the end of October but it failed (though by a margin of only 6 votes). At least this strategy indicates that Lungu is scared of losing the popular vote and does not have Magufuli-like power to simply rig the election to an arbitrary winning proportion of his pre-selected choice.
The opposition has a strong likelihood of winning the election, though Hakainde Hichilema – the leader of the opposition – is undoubtedly keen to avoid more jail time at the hands of Lungu’s trumped-up charges (as has happened before). Analysts expect that Lungu, on failing to win Bill 10, will now simply abolish the current voters’ register and create a new one more favourable to his prospects. The graph below indicates a surge of violence around the 2016 elections that saw Lungu gain a second term in office. As Natasha Chilundika has written over at Democracy in Africa, we really need to avoid a repetition of this come 2021.
Slightly further afield in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. Still going strong, according to scholar Moses Khisa, Museveni has “run roughshod over important constitutional and institutional safeguards, checks and balances that were enshrined in what was a relatively progressive and liberal  constitution”. Museveni is edging in on the 38-year rule exercised by Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, and the 37-year reign by Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (both upended by their own ruling coalitions in 2017). Museveni’s assault on democracy began in 2003 with an eradication of constitutional term limits.
In addition to subverting apparently democratic institutions to advance authoritarian ends (by co-opting and corrupting the judiciary, for instance), he has also used external security threats as a cover under which to criminalise otherwise legitimate political activities. Museveni has had Kizza Besigye, his main opposition, arrested more than 1,000 times. A period of relative calm prevailed between 2007 and 2013, but violence against citizens has been on the rise, with incidents this year alone matching the 2006 data. The prospect of commercial oil revenues will further embolden Museveni’s autocratic stranglehold through enabling him to distribute patronage to a carefully selected circle of insiders and repress outsiders.
On the subject of Mugabe and dos Santos, their removal tells an important story. Autocrats who successfully consolidate power are almost always only removed by an internal coup or death in office. Very few in contemporary history have been upended by democratic forces. The risk of further autocratic consolidation is, therefore, immediately at hand. In Russia, Joseph Stalin’s death did not suddenly usher in democratic rule. Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold over the ruling coalition in Russia today is evidence enough to show that new autocrats are likely to gain ascendancy and the fight for democracy to take root requires far more than the removal of one autocrat. It requires the slow, hard work of establishing governance institutions that respect the rule of the people by the people.
In both Zimbabwe and Angola, new autocrats have arisen. Mnangagwa and Lourenco respectively came to power through removing their long-standing leaders who had placed family members ahead of party loyalists, threatening their access to power and rents. One may have expected that some kind of power-sharing mechanism would be re-established in both Zanu-PF and the MPLA respectively, but there is little cause for optimism on the basis of the current evidence. Both incumbents enjoy vast access to resource wealth, again enabling the distribution of rents to a select circle of loyalists and careful elimination of internal and external threats to their rule.
Citizen attempts to protest against grand corruption in Zimbabwe around July this year resulted in a rapid rise in disappearances, abductions, torture and arrests – these have not yet been captured in the data below, but the graph still paints a terrifying picture of the militarised regime’s willingness to exercise repression to prevent any accountability. With elections set for 2023, we can either expect to see further violence escalation or an indefinite postponement of elections altogether.
A similar pattern emerges from Angola, with violence against citizens increasing again in the aftermath of the 2017 elections that saw Lourenco come to power through a rigged election. Unlike Magufuli’s CCM, though, the MPLA chose a winning figure of nearer to 60% than 80%.
For all one might say about the Trumpian episode in US politics and its dangerous flirtation with autocracy, the fact is that the vote matters in the US and Trump is out (or at least probably will be with Republicans now also losing patience with his intransigence). Americans have exercised their voice. Moreover, no matter whether one resonates with Kamala Harris’s political views, it is a significant feat that an African-American woman has ascended to the White House (and the first woman vice-president in US history) despite so much underlying racial tension in the country.
It is easy to be despondent about the deep structural divides that threaten to disrupt the US democratic equilibrium, but the fact that it has stood firm should encourage us to war against the proliferating autocratic threats to democracy in many African countries. Of course, the continent is not without hope, and the general trend is arguably positive. But it would be amiss of us to ignore the warning signs in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, not to mention Ethiopia (in which the risk of a full-blown civil war escalates daily), the DRC, Nigeria and Mozambique. Mozambique, in the context of poor governance, deep local grievances and a poverty trap, is fertile soil for the rise of violent extremism. It’s an explosive cocktail that risks spilling over into neighbouring countries.
One recent light in these otherwise dark trajectories, though, is Malawi. Small and poor, for sure, the country is wracked by a history of corruption and extensive poverty. Nonetheless, when Lazarus Chakwera came to power earlier in 2020, in the midst of a global Covid-19 pandemic, he showed that it is possible for the judiciary to stand firm against an incumbent executive bent on staying in power and for the people to vote that president out in an election re-run. This should be celebrated loudly, if cautiously, and remind us that it all starts with governance.
As Dr Grieve Chelwa has quipped, SCOTUS might do well to cite the Malawian court case should Trump successfully get to the Supreme Court over his allegation that the US election results were rigged. We should never give up in our quest to build governance institutions that prevent the abuse of power and give the people a voice.
The Robert Mugabe-led government’s response to the Willowgate scandal in Zimbabwe will go down in history as a missed opportunity for setting a precedent of combatting malfeasance. Although there had been earlier corruption scandals, like the Paweni grain supply scandal in the early 1980s, Willowgate is one of the country’s biggest “grand corruption” scandals, with some of its surviving beneficiaries, like Fredrick Shava and Jacob Mudenda, still enjoying the fruits of a culture of clientelism in the form of plum diplomatic assignments and continued service in public offices.
Malfeasance has become endemic in post-colonial Zimbabwe, as evidenced by other scandals dotted between Willowgate and Covidgate (also known as Draxgate, the 2020 COVID-19 medical supplies corruption scandal). There is a structural corruption continuum that has reinforced each president’s hold on power and enabled political elites’ personal enrichment. The evident absence of political will by the two respective presidents to acknowledge and support legitimate anti-corruption citizen initiatives reveals their compromised standing in this regard.
Firstly, President Robert Mugabe consciously and conveniently ignored Willowgate. This scandal occurred only four years after President Robert Mugabe launched the ZANU-PF Leadership Code that he ostensibly instituted to combat corruption after the Paweni grain scandal. The main consequence of him and his ruling coalition’s response to the Willowgate scandal has been the entrenchment, over at least three decades, of a culture of corruption in general, but also malfeasance with impunity. As indicated by the graphic below, the perception of corruption in the very institutions that are meant to uphold the rule of law and minimise malfeasance is widespread among citizens:
Mwatwara and Mujere’s analysis of grand corruption in Zimbabwe echoes these sentiments, noting that “in post-colonial Zimbabwe, the scourge has worsened because of the culture of impunity that the current government has established, especially in cases where politicians are involved”. Public resources meant to support critical services in various sectors such as public health and education continue to be misappropriated and plundered without any political will to deter, punish or even recover and restore them to their rightful use of improving services and developing public infrastructure.
The prevalence of malfeasance in the health ministry at such a critical juncture – when the world’s resources are being channelled towards strengthening healthcare systems in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic – has proven beyond reasonable doubt that ordinary citizens bear the greatest brunt of high-level corruption. The 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) notes: “This commitment to saving livelihoods cannot be separated from the political commitment to transparency and accountability towards eradicating endemic corruption for such measures to be affected and effective. Alas, in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, clientelism continues to mar such commitment through corruption scandals involving senior government officials and their families.”
Although the Zimbabwean Constitution provides for mechanisms to ensure the integrity and accountability of public officials, the investigations, prosecutions and sanctions of such identified cases has largely remained cosmetic. The government’s response has instead been an onslaught against citizen expression and media freedom. Three decades on, the response is still designed to protect the offender and disable, censor and even punish the whistle-blower. The sense of de javu in Geoff Nyarota’s dismissal from being editor of The Chronicle after exposing Willowgate and Hopewell Chin’ono’s arrest on 20 of July 2020 for engaging in an unwavering social media anti-corruption campaign, is crushing.
In a bid to ignore the corruption scandal, Hopewell Chin’ono’s arrest was framed conveniently as “inciting public violence” and not as exposing malfeasance. Although he was eventually granted bail after 44 days in pre-trial detention at the notorious Chikurubi prison, the stringent bail conditions that curtail his freedom of movement and bar him from using Twitter are testimony to the risks that accompany investigative journalism and the anti-corruption crusade. Further to this, Hopewell’s case points to how this endemic corruption has eroded, in its wake, the independence of the country’s judiciary.
To ensure the protection of public officials, there is a clear plot to control the operations of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, whose chairperson, Justice Loice Matanda Moyo, is wife to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and November 2017 coup announcer Sibusiso Moyo. It is a clear case of a conflict of interest.
Further to this, there is now a structural threat to the freedom of the judiciary in Chief Justice Malaba’s memorandum directing that all judgments are to be “seen and approved by the head of court division” before being issued. While this was strongly contested, the directive’s threat to the independence of the judiciary is evident in the delays and uncertainties that characterised Hopewell Chin’ono’s case. He was not only denied bail three times but was deprived even of his right to fair legal representation. The targeted personal attacks on his lead lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, her intimidation and subsequent barring from representing him, all point to the multi-sectoral cost of malfeasance in Zimbabwe. It has not only eroded the country’s economy but tragically, the independence of institutions that are meant to protect the citizens.
However, the Zimbabwean case confirms that despite the supreme law of the land having clearly defined provisions for combating corruption, this is insufficient. Much more needs to be done, as noted by the IIAG, to combat “the culture of clientelism that has bred continued disinvestment in infrastructure on the African continent”. Transparency International’s Delia Ferreira Rubio observes a correlation between high levels of corruption and weak rule of law, curtailed access to information and reduced citizen participation. Corruption is a threat to citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms. Transparency International calls for strategies that will nip corruption in the bud, such as putting in place legal frameworks and institutions that reduce impunity for the corrupt and enlarging space for civil society voices as well as entrenching integrity and values through education.
As Zimbabwean citizens continue to dispute the legitimacy of the current government, it is worth imagining a different future, a future in which adequately punitive and judiciously executed consequences (that serve as a sufficient deterrent to corruption) are instituted. The Zimbabwean fight against malfeasance must indeed go beyond the verbal remonstrations characteristic of both eras, and the “catch and release” approach that has largely been a feature of the Mnangagwa regime.
This article originally appeared in Business Day.