The second wave of democratization in Africa, beginning in the 80s, and the gradual establishment of democracy as the new normal in the continent brought much hope and excitement. As we have seen in the recent intervention by the military in Zimbabwe, coup d’etats have become unpopular and unacceptable in the entire continent in deference perhaps to dominant global politics. In the past two decades, there have been many electoral transitions across the continent indicative of a pattern of democratic consolidation. In reality, however, mercenaries of democracy, dictators and a military culture dominate African politics. The form of governance may have changed, but the form of politics has remained seemingly unchangeable.
We are forcefully reminded of this by certain recent developments across the continent. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza has just ensured that the officials of a football team, which rough-tackled him during a football match last year, have been sent to prison. Nkurunziza, a graduate of Sports Education (1990), loves to play football, even as President. He owns a football team, Haleluia FC, and a choir, “Kameza gusenga” which means “pray non-stop”. President Nkurunziza is a member of his football team and he actually joins them to take part in tournaments, friendlies and other matches, fully attired in the club’s colours.
A day may well come when the President may decide to play for the national team, prompting concerns across Burundi that the President plays too much football, instead of attending to state matters. Nkurunziza had his day on the field when Haleluia FC met Kiremba FC. If in previous matches the President was treated with respect, and even allowed to score, the Kiremba soccer team was not ready for that. They played man to man, and treated the match with professional seriousness. They tackled the President each time he had the ball. He fell on the pitch several times.
It is for this reason the administrator of Kiremba FC, Cyriaque Nkezabahizi and his assistant, Michel Mutama are now in prison, having been charged and tried for a curious felony called “conspiracy against the President”! Nkurunziza may be a sports graduate, and even taught the subject for a while at the university level, but he is not in any way a sportsman. Like his other colleagues across Africa, he is a dictator who likes to have his way. Football is a body-contact sport, like rugby, boxing and wrestling. Not even the almighty Lionel Messi or Neymar or the skillful Cristiano Ronaldo, with all their accomplishments in the sport expect to be treated like royalty in a football match. Like Nkurunziza, most African leaders do not like to play by the rules. They like to cheat and force their options down the people’s throats.
This same Nkurunziza who came to power in 2005, refused to go after the expiration of his constitutional tenure of two terms in 2015. He insisted on having a third term. Protests by the people were suppressed, media houses were shut down, journalists were detained, members of the opposition were harassed, after two months more than 200 persons had been killed and hundreds of thousands had fled into exile. Nkurunziza had his way. He likes jogging, but when members of the opposition also began organizing Saturday morning joggings, he placed a ban on jogging across the country. He is the only one who is allowed to enjoy the pleasure of jogging as he wishes, in a country of 12 million people.
He is not the only African leader however who has been able to get away with a third term in office through a violation and manipulation of the Constitution. To many African leaders, the Constitution does not matter at all. In Rwanda, Paul Kagame, President since 2003, completed his constitutionally stipulated second term in 2017, but the constitution was altered to allow him serve for a third term, and now the constitution has been further altered to keep Kagame in power till 2034. The excuse is that he is doing a good job and that there is no alternative to him. The only person who summoned the courage to challenge Kagame in 2017, a lady, Diane Rwigara was harassed and detained. Her nude pictures were posted on the internet. This no-alternative thing is a dubious misinterpretation of democracy in Africa. And it is one of the stupid points being canvassed in Nigeria, currently, by those who want President Muhammadu Buhari to remain in office beyond 2019, despite growing protests that he should be a one-term President. Nigeria is a country of about 200 million people. Is it not the height of idiocy to say that there is no alternative to Buhari?
Africa is not in short supply of mercenaries who mouth such idiocy and actively give effect to it. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 46-year old Joseph Kabila whose two terms in office expired close to two years ago has refused to organize elections. He negotiated a one-year extension till 2017, but despite protests, and international objections, he has extended the election time-table till December 2018 on the ground that there are “logistical problems”. Now, the country’s electoral commission has further announced that no Presidential election can possibly take place in the DRC before April 2019. Various militias, rebel groups, and civil society organisations, backed by the Catholic Church are insisting that Joseph Kabila will not be allowed to rule the DRC forever. Widespread violence has made the DRC politically unstable and fragile, but Joseph Kabila cannot be bothered.
The standard African response is to descend on the opposition, including political parties, journalists, writers, human rights activists and thinkers as harshly as possible. The African man of power does not understand that the right to protest, to differ and to express an opinion is part of democracy. In Togo, there is an ongoing popular protest titled “Faure Must Go”. President Faure Gnassingbe has been in power since 2005. He succeeded his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled Togo for 38 years. With the Constitution of Togo not indicating any Presidential term limits, the Togolese opposition has been leading a series of protests to demand for such term limits – a restriction to a maximum of two, five-year terms and a two-round voting system. Faure wants to rule forever like his father, and so, even in spite of mediation by Ghana and Guinea, he has been sending soldiers after the protesters. The opposition in Africa is probably the most abused in the world.
Go to Egypt. Egypt goes to the polls on March 26 but incumbent President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi does not want any opposition. He has taken every measure to scare away every person who has shown interest in competing with him for the office. One Presidential aspirant, Colonel Ahmed Konsowa was accused and convicted for “expressing political opinions as a serving military officer”. Another, Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, after being detained by the Egyptian military, had to call off his presidential bid. He was accused of “blatant legal violations (and) a serious breach of the laws of military service.” Other aspirants – Mortada Mansour, Khaled Ali and Mohammed Anwar al-Sadat have all dropped their presidential ambitions because they could not stand the climate of fear imposed by President Sisi.
Only one aspirant is still standing, Mousa Moustafa Mousa and he is, because the court saved him. The ruling party had asked for his disqualification on the grounds that he does not have a certified university or higher education degree. This is a minimum requirement for the Presidential office in Egypt. I hope some Nigerians would take special note of this! The Supreme Administrative Court has now ruled that Mousa Mousa indeed holds an MA in Architecture from a French University, and the National Electoral Authority has certified this, thus putting paid to the orchestrated possibility of President Sisi getting a second term unopposed. Still Sisi is not prepared to lose. He has declared that anybody or “forces of evil” who defame the country’s security forces through “the broadcast and publication of lies and false news” would be charged for “high treason.” He is of course referring to himself and not necessarily the military operation in the Northern Sinai Peninsula.
Absolute power corrupts and so it is also with Cameroon’s Paul Biya and Equitorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Cameroon has been battling secessionist rebellion in North West and South West parts of the country. The Biya government has done everything possibly negative to suppress the people of the proposed Ambazonia Republic including detention, police brutality, internet black-out, curfews, arrests and intimidation. When about 50 of the rebels, including their leader, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe fled across the border, they were chased all the way to Nigeria, where they were arrested by the Nigerian authorities on Cameroon’s request and repatriated. This couldn’t have been a difficult request for the Buhari government to accede to, given the fact that it had also launched a military operation against would-be secessionists in the Eastern part of Nigeria. Paul Biya also probably learnt a lesson from Nigeria or perhaps it was the old fox just being himself. He has just appointed two persons from the aggrieved North West/South-West of Cameroon into his newly reconstituted cabinet to assuage fears of marginalization by the Ambazonians. One of the portfolios is that of the Minister of Interior. The average African leader is manipulative and trickish. In Biya’s case, it is worse. He is 85, he has been in power for more than three decades, and he still plans to run for election this year. His opponent from the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF) is likely to be a 49-year old, Joshua Osih. Biya is Cameroon’s Mugabe.
His sit-tight colleague in Equatorial Guinea is no better. Last week, Mbasogo proscribed the main opposition party in the country, the Citizens for Innovation (CI) for allegedly undermining state security. In November 2017, there were clashes between CI supporters and armed policemen. Party leaders have argued that their supporters did not carry any arms, and that they were only campaigning. 21 of them have been sentenced to 26 years imprisonment for sedition, and 10 years for breach of authority, and fined 210,000 Euros along with their party! I suspect that CI’s main offence would be that of having the audacity to win one seat in parliament in that country’s last elections, while the ruling party won 99 seats out of 100 seats. That makes Teodoro Mbasogo uncomfortable: he cannot afford the growth of opposition in his country, or anything that would threaten his plan to hand over power eventually to his first son, 48-year old Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue who is currently the First Vice President in charge of defence and security and the oil and gas sector.
First sons and first daughters are often part of the political equation. Togo’s Faure, DRC’s Kabila, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodorin, and Angola’s former first daughter, Isabel dos Santos. They share power with their father and possibly succeed him, and if not, they could become as wealthy as Isabel. This is why it baffles me that Nigerians are always hypertensive anytime they see first or second sons and daughters in the corridors of power enjoying privileges extended to them by their fathers. The Minister of State for Health received Yusuf Buhari at the airport and they won’t allow us rest. What if the President had sent Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to the airport? He would refuse to go?
The sad part of the African story is that even when you discover a President who seems to be doing well, he does well only for a while, before he begins to misbehave like the rest. Take John Pombe Magufuli, the developmental President of Tanzania, the “Bulldozer.” In nearly three years in office, he has brought fresh energy and creativity to governance in Tanzania. He has waged war against indolence, incompetence, corruption, ghost workers, bad infrastructure, but he is also now waging war against democracy. His government has banned public rallies by the opposition. It has introduced a law, which criminalises free speech on social and electronic media, and jailed at least two politicians for “hate speech”. Magufuli has also banned the smoking of Shisha, and famously declared, that “no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school…” In Tanzania, it is an offence to “annoy” the government, but okay to rape young girls!
When an African leader finally decides to leave, he insists on choosing his own successor. Sierra Leone goes to the polls tomorrow, for example, with 16 parties and six leading candidates on the ballot, but the fight is between the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). Outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma has, in the meantime, handpicked his former Foreign Minister, Dr. Samura Kamara (APC), as his successor, because according to him, “he knows exactly what he needs to do…” Our democracy suffers in this manner in part because the people themselves play what the Sierra Leonean musician, Daddy SAJ calls “watermelon politics” (2007) – the people not knowing what they want or what is good for them. Nigerians have made that mistake too often. But then, is there something in the African DNA that is anti-democracy? Is this about African culture or the truth about universal democracy? Whatever it is, as they go to the polls tomorrow, Sierra Leoneans should eschew “watermelon politics” and vote wisely.
Reuben Abati was spokesperson and special adviser, media and publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). A former chairman of the editorial board of The Guardian, Dr. Abati is one of the most respected columnists in Nigeria. He writes his syndicated column twice a week. He tweets from @abati1990.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.