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Nelson Chamisa | Countering reactionary, authoritarian politics in Africa


MDC leader Nelson Chamisa writes that there have been four elections in Africa that were rubber-stamped by the international community, thereby perpetuating a culture of unfair competition and illiberal democracy.


Africa cannot afford to continue with the authoritarian, dictatorial and despotic forms of governance that are predominant on the continent.

Authoritarian and dictatorial governments are repressive, corrupt and inefficient. Their only purpose is to retain power and to loot public resources for the benefit of a few political elites, leaving the majority of citizens in poverty. Therefore, although rich in raw resources, our continent remains the poorest in the world. We have seen this trend of authoritarianism in Zimbabwe, and we are now seeing it in Uganda which has just held a farcical election.

Regimes in these countries share a common thread: they have no tolerance for dissenting voices.

Instead, voices of difference are treated with disdain, as if they were enemies of the state instead of constructive voices in the civic process. There can be no progress when political parties treat each other as enemies.

Opposition treated as enemies

The governing parties, in particular, have always treated opposition parties as if they were illegitimate and enemies. This approach is used to stifle competition and to justify exclusion and repression. This tragedy has just played out in Uganda, where the regime unleashed egregious violence against Bobi Wine and his movement during the election campaign.  

Another common characteristic in these authoritarian regimes is the anti-youth approach that defines their policies.

The yester generation is not comfortable with young people taking on leadership roles. This goes against the reality that Africa is a young continent in terms of its population. It presently has the world’s largest population of young people; the median age is 19.7. Africa is also projected to have a population of 2.5 billion by 2050, a majority of that population will be young people. Young people in Africa represent a critical force. Youths are the current and future face of Africa. 

READ | Young people are telling us what they need, we have to listen

This future population projection is often referred to as the demographic dividend. Economists project this growth will be good for Africa. Others caution that this dividend can only be an asset to Africa if we can fix the institutions of governance, improve our infrastructure and make progress beyond being merely extractive economies. There is a need for deliberate policies that include youths in the political and economic architecture of their countries. Unless this is done, the demographic dividend will become a nightmare, as more young people rely on the state to provide for their welfare.

Unfortunately, dictators stand in the way of these inclusive processes. Young people seeking leadership are dismissed as upstarts and thwarted with the might of the state’s coercive apparatus. They are constantly told that they are the future, but that future never arrives. They are the ones who have a future to plan for, because they will have to experience it.

The view of the authoritarian generation that is currently in power is very short-termist by nature. They have no real incentives to plan for a future that they have no prospect of experiencing. The result is that they think about now and very often about themselves, their families and associates.

Over in Cameroon, Paul Biya has been in power for 39 years. He is another who refuses to let go of power, but he does not even live in the country, preferring the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva and French hospitality.

False and misleading promises

Yoweri Museveni has been at the helm of Uganda for 35 years and has just imposed himself for another term. Yet this is the same man who promised when he took over in 1986 that he would only be there for a short period. He spoke the language of democracy and progress. Like other dictators before him, he discarded those promises and now mimics the dictators he deposed.  

Here in Zimbabwe, we know all about false and misleading promises.

When the current regime took power from Robert Mugabe in November 2017, it made grand promises, including a new democratic dispensation, respect for human rights and re-engagement with the international community. But it went on to do the exact opposite – disputed elections, violating human rights, and subverting democracy.

READ | Analysis: President Mnangagwa claimed Zimbabwe was open for business. What’s gone wrong?

Lately, it has been using surrogates to undermine and shut down the opposition. It has taken money due to the opposition and diverted it to its surrogates. It has facilitated the removal of the opposition’s elected representatives from Parliament and local authorities.

Africa cannot afford further corrosions of democracy in this decade.

Government should be by the meaningful consent of the people. That consent is transferred through a transparent, free and fair election process. Consent that is coerced is not legitimate consent because it is not free choice.

Election results that are announced when there are serious and glaring irregularities lack legitimacy.

Rubber stamping 

The global community should not keep rubber stamping these illegitimate outcomes in the name of maintaining peace. The consequences of such ratifications are the continuation of exclusionary systems of government in the face of a demographic wave.

We have seen four elections in Africa that were compromised by the behaviour of incumbents and institutions meant to uphold electoral integrity. Unfortunately, those elections were sanitised by the global community even in the face of massive irregularities and patently unfair conditions of campaigning.

The following elections should not have been sanitised in any shape or form by the global community: the Zimbabwe 2018 elections, Mozambique 2019 elections, Tanzania 2020 elections and now most recently the Uganda 2021 elections.

READ | Mpumelelo Mkhabela: The African Union’s silence on electoral rigging is deafening

These normalisations from the international community perpetuate a culture of unfair competition and illiberal democracy which is anathema to progress.

Let’s consider the Uganda elections: what the world witnessed throughout 2020 and in the final weeks of the election race was the blatant use of power by Yoweri Museveni to derail his opponent for president, Bobi Wine:

 • The killing of 55 protesters in November 2020 who were protesting after yet another illegitimate arrest of Bobi Wine on spurious grounds;

• The denial of accreditation to international observers which prevented robust scrutiny of the election. The American delegation of observers withdrew from observing the election noting that the election lacked transparency and credibility while a coalition of hundreds of civil society organisations noted that only 10 out of their 1 900 accreditation requests had been granted; and

• The deliberate internet and social media blackout which was intended to prevent the free flow of information in monitoring the election.

These tactics are not new to me or my fellow Zimbabweans. We have a government legitimacy problem because of a deeply flawed election in 2018.

I have seen the Mugabe regime and now Mnangagwa regime roll out the same tactics all of my adult life. When we began the MDC in 1999, it was to fight this culture of despotism.

Two decades later, we are still in the trenches, fighting a vicious regime. Mugabe is gone, but his successor is just a different face with the same methods. As most Zimbabweans have experienced, to their great disappointment, nothing has changed.

Exploiting the Covid pandemic

Now the dictators are callously exploiting the Covid pandemic to strengthen repression. They have been clamping down on dissent and criticism.

In Uganda, Museveni used the pandemic to prevent his main rival from campaigning effectively. In Zimbabwe, the regime suspended by-elections under the guise of fighting the pandemic, but it carried on with its political activities.

The Mnangagwa regime has been arresting opponents and journalists and throwing them into crowded and squalid jails, exposing them to the novel coronavirus. When our spokesperson at the MDC Alliance, Fadzayi Mahere left prison recently, she tested positive for the virus. By arresting her on the most spurious charges alongside journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and our deputy Chairperson Job Sikhala, the regime had deliberately placed her in harm’s way.

READ | Hopewell Chinono freed on bail after latest arrest

The problem is there is no robust peer review among the old generation of African politicians.

Dictators who rig elections and use violence against opponents are given a free pass. That’s what happened in Zimbabwe in 2018. It happened recently in Tanzania and now in Uganda. It has happened in several other countries. The pattern is familiar because once one flawed election is approved, other dictators take it as a licence for more of the same.

The problem is counterparts that have a better culture of democracy, like South Africa, show an unhealthy reluctance to censure wayward peers. This is often done under the guise of brotherhood stemming from the liberation struggles. This is deeply retrogressive because liberation without proper democracy is meaningless.

Tough stance needed

Maturing and more stable democracies like South Africa should see their peers for what they truly are: reactionary elements that have subverted the essence of liberation of the African people. Africans may have defeated rule by a few on racial terms, but they are still cowering under the weight of repressive rule of a few African elites who came in as liberators.

It is important for both the African and Global communities to take a tough stance on these illiberal regimes.

Having elections is part of the dictators’ playbook because it creates a façade of democracy.

There is no point of recognising illiberal elections because it only serves to legitimate and entrench illiberal regimes. This is why the charade that went on in Uganda should be condemned in the utmost terms. It would serve as a warning to other would-be dictators.

– Nelson Chamisa is the leader of the MDC Alliance, Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party.


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