Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Nairobi/Dar es Salaam — Ugandan legislators brawl over a bill that could create a president-for-life. Tanzania arrests legislators and shutters newspapers. And as Kenya tries to rerun a botched election, a ruling party leader says what the country really needs is a benevolent dictator.

East African democracy is not in the best of health.

As unrest and crackdowns plague some of the region’s largest economies, home to various levels of political freedom, the situation is adding to uncertainty in a part of the world already rocked by Burundi’s two-year crisis over presidential term limits and conflict in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"It is a tough time in the region," said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham in England. "Democracy is under threat."

Rising authoritarianism conflicts with the official attitude of the six-nation East African Community (EAC) to which Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda belong and that touts democracy as a guarantee of regional stability. It comes as West Africa, parts of which have long been bedeviled by dictatorship and military rule, has seen peaceful transitions in Nigeria and Ghana and a president ousted after popular protests in Burkina Faso.

Such a shift would be most striking in Kenya, where political expression has been freest and whose Supreme Court’s annulment of August’s mismanaged presidential vote, a first in Africa, was hailed as a sign of institutional maturity. As the opposition National Super Alliance plays hardball to shape the handling of a rerun, however, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s party has criticised the nation’s tolerance for dissent.

‘Gone rogue’

"What this country needs now is a benevolent dictator," David Murathe, vice-chairman of the Jubilee Party, said in an interview on KTN News last month. "People have been too soft so that things have gone rogue. That is why you find places like Rwanda are very stable, Uganda is very stable."

Odinga has since said he was withdrawing from a new election scheduled for October 26 and called on supporters to stage nationwide street protests until the country’s electoral body is restructured.

Rwanda, which along with Burundi and South Sudan completes the EAC, has become a beacon for some East African politicians craving order. The country ruled by President Paul Kagame has rebuilt following a 1994 genocide, recording annual economic growth of more than 7% this decade while enacting what rights groups say is a crackdown on political opponents and the media that’s earned limited censure from Western governments.

"Autocracy is being given as the economic solution to African problems — their case is strengthening if you look at Rwanda and Ethiopia," which have authoritarian systems and the broader region’s fastest-growing economies, Anzetse Were, a Nairobi-based development economist, said by phone.

Anti-corruption ticket

Tanzanian President John Magufuli, elected in 2015 on an anti-corruption ticket, has moved to cut perceived government waste and challenged foreign mining companies for greater revenue, finding support among people weary of graft. However, detentions of opposition politicians and temporary closures of newspapers accused of inaccuracies are stoking fears that room for dissent is narrowing.

"Our current leadership does not like criticism," Zitto Kabwe, a lawmaker arrested last month for criticizing parliament, said in an interview. "We have never been democratic in the way the West thinks is democratic, but during previous administrations we could criticise even the president on social media without fear."

Raia Mwema, a weekly newspaper, in late September became the third publication to be banned since June. More than 50 members of the Chama Cha Demokrasia Na Maendeleo party were in July charged in court for unlawful assembly. The ruling party has urged parliamentarians to follow the law. Last week one of its lawmakers briefly suggested extending presidential terms to seven years from five, only to shelve the idea, telling Radio France Internationale that Magufuli preferred the current system.

Many Tanzanians may be "happy to see a leader in place who is seen to be fighting corruption and championing the national interest," while "the political class" is "wary of speaking out for fear or being seen to oppose this same agenda," said Roddy Barclay, director at Africa Practice, a risk advisory firm.

‘Life presidency’

Least free is Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni seized power as a rebel leader in 1986 and has won elections disputed by a diminished opposition. His National Resistance Movement backs the removal of an age limit for presidential candidates, which would allow the 73-year-old to run for re-election in 2021.

Protests against a so-called "life presidency" were quashed and live broadcasts of parliamentary sessions banned, while opposition lawmakers trying to block the legislation were involved in fist-fights with ruling party representatives and security personnel in the chamber and ejected.

Museveni recently told lawmakers he has a mission to accomplish that should not be stymied by technicalities, the local Observer newspaper reported Monday, citing an unidentified member of parliament. A legislative committee is scrutinising the proposal before it’s debated.

The focus on regular elections as a benchmark for East African democracy may be misguided, according to Yolande Bouka, a political analyst and postdoctoral fellow at the Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver.

"What matters is what happens between elections," she said by phone from Toronto. "What kind of laws does the legislature pass and under whose directive. We have seen laws that curb the freedom of the civil society, laws to curtail freedoms. Leaders may use institutions and tools according to the rule of law but for autocratic purposes," she said.

Cheeseman said there was "reasonable" concern over a regional "authoritarian club" where leaders "meet and share strategies." Kenya and Tanzania, which have stronger institutions and no history of large-scale civil war, were in "a far better place" to withstand the challenge than Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, he said by phone.


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