It was August 2019, and my class had paused for a tea break. Talk turned to a news item I had seen on TV the night before. A popular opposition figure and local Parliamentarian who was also a Reggae Musician had been involved in some kind of dramatic car chase with the Police. This had happened on the streets of Kampala in broad daylight. He had been banned from making public addresses and the government of the day was apparently really worried about his popularity, especially with the vocal youth. Anyway, he had managed to evade the Police with the help of the locals and had ‘miraculously’ disappeared, some say, aided by some of the Policemen who were sympathetic to him. It was all a bit of a lark. The Delegates had a right good laugh at the expense of the government. As the class prepared to resume, something struck me. Of the 20 delegates in my class, only two or three of them who were over 40 years old had any cognitive memory of a Ugandan President whose name was not Yoweri Museveni. For most of them, there had never been any other President in the country since long before they were born. ‘The Old Man’ as he jocularly referred to himself had been President since 1986. 33 years with no intention of living out his twilight years as an ordinary citizen, even if it meant constantly tweaking the country’s Constitution to accommodate his wishes.
Though it may be argued that the likes of Museveni are a dying breed in Africa, there are still far too many tin-pot emperors in Western suits, quick to subvert their country’s constitutions to perpetuate themselves in office. Unfortunately, these thinly disguised despots are garbed in the finery of democracy and accepted by the West as long as their (Western) interests are not threatened. Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo has spent 37 years in power. That is longer than most of his countrymen have been alive. He killed his uncle in a military coup and took power. He has since been ‘re-elected’ 6 times by a ‘besotted’ citizenry! Paul Biya of Cameroon has held the country by the jugular since 1982. Sassou Nguesso, now 76, is an interesting character. He assumed office in the Congo Democratic Republic (ironically, there is even an emphasis on democracy in the country’s name) in 1979. He lost out in the country’s first multi-party elections in 1992. He regained power in 1997 after a brief civil war and swore never to make the same mistake again. He changed the constitution in 2015 to let himself stand again for re-election the following year, and possibly for the rest of his life.
Now the issue is not just in the fact that these noble gentlemen are ruling their countries like the Presidency is their birth-right. It is that they are doing it under the cover of democracy. Several countries in Africa have transited from military dictatorships to civilian imperialism. Nothing has changed in the system of rulership except the designers of the Leader’s clothes. It has been for a lot of them a mere swap of khaki for Gucci. But the West is largely comfortable with this so long as no boats are rocked. Obvious manipulations of the constitution, voter suppression, and intimidation and even brutalisation of opposition voices are overlooked or at best, met with some ineffective sound bites. Their self-interest is always and forever the overarching consideration. Their might be some condemnation and nose-thumbing over cigars and cognacs on the balconies of the meeting halls of the G20, but never in public. They must not be seen to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. Unless their interests are threatened by the events of those internal affairs.
Which brings us to the recent events in Mali. That there has been a Military Coup in Mali is no longer news, even though it barely made a ripple in the Western media. The streets of Mali had been witnessing demonstrations for several months prior to the military putsch. Opposition supporters, demanding an end to the political corruption, lack of economic prosperity, and the unending violence and insurgency wanted the President out. A Constitutional Court had controversially overturned some of the results of the Parliamentary elections held in April and this had led to protests led by the Cleric, Mahmud Dicko. The people clearly wanted the President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, out. He was having none of it. This led to an intensification of the civil war which has been raging in the country for 8 years and the resignation of the Prime Minister and the rest of the government. Still Keita wouldn’t budge.
Eventually, the soldiers stepped in and took control of the situation. There was jubilation on the streets. The people rejoiced. There was wide-spread and undoubted acceptance of the action of the soldiers. Naturally, there was condemnation from the West and even ECOWAS (despite its failure to resolve the crisis before the coup). Threats were made and warnings issued but the soldiers didn’t care because they were carrying out a patriotic duty. The President has finally been released (unharmed thankfully) and he has tendered his resignation. He even turned down demands by outsiders that he be reinstated and just asked to be let to go home. I guess he suddenly realised being President wasn’t all it was cut out to be. There will be an eventual return to some form of democratic governance eventually but this intervention by the Malian Army should serve as a warning to all the others across the continent of what could happen when the will of the people is trampled on for too long.
What has been ironic is the response of Europe and the West to the happenings in Belarus which have similarities with the events in Mali. There was an election in Belarus. It was conducted as part of their democratic process. The President, Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, declared himself the winner by a wide margin despite ongoing widespread protests against his government. The West are however in support of the protesters. They are being encouraged to defy the government and continue their protests until new elections are held (essentially until the government is toppled). The people are not being encouraged to ‘accept the outcome of the democratic elections, even if flawed’. It’s a matter of interests. Russia has influence over Lukashenko. Belarus stands between Russia and Europe (Lithuania, Latvia and Poland).
African countries have to develop the forms of government most compatible with their cultures and which serves the best interests of their citizens. “The worst Democracy is better than the best dictatorship” is a disingenuous lie designed to keep the people in bondage to ineffective, corrupt governments, often propped up by and serving foreign interests and not the people. Kagame has been in office in Rwanda for 20 years. Is Rwanda a democracy? That is a question I’m not sure can be answered by even the Rwandans. Wikipedia says “The Politics of Rwanda reflect Belgian and German civil law systems and customary law takes place in a framework of a semi-presidential republic, whereby the President of Rwanda is the head of state with significant executive power, with the Prime Minister of Rwanda being the constitutional head of government”. Its essentially a hybrid but it has produced stability, peace and prosperity out of the ashes of a terrible period in that country’s history. The rest of Africa might do well to take a good look in the mirror and decide if the borrowed robes really fit that well.