Democrats v autocrats in Africa: is there a winning formula? – podcast transcript

Reports and presenters

HM Hugh Muir


PK Patience Akumu

RJ Richard Joseph

PC Phil Clark

VP Vox pop

PA There isn’t any possibility of Museveni not winning. He has the votes, he has the support from the Ugandans.

VP I’m voting for Kizza Besigye because the youth are the majority population today and they all want him. We don’t need police this time around to interfere in the elections. We need a free and fair election.

HM Hello, I’m Hugh Muir. This month we’re looking at governance, democracy and the trade-offs that are sometimes made between development and freedom. We’ll also be talking about the big man phenomenon, and whether such leaders can ever benefit their people. This is the Global development podcast from the Guardian.

VP I’m voting for Kizza Besigye as my president of Uganda. There are people just suffering, there’s no food for people, things are very expensive.

VP We are suffering, we are dying. We [are] going to succeed, we don’t even allow him – this is the last chance for him. This is the last chance.

VP There is no joke, I’m on the street, I’m looking for work, I don’t see where the hope is.

VP I like Museveni because he gave us peace and OK – now we women can enjoy, we can talk, we can do whatever we want in Uganda. We work like men and whatever we want we can do it. We still like him – it’s been more than 30 years, and we are many.

VP I’m voting for Museveni. Basically Museveni is thinking about youth. He’s trying his best to see that youth get employed, and he has created a number of possibilities for youth to start working. Exactly, that’s why I also go for him because to me he’s the best. We believe there is a winner and a loser, but I believe we are going to win.

HM One of Africa’s quintessential big men is the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni. Last week Ugandans voted in the presidential elections and to no one’s great surprise Museveni romped home with 60.8% of the vote. And then he went on to place his main opponent under house arrest. On the phone now to tell us how that happened is Patience Akumu, she’s a human rights activist and she’s in Kampala. Patience, so President Museveni, for those unfamiliar with him, who is he and tell us how long has he been in power?

PA Museveni has been in power for 30 years now. We had the election last week, which was a total farce. The opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, was arrested more than four times in a single week and it was very clear that it wasn’t a fair playing field right from the beginning during elections. And even after voting nobody was allowed to tally the votes and nobody was allowed to have any form of documentation of what was happening in terms of vote counting, apart from the electoral commission.

HM He was arrested four times. What for?

PA The reasons for his arrest were – the first time was that he had too big a crowd and the other time he was arrested because he was trying to hold a press conference. He’s been arrested because he’s trying to express his grievances, he’s trying to say no, the elections were not free and fair, but right now he’s not even allowed to say that and so he’s been arrested for auditing. People who work for him have been arrested for tallying results and for saying look, these results don’t make sense – the statistics don’t make sense. So right now in Kampala it’s illegal to question the results, it’s illegal to say no, the election [wasn’t] free and fair. If you go to the streets you will meet army men in full battle fatigue ready to deal with anyone who dares voice an opinion that is against what the establishment has said. Museveni has won elections and nobody should express displeasure. They expect that life should go on and we should accept him for another five years and that will be 35 years of Museveni in power.

HM So against that kind of background was there any chance that he might ever lose that presidency? That he might lose that election?

PA There was always hope that maybe Museveni this time around might give us a credible election or that at first people thought that he might not even run. But Museveni is not about to leave power, at least not through elections. There is the question of age limits that’s coming up. The next time, in 2021, he won’t be eligible to run because he will be about 75, but then he has tinkered with the constitution before and he removed some limits. So removing age limits is not beyond Museveni, so it looks like Museveni is here to stay a long time and he’s not going anywhere.

HM Obviously it’s very difficult for people to express a view about that publicly without getting themselves into trouble, but are you getting some sense of how people really feel about that, the continued rule of Museveni?

PA Well, there has been a lot of anger expressed on social media. During the election social media was blocked but Ugandans found a way around it – 1.5 million downloads of VPN in a day and everybody was back on social media within 24 hours or so. The reaction was bitter – people said that this was a sham election, this cannot happen, they are raping us. Democracy is on trial in Uganda. So there is a lot of bitterness, there’s a lot of anger, but also it is very suppressed because people know that if they express it, say, beyond social media then it’s their lives on the line.

HM OK, Patience Akumu there in Kampala, thank you very much for that. So as we’ve heard, President Museveni has been in power since 1986. The former rebel leader is one of the continent’s leading statesmen. He’s also a key western ally who’s pushed his country to take a pivotal regional role by intervening in conflicts in South Sudan and Somalia. He’s been credited with bringing stability to Uganda after years of chaos under Idi Amin. And Museveni’s not alone. Several other long-serving African leaders have changed their constitutions to allow them to stay even longer in power, among them Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Djibouti’s Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, Denis Sassou Nguesso in the Republic of Congo and Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi. Other African leaders have ruled for more than three decades, including Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who’s just turned 92.

And Africa’s not the only continent with leaders who seem unwilling to relinquish the reins. Singapore’s late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew held that post for more than three decades. Ayatollah Ali Khomeini has been supreme leader of Iran since 1989.

So what are the pros and cons of long-term leaders and are there any ways to mitigate their grip on power? Joining me to discuss that are, in Florida, Professor Richard Joseph who’s the John Evans professor of international history and politics at Northwestern University; and here in the studio with me, Dr Phil Clark from the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, at the University of London. Welcome to both of you.

So we’ve heard about Museveni and his grip on power and about the allegations of fraud and imprisonment of his main rival, but Dr Clark, has he in any sense been good for Uganda?

PC Museveni, like a lot of big men, has been very good for parts of the population that he considers loyal to him. So Museveni comes from the west of the country, he’s tended to have very extensive development programmes in the west, the national infrastructure is very good in that part of the country, but if you go elsewhere in Uganda his presidency has been a complete disaster. There’s been very little development, very little infrastructure, particularly in orthern Uganda – there’s a sense that the government has completely neglected that part of the country. And that’s something that we see with big men right across Africa, that they tend to favour groups that are loyal to them, often for ethnic or regional reasons, but the rest of their countries tend to be highly neglected. So it’s a very mixed picture in Uganda.

HM Dr Joseph, let’s broaden it a bit and talk about other countries that have this phenomenon as well. Do we see any examples of this in play where it’s been seen to be a beneficial thing?

RJ I think if you take countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia, those are countries that are sort of the model countries now in Africa in being able to combine autocratic rule together with high levels of socio-economic development and also playing a significant role in terms of regional security. I would cite those cases as cases that are sort of the reference points within Africa, similar to Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew.

HM Is it possible, Phil Clark, to have democracy as we know it and progress in many of these countries?

PC I think Richard puts his finger on a very important development right across Africa at the moment, which is that the fastest growing economies and also the economies where we’re seeing the spreading of wealth across the population are in fact coming from very autocratic governments. And this is a real challenge for international donors because the donor view has always been we need democracy and we need economic development to go hand in hand. In fact what we’re seeing at the moment is that the greatest cases of economic development in Africa tend to be in very despotic states and we struggle, I think, at the moment to find democratic states in Africa that in fact are doing very well economically.

States that tend to have very strong democracies in Africa are often very open to a high degree of opposition and contestation which has disrupted their economic policies. The governments that have been most focused economically are the ones that haven’t had to worry about political opposition because they’ve already eliminated them. So this is a real bind and it’s something that donors are really struggling to get their head around at the moment.

HM Richard Joseph, that’s something that the countries that give the aid and then the NGOs and the donors – it’s very difficult to get your head round the idea that a country might feel that its best opportunity for advancement is not to have democracy as we know it.

RJ Yes, it’s a very big problem and if we take the case, let’s take Ethiopia as an example – their big man, Meles, passed on but his successor, they have continued the same system that he put in place.

HM When one big man goes they just go looking for another one, the system remains intact?

RJ Yes, and some countries have found a way to institutionalise it with some turnover together with top-down governance. We see that Mozambique and Tanzania have introduced a very interesting model where it’s still very much a very dominant single party, I mean they might have opposition but a dominant party, but where they have a turnover in the top office. So that’s a variation, but it’s a variation in a pattern that we’re seeing all over.

HM Phil Clark, we’re always concerned about human rights in these contexts. Are they always going to be a casualty in a scenario like this?

PC I don’t think they have to be and I think it would be dangerous to think that only autocratic states can develop. I mean, I think that is the situation we’re seeing across Africa at the moment but it’s not to say that that will continue 10, 15 years down the track. The point that governments like the one in Rwanda and Ethiopia often make is that when the west talks about human rights, the west tends to focus on political and civil rights. It tends to talk about the freedom of the press, the freedom of association, the freedom of the political opposition, but the west tends not to talk about socio-economic rights, and so countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia at the moment are trying to put, I think, socio-economic rights back on the agenda – to say, if you’re going to emphasise a rights discourse why don’t we also start to talk about economic development? We’ve dragged our populations out of poverty, we’ve helped our population recover from massive conflict and we’re seeing a degree of prosperity now that people would have thought was impossible 10 or 15 years ago, so give us some credit for our achievements in terms of socio-economic rights. That’s not to excuse them of course for their downfalls in other areas of human rights, but I think the argument about socio-economic rights is a very important one.

HM Professor Joseph, is there a middle way where the external actors will always say, “Look at our model of democracy.” Some of these countries may well say – well, actually, that doesn’t work for us. We’re not particularly happy with their model, but is there something in the middle? I think you mentioned something about a reasonable amount of democracy. How might that work?

RJ I don’t think there is any grand plan now, especially coming from western democracies with regard to Africa. I think it’s a case of taking the opportunities where they present themselves, and so if you look at the Nigerian elections last year, where the external actors, especially the United States, played a very significant role in putting pressure on the regime to make sure that you had fair elections and it was a handover on power. So they will take it where the opportunities present themselves but I’m saying that in most cases they find right now they’re at a disadvantage, and quite frankly they’ve got bigger fish to fry. I hate to put it that way but in terms of the global system, what’s going on in the Middle East and so on, Afghanistan, even Ukraine and so on, there’s far more significance on the global level.

HM Phil Clark, what kind of pressure can we put on, because you can have a situation where the big man actually is a force for good for a while, and then ceases to be a force for good that you then can’t do anything about it and these people can’t get them out. If you think about Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s situation there, what can we do about that, because you can see what the attraction would be in the early years and then how it would degrade later on but can’t do anything about it?

PC I think if change is going to happen it has to come from the grass roots, it has to come domestically and I think that’s part of the lesson at least of the north African cases in the last few years, that if you’re going to see big men toppled that tends to come from everyday citizens rather than pressure from the outside. So I’m quite sceptical actually of the role that international donors, for example, can play in this regard. And also donors are part of the problem here. I mean, if we look at most of the big men across Africa, the likes of Museveni and Meles and Kagame and others, these are all very close allies of the west. They’ve made themselves absolutely indispensable to the international system. They’ve been part of peacekeeping missions, they’ve been part of international donor agency pushes, they’ve become part of the international system.

The other thing of course that these governments know and that these big men leaders know fully well is that often the donors need them more than they need the donors, particularly for the US and the UK. They look at a country like Rwanda which has a very sketchy record in terms of political and civil rights but the donors need success stories. They don’t have many cases, especially in Africa, of countries that use aid extremely effectively, and Rwanda does exactly that. And the Rwandan government knows that, they know that the US and the UK are in a bind and so they’re able to push ahead with their policies in the knowledge that the donors aren’t able to say very much, they don’t have very much wriggle room. So there’s a consciousness within these African governments of donor priorities and they use that to their own advantage.

HM But it does mean an impasse, doesn’t it, because if you’re right and only the people can shift the big man, if you think about a situation like in Uganda now as was described by Patience earlier, they can’t do anything about Museveni, can they?

PC That’s right, and I think that’s what happens when you’ve been in power for 30 years. I mean Museveni did record I think some really important socio-economic successes in the first 10 or 15 years. He’s been a disaster in terms of issues of peace and conflict. Of course northern Uganda was racked by the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army for the best part of two decades and much of that can be laid at the feet of Museveni’s government, but on the social and the economic front for the first decade or so Museveni’s government was extremely successful, but we saw corruption begin to eat away at that regime. We now see one of Africa’s most unequal societies with very little development in the north and other parts of Uganda and today we would have to describe Museveni’s government as an economic and social basket case. So the situation can change over time.

HM Richard Joseph, is it a situation where the big men almost understand the external actors too well? They know how to play them?

RJ Oh definitely and again I’m saying for those of us who go back a bit, this is very much reminiscent of the way in which during the Cold War period many African leaders, I mean leaders not only in Africa but elsewhere, were able to take advantage of the external community and we see a repeat of that in the modern era. But if you look at the cases, and I just want to say with regard to what Phil said earlier, there’s always a triangular process in play and the triangular process is the regime, the opposition to the regime and external actors. And those three, how they play out is very important to see – and it’s not simply a case of people rising up from below which is important. You look at the case of Burkina Faso, you look at Senegal, you look at Mali, you look at Nigeria, cases where you have that, but you also, in all of those cases, you really need external actors willing to very strategically invest efforts on behalf of those trying to maintain democratic countries or change them. So the external actors are able to make a difference.

HM OK. Phil Clark, I’ll give the last word to you. When we reflect on what’s happened in Uganda and the pattern that that follows, are you optimistic for what might follow next in other countries? Do you think the direction of travel is a good one?

PC No. I’d like to be optimistic but it’s very difficult to be optimistic at this point. I think we’re likely to see the likes of Museveni continue to stay in power – not just in the Ugandan case, but right across the continent.

HM But more like that as well?

PC I think so, I think that there is to a certain extent even learning across borders. I think different African leaders have been learning lessons from one another. I do a lot of research in both Rwanda and Uganda and there’s absolutely no doubt that Kagame has had his notebook out learning lessons from Museveni for the best part of the last three decades. These leaders are copying each other’s tactics, particularly in terms of dealing with the opposition and trying to bring their own populations on board. I think we’re likely, unfortunately, to see a continuation of this big man phenomenon.

HM Right, so the big man will be with us for some time yet. Thank you all. That’s all we have time for this week on this Global development podcast. My thanks to our guests, Professor Richard Joseph, Patience Akumu and Phil Clark. The producer was Simon Barnard, I’m Hugh Muir. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next month.

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