Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s ousting after 37 years in power in the recent coup-that-wasn’t-a-coup is the third time this year that one of the continent’s strongmen has unexpectedly left office.
In August, Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after a 38-year stint as president. And in January, soon after troops from the regional bloc ECOWAS moved into the Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh relinquished control after having refused to accept the results of the previous month’s elections. He’d had a good inning, though, having clung to his seat for 22 years.
Could this signal the beginning of the end of the era of African strongmen? In the short term, to be sure, it is likely that these despots and aspiring autocrats will tighten their stranglehold on the nations they rule in an effort to prevent themselves from suffering the same fate as Mugabe. But in the long term, the writing is on the wall. Here’s a closer look at the continent’s other de facto dictators presiding over nations eager for change…
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni
Years in power: 30
Once feted as a member of Africa’s new generation of leaders and having previously scorned the strongmen who came before him, Museveni now refuses to step down himself, saying “How can I go out of a banana plantation I have planted that has started bearing fruits?”
While the familiar tactic of eliminating presidential term limits has served him well, there is now another stumbling block in his path: according to the constitution, presidential candidates must be under 75. No matter, of course; he has engineered a private members’ bill to scrap this pesky technicality.
However, opposition is beginning to burgeon. There have been myriad protests about the proposed changes to the age limit and ugly scenes in parliamentamidst suggestions that Museveni has tried to bribe MPs, with even fellow members of his party protesting against proposed constitutional changes.
Add to this the fact that the country’s economy is declining (with growth rates having dropped from 6-10% between 2001-2011 to 4.6% in 2017), and growing criticism from former allies abroad over his attitude towards gay rights, among other matters, and it seems that though Museveni may yet win a few battles, he is unlikely to win the war.
The DRC’s President Joseph Kabila
Years in power: 16
Kabila has a good reason for wishing to stay in office: he has leveraged his tenure to skim the cream from the DRC’s vast resources – gold, cobalt, timber, oil – into his family’s vast business empire. As a result, staying in the presidential palace, which he should have exited last December, is the only way to keep his family’s revenue streams from going dry.
Despite his determination to stay put, internal and external calls for change are growing. The people of the DRC are taking to the streets in protest and, in response to the heavy-handed response from the authorities, the UN Human Rights Commission has given the DRC a year to report on actions taken to hold free and fair elections. Now, the government has set a December 2018 deadline for the next elections, a move that was denounced by exiled opposition leaderMoise Katumbi as “one more maneuver” by a regime that wants to stay in power “indefinitely.” But even if elections are hosted, if the international community doesn’t up the temperature and ensure Katumbi’s save return to the country, the DRC’s democratic order will not be restored.
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir
Years in power: 27
In North Africa, al-Bashir has the dubious honor of being the only sitting president with an outstanding arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. Indeed, the warrant for his role in overseeing the genocide in Darfur is one of his main motivations to stay in office, having reportedly floated plans to change the constitution and run for a third term despite promises to step down in 2020.
In the short-run, he may have more luck doing so than some of his peers. A great deal of power is concentrated within the ranks of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the military, and so far, al-Bashir has managed to keep a wary peace between the two services. On top of that, key actors like Russia and the Gulf states have been willing to provide critical support to al-Bashir, and even the US recently lifted sanctions on the government, citing progresson human rights and counter-terrorism efforts. Most importantly, Sudan’s opposition is divided and weak: the most they can hope for at this point is a more open political process.
Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz
Years in power: 8
Though his time in office is relatively modest compared with his peers, Mauritania’s leader – who took power in a coup – still ranks as a de facto dictator, and signs suggest that he could give some of his fellow strongmen a run for their money. He has successfully engineered a vote for a referendum to abolish the senate, which the opposition claims is the first step on the road towards changing presidential term limits in his own favor.
The country ranks as one of the worst in terms of human rights and freedom of speech: around 1% or 43,000 people in the country are classed as slaves, human rights groups are calling for investigations into the abuse of protestors by police, and people have been sentenced to death for comments made on Facebook. In addition to facing growing internal strife, Mauritania may become subject to rising scrutiny from international allies like the US, which has had a counter-terrorism partnership with Nouakchott since 2002. If the government does not show enough progress towards stopping the flow of armed groups and, most importantly, addressing the very domestic grievances that further fuel home-grown terrorism, then Washington and other security partners may soon raise pressure on the government, opening the door for his eventual departure.
Of course, before these strongmen leave, things may well get worse before they get better, as heads of state react more violently to dissent or use subterfuge to try to stay in power. Yet it is unlikely that the toppling of three autocrats this year will turn out to be an isolated incident – especially in an age when Africa’s growing middle class is demanding more from its political leadership, and when regional and international stakeholders are proving increasingly willing to sanction those who break the rules.