/ 7 May 2024

Strongman syndrome in Africa flips democracies to totalitarianism

Topshot Uganda Ethiopia Diplomacy
Uganda is an example of a country under a strongman ruler, Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled for close to 40 years. (SUMY SADRUNI/AFP

Africa’s democracy is falling in the hands of strongmen, resulting in nations moving from democracy to authoritarianism and eventually totalitarianism, and is accompanied by civil unrest and unconstitutional change to governments.

Despite African nations under authoritarian rule experiencing high rates of unemployment, human rights violations, gross inequalities, industrial scale corruption, gross impunity, depreciating currency, absence of constitutionalism and the rule of law, people tend to support strongmen either as peasant victims or apologists and henchmen.

In Uganda the peasantry population has been led to believe that a strongman is a guerrilla general and have been “persuaded” soldiers are the only capable rulers of Uganda and not civilians such as opposition politician Kyagulanyi Robert Sentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, despite the world agreeing in 2021 at the first Summit for Democracy to end gun rule.

The strongman syndrome thrives on populism, civic incompetence, low civic involvement, political elitism, fear, poverty, illiteracy and the abuse of the rule of law and democracy.

What is criminal is the underrating of the magnitude of the threats and long-term negative consequences of strongman syndrome cum populism on democracy, sustainable development, peace, justice for all and healthy institutions.

The rise of guerrilla leaders across Africa in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, who staged military coups in the immediate post-independence era, paved the way for strongmen, who first appeared as liberators, to become presidents.

Uganda is an example of a country under a strongman ruler, Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled for close to 40 years, as is Equatorial Guinea under Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Cameroon under Paul Biya, Eritrea under Isaias Afwerki, and the Republic of Congo under Denis Sassou Nguesso respectively.

We should learn from past events in Zaire, Somalia, Libya and the Arab Spring among others that Africa’s mistake of building strongmen rather than strong democratic institutions.

The most obvious characteristic of a strongman is glorifying the mighty power of the gun and personalising the army and state institutions. By repression, strongmen demonstrate that they are much stronger than their opponents.

Leaders of opposition parties in Uganda are often arrested around the time elections are to be held. The National Unity Platform’s Sentamu (aka Bobi Wine) was arrested on 18 November 2020 and Kizza Besigye in 2011 upon his return from exile in South Africa.

The strongman syndrome orchestrates the fear factor by use of the army and militia groups to arrest or abduct torture people. Ultimately, the peasantry population is subdued through fear, creating a sense of hopelessness, silence, political compromise and forced support of the strongman.

The strongman mentality thrives under political elitism where political merchants regroup after election cycles with an objective of controlling power and natural resources among themselves. The survival of a strongman at the helm of a country economically harms the  treasury. The strongman always entrenches a patriarchal system to political elites and proxy businessmen and this may be through the misallocation of state resources.

The strongman syndrome is associated with constitutional and military coups, as well as draconian laws against citizens’ freedom and rights, destroying democracy.

Repression such as cramping down civic spaces, press freedom and independent media, the right to dissent during election cycles curtails all the principles of democracy.

My call to democracy deliverers and defenders of defenders is to finance civil society and the media to carry out education programmes about democracy and democratic processes.

Pressure from institutions such as the United Nations and the African Union, through high level political dialogues are necessary to tame the evil of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

Democracy as the software of good governance should be the yardstick for all AU member states.

Robert Kigongo is a democracy deliverer supporting reformers and a sustainable development analyst.