It is beyond doubt that we are living through historic times; yet whilst North Africa is being rapidly transformed through democratic revolution, nations throughout the remainder of the continent are continuing to experience the same tyranny and misery that they have suffered for decades – with little sign of any impending change.
Last month, shortly after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubabrak were deposed by popular demonstrations, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni secured an extension to his twenty five year rule, through an election won on the back of corruption and violence. Museveni, once lauded as a democrat and a reformer, has long shown his true colours through torturing opponents, supressing free speech, conscripting child soldiers and encouraging the orchestration of rampant, violent homophobia . His longstanding use of the barbaric Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency as an pretext to strengthen his grip on power and oppress the Acholi people in Northern Uganda, further underscores the president’s callousness – with many commentators even suggesting that he has deliberately held back on defeating the rebels for these very reasons. Ensuring electoral victory by rigging ballots, harassing other candidates, imprisoning opposition activists and channelling public funds into his campaign was therefore, a simple matter of course.
Sadly yet predictably, international criticism of these antics has been markedly muted; undoubtedly stemming at least in part from Museveni’s willingness to help combat the Islamist insurgency in Somalia, a threat that greatly worries the likes of the USA, but one which they are reluctant to tackle directly, owing largely to previous ill-fated ventures into the chaotic territory. As long as Uganda continues to send troops to Somalia and bear the brunt of reprisal attacks, the relative silence surrounding Museveni’s domestic tyranny is unlikely to be broken.
In a somewhat similar vein, Ivorian dictator Laureent Gbagbo has been able to extend his long and tyrannical rule, despite loosing a presidential election to opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara in November last year. Although he has not quite escaped scrutiny from the international community in the same manner as Museveni, Gbagbo has been able to hold onto power through sheer thuggery, despatching his militia and troops to prevent Ouattara from taking up office by attacking his cabinet members and murdering his supporters. Reports of mass graves, people being butchered by soldiers and death squads attacking houses in the middle of the night are now routine and on the back of this brute force, Gbagbo has for four months evaded the domestic protests, economic measures and international isolation intended to topple him. Like Mwai Kibaki and Robert Mugabe before, he has categorically lost a popular ballot (despite launching a vicious campaign of intimidation against voters) but has nonetheless clung onto the reigns of control.
This does not bode well for the continent of Africa in what will be a crucial political year. Cameroon, Gambia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Zambia are just a few of the many African states set to hold elections (legislative, presidential or both) over the next twelve months and whilst the fates of Ben Ali, Mubarak (and hopefully soon Gaddafi) have demonstrated the fragility of dictatorships, the survival of Museveni and Gbago illustrate that a combination of rigged electioneering, careful diplomacy and outright violence can still allow even the most vile and worn-out tyrants to retain power. Whilst the uprisings in the North must be supported and celebrated therefore, it is crucial that tyranny further South is not accepted or ignored simply because dictators go through the motions of an election.
What remains to be seen is whether, in the wake of the Northern revolutions, populations throughout Africa will reject future rigged results and take to streets in greater numbers. Far lower levels of literacy, internet access and phone ownership make this less likely, but as we have all learned over the last few months, nothing can be taken for granted. Similarly, a renewed public focus around the world may make it harder for governments in Europe and North America to remain silent on-or tacitly support- African dictatorships. It’s just possible therefore, that the combination of numerous elections and a vibe of reform from the North could threaten the vile authoritarian trends that the likes of Museveni and Gbagbo have so far continued. An already historic year could yet become even more significant.