Democracy has failed in Africa, or at least that is how western governments may look upon the continent which hosts 11 of the world’s longest reigning leaders. These presidents have been in power for such a long time that they have become synonymous with their countries and with corruption.
Keith Gottschalk, a political scientist at the University of the Western Cape says that the reason behind this hold for power stems from the colonialist past of these African countries.
“Most African countries, when achieving independence, had their first president or prime minister modelling themselves on the previous colonial governors who were autocrats serving long periods and arresting any opponents who annoyed them,” explained Gottschalk.
A contributing factor is also the influence of hereditary African chiefs and kings who rule for life and don’t have elections.
“Democracy requires campaigners to strengthen all the institutions such as a multi-party culture, a strong free press and media and bar associations as well trade unions and others to build up autonomous centres of power to counterbalance that with the state to achieve democracy,” Gottschalk went further.
The longest reigning President in Africa stems from Equatorial Guinea. Once a Spanish colony, the current president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo took power after a bloody coup that toppled his uncle whose rule was marred by genocide. President Nguema has since also been accused of cannibalism and is currently sitting on an oil reserve of about $3 billion.
During its colonial period, Equatorial Guinea was ruled by an authoritarian semi-fascist Spain for decades and the leaders that subsequently came to power modelled themselves after semi-fascists Franco-Spain.
In Zimbabwe’s case, Gottschalk says that it is clear that Mugabe used his reign of power to follow in some senses the authoritarianism of the previous minority white regime.
“Democracy means that you have a system allowing you to remove governments out of power peacefully and lawfully and it doesn’t matter whether this system is in Africa or North America or South America,” explains Gottschalk.
In one sense, the opponents of long-reigning presidents in African countries do not have the power to force these leaders out of power.
“The history provided for the pattern of behaviour in the government that the leaders are most familiar with, in addition, democracy requires founding independent institutions to counterbalance state power, for example, a multi-party culture an institution such as the rule of law and an independent judiciary that can help government descending into tyranny,” said Gottschalk.
The African Union (AU) has been unable to step in and ask that these presidents step down as well. The AU is similar to the United Nations, in that it is an inter-governmental organisation that does not have its own army or a police force to invade and conquer. In a dictatorship, it depends on governments who are its members.
“It’s only when a dictator antagonises all the neighbouring governments and has no friends to shelter him that it becomes feasible to overthrow such a dictatorship,” Gottschalk continued.
Most of these presidents have now plundered much-needed resources from their countries while the populace starves and the national coffers run on deficits. Thus, it can be said that democracy has not failed in Africa, but rather democracy never existed in some of these countries in the first place.
Below is the list of Africa’s longest reigning leaders:
Paul Kagame: 15 years Rwanda
Denis Nguesso: 18 years DRC
Yahya Jammeh: 21 years Gambia
Isaias Afwerki: 22 years Eritrea
Idrissa Deby: 25 years Chad
Omar Al Bashir: 26 years Sudan
Yower Museveni: 29 years Uganda
Paul Biya: 33 years Cameroon
Robert Mugabe: 35 years Zimbabwe
Jose Dos Santos: 36 years Angola
Teodoro Nguema: 36 years Equatorial Guinea
VOC (Umarah Hartley)