Nic Cheeseman, professor, University of Birmingham
It is a tough time to be an African dictator. Forced to hold elections against their will by civil society groups and the international community, they now have to participate in political processes that they neither believe in nor respect. Strongman rulers are challenged by increasingly assertive opposition parties and the rise of social media. Holding on to power has become more difficult – especially for the many countries in which the economy is failing to create enough new jobs. With the rise of election observation and biometric technology to prevent multiple voting, things now look very different to the heyday of authoritarianism in the early 1980s, when ‘presidents for life’ were the norm. Facing such a hostile environment, despots risk becoming an endangered species. But if you are an aspiring dictator, do not despair because you still have plenty of options left. Our new book, How to Rig an Election*, draws together the greatest hits of the most corrupt and venal leaders around the world to explain how to manipulate elections and retain power. With this knowledge, even inexperienced autocrats like Edgar Lungu can stay in power. To follow in the footsteps of past masters like Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo or Idriss Déby, all you need to do is follow these five easy lessons:
1 Start before anyone is looking
International observers can really undermine autocrats’ efforts to control an election outcome. Don’t worry too much about the African Union, you can rely on them to pull their punches. But if you end up with the European Union and the Carter Centre, you need to be more careful – not only will they try and catch you in the act on election day, but they will send long-term observers to the country a few months before the polls. It is therefore important to start early. The best dictators get their plans in place for the next election as soon as they have ‘won’ the last one. There is no time to waste. Tell the bureaucrats not to give out identification documents to those living in opposition-run areas to make it harder for them to register to vote. And you should extend government control over the banks so that only your allies get access to credit. Without money, your rivals will find it almost impossible to beat you! If you do this step well, everything else will become easier – and the best thing is that these tactics go under the radar and are almost never used as evidence that the election was rigged, so you have your cake and eat it.
2 Manage the message
Your people will be less likely to kick you out of office if they have no idea how badly you have been performing, so make sure you get tight control of the media. Savvy dictators subsidise the state press through unnecessary government adverts and get rid of opposition media by targeting them with trumped-up charges of defamation or tax fraud. Remember that social media is not your friend. Left unattended, Twitter and Facebook will reflect popular opinion, which is a problem because many people do not like you. But don’t worry, you have more money than the opposition, so use it to buy friends and have them flood social media with positive messages. Once these networks are set up, clever dictators use them to circulate fake news detailing their accomplishments while discrediting their main rivals – a good story to start with is that the opposition is funded by the former colonial power!
3 Get someone else to do the nasty stuff for you
Using physical violence all the time is costly and likely to upset observers. If you do have to use physical violence, the lesson from history is to make sure that the blood doesn’t end up on your own hands. Use militias and gangs because you can give them money, send them out to do your dirty work and then deny all knowledge of it if anyone turns up asking difficult questions. The fact that these
groups are not part of the state means that it will be harder for anyone to pin the blame on you. And even if the International Criminal Court launches an investigation, they are unlikely to be able to get the evidence they need to secure a prosecution, allowing you to get away with murder.
4 Pretend to be a reformer
Everyone loves a reformer, so give them what they are looking for. Tell them that you have changed, that you are an authoritarian developmentalist. Once they believe you, persuade your international allies that you would love to hold a more democratic election but that this could generate instability, undermining the prospects for economic growth – and no one would want that, would they? If you are looking for a tried and tested catchphrase as part of your rebranding, try ‘open for business’ – it works like a charm. Special tip: As part of this strategy it is advisable to do some interviews with international media in which you can mention your aspiration to emulate the inspiring example of Paul Kagame in Rwanda.
5 Use technology to your own advantage
You might be thinking that new election technology will make it harder to manipulate the polls in the same way as in the past. But don’t worry, the most creative dictators out there have already shown how you can turn it to your own advantage. If you can’t avoid introducing biometric verification at polling stations – thus making ghost voting impossible – just ensure that the officials you appointed to the electoral commission know when to crash the system. After that, the commission will revert back to its old manual processes and you can get all of your fake voters through before putting the electronic system back online. Special tip: Deliberately buy new technology so late that it cannot be properly tested. That way, you can blame the problem on an unspecified ‘server error’ and everyone will have to believe you.
If observers tell you that they want to conduct a parallel vote tabulation to check that no one is fiddling the counting of the ballots, don’t panic! Remember that only amateurs rig at this stage. The best in the business know that they have won the election well before a vote was cast, so they do not fear a parallel count. After all, it will just provide external confirmation that you got more votes than your rivals, while saying nothing about all the other strategies you have used to manipulate your way into power. As a result, as soon as the count is announced, criticism of the election will melt away – leaving you with a democratic legitimacy you never dreamed of. Congratulations – you are now free to govern as a respectable member of the international community. *How to Rig an Election by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas (Yale University Press) seeks to expose the way that elections are rigged around the world so that we can learn how to better defend democracy.