Dictators need ideas, not just guns
Repression is only one of the many tactics in the toolbox of an effective authoritarian regime
Idi Amin feeding his opponents to crocodiles, Jean-bédel Bokassa crowning himself emperor, Mobutu Sese Seko building a replica of Versailles in the jungle — Africa’s most vicious and predatory dictators have cast a long shadow over contemporary representations of the continent.
In reality, managing an authoritarian state is a difficult job. You can’t keep a large country stable for a long time just by telling everyone that you are really powerful. Instead, you need to manage competing factions, find ways of demobilising protests and make sure that the security forces are paid. In our new book, Authoritarian Africa: Repression, Resistance, and the Power of Ideas, we show that the authoritarian leaders who managed to maintain stable one-party states in the 1970s and 1980s, and their contemporary counterparts who govern repressive states today, need to be smart and adaptable to survive.
There are different kinds of authoritarian systems in Africa, from military rule to apartheid, and from colonial exploitation to Paul Kagame’s Rwanda. But successful authoritarian leaders often have one thing in common: they don’t rely only on repression. Instead, they co-opt some groups to secure their support and use popular ideas to try to legitimise their rule.
It is only by understanding how these strategies reinforce each other that we can explain the durability of some of the continent’s authoritarian regimes.
It is easy to think of authoritarianism as a relic of the past, given the reintroduction of elections in the early 1990s. But in reality, many — some would say most — African people still live under authoritarian political systems in which elections are held but political rights and civil liberties are not respected. In this new kind of authoritarianism, opposition parties campaign with one hand behind their back and power never changes hands.
Although some dictators have tried to keep power solely by terrorising their citizens, few political systems can survive through repression alone. This is particularly so in many African countries, where the formal — and physical — reach of the state increasingly tapers off outside major cities and towns. This renders it virtually impossible to establish totalitarian surveillance states in which citizens’ every conversation could, potentially, be being monitored.
More successful authoritarian regimes combine coercive tactics with those of persuasion — giving key groups and constituencies reasons to accept the system, rather than just forcing their acquiescence through oppression and cruelty.
How to influence citizens
The more resilient of Africa’s authoritarian regimes, for example, have bought support from powerful local elites, soldiers, particular ethnic groups or political influencers through building them into extensive patronage structures, through which state resources cascade down chains of patron-client links.
In so doing, they may assemble a large, and often diverse, group of supporters who rely on the regime’s survival for their prosperity.
Many authoritarian African leaders have also successfully leveraged lasting support from the international system by persuading certain major powers of their value as allies. Despite clear authoritarian abuses, both Yoweri Museveni’s government in Uganda and Kagame’s in Rwanda have enjoyed spells of being “donor darlings”, receiving large amounts of foreign aid.
The more that support can be coopted both domestically and internationally, the less it has to be coerced.
It is important, however, not to view consent in all authoritarian regimes as simply a transactional affair. Just as in more democratic states, the legitimacy of authoritarian systems derives from a complex range of interconnected forces.
In some cases, successful authoritarian leaders harness the power of ideas to support their rule. To do this, they often tap into existing narratives that resonate with at least some of their people. In states with a history of internal conflict or civil war, for example, an authoritarian political structure that guarantees peace, stability and national unity may be seen as a necessary evil. Authoritarian governments have successfully played on this theme — such as Uganda’s National Resistance Movement, which warns that voting for another party risks returning the country to civil war.
Another idea advanced by successive African authoritarian regimes is the argument that “Western-style” democracy is either “unafrican” or unsuited to the continent’s cultures and needs.
This has often been premised on the need to return to precolonial forms of rule.
Former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, for example, banned all political parties except for his own, arguing that authentic African governance should take its inspiration from the past, when “elders sit under the big tree and talk until they agree”.
The importance of co-option and the power of ideas to the success of authoritarian leaders does not mean that citizens become happy to live under authoritarian rule. None of the political systems we have described would have survived without repression, and surveys consistently find that strong majorities favour democratic government in almost every country.
It is still important, however, to understand that the amount of repression a leader requires will be lower if they can co-opt support while managing public sentiment. Governing through force is much easier if you can get your networks and optics right.
Dr Jonathan Fisher is with the international development department at the University of Birmingham and Nic Cheeseman is professor of democracy at the same university
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Donor darling: Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame