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Dictators need ideas, not just guns

Repression is only one of the many tactics in the toolbox of an effective authoritar­ian regime

- Jonathan Fisher & Nic Cheeseman

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.

Authoritar­ianism 2.0

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
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