Dic­ta­tors need ideas, not just guns

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

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - 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

An am­bush of a con­voy in Burk­ina Faso has killed 37 peo­ple and left 60 wounded. The con­voy — five buses car­ry­ing staff of a Cana­dian min­ing com­pany, ac­com­pa­nied by a mil­i­tary es­cort — was about 40km out­side the eastern town of Boun­gou when the at­tack oc­curred. Al­though there has been no of­fi­cial claim of re­spon­si­bil­ity, Is­lamist in­sur­gents are as­sumed to be re­spon­si­ble, with this lat­est at­tack yet an­other sign that the gov­ern­ment does not have the sit­u­a­tion un­der con­trol.

Mozam­bi­can of­fi­cer ar­rested

Mozam­bi­can po­lice have ar­rested Tudelo Guir­rugo, the com­man­der of an elite rapid in­ter­ven­tion force in Gaza prov­ince, in con­nec­tion with the mur­der of an elec­tion ob­server. The killing in broad day­light of Anastá­cio Matavel, just days be­fore the gen­eral elec­tion last month, made head­lines around the world and high­lighted con­cerns about the con­duct of the poll. Po­lice say that four of the five al­leged killers be­longed to Guir­rugo’s rapid in­ter­ven­tion force.

Zim­babwe sti­fles protest

Zim­bab­wean au­thor­i­ties pre­vented a protest by pub­lic sec­tor work­ers from go­ing ahead on Wed­nes­day, de­spite au­tho­ris­ing it. The work­ers are de­mand­ing that their salaries be in­dexed to US dol­lars to pro­tect them against in­fla­tion, which is reach­ing triple dig­its. The march had been seen as a test of Pres­i­dent Em­mer­son Mnan­gagwa’s will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate dis­sent — a test that the pres­i­dent ap­pears to have failed af­ter po­lice­men sur­rounded pro­test­ers and re­fused to let them march.

Nige­ria’s mys­te­ri­ous tax bill

Nige­rian se­na­tors have ap­proved a new tax Bill. Among other mea­sures, the Bill — which now needs the pres­i­dent’s sig­na­ture to be­come law — would in­crease value-added tax from 5% to 7.5%. How­ever, leg­is­la­tors can’t be too con­fi­dent about the con­tents of the pro­posed new law given that no copies of the Bill were shared with them, ac­cord­ing to the Pre­mium Times. “I don’t know how we can de­bate a Bill that we have not re­ceived,” said one MP, whose ob­jec­tions were over­ruled by the speaker.

Progress in Nile dam dis­pute

Egypt, Ethiopia and Su­dan have set them­selves a Jan­uary 15 dead­line to work out their dif­fer­ences over the Grand Ethiopian Re­nais­sance Dam, a mas­sive hy­dro­elec­tric project cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion. Ethiopia says the dam is nec­es­sary to meet its en­ergy needs, while Egypt and Su­dan fear that it would re­strict their ac­cess to the waters of the Nile River. Talks be­tween the three coun­tries were me­di­ated in Wash­ing­ton DC by the United States. “The meet­ing went well and dis­cus­sions will con­tinue dur­ing the day!” tweeted US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. — Briefs sourced from BBC, Pre­mium Times and Reuters

Donor dar­ling: Rwanda’s Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame

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