Less than a month before I composed this essay, Robert Mugabe fell from power in Zimbabwe by way of a military coup. Feeling pressured by the dictator’s recent moves and threats against political rivals, as well as the prospect of his wife, Grace Mugabe, assuming power upon his death, Zimbabwean military leaders decided it was time to act. After a brief stint in house arrest, Mugabe finally stepped down after 30 years as the nation’s president.
While there are understandable concerns over Mugabe’s successor, I believe this unexpected development marks a shift currently taking place within the realm of modern-day African politics. In my opinion, state-level governments throughout Africa seem to be veering more towards democratic methods of leadership and slowly resigning from the traditional, iron-fisted authoritarianism.
African dictators perpetuate this special brand of oppressive rule, also referred to as Big Man politics, thanks to a number of factors: strong alliances, international complacency or complicity, etc. One of the chief elements, in my view, is the disregard for, and even antagonism against, the opinions/interests of the people under their rule. This holds especially true when the people’s wishes diverge from their own.
Mugabe stands as a quintessential example of this regrettable trend. In the early years of his rule, Mugabe struck against the rival ZAPU party following the discovery of weapons stored on their property. Under the pretense of preventing a coup from occurring, Mugabe used the opportunity to dismiss ZAPU from Zimbabwe’s coalition government and consolidate more power to himself.
Unfortunately for Mugabe, the biggest ethnic minority group, the amaNdebele population, saw these counterstrikes as an affront against them; they widely supported ZAPU and its leaders. The amaNdebeles then decided to showcase their displeasure in the form of civic demonstrations. ZAPU-supporting soldiers also deserted from the army as a form of protest.
Mugabe not only showed no concern for the amaNdebele’s protests against the infringements on their representation: he aggressively retaliated. His dutiful Fifth Brigade went on to eventually slaughter an estimated 20,000-30,000 amaNdebeles in Matabeleland for expressing their discontent in such a public manner, cementing Mugabe’s hold over Zimbabwe in the process.
While it is certainly still possible to maintain this level of blatant disregard (and even enmity) for citizens’ demands nowadays, the people are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Advances in information communication technologies (social media, smartphones, cellular data, etc.) have paved the way for people to voice their opinions almost effortlessly. It is also far easier for people to mobilize themselves into a noteworthy force when they are dissatisfied with their state’s performance. Sub-Saharan Africa’s Big Men must accept that Arab-Spring-level demonstrations are well within the realm of possibility inside their borders. Civic society, if ignored and left unhappy, can rapidly devolve into civic unrest thanks to modern technology. This should dissuade African rulers from relying on despotism in order to remain in power.
Alternatively, a more democratic system of government, and the social mobilization made possible because of it, depends on accepting that the public:
1) has the right to honest representation,
2) possesses power of their own, and
3) by catering to their interests, that power should not be unleashed against their leaders.
Post-colonial African rulers have widely ignored these ideas. However, while it is a controversial matter, evidence is beginning to surface that this may be changing. Signs suggest that some oppressive regimes are starting to realize that listening to their populace’s needs and seeing they are met is the best way to ensure their positions of power.
One example is Yoweri Museveni’s reign in Uganda. While not a democratic regime by any stretch of the imagination, Museveni’s administration seems to understand these democratic principles and is, at the very least, attempting to live by them to an extent. In 1996 Museveni adopted Uganda’s Universal Primary Education (UPE), opening the door for all children to attend school. Since coming to power, Uganda has experienced steady drops in child mortality and pregnancy-related maternal deaths. In terms of anecdotal evidence, Professor Nielson remarks that new roads and stoplights continue to be erected in provinces that did not support Museveni in their (so-called) elections. Though there is certainly more work to be done with Uganda’s social services, Museveni is at least trying to fill societal gaps his citizens keep falling through.
As mentioned previously, I contend that Mugabe’s fall from power marks a shift from Big Man politics to representative democracy in Africa. I further believe that this about-face would be a boon to Africa’s citizenry, allowing them opportunities scarcely imagined in periods of oppression. Time, and their rulers’ decisions concerning them, will tell if this belief proves valid.