Africa cannot afford to continue with the despotic forms of governance that still proliferate across the continent. Authoritarian and dictatorial governments are repressive, corrupt and inefficient. Their main interest is to retain power and loot public resources for the benefit of a few political elites, leaving the majority of citizens in poverty. As a result, although rich in raw resources, our continent remains the poorest in the world.
We have seen this trend of authoritarianism in Zimbabwe, and we are now seeing it in Uganda, which has just held a farcical election.
These authoritarian regimes share a common thread: they have no tolerance for dissent. Anybody who speaks out or raises questions is treated as if they were enemies of the state rather than a constructive part of the civic process. In this way, these regimes stifle competition and justify exclusion and repression. Such a playbook has been on show in Uganda, where the regime unleashed egregious violence against Bobi Wine and his movement during the election campaign.
Another common characteristic in these repressive governments is their refusal to allow young people to develop politically and take on leadership roles. This despite the reality that Africa has the world’s largest population of young people: the median age is 19.7. It is also projected to have a population of 2.5 billion by 2050, the majority of whom will be young people.
Young people represent a critical force in Africa. This future population projection is often referred to as the “demographic dividend”, and economists predict this growth will be good for Africa. Others caution that this dividend can only be an asset to Africa if we can fix the institutions of governance, improve our infrastructure and make progress beyond being merely extractive economies.
There is a need for deliberate policies that include young people in the political and economic architecture of their countries. Unless this is done, the demographic dividend will become a nightmare, as more young people rely on the state to provide for their welfare.
Unfortunately, dictators stand in the way. Young people seeking leadership are dismissed as upstarts and thwarted with the might of the state’s coercive powers. They are constantly told that they are the future, but that future never arrives. The view of the ageing authoritarian generation in power is very self-centred and short-termist – they have no real incentive to plan for a future that they have no prospect of experiencing. The result is that they think only about now and only about themselves, their families and associates.
In Zimbabwe, we know all about false and misleading promises. When the current regime took power from Robert Mugabe in November 2017, they made grand promises including a new democratic process, respect for human rights and re-engagement with the international community. But despite all these big claims, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government went on to oversee the exact opposite – disputed elections, human rights violations, and grand corruption. Lately, they have been using surrogates to undermine and shut down the opposition. The Zanu-PF government has taken money intended for the opposition and diverted it to its associates. It has facilitated the removal of my MDC Alliance party’s elected representatives from parliament and local authorities.
Zimbabwe cannot afford further corrosions of democracy in this decade – and nor can any other country in Africa. Government should be by the meaningful consent of the people: any consent that is coerced is not legitimate, it is not free choice. Elections must be free and transparent – when results are announced amid serious and glaring voting irregularities, the process lacks legitimacy.
The international community should not keep rubber-stamping these illegitimate outcomes in the name of maintaining a supposed peace. The consequence of doing so is to continue the exclusionary systems of government that fly in the face of demographic and political changes.
Now dictators are callously exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthen repression. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni used the pandemic to prevent his main rival from campaigning effectively during the election. In Zimbabwe, the regime suspended byelections under the guise of fighting the pandemic, but the ruling party carried on with its political activities.
The Mnangagwa regime has been arresting opponents and journalists and throwing them into crowded and squalid jails, exposing them to Covid. When our spokesperson at the MDC Alliance, Fadzayi Mahere, left prison recently, she tested positive for the virus.
It is important for both the African and global communities to take a tough stance on these illiberal regimes. Staging elections is part of the dictators’ playbook because it creates a facade of democracy. There is no point in recognising unfair elections, such as Uganda’s in January – it only serves to legitimise and entrench authoritarian regimes.