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With Clampdown on Dissent, Africa’s Development May Take longer

As Nigeria prepared for its 2015 general elections, doubt was cast around the image of Muhammadu Buhari who eventually emerged victorious. Having led a military junta between 1983 and 1985, many still had the mental picture of an iron-fisted general who promulgated an infamous decree that clamped down on free speech and arrested perceived opponents.

So pervasive was the narrative that Buhari had to admit knowledge of his dictator reputation and promised he was a “born-again” democrat. “I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. So, before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms,” he said in a speech at Chatham House in February 2015.

Fast forward about four years and critics say that his repentance was borne out of the desire to ascend to power and not to be a better leader. Clampdown on dissent and opposition views and disregard for court orders have dotted the reign of the president who won re-election in March.

After the government took office in 2015, a series of arrests of perceived corrupt politicians were made. But the opposition claims that only its members have been arrested and prosecuted. The government sources claim the clampdown has been essentially on corrupt politicians, most of whom are members of the opposition party who mismanaged the country’s resources for sixteen uninterrupted years.

Omoyele Sowore, a young Nigerian, who had contested and lost the recently held presidential election, called for what he described as a revolution protest. He cited growing insecurity, widening inequality and poverty. His call was met with wide support by Nigerians. But on midnight of August 3, agents of state secret service invaded his home in a style reminiscent of the military era and whisked him away. He is currently facing terrorism and treason charges.

The protest started as planned but heavily armed security personnel muscled it down. Protesters were attacked with batons and teargas. In some cases, live bullets were fired. Many were arrested, including journalists who were covering the protest.

The story is not different in other African countries. Intolerance to opposition and dissent has become the pattern of African leaders.

Patrice Talon’s emergence as the president of Benin was greeted with aplomb. It was described as a departure from the routine. As a business mogul, he was seen as having a different mentality and would breathe fresh air into the political life of the country and allow the opposition the needed space to play a role to enhance democratic growth. But the president seems to have disappointed many. His intolerance for opposition has grown recently and clampdowns on perceived opponents has been on rise.

Togo President Faure Gnassingbé. (Facebook)

In April, his predecessor, Thomas Boni Yayi, was placed under house arrest. Despite his deteriorating health condition, Yayi’s residence in Cotonou, the country’s commercial nerve centre, was besieged by security agents, preventing him from receiving visitors. His crime was supporting protesters who called for a delay in a controversial legislative election which had shut out opposition political parties from participating. Only two parties allied to the president were cleared and actually participated. Security agents had earlier opened fire on a group of protesters near Yayi’s residence, killing several. While others who protested in other parts of the town were also shot at.

During the election, the government shut down the Internet. This impacted the election as journalists and observers who relied on the Internet, especially instant messenger apps like WhatsApp, were shut out. Critics of the government say the shutdown helped the government manipulate the election.

On April 13, 2019 members of the main opposition party, Pan-African National Party (PNP), took to the street in protest, calling for a limit to presidential terms. The protest came on the heels of President Faure Gnassingbé’s decision to amend electoral laws to make a provision for a maximum of two terms. This would enable him to seek two more terms with the possibility of staying in power until 2030.

During the protest, two prominent members of PNP, Gueffe Nouridine and Kezire Azizou, were arrested by Togolese intelligence services and detained at Lome Civil Prison. They had been interrogated a few days earlier. Also, on the night of the rally, security agents invaded the home of the party’s president, Tikpi Atchadam, while 30 members were arrested and another 20 sentenced.

Faure Gnassingbé took over from his father in 2005, who ruled the West African country for over three decades.

From West to East

From the western coast of the continent to the east, the story is the same. James Ojo, a Nigerian based journalist who covers African politics, thinks it is a disturbing development. He, however, quipped that it is not new on the continent, alluding to the dark days of the military when opposition was crushed with iron fists.

“The underdevelopment of Africa, to a large extent, owes much to the continued clampdown on the opposition by incumbent leaders,” he told me in an interview. The drive to whittle opposition and allow only allies in the political space would not just slow the maturity of democracy, but impact the overall development of the continent, according to James Ojo. “The absence of opposition undermines democratic growth of the African continent.”

The Malawian general election in May elected Peter Mutharika for a second term. He garnered 38.6% of the vote against Lazarus Chakwera’s 35.4%. But the majority of the electorates think the electoral process was manipulated and they protested. They called for the outright resignation of the electoral commission’s head, Jane Ansah. Mutharika could not stomach it. He saw more to it than electorates protesting the outcome of the election.

Malawi President Peter Mutharika. (Facebook)

The government saw it as a ploy by the leaders of the protest, which Gift Trapence and McDonald Sembereka of Human Rights Defenders’ Coalition are part of, to destabilise the government. Gift and McDonald would later be arrested.

“They want to create lawlessness so that they can take over this government. But they will only take this government over my dead body,” Mutharika had vowed, after attempts to get a court order to stop the protests failed. He made good his vow as clampdowns on protesters continued; all live broadcasts and phone-in programs by radio and TV stations were banned, saying these were illegal in terms of a law that came into effect on June 28th.

From South to North

Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power as the president of Zimbabwe on the horseback of the popular revolt. He took over in August last year, from Robert Mugabe who, critics say, ran the economy aground, muzzled the press and clamped down on dissent. Generally, the country was in bad shape when Mugabe left. The emergence of Mnangagwa, therefore, presented a fresh page; an opportunity for change and growth. Hopes were high.

Fast forward a year and his promise to tolerate dissent is a pipe dream for Zimbabweans. Clamping down on dissent has not just continued but is worse; so much so that Daniel Molokele’s, spokesperson of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), thinks Mugabe represents a better leader than Mnangagwa.

“There is a determined effort by the regime to ensure that there is no more democratic space…It clearly shows that the new government is even worse than that of Robert Mugabe,” Daniel said.

In a January more than 17 protesters were allegedly killed by the military for protesting soaring fuel prices. The clampdown has been more intense in the past few months. While opposition figures like Job Sikhala, deputy chair for MDC, who was arrested and charged for allegedly trying to overthrow the government, are receiving the heat, the poor protesters on the streets of Harare have not been spared. About 700 of them, in recent months, have been bundled into courtrooms on allegations of inciting violence.

Cameroon presents another classic case of repression and failure to understand the dynamics of true democracy in Africa. The country has witnessed a tumultuous rise in dissent and opposition to government policies in recent past, but President Paul Biya, who has been in charge for about 36 years, is not taking this lightly.

Protests had stemmed from complaints of marginalisation by English speaking Cameroonians and results of a largely flawed presidential election held in October last year. The elections, critics say, were characterised by a low turnout of voters and was manipulated by Biya, the opposition says. While Maurice Kamto, Biya’s closest rival at the polls, declared that the president had stolen his mandate and proceeded to the streets with his supporters in protest, Anglophone Cameroonians have had their voices repressed, so much so that Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe had to lead a call for an independent state of Ambazonia.

Maurice Kamto is facing treason charges, while separatist leader, Sisiku, has received a life sentence for terrorism and treason. Most of their supporters, largely youth and middle-aged, are languishing in various detention facilities without trial. According to Human Rights Watch, many are held incommunicado and are being tortured.

Cutting in from Cameroon to Morocco, the story may not be exactly the same but there is a common denominator: dissatisfaction. Although there may be no brutal clampdown on protesters in this North African Kingdom, dissent is not tolerated.

February marks the eighth anniversary of Arab spring – which reignited the spirit of activism across North Africa – teachers protested against poor welfare. But the police fired water cannons and used batons on them, injuring many in the process. Groups like Justice and Dignity movement have been banned from leading protests. Nonetheless, at least 48 protests take place in the monarchical kingdom daily, Al Jazeera reports.

No doubt, the journey to democratic maturity is a long one; but in Africa, it seems to be longer and more torturous than usual. Still fledgling though, but at this rate, the continent’s economic development, which is inextricably tied to its political development, might take longer than envisaged to be achieved.

In this line, Ojo thinks Africans need to hold their political leaders more accountable. “The solution also lies with the people…there is a need for increased enlightenment of the people. Africans need more political education and awareness.”