Recent crackdowns in several African countries have been met with a muted response from the international community. Should the West should be doing more to protect democracy on the continent?
For even the most mildly superstitious souls it was an unsettling moment: the newly sworn-in president of the Democratic Republic of Congo was delivering his maiden speech when he was unable to go on.
“I am not OK,” Felix Tshisekedi declared.
Aides moved in to help and he was eventually able to resume. An adviser later reported that the new president’s flak-jacket was too tight and he had felt faint.
President Tshisekedi was standing near his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, whom many fear will continue to exert a powerful control over the government – a suffocating influence some have suggested after allegations, which have been denied, of a secret deal between the two.
The world looked at DR Congo, suspected a big electoral fix but decided to look the other way.
There was no appetite for confrontation on the part of the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), the European Union or the United States.
The AU hastily convened and just as hastily abandoned a mission to DR Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, that had been intended to promote a negotiated solution to the row over electoral fraud.
The requests to delay the announcement of official results were ignored.
The AU was left with nothing to negotiate. For a regional body that promotes “African solutions to African problems” it was a humiliation.
The US ambassador to Kinshasa, Mike Hammer, hailed a “first-ever peaceful, democratic transfer of power”, in the process managing to look past the State Department’s own publicly expressed concerns over the electoral process.
There was no easy answer to the dilemma presented by the vote. From early on it was clear that there were not going to be large demonstrations against the government, no great manifestation of public fury to pressure the international community into action.
This in part was to do with the fractured nature of the political opposition, fear of the security forces and the decision by the Catholic Church and civil society to refrain for now from large-scale mobilisation.
Looking at all of this, the regional and international actors opted for what diplomats call “stability”. In DR Congo this means a continuation of the existing muddle while hoping that it does not all collapse into disaster.
For the millions of Congolese – displaced from their homes by conflict, living with dire poverty and the threat of disease, denied a share in the immense mineral wealth of their nation, bullied and preyed upon by armed groups – do not expect an amelioration of their plight any time soon.
In all of this it is also worth considering what I would call the politics of preoccupation.
It is not just in relation to DR Congo but also to Zimbabwe with its crackdown on dissent and Sudan in the throes of a popular uprising against the regime of President Omar al-Bashir.
The last few weeks have seen deepening repression. Soldiers in Zimbabwe terrorise their fellow citizens and their counterparts in Sudan fire live ammunition into crowds. Yet the international response has been muted, to put it mildly.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called on Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa not to “turn the clock back”.
This statement was based on the assumption that the clock had moved forward in Zimbabwe since the ousting of Robert Mugabe at the end of 2017, a doubtful proposition just now.
Rather than condemn the brutality in Zimbabwe, the most powerful country in the region, South Africa, called for the lifting of economic sanctions.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has his own preoccupations.
There is the fight against corruption and for his political base within the governing African National Congress (ANC) where allies of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, still lurk.
Winning a handsome majority in the coming elections will strengthen Mr Ramaphosa’s hand. Do not expect any emphatic foreign policy departures until he feels more secure.
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The other major continental power, Nigeria, is facing elections in a fortnight in which President Muhammadu Buhari is running for a second term.
Mr Buhari has just caused uproar by firing his chief justice, who could have played a crucial role in a disputed election result.
The US, EU and the UK all sounded their displeasure. But after the example of DR Congo is there an appetite for anything more than words should the election go awry?
In Britain foreign policy is consumed by the Brexit debate. Across the rest of the EU Brexit and a host of domestic crises have led to a turning inwards.
African political problems are not a priority.
How distant now the days of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “ethical foreign policy” and the sight of British troops patrolling Sierra Leone. The disastrous aftermath of the Iraq war ended that brief period of ambitious interventionism.
The French still maintain strong military and economic links in several African countries. But their limited, and purely rhetorical, response to the DR Congo election outcome indicates the priority of domestic issues like the ongoing “gilets jaunes” protests.
In America, the White House and the legislators are kept busy with the Mueller investigation, the continuing border wall saga and the 2020 elections.
A month ago US Secretary of State John Bolton outlined an Africa policy aimed at challenging the expansion of Chinese, and to a lesser extent Russian influence.
But with the cutbacks at the State Department under the Trump administration it is difficult to see how a more vigorous Africa policy – whatever its ideological or political focus – can be implemented.
With Sudan, the Americans have other reasons to go easy on the criticism: the Bashir regime has been helpful in the fight against violent Islamist extremism.
The Western powers have expressed “deep concern” while the AU reminded “Sudanese political leaders of their collective responsibility to pursue constructive, peaceful avenues for addressing the country’s pressing challenges”. The words have been lost in the cries and bullets on the streets.
But constantly looking to what the rest of the continent or international community does or does not do fails to reflect the deeper dynamics of change on the continent.
It cannot be said often enough: Africa is not a single social, political, economic or cultural entity. As the popular phrase goes, Africa is not a country.
DR Congo, Sudan and Zimbabwe are each shaped by different histories, albeit with a common legacy of colonial rule.
But these days there is another crucial commonality. It is what you might see as the upside of the current period of turmoil.
Arc of intolerance
In each country a highly organised, youth-driven and tech-savvy civil society has learned that change need not always be sponsored by mainstream politicians or foreign governments.
History has taught them that politicians can promise change and deliver only more of the same or worse.
The young activists of Bulawayo, Goma and Omdurman do not depend on outsiders.
The post-colonial era saw too many foreign interventions that were cynical and selfish, or inadequate, fleeting or poorly thought out. Recognition of this has helped create a vigorous spirit of self-determination among today’s protesters.
These are the people who patiently record the terror inflicted by the Zimbabwean security forces, who are circulating flyers across Khartoum to organise demonstrations, and whose activism forced then-President Kabila to hold an election, however flawed.
Nothing has been more important in African politics over the last two decades than the rise of this activist generation. That is why the counsel of despair should be avoided when contemplating the crises that have been playing out in recent weeks.
A swathe of the continent is suffering from either regressive authoritarianism, flawed elections, entrenched corruption, or combinations of each. One might call it an arc of intolerance.
In Cameroon, the leader of the opposition has been arrested in the wake of a highly compromised election.
The authorities in Uganda are accused of persecuting charismatic politician Bobi Wine, while in Tanzania, President John Magufuli is steadily squeezing the life out of democratic opposition.
East v West
These are just a few examples that have produced a muted response from most of the international community.
I say most because the Chinese and the Russians have always stood apart from the language of condemnation.
It is common currency these days to argue that where the West steps back because of its own preoccupations China and Russia will rush in. Both Beijing and Moscow have their own agendas to pursue without even lip service to ideals of human rights and accountable government.
The Gulf powers are also jostling for influence. But it risks being patronising to assume that people across the continent cannot recognise, and mobilise to counter, a new kind of exploitation when it appears.
The ruling party in Zimbabwe especially needs international economic assistance to counter the catastrophe created by its own incompetence and brutal tactics.
That help will not be forthcoming as long as a climate of fear continues. Nor do the Chinese or the Russians have endlessly deep pockets, or the inclination, to bankroll an inherently unstable system.
But I am focusing here on a more powerful long-term agent of change. I stress long term.
Does anyone imagine that the people who fought to bring an election to DR Congo will now relax and allow for despotism as usual? None that I met – from Goma in the east all the way to Kinshasa in the west – believe they will be rescued by foreigners.
Likewise in Sudan and Zimbabwe there are vibrant debates taking place around the economy, education and women’s rights.
The activist movements are crucibles of thought as well as street protest. The activism we see is not driven by ideological or sectarian fanaticism.
It is characterised above all by reason. That is no small thing in a world where ideologues have wreaked so much misery in recent decades.
Yet activism alone cannot solve the legacy of decades of misrule and corruption. But what it has created is a growing sense of democracy as something more expansive and inclusive than a ballot box that can be stuffed with fake votes or stolen by a power elite.
DR Congo’s pro-democracy activist group, Lucha, which was a target of Mr Kabila’s violent crackdown, recently expressed the tireless hope of its activism in a tweet.
“In this tumultuous period, our people must redouble their efforts and vigilance. We must be even more demanding to make the policies accountable to us. Regardless of our political affiliation or our ethnic identity, we must put the nation above all.”
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