Chances for an African Spring are fading
Nepotism and authoritarianism continue to hamper any hopes for sustainable development in Africa
As global networks are captivated by the American elections or the never-ending Syrian conflict turning Aleppo in a modern era Guernica, nepotism and authoritarianism continue to hamper any hopes for sustainable development in Africa. In particular, over the last few weeks, the international community has missed an historic opportunity to stand up to a handful of dictators and support democratization in Central Africa. Instead, ruling family dynasties – brazenly represented by the Bongo family in Gabon or the Kabila clan in the ironically named Democratic Republic of Congo – have organized travesty of elections or so called “national dialogue” to maintain their grasp on power.
On Friday, the Gabonese opposition observed a national day of mourning to commemorate the death of civilians killed in the fallout of the recent presidential elections. A week ago, the Constitutional Court declared the victory of incumbent Ali Bongo, despite unanimous international criticism of the allegedly rigged vote. In particular, the vote count in the Haut Ogooue province denies any credibility to the election results, as according to the Court more than 99.93 percent of the population – 40 percent more than the rest of the country – would have voted in an overbearing majority for Bongo.
With only mild pressure from the European Union, the United States and Canada, and in spite of hundreds of political opponents in jail, the Constitutional Court’s decision was expected. Its very president, Marie Madeleine Mborantsuo, is none other than one of Ali Bongo’s father’s former concubines with whom he had two children and that he single handedly picked to put a tap on the population’s democratic hopes.
Similarly, in Congo-Brazzaville, eighty political prisoners rot in jail since the Spring elections in which the 72-year-old Denis Sassou-Nguesso would have officially received the ointment of the population to continue his 30 years-long reign. In Burundi, the United Nations just issued a dire report on human rights violations from the government after Pierre Nkurunziza trampled on his country’s constitutional law to impose his third mandate. As a result, civil conflicts throughout the country have claimed the lives of hundreds over the last year.
Last week, a final nail was planted in the coffin of democratic aspiration in the Congo Basin region. In Kinshasa, the national dialogue conference organized by Joseph Kabila turned out to be the fraud most had feared. After threatening a judge in Lubumbashi to force her to condemn his most serious rival Moise Katumbi on bogus charges, Joseph Kabila eventually used the conference to announce the postponing sine die of general elections since his own government failed to register 10 million voters, thus “forcing” him to stay in power.
Authoritarianism is nothing new in a region where Paul Biya (Cameroon) or Jose Antonio Dos Santos (Angola) have held power for more than 35 years each. Yet two new variables had opened a window of opportunity for political change: a different French foreign policy toward its former colonies and the evolution of commodity prices. The conjunction of both have created a fertile ground for political change if opposition parties manage to sustain momentum and pressure.
On the political front, the French ambiguous and self-interested approach to francophone Africa has been a central reason for the maintaining of despotic powers for decades, thus creating the infamous “Francafrique” - a region in which Paris closed its eyes to the regular abuse of powers from local presidents as long as they ensured the protection of French economic interests. From De Gaulle to Sarkozy, every French president has cultivated special relations with reigning African families, disregarding corruption and human rights violation. Several voices have confirmed the role played by the Bongo family in financing political activities of right wing parties in France, which probably explains the constant support from Sarkozy or Juppe to the Gabonese president.
The Hollande administration is the first one to break away from this collusion of interest. Yet recent condemnations from Paris remain very faint, muted by protestations from African capitals on a perceived intrusion in their sovereignty. Ironically, the very dictators protected by Paris for decades are now playing on the nationalistic chord as France demands a respect of democratic rules that would inevitably lead to their replacement.
In parallel, on the economic front, these corrupted dynasties were able to maintain their power and lavish lifestyle thanks to the extraction of natural resources in their countries. Despite the fact that a large share of Central African population live below the poverty line, the region is home to some of the largest reserves of minerals and hydrocarbons. Congo has been labelled a geological anomaly due to its incredible mineral reserves. Gabon, Angola, Congo…. all are important oil producing countries although the economic wealth generated never reached their citizens. Several looting and corruption scandals have indeed contributed to the staggering wealth of Central African elites and often been used for the purchase of military equipment and political loyalty at the expense of infrastructure and social development.
The collapse of raw material and energy prices over the last few years has however reduced the capacity of crooked leaders to rely on a rentier state model to protect them from political contestation. A new generation of African entrepreneurs and the emergence of a dynamic civil society in the region has led to the creation of private economic sectors who grew outside of traditional governmental oversight. The economic hegemony of African establishments is now challenged and the decrease of global energy and minerals prices have reduced their capacity to extort shady commissions from the mining industry and oil majors.
The window of opportunity for change is closing however. It is highly unlikely that Hollande will be reelected for a second term in France and the political discourse of his opponents is worrisome in regards to Africa. Sarkozy rebuffed the Gabonese diaspora who came to raise awareness at one of his recent political meeting. Similarly, his main rival in the Republican primaries – Alain Juppe – is remarkably silent on the issue, refusing to answer the prayer for support from local African oppositions. Some underline his own personal connection with some of the authoritarian since his tenure as Chirac’s right arm. Even worse, Marine Le Pen’s father was one of the first to congratulate Bongo on his “reelection” which says a lot on the National Front position on African affairs. Finally, the recent hydrocarbon production agreement by OPEP last week should lead to an increase in prices that will deepen the African establishments’ pockets and capacity to buy allegiance while few hope that everyday citizens will see any of the benefits.