Authoritarianism is a form of political governance in which a ruler exercises absolute control over a state or group of people with the ultimate goal being preservation of power. In Africa, in addition to the elected presidents who have usurped power and turned themselves into presidents for life, military dictators are another category of authoritarians. Wherever military coups have occurred and a military oligarchy (junta) has taken power, a strong autocrat has always managed to emerge with the help of supportive military forces. Three such cases are those of President Muammar Qaddafi of Libya (1969 to present), former strongman Idi Amin Dada of Uganda (1971–1979), and former president Jerry Rawlings of Ghana (1979–2000). This prevailing style of autocracy has earned African authoritarianism the alternative title of personal rule.
While authoritarianism can take many different forms, African authoritarianism has three main characteristics. The first is a high level of violence and political intimidation against perceived opponents of the regime. Visible proof here is the openly meted police brutality against perceived opposition. A related element is the denial of government services and constitutionally guaranteed rights to those seen as opposing the regime.
The second distinctive feature is a high level of embedment in the existing social and cultural environment. The third is a remarkably low appeal to ideology. African authoritarian rulers have sought to portray themselves as cultural icons and to embed their governments in preexisting cultural structures.
At the height of his authoritarian rule, former president Daniel arap Moi of Kenya (1978–2002) sought to apply the “Nyayo” philosophy of peace, love, and unity as a tool for mobilization of the masses. Beyond rallying around the ruling KANU party however, what most legitimatized his authority to the masses was his appeal to the African traditional custom of respect for elders. Posing as a traditional African elder, complete with the title mzee (Swahili for elder), Moi was able to put in place a formidable patron-client system that strongly legitimized his position and brought him support, even in the face of increasing international pressure and a budding political opposition to his rule. President Moi’s predecessor, President Jomo Kenyatta, served for more than 14 years as a patron to various localized constituencies, including ethnic groups and women’s organizations. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi has successfully appealed to his country’s strong Islamic background and has held on to power by portraying himself as one of the respected Islamic prophets.
Although the development of authoritarianism in modern African states can partly be traced back to the colonial administrations that preceded them and whose structures they inherited, it can be argued that African authoritarianism preceded European colonialism. Precolonial Africa had a fair share of authoritarian rulers like Shaka, head of the Zulu people. In essence, what European colonialism did was to introduce more political structures to endow the practice of authoritarianism. Such emergent political structures include restrictive economic and political structures, easy to manipulate court systems, a rubber-stamping legislature essential for legitimizing the actions of an authoritarian leader, and even a structured bureaucracy that could be employed to enforce the whims of the authoritarian ruler.
Further, ensuing tribalism as a result of colonial divide-and-rule strategies helped enhance the role of modern African authoritarian rulers as defenders and all-able benefactors of their people, regardless of constitutional stipulations. Through a combination of hero worship, open nepotism, and corruption using the resources of the state, a formidable system of client-patron relationships has taken shape in many African states. In so doing, the authoritarian rulers have become strongly entrenched in government.
A distinct outcome of African authoritarianism in almost all cases has been the deterioration of African economies, given the state’s incompetence and heightened corruption that breeds restrictive monopolies to benefit the elite. Despite the continent’s abundance of natural resources, noticeably few African countries can claim a plausible takeoff in industrialization. African authoritarian rulers and their henchmen have repeatedly stolen their countries’ resources and turned them into personal property, to the detriment of their people. A case in point is the late Mobutu Sésé Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) who presided over the historical looting of his country’s natural resources and who became one of the richest men on the continent at a time when extreme poverty continued to ravage his country.
Agriculture, which is the backbone for many African economies, has suffered also due to neglect and exploitation of the mostly subsistent farmers based in the rural areas. With no reliable means of income, many in the continent have sunk to unprecedented levels of poverty. While President Robert Mugabe’s country of Zimbabwe was once considered to be Africa’s most successful agricultural state, more than twenty-eight years of Mugabe’s authoritarian rule, and a no-holds-barred approach to preservation of his power by eliminating any source of organized opposition, has left the country dilapidated and scrounging for food, amid high levels of poverty.
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