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If you’ve been following the popular revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt—and the violent aftermath of elections in Cote D’Ivoire as President Laurent Gbagbo clung to power—brace yourself: There are 12 more African elections to come in 2011. While diplomats like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are calling this “the year of democracy” in Africa, the events of the last few months might cause one to downgrade the happenings to “the year of potential democracy.”
Even as the region makes unprecedented economic and social progress, leadership lags behind. It’s usually unwise to paint African politics in terms of black and white, good and bad. But since 1960, more than 200 men (and one woman) have led the 57 diverse nations of the continent. Only a few of those leaders have succeeded at ensuring freedom and decent lives for their people. There’s a reason Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim created an award for African leaders who surrender power peacefully—and why he hasn’t given it to anyone in two years.
Many of the handful of despots left on the continent are up for election this year. Which of them might be the next Laurent Gbagbo or Muammar Gaddafi? We assess the threat level in seven countries.
Illustrations by Sara Saedi
Paul Biya’s government has oppressively managed the west-central African nation of Cameroon for 20 years. His wife Chantal’s infamously extravagant hairdo, known as “La Banane,” doesn’t make Biya look any better. This guy has proven adept at the spadework of most undemocratic leaders: coopting or marginalizing any potential opposition. The people of Cameroon, however, are hip to this racket. When Biya moved to revoke presidential term limits in 2008, regional protests called him on it. Nevertheless, a pliant legislature and some well-timed arrests gave Biya a blank check for 2011—and he is running virtually unopposed this fall. That makes him more likely to hold on than to be booted out. But you never know when the people of Cameroon will say enfin!
Threat Level: 8
Chad is one of several unlucky landlocked countries in Africa, and its leader, Idriss Deby, has a track record of reprehensible manipulation of power in service of more power. Human Rights Watch lists his greatest hits: child soldiers, arrested journalists, wanton destruction of private homes and property.
In early May, Chadian citizens will have the chance to vote Deby out. Opposition is scant, but Chad has all the makings of a popular uprising. Its impoverished, young population is justifiably tired of the old guy. What’s more, the food shortages and price shocks that have pushed other nations into outright revolt have been chronic in Chad for the better part of a decade. There’s no saying Deby and his cronies will take the hint, but the ingredients of revolution are there.
Threat Level: 6
Ooh, sorry, you’ve already missed this one. One of east Africa’s least noticed and most strategically significant countries, Djibouti, returned its repressive, long-serving leader to power in April. Omar Guellah won the vote with a supermajority. It was easy. He was the only candidate.
Djibouti lies between Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia—countries of great interest to terror-stricken western nations—but Guellah is glad you probably couldn’t point to it on a map. As head of state, he has a miserable record of providing basic services to his people, and he recently violently quashed the largest protest in national history. The uprising took place just one week after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt, but went quietly into the dustbin of history.
This injustice surely merits more protests. But Djibouti is neither rich nor populous and is widely known for the national habit of chewing khat—a psychotropic plant that tends to dampen the urge to revolt. Guellah lives to quash another day.
Threat Level: 5
The DRC holds the unpleasant distinction of having been screwed by both its colonial masters and its independence-era leaders. In his heyday, former president Mobutu Sese Seko put the manipulative and greedy exploits of other dictators to shame. Since his ouster in 1997, the country has been mired in a slow-burning civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and an equal number of victims of sexual assault. Presiding over this humanitarian and moral disaster has been Joseph Kabila, the son of assassinated ex-president (the DRC has a few of those) Laurent Kabila.
In this election, Kabila the younger will run against three candidates—reinforcing both the spirit of pluralism missing from many fledgling democracies, and the likelihood that the fractured opposition will fail. Despite the major challenges of underdevelopment that no leader has been able to solve, the people of the DRC may be eager for a fig leaf of stability.
Threat Level: 6
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t think King Mswati III deserves the shepherd’s crook. The traditional monarch of tiny, South Africa-swaddled Swaziland spends lavishly on yachts and bling while 40 percent of his population is unemployed and a quarter lives with HIV or AIDS. Adding to the outrageousness of this arrangement, political parties have been banned for 40 years, and the present king, who has ruled for 25 years, received the throne from his father, who ruled for 60. Since the “Arab Spring” began in February, Mswati has been preemptively detaining people right and left.
So, as the Washington Post documented recently, the situation is primed for some real talk—in the streets if necessary. I met two students from the university of Swaziland in Johanensburg recently. They were at their wits’ end about the lack of freedom in their homeland. “The next ruler will be a king—not even a queen!” one of them lamented. If this is the sentiment among the younger generation, Mswati had better watch out.
Threat Level: 9
Poor Morgan Tsvangirai. Despite winning Zimbabwe’s 2007 presidential election, the leader of the nation’s Orange Democratic Movement had to tuck tail and accept the position of prime minister. Now he’s handcuffed to a flagging economy, a fleeing population, and a sure-to-be contentious electoral process.
All of this is because of Robert Mugabe. The former freedom fighter has turned into cranky grandparent—if your grandparents are in the habit of devastating the national agricultural sector and flogging dissidents. Based on his 2007 intransigence, Mugabe perhaps deserves the award as O.G. (original Gbagbo?) dictator. But his delusions have yet to peak. The 87-year old welcomed a vote this spring in order to “do away with this inclusive government.” LOL. Even South African diplomats—who have strained their neck muscles due to years of looking the other way—have abandoned their pro-Mugabe posture. His continued hold on power is a testament to his own wiles and the “mind your elders” deference the international community once showed him. The people of Zimbabwe have made no such assurances.
Threat Level: 9
Incumbent president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is a darling of the West, and deservedly so. The first African female head of state, elected on the backs of women and despite her country’s impoverishment, she wields a pro-western reformist agenda. It’s a damn good story. Sirleaf’s first five years in office have seen improved economic growth. But this fall she will be dealing with high unemployment, an influx of refugees (most of them children from neighboring Ivory Coast), and the politics of the ongoing trial of ex-president Charles Taylor, a man who merits special mention for his homicidal tenure.
Sirleaf is not one to clamp down on opposition, however, and so she has a crowded field of challengers, including a former soccer star and other longtime political figures. If she is voted out, chances are she’ll go quietly.
Threat Level: 3