WASHINGTON – In Tunisia and Zimbabwe, election victories have been followed by pro-democracy protests, so the assumption is that strongmen will not be standing forever.
Consider Gambia, the tiny African nation whose new president declared independence from Senegal in 1960, only to lose the country to the Cro-Magnon nation in 1965. In 1994, after a political compromise imposed by Senegal’s president, President Yahya Jammeh, Jammeh declared himself ruler of the whole country. But after losing elections in December, 2017, Jammeh surrendered power and fled into exile.
In all these cases, the crown prince is the new autocrat. The question is why.
In the old days, power shifted after a few transitions of power in turbulent societies. Populations were transient, new provinces were created, and royal rivalries often spilled into national elections.
But in Africa today, migration to cities and the phenomenon of ever-lower birth rates mean there are fewer domestic resources to choose from. Despite tiny populations of about a tenth of the European continent, there are 140 African nations.
Moreover, newcomers to Africa may be highly educated, but their standard of living may be low. Many parents have trouble finding better-paying work, and African universities, like many of America’s, are based in expensive coastal cities. Urban migrants to the continent’s cities often settle in neighborhoods where there are job opportunities, but few places to live.
In Haiti, political unrest in 2015-16 was provoked by people with heavy hearts from migration to the United States, mostly Haitian-Americans. The global economy is a bit more stable, allowing nations with fewer students to graduate from college and settle down.
In the 21st century, few Africans agree on what kind of democracy they favor. Rather, when they do have ideological differences, they prefer pluralism, based on pluralism.
The issue is vital, because throughout the continent the traditional conflict between the country’s majority tribe and the minority tribe can form an ideology. The Indians and Chinese have done this better than the Africans, judging by their political turmoil, illegal immigration into Europe, military coups, and lack of good governance.
As a result, Asians and other non-African voters choose politicians from the majority tribe, and sometimes even introduce full-fledged democracy. After all, when empires intervened in African politics and required their subjects to choose sides, the native population also often decided to be loyal to the forces that coerced democracy.
On the other hand, as the Western world has reinforced progress in governance, African populists have found ways to get at democracy. In Zimbabwe, former President Robert Mugabe met the demand for a new leader with the excuse that he did not fully rule because he was running the country by “Granny Grace.” In Africa, Africa rarely treats its citizens equally. As Baba Jukwa, African dictator of Tunisia, explained, “We are all in the same boat. If some fall out of the boat, we’ll all fall out of the boat.”
Coups became almost extinct in many African countries during the Cold War. After the end of the Cold War, fears that a new Russian-style empire would emerge had not faded. Western nations worried that a new Greater Soviet Union might invade Africa in the name of anti-American or anti-Western dictators. But that has not come to pass.
Instead, after the demise of the old United States-led “Four Power” strategic alliance, power has gone to China and India. At the moment, South Africa is the biggest nation in Africa and the continent’s economic and security hub. Its security is combined with the presence of China, India, and NATO. Because South Africa had served as a guarantor of African peace and security against Western colonial power – which largely has disappeared since the 20th century – its economy has become attractive to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. South Africa (and other African nations) came to benefit from China’s boom, and has become a massive market for Chinese exports to Europe and the United States.
In Mali, Islamist radicals and Tuareg rebels fought for decades against the government. Like the revolutionary leader of Algeria who led his country to independence from France, Mohammad Mossadegh in 1951, a foreign power supported the young prime minister, leaving for power just before he could be killed in a coup.
In 2013, Tuareg rebels launched a revolt against the government, which had divided it between old factions, including political and military leaders who for two years fought a civil war for power. The far-right National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and one Islamist group (the Ansar Dine) became the dominant actors in the