Are strongmen or liberal democracy our only choices?

With the recent series of military coups, especially in West Africa, what is left for the future of politics on the African continent?

Nigerien soldiers in Agadez. (Image: US Africa Command. via Flickr Creative Commons License).

If the coup in Burkina Faso (where the military overthrew a democratically elected government) tells us anything, it is that liberal democracy does not, or cannot, protect people (in Burkina Faso‘s case it is from terrorist violence). We also learn that if people don’t experience any changes in their daily lives (economic and material deprivation is usually a clue), it will leave the door wide open for rule by the gun. It doesn’t help if citizens begin to think of state models, like the neoliberal authoritarianism of Paul Kagame (complete with advertising on Arsenal FC’s shirt sleeve), as representing a better and more stable option.

Of course, we can’t really know how popular these authoritarian models are. For example, the Burkinabe and Malian militaries have organized protests framing their coups as anticolonial (while at the same time they present themselves as France’s junior partner in the so-called War on Terror); and in Kagame’s Rwanda, you can not find people who will openly say what they think of his rule. (Remember when a parliamentary commission traveled the country and could only find 10 Rwandans who would go on record to object to his rule, since 2000, be extended to 2034?) In some quarters, some are buying the Malian and Burkinabe militaries’ spin. The trouble is that military and or authoritarian rule gets you nowhere, even in cases where we may agree with the politics of the coup leaders, or the charismatic ruler claiming it’s his “national duty” to suspend the constitution, fire judges and disband parliament.

The long-term effects are no good as we have learned in cases as diverse as Ghana or in the same Burkina Faso. But then you ask, what does liberal democracy offer in Africa? We get the uninspiring choices of Bola Tinubu (tainted by corruption) in Nigeria; Ousmane Sonko (charges of sexual violence) or Macky Sall in Senegaland Cyril Ramaphosa’s bloated and corrupt ruling party and his tightfisted finance ministry in South Africa.

But like we’ve said before, we need to study how social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean are working to make electoral politics have more weight. One idea is to heed the advice of someone like Karl Cloete, the South African trade unionist, about how we imagine post-nationalist or post-liberation movement politics. Otherwise, all we have is depression.

Further Reading

A year of coups

In what amounts to another pointless exercise, the Washington Post repeated its 2013 map of countries most likely to have a coup. Of course, African countries are at the top of the list.