Growing resistance to military juntas and autocratic rulers in Africa, says Human Rights Watch

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Sudanese security forces keep watch as they protect a military hospital and government offices during protests against a military coup overthrowing the transition to civilian rule.
Sudanese security forces keep watch as they protect a military hospital and government offices during protests against a military coup overthrowing the transition to civilian rule.
  • Human Rights Watch says there's growing resistance to autocratic and military rule in Africa.
  • A Harvard political science professor has encouraged coalition or "big tent" opposition to unseat long rulership.
  • He also says autocrats can no longer rely on subtly manipulated elections to preserve power.

There is commendable resistance to autocratic rule emerging in Africa, with people taking to the streets despite the risk of being shot and killed, says Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2022 report.

Autocratic regimes in Africa are primarily a result of military coups that promise positive change at the beginning, only to disappoint.

However, people are growing tired of false promises and are demanding their power back in numerous African states.

"As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritise their own interests over the public's, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong.

"In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot," said HRW executive director Kenneth Roth.

In October last year, the military seized power in Sudan. However, civilians want it back. Since early January, anti-military riots have been underway, forcing Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to resign from the civilian-military coalition on 3 January.

Although his resignation left the army in full control, military rulers have found no peace in Sudan. On 9 January, riots resulted in two civilian deaths.

Problems in the east African country began in 2019 when longtime strongman Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in a coup, forcing a compromise transitional authority government that brought together military and civilian rule. However, a total transition to civilian rule is a challenge.

In Mali, the ruling junta has delayed general elections that were due in February. The junta intends to remain in power for at least five more years before the elections. However, their ploy is faced with massive resistance from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) which has placed the country under sanctions.

ALSO READ | Rioters attack state media journalists in Angola, accuse them of being 'sell-outs'

In countries such as Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, in recent times the opposition party system has taken a different form to fight long rulerships and autocracy. Coalitions are the new game in town.

"In some countries ruled by autocrats that retain at least a semblance of democratic elections, opposition political parties have begun to paper over their policy differences to build alliances in pursuit of their common interest in ousting the autocrat."

Roth added:

And as autocrats can no longer rely on subtly manipulated elections to preserve power, a growing number are resorting to overt electoral charades that guarantee their desired result but confer none of the legitimacy sought from holding an election.

Zimbabwe is set to hold by-elections on 26 March which critics say are a window dressing for 2023's general elections. Harvard political scientist, Professor Steven Levitsky said on Twitter that "big tent" opposition arrangements can deliver victories.

"I am a big fan of opposition coalitions, opposition is at severe disadvantages and needs to use every resource possible to compete on a slightly level field," he said.

HRW also noted that managed elections has become less effective, forcing autocrats to resort to increasingly stark forms of electoral manipulation in what it calls "zombie democracy" or the walking dead of democracy, a charade that has no pretense of a free and fair contest such as in the case of Uganda.

"In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni - facing a young, charismatic, and popular opponent [Bobi Wine]- banned his rallies, and security forces shot his supporters," HRW said.

According to HRW, while actions by leaders such as Museveni are widely seen as evidence of rising autocratic power, it was in reality a presentation of desperation by dictatorial leaders who know they have lost any prospect of popular support.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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