John Steenhuisen - RUSI address, 24 February 2021
African states are let down by neighbours who look away and pretend to see nothing
This past year has been tough on the entire world. The double impact of Covid-19 together with the economic hardship brought about by lockdowns and restrictions has wrought suffering on the people of every single nation, and the end is not yet in sight.
But while we have a good idea of how this crisis is playing out across Europe, Asia and the Americas thanks to a year of non-stop news coverage, its effect across Africa has gone largely unreported in global news.
Very few know the impact this pandemic has had in Angola or Eritrea. We don’t know accurate numbers of Covid deaths in Senegal or Malawi. And we don’t know the effect the pandemic has had on jobs, businesses, trade and tourism in Namibia, Tanzania or Libya.
This is partly because much of this information is not that readily available. But it’s also because Africa is not the world’s priority right now. For the western world, the pressing issues are on their own doorstep - their own people, their neighbouring countries, their closest trading partners.
While CNN, Sky and Al Jazeera still do African features and reporting, the bulk of their focus is very much on the jobs, hospitals and deaths of developed nations.
Elsewhere, governments are rolling out massive vaccination programmes and reprioritising budgets to offer stricken businesses and the unemployed some financial relief, but across most of Africa that remains a pipe dream.
Basic healthcare was already a huge challenge in most parts of the continent before we’d ever heard of the coronavirus this time last year. Augmenting this healthcare and planning large-scale vaccination programmes are simply not feasible projects for most countries here.
Keeping people out of abject poverty and fighting hunger and malnutrition was already a losing battle for many African countries before any trade, travel or other restrictions were applied.
These countries simply do not have the reserves to absorb further economic blows.
But it is the third threat - on top of these healthcare and economic challenges - that makes Africa’s position infinitely more precarious than anywhere else in the world. And that is the threat of political instability and the erosion of democracy.
Throughout the continent we are seeing a steady decline of democracy and a strengthening of Big Man politics.
We are seeing growing intolerance of political diversity. We are seeing opposition leaders jailed and their supporters brutalised. We are seeing constitutions amended to allow multiple-term presidents to become presidents-for-life. We are seeing elections that are clearly neither free nor fair.
These hotspots of instability span the length and breadth of the continent. And with ten presidential elections as well as a number of parliamentary and general elections scheduled this year, 2021 looks to be one of Africa’s most challenging ever.
The first of these, in Uganda last month, was the very antithesis of a free and fair election with the main opposition leader, Bobi Wine, twice arrested on trumped-up charges and at least a hundred people killed in clashes with the security forces.
Thanks to doing away with term limits back in 2005 and then scrapping the age limit for presidents four years ago, Yoweri Museveni has now started his sixth term as Ugandan president and has held that position since 1986.
Other countries that must also tread this path of presidential elections this year include South Sudan, Chad, The Republic of Congo, Benin, Zambia and The Gambia.
Ethiopia was meant to have held its general election in August last year, but this was delayed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. It is now scheduled to take place in June, but the war in the northern Tigray region has plunged this in doubt too.
Somalia was also meant to have held its presidential election earlier this month, but disagreement over the format of this election is now threatening a full-blown constitutional crisis. This is another country that cannot afford any more instability, and scenes of protesters scattering amid gunfire in the capital Mogadishu a week ago was a very worrying sight.
In Chad it looks likely that President Idriss Déby Itno will extend his rule for yet another term. He’s been in power since 1990 and seems intent to keep it that way for as long as he can.
This is a pattern we see repeated across Africa, decade after decade.
In far too many countries on this continent, political power - along with the trappings of wealth that accompany this - are viewed as the legitimate spoils of war. Liberation movements that oversaw the transition from colonial rule to independence consider this to be a divine right and will often manipulate the outcome of the democratic process to cling to this right.
Presidents will hold the throne through three or four decades using the power of incumbency, along with the might of the state, the military and the press, to suppress any opposition.
They will nationalise assets under the guise of “ownership by the people”, but in reality they are stripping their country of its wealth. The children of presidents become the richest people on the continent, while the citizens of these nations become the poorest.
This scenario is not the exception to the rule in Africa. It has become the rule. And it is perpetuated because the ruling elite in so many countries are able to subvert and suppress democracy.
There is an incorrect perception that the fall of colonialism brought about democracy in most African states.
It may have brought about political independence, but true democracy is something else. And this can only be tested and observed when there is a peaceful and orderly transition of power through the ballot box - a process that is widely viewed as free and fair, and a result that is accepted by all parties.
That is something we are yet to see in most African countries, and the prospects this year look pretty ominous.
Democracy in Africa is faltering. And because the world is looking elsewhere right now and dealing with its own problems, Africa has largely been left to deal with it. Out of sight and out of mind.
But it is in everybody’s interest that Africa succeed. We live in a super-connected world. This continent’s 54 nations and 1.2 billion people are potential trading partners, customers, employees, employers to the rest of the world.
Africa offers massive untapped markets, massive investment possibilities and massive trade potential. The only thing holding it back and dissuading investment is a lack of good and transparent governance.
The writer, Chinua Achebe, once had this to say about his own country, Nigeria:
“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership."
Achebe could have been speaking about any country in Africa. Without strong and moral leadership, African success will remain forever elusive. And in the absence of such leadership the vacuum will be filled by people who aren’t in it for the right reasons and who don’t care for the plight of the people.
As long as they can manipulate the system in their favour - and as long as the external pressure is bearable - nothing will change.
But laying the blame for the lack of sufficient external pressure entirely on the global community and media is not good enough. Because the first place this pressure should come from is right here in Africa.
African nations and governments have a moral duty to protect democracy and advance human rights on our own continent.
More than anyone else, it is up to us, the continental peers, to speak up, to apply pressure and to offer leadership. But you can only do so from a position of relative moral authority. Dictators can’t police dictators, and the corrupt can’t call out the corrupt.
Two and a half decades ago, South Africa was such a voice of moral authority. We had gone from being the pariah of the world to the democratic miracle of the world, and for a while our voice really mattered. Particularly on the continent.
But over the past two decades we have seen our moral authority on the African continent slowly being eroded through a combination of our own corrupt leadership and a cowardly apathy towards the abuses of democracy of the continent’s Big Man leaders.
The notable exception being our very first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, who often found the courage and conviction to stand up to African dictators in the same way he stood up to the Apartheid government.
But ever since the Mandela administration, South Africa has repeatedly gone missing when the people of our region needed us to speak up.
Since the turn of the century our government has turned a blind eye - again and again - to everything and everyone north of our border so as not to upset the brotherhood of liberation movements and their ageing leaders.
There is an unwritten rule of solidarity between the Big Men of the continent that transcends human rights and decent foreign policy.
Back in the early 2000’s, under President Thabo Mbeki, we even gave this practice a name. We called it “quiet diplomacy” and our government hid behind it as Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party stole elections, initiated land grabs, and committed brutal acts of abuse and intimidation on the Zimbabwean people.
We were told it was not our place to meddle in the affairs of another sovereign nation - they know what they’re doing.
Ever since then our foreign policy in Africa - and particularly our willingness to speak out against the abuses by dictators and authoritarians - has been sliding down a slippery slope to where it is today: Absolutely nowhere.
We no longer have a clear foreign policy. We simply stumble from situation to situation.
Consider that President Ramaphosa and the ANC have hardly said a word about the recent Ugandan elections, the terrible situation in Zimbabwe or the instability and violence in Northern Mozambique, where Islamic extremists Al-Shabaab are busy carving out a caliphate near the Tanzanian border.
And this in a year in which Ramaphosa held the chair of the African Union. What a thoroughly wasted year.
When we have waded into situations in Africa, it has always been under a cloud of self-interest, and often with disastrous effects. Just look at the South African National Defence Force’s foray into the DRC, or the ill-fated Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic back in 2013.
The reality is that our defence force is not in a position to play a meaningful role on the continent because of decades of underfunding and neglect.
The last big procurement of military equipment ended up a quagmire of corruption, and today we have ships that don’t leave the harbour, planes that don’t fly and submarines that don’t work. Our state-owned arms manufacturer, Denel, has gone the way of every other state-run entity: hollowed out by corruption and entirely bankrupt.
And, thanks to budget cuts and poor planning, the average age of a full-time South African infantry troop is now around 38 - almost twice what it should be.
In short, even if it wanted to, our military is in no position to play a meaningful role in defending democracy on our continent, and this has left the entire region extremely vulnerable to the threats of extremism and the whims of dictators.
What South Africa desperately needs is an extensive defence review, and this time one that includes our Treasury. Because the last time this was done it just ended up a fantasy wish list that went nowhere.
What our continent needs, however, is nations and leaders who will speak out and defend democracy, even if this means crossing paths with former struggle allies who might have stood in solidarity in the previous century.
At the dawn of our democracy, two and a half decades ago, it seemed that South Africa might just be such a nation. But it no longer seems that way.
More often than not, our ANC government will pronounce in great detail on issues over which they have very little influence - such as the conflict in the Middle East - but remain eerily quiet on matters right here on our doorstep, where we actually do have influence.
Last month our president even offered to teach the United States about democracy following the turmoil at Capitol Hill, but he won’t make the same offer to our neighbours who are in desperate need of such a lesson.
Because when it comes to our region and our relationship with its long-standing rulers, democracy and human rights are very far down the list of priorities.
Rather than demand accountability and the Rule of Law, our government bends the knee to those who have withdrawn themselves from the International Criminal Court, and then threaten to do the same.
Who can forget Omar al-Bashir? Not only was the wanted Sudanese war criminal welcomed in South Africa at the AU summit in Johannesburg in 2015, but he was also assisted by our government in escaping on a private jet, defying both international law and a domestic court order.
That was a line in the sand that cannot be erased. We had the chance to do what was right, both in terms of the law and by the people of Sudan, and our government chose the side of the murderous tyrant.
Two years later our government again helped a despot leave the country before an arrest could be made. This time it was Grace Mugabe, who had been charged with assault. Granting the wife of a Big Man politician diplomatic immunity was deemed to be more important than justice for the woman she had assaulted in a hotel room.
Time and time again our government has shown that it places its allegiance with fellow liberation movements and their leaders above its obligation to democracy and the Rule of Law. And every time it does this, it chips away a little more of the moral authority it once had on the continent.
Today there is almost nothing left.
What our continent also needs is to let go of the past, because the world has changed a lot in the past thirty or forty years.
The struggle for liberation and the struggle for independence is over. Our continent no longer needs liberation movements. It needs credible, competent, selfless governments. And perhaps it is time to admit that such governments don’t emerge from liberation movements. It takes a different skill set and a different ethos.
What has also changed during this time is the way the world views the outdated ideologies of the 20th century. One by one, the few remaining socialist states are turning away from socialism and embracing open economies and enterprise to lift their countries out of deep economic slumps.
For the likes of Cuba and Venezuela this experiment with socialism has been a long and costly lesson, but they are beginning to realise that progress is only possible when you tap into the ingenuity and the drive of the people.
In large parts of Africa, however, this lesson is yet to be learnt. And the reason for this has less to do with honestly-held beliefs about equality and more to do with the ease with which socialism allows a political elite to exploit a country’s wealth. All in the name of justice.
Just look at a country like Angola, where socialist policies provided a fig leaf for the large-scale extraction of wealth by one family. Inequality doesn’t get more pronounced than that.
Here in South Africa the ANC has long been committed to a socialist roadmap for our economy, but this has been accelerated in recent years with plans to nationalise, among other things, land, healthcare and the Reserve Bank. All of this punted by a fabulously wealthy ruling elite.
It’s no coincidence that Cyril Ramaphosa, his sister-in law Bridget Radebe and his brother in law Patrice Motsepe are among the richest people in South Africa. That’s what proximity to power gets you.
So where the rest of the world is slowly abandoning the socialism experiment, many African states are doubling down on it, even as poverty, unemployment and inequality are worsened.
There is a distinct correlation between greater state control over the economy and tendencies towards authoritarianism and dictatorship. As failed governments start haemorrhaging support, they turn to the populist promises of a socialist utopia to stem the bleeding.
Until these governments suffer repercussions in elections, they will continue to do so, and Africa will continue to fall further and further behind.
The only way forward for this continent is to embrace both modern democracy and a modern economy. To let go of the ties and allegiances of the past century, and step boldly into the future.
If Africa is to succeed, it needs to put every Big Man politician out to pasture, along with the network of wealth extractors that have arisen around these parasitic leaders.
Africa needs the balance restored between public and public servant.
It needs to demand real accountability from its leaders, and it needs to realise that this accountability can only be enforced through the ballot box. It needs to realise the incredible power of democracy.
It needs to know the difference between a liberation movement and a government.
These ten African nations who will elect new leaders this year must be given a reason to believe in the democratic process. They must know that going to the polls can and should be so much more than simply expressing an age-old loyalty to an incumbent party.
But for any of this to happen, these nations need allies. They need voices on the continent that will support their own fight for true democracy.
They can’t afford neighbours who look away and pretend to see and hear nothing.
They need an African Union with fortitude and resolve.
And here in the SADC region they need a South African government that has rediscovered its backbone and its moral authority.
It has become clear that this will not be an ANC government, and so it will fall to a different, new government to do so.