The populist illiberal authoritarian

African leaders

From Left first row: Palestinian PM Mohammad Shtayyeh, Republic of Congo's President Denis Sassou Nguesso, Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed, Senegal's President and outgoing Chairperson of the African Union Macky Sall, Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the (AU) Commission, President of the Comoros and newly elected Chairperson of the AU Azali Assoumani, President of Rwanda Paul Kagame among other D African leaders, pose for a group photo during the 36th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on February 18, 2023. 

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

A new breed of an African politician is on the ascendance. The name of this politician is the Populist Illiberal Authoritarian. This political animal speaks the language of democracy, human rights, a socially progressive market economy, and the rule of law with a silver tongue but means none of it.

In fact, the populist illiberal authoritarian is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His, or her, toothy grin is a mouth of disguised fangs. This genre of a politician isn’t exactly new in Africa, but a repackaged Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea. Will the Populist Illiberal Authoritarian – a menace – become the new normal in Africa?

First, a short history lesson. We all remember the wave of frenzied democratisation in Africa starting the late 1980s. Military regimes and civilian dictatorships collapsed at such a dizzying speed that we couldn’t keep count. Long-serving strongmen fell overnight.

Cold-war godfathers

Abandoned by their cold-war godfathers, or unable to resist the people’s demand for open societies, many African potentates were forced from power by human rights activists, the political opposition, a resurgent press, and in some cases, gutsy clerics.

A new dawn had arrived in Africa as winds of change swept the continent. We started talking about an African renaissance. A continent long despised, a sleeping giant, was poised to rise. Unfortunately, it was a head fake.

Africa’s hopes were dashed on another stillbirth. I’ve written before about Africa’s four historical traumas — the trauma of enslavement, the trauma of colonisation, the trauma of the cold war, and the trauma of globalisation.

Each of these traumas have left behind a deeply scarred continent whose people are easy prey for enemies within and without. As a result, Africans have developed a cynical and fatalistic philosophy about life. If a bad thing happens — even if it was preventable — the African will say, “It’s God’s wish.” It’s difficult not to conclude that Africans think God is a cruel being. But the psychosis of the traumas of exploitation is so deep that many Africans have resigned to a terrible fate.

African leaders, drawn from a ruthless elite, toy with the people as though they were putty. And that’s how international capital and big powers of the East and the West like it — so that they can despoil and exploit Africa’s resources without resistance from the victims.

Handmaidens of the West

African ruling elites are only too eager to oblige as handmaidens of the West, or East. I have never seen, or met, a single significant leader or thinker from any geopolitical global power who has any depth of respect for an African leader, or its people.

Yes, they will parrot the usual platitudes about sovereign equality, partners in so-called development, and common humanity, but they mean none of it. They despise Africa.

I have often thought bullies exist only because cowards dot the landscape. No one will ever free you unless you free yourself. True freedom is self-made, not given on a silver platter. That’s why as Africans we must look inwards and ask ourselves wherefore is our intestinal fortitude to resist, fight, and overthrow our enemies, both within and without? Why do we easily cave to our tormentors?

I have a theory — our tormentors know how to use their illicit wealth, false narratives about African culture and humility, and religion to bamboozle and internally colonise us. The emergent Populist Illiberal Authoritarian knows how to push all these buttons. Listen to Mr Museveni because he’s a textbook purveyor of fatalism.

Let me take you to Algeria in 1990-91 and demonstrate Africa’s crises of leadership. That year, a party known as Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS by its French acronym, won local and national elections against the incumbent secular government.

Female voter

But rather than bend to the will of the people and the democratic wave in Africa, the government cancelled the elections and jailed the leaders of FIS. I remember one particular statement by the FIS as their victory was apparent.

On polling day, a FIS member approached a female voter who was ecstatic about voting. Without batting an eyelid, the FIS cadre told her she should vote for FIS — for the last time. He meant that under FIS women would be disenfranchised.

FIS had used the open ballot to come within a whisker of capturing power, but intended to abolish those freedoms it had benefitted from to kill democracy once it came to power. That was an early manifestation of the Populist Illiberal Authoritarian, a first draft of a malignant political animal. Today, the Populist Illiberal Politician is very sophisticated.

He denies he’s authoritarian and illiberal. He’s mastered the language of reform and anti-corruption. Meanwhile, he pursues the most pernicious forms of corruption, looting public coffers, putting criminal cartels in power, letting criminals go scot-free, and seeking dining partners in the White House and 10 Downing Street. Will Africa survive this hypocrite?

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York. @makaumutua.