Tyrants in Africa: little states, big problems

If we can’t promote democratic values and responsive governance in microstates like Djibouti and Swaziland, we have no business attempting nation-building elsewhere.

For obvious reasons, when policymakers give thought to Africa, it tends to be the continent’s handful of giants that gets their attention, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and a few others. While serious problems persist, many of these large nations are making real political and economic progress. Nigeria, for example, is cleaning up its notoriously corrupt electoral system, while Ethiopia is posting strong growth in GDP. But there are 53 countries between the Cape and Cairo and among the most troubling are the micro-states.


Africans follow international news as much or more as the rest of the world, and it hasn’t escaped their attention that a revolution is happening in the Middle East and North Africa. Last month, some of the 1.4 million citizens of tiny, AIDS-ridden Swaziland, inspired by the democratizing efforts of their cousins in Egypt and Tunisia, decided to hold protests against the quarter-century rule of absolute monarch, King Mswati III, one of the world’s richest royals. Their message was pretty reasonable: roll back civil-service pay cuts and end government corruption. According to news reports, the response by authorities was predictably heavy-handed: water cannons, truncheons, teargas, and arrests. But activists haven’t backed down. They marched again June 1.


In April, Djibouti, an impoverished sliver of land sandwiched between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea, held presidential elections that confirmed what everyone already knew: President Ismail Omar Guelleh was given a third term. The fact is that the die was cast long before polling day when opposition rallies were banned, and an international observer mission of which I was a part was expelled. While much of Africa has seen a growth of political activism, Djibouti operates like an old-school autocracy. The media are controlled by the state, civil society is virtually non-existent, and the political opposition is completely absent from the legislature. Ironically, while Djibouti provides the United States with its only military base in Africa, the State Department regularly reports on “significant human rights abuses” in the country.

The Gambia

Even more overtly dictatorial is Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a 1994 coup d’etat and shows every sign of wanting to hold onto it for life. Under the reign of this theatrical thug who has claimed to have a cure for AIDS, opponents have been jailed or disappeared, the media have been muzzled, and the country has become a notorious transshipment point for drug traffic. A lieutenant with a secondary school education, Jammeh now calls himself Professor and Commander in Chief. Amnesty International reported that in 2009, “Up to 1,000 people in The Gambia have been taken from their villages by “witch doctors,” taken to secret detention centres and forced to drink hallucinogenic concoctions.” Foreign Policy magazine recently listed him 16th among the world’s worst dictators, although many Gambians would argue for raising that ranking.

Equatorial Guinea

Described by Freedom House as “one of the most corrupt countries in the world” The Gambia’s neighbor Equatorial Guinea exports about 300,000 barrels of oil per day, worth approximately $30 million. Ruled since 1979 by President Teodoro Obiang, most of its 676,000 people, who should be among the world’s richest, live in abject poverty. A 2010 briefing paper by the Open Society Institute notes that “the scale of the corruption system and the [president and his close circle’s] indifference to the welfare of the people have placed Equatorial Guinea at or near the bottom of every major development and governance indicator, far below countries with similar per capita wealth.”

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The common traits of these four dictatorships are clear: rampant corruption, an obsession with retaining power, and utter contempt for the will of the people. Cynics might argue that they are geopolitically insignificant and best ignored, but the reality is that in addition to the suffering these regimes inflict on their own people, they are also a source of international ills. HIV/AIDS, narcotics, and desperate immigrants are just some of the exports of these nations. Furthermore, they are, like it or not, part of the global body politic; both The Gambia and Djibouti have been elected to seats on the United Nations Security Council and Djibouti currently sits on the UN’s Human Rights Council.

The good news is that should the international community decide to promote constructive change, the size of these miniscule miscreants makes them highly susceptible to outside pressure and influence. Swaziland, for example, is almost totally dependent on South Africa, a relatively democratic and progressive state. Likewise, Djibouti earns a significant percentage of its revenues from American and French military bases. After all, if we can’t promote democratic values and responsive governance in the microstates, we have no business attempting nation-building elsewhere.

Chris Hennemeyer has lived and worked in Africa for more than 20 years and now works as an international development consultant based in Washington.

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