Will 2012 be the Year of the African Despot, again?

Senegal's Wade plans to run for president, despite a constitutional ban. Zimbabwe's Mugabe is banning NGOs ahead of presidential polls in 2013. 

Joe Penney/Reuters
Riot police stand guard next to a campaign poster for incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade during antigovernment protests in Senegal's capital Dakar, Wednesday.
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends the 20th anniversary of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) in Harare, last week.

Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade is running for a third term, even though his country’s constitution specifically bans it. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has also indicated he will extend his 32 years in power, even as his parliament is attempting to ban the move. Congo’s President Joseph Kabila is trying to patch together a coalition to stay in power, even though his party lost more than 40 percent of its seats in parliament in last December’s elections.

Could 2012 prove to be the Year of the African Despot, again?

The signs are ominous. While democracy appears to thrive in a few African countries – such as Liberia, South Africa, Ghana – irregularities, vote-rigging, and intimidation appear to be the rule in much of the continent. Zimbabwe’s long-ruling President Mugabe is hardly a surprise, of course, but in countries such as Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where peaceful opposition groups rose to power under a banner of reform, any sign of backsliding is a cause for concern.

Senegal's hope

Consider Senegal. Just 12 years ago, President Wade – a longtime opposition leader – rode to power after defeating long-ruling Abdou Diouf and promised to reform the Senegalese political system. He saw through a constitution in 2002 that banned presidents from holding office for more than two terms.

And then in late 2011, after serving two terms, he announced he would run again this year. Opposition lawyers argue that the country’s 2002 Constitution specifically bans presidents from running for more than two terms, but the court ruled that Wade has only served in one seven-year term since that constitution came into effect.

On Wednesday, riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters in the nation’s capital of Dakar, and three opposition supporters were killed in a separate clash between ruling party and opposition supporters in the southern Senegalese village of Berkel.

Music star Youssou N’Dour, who was disallowed from running for president for insufficient signatures on a petition, told opposition activists at a rally that “Senegal needs to free itself, to rediscover its democracy ... We are allowing a dictatorship to set in here." 

Congo crash

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, expected talks between the ruling party of President Kabila and opposition groups may have been put on hold following the death this weekend of Mr. Kabila’s main negotiator, Augustin Katumba Mwenge, in a Feb. 12 plane crash.

Congo’s independent election commission announced Kabila as the winner of last November’s elections, even though widespread irregularities and poor organization caused many international observer groups to declare the results inconclusive. More than 24 people were killed in protests in the election aftermath, and one opposition candidate, Etienne Tshisekedi, declared himself president even before the vote count was finalized. (Correction, he declared himself president before the votes were cast.)

Now begins the task of forming a government to rule Congo, a country of vast untapped natural mineral resources and precious little government oversight.

More than 80 separate parties secured seats in the 500-seat parliament. Kabila’s party has the most with 63 (down from 111), and Tshisekedi’s party came in second with 41 seats.

Zimbabwe constitution?

Down south in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has indicated that he will run for office yet again in 2013, after serving as prime minister and later as president for the past 32 years. A draft constitution, written up by a committee that includes opposition members in Mugabe’s own coalition government, forbids such a continuous time in office, but Mugabe insiders say the president will never sign the document in its present form.

"President Mugabe has already said he is contesting the next elections. As long as I am in Copac, there is no way we are going to allow a draft which is detrimental to my party [Zanu-PF] and its leader," said Mugabe supporter and Constitution Select Committee (Copac) co-chairperson Munyaradzi Paul Mangwana.

To prevent the possibility of the kind of civil protests occurring in Senegal, Mugabe’s government has banned 29 local and international aid groups, including Care International. The government accuses the aid groups of failing to register officially, while the aid groups contend that the bans are political intimidation ahead of next year’s polls. Aid workers worry that in a country that depends on foreign food imports and food aid for daily survival, any cutoff in aid could make thousands of poor Zimbabweans vulnerable to starvation.

Sacrifice in Malawi

In Malawi, concerns about President Bingu’s “creeping autocracy” and economic mismanagement has caused international donors, including the International Monetary Fund, to suspend loans and financial aid to Malawi. The country now has a $121 million shortfall in its current budget. President Bingu, in recent months, has jailed a human rights lawyer for calling on him to step down, jailed a journalist for taking picture of his house, and sent riot police to break up July 2011 demonstrations over fuel and food price hikes. At least 18 people died in the ensuing crackdown.

He also expelled Britain's high commissioner (ambassador) to Malawi when that diplomat said President Bingu was "becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism."

In an interview with the Guardian, President Bingu, a former World Bank economist, says he is no autocrat and blames "foreign elements" for trying to undermine his regime.

"I will leave Malawi better than I found it, but I am retiring in 2014. Is that not democracy? What demonstration of democracy is there more than that? An autocrat has no timeframe, can stay forever."

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