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Following months of political drama, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will be sworn in for his second term in office tomorrow, November 28. Citing procedural failures, the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified results from the first round of presidential elections in August, a decision hailed as a sign of Kenya’s growing democratic maturity. The narrative changed, however, when opposition leader Raila Odinga boycotted the subsequent election by announcing the withdrawal of his candidacy. Kenyatta won the second-round election with 98 percent of the vote amid low turnout and threats to the judiciary and civil society. Kenya now stands at a precarious juncture, with the possibility of a deep political rift further fragmenting the country.
What makes Kenya’s backsliding particularly worrisome is that it’s part of a disturbing regional trend. Democratic progress across Africa has been mixed—Central Africa has always struggled, but in East and West Africa, there have been important gains in recent years. Although West Africa appears to be consolidating those gains, East Africa is in the midst of a democratic decline that is reversible in its early stages but threatens to gather momentum.
Political and media space in parts of East Africa is closing as presidents and prime ministers flaunt their security credentials. Several leaders, such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, are altering their constitutions in order to prolong already lengthy terms in office. No country in East Africa is rated “free” in U.S. non-governmental organization (NGO) Freedom House’s most recent rankings, and only two are deemed “partly free.” Many are in fact electoral authoritarian regimes that superficially adhere to democratic rules of the game but in reality employ authoritarian tactics. There is little precedent for change through the ballot box: outside of Somalia, no leader in East Africa has ever left office by losing an election.
The democratic decline is gripping a region of genuine strategic importance. East Africa can be an engine of continental economic growth, has made important gains in regional economic integration, and is rich in natural resources, including substantial oil and gas reserves. Extremist groups affiliated with both al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS) are active in Somalia and occasionally cross into neighboring countries. The United States’ largest military presence in Africa is in Djibouti, with China and several other countries operating military bases nearby. Tiny, authoritarian Eritrea is the top African source of active asylum seekers in Libya. The region borders the Red Sea, a key part of maritime trade routes between Europe and Asia.
The region’s retreat from democracy threatens all these interests. Its strongman leaders may offer short-term stability, but their authoritarian practices and resistance to building democratic institutions weaken the underpinnings of the state and make the inevitable leadership transitions more likely to be volatile. As seen in Somalia, failed governance and weak state structures create conditions in which extremists thrive. Inconsistent rule of law and tolerance for corruption make for a less desirable destination for foreign investment.
The democratic decline is most pronounced in Uganda and Tanzania.
The democratic decline is most pronounced in Uganda and Tanzania. Uganda’s 2016 elections were deeply flawed, with Museveni’s government repeatedly arresting his main political rival, Kizza Besigye, detaining him for weeks at a time, and eventually charging him with treason. Social media was shut down ahead of the elections, and more than a dozen journalists were arrested in 2016. That year, Museveni signed into law a bill to regulate NGOs, giving the government wide latitude to shut them down and restrict their ability to employ foreigners. In April, prominent academic and activist Stella Nyanzi was arrested for insulting Museveni on Facebook.
In office for 31 years, Museveni is an increasingly autocratic ruler, with power concentrated in a small circle around him. But he now faces a dilemma: Uganda’s constitution places an age limit on presidential candidates, which he will exceed in the next election. So Ugandan parliamentarians, with Museveni’s clear support, are working to revise the constitution to remove the age limit, with each parliamentarian paid $8,000 to “consult” with their constituencies on the change.
Tanzania has fallen even further. Elections in 2015 brought little-known John Magufuli to power. He immediately embarked on a popular anti-corruption campaign but has also shown a strong authoritarian streak, enthusiastically supporting efforts by the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) Party—the longest-ruling political party in sub-Saharan Africa—to close political space. In one particularly egregious act of electoral malfeasance, the Zanzibar electoral commission simply canceled an election on the semi-autonomous archipelago that CCM was poised to lose and ran it again. This prompted the opposition candidate to boycott and led the United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation to suspend a $472 million development compact that was on the verge of being signed.
Magufuli’s government is also restricting freedom of the press—including through repressive new cybercrimes legislation—cracking down on political parties, and limiting freedom of assembly. “CCM has overseen a raft of laws and regulations that go unusually far in shrinking political space and constricting the opposition,” according to the academic Dan Paget. “Increasingly, the new CCM administration presents not only the promise of development, but also the threat of dictatorship.”
Democratic backsliding is also evident elsewhere. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza was willing to throw the country into chaos to gain a third term in office; violence triggered by the announcement that he would run again has forced more than 400,000 people to flee across borders. In neighboring Rwanda, President Kagame, who wields unquestioned authority and has been in office since 2000, recently oversaw a constitutional amendment that will allow him to remain in power until 2034.
South Sudan, ravaged by civil war, is led by a president, Salva Kiir, who has never been elected to that office. (He was elected to lead the semi-autonomous Southern Sudan prior to independence, but a vote scheduled for 2015 was abandoned because of the war.) Journalists and civil society leaders operating in the country face harrowing risks, as they do in neighboring Sudan, ruled by Omar al-Bashir since 1989. Authoritarian Eritrea doesn’t bother with the pretense of elections and competes with Ethiopia for the distinction of jailing the most journalists in sub-Saharan Africa.
Considered together, these cases show an anti-democratic momentum building among regional leaders, with strong spillover and modeling effects at work. Unlike in West Africa, there is no peer pressure among leaders to conform to democratic norms. Repressive tactics are mimicked across borders, such as the efforts to pass legislation restricting NGO activities. East Africa’s regional organizations, including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the East African Community, show minimal interest in promoting democracy, again in contrast to their more active West African counterpart, the Economic Community of West African States.
What can be done to reverse the trend? The political impasse in Kenya and effort to change the constitution in Uganda are bellwethers that can halt the democratic slide or accelerate it, depending on their outcomes. Kenyan and Ugandan democratic activists won’t be able to confront these challenges alone. Given the regional organizations’ impotence, the African Union should become directly involved and depart from its practice of “subsidiarity,” or letting the regional organizations take the lead. East Africa’s democratic decline is a concern for the entire continent—politically, economically, and for security—and calls for a continental response.
Encouragingly, citizens are broadly supportive of democratic governance: Afrobarometer polling finds that among the continent’s regions, demand for democracy is highest in East Africa. Domestic civil society organizations should seek ways to highlight this demand and harness popular sentiment that opposes strongman rule. They will need external support, including robust and flexible funding and the political cover that outsiders can provide.
The United States needs to balance multiple strands of engagement with East Africa without excessively privileging counterterrorism, recognizing that repression and failed governance are among the direct causes of extremism. During the Barack Obama administration, some regional strongmen enjoyed too much leniency from Washington on democracy and human rights. In the case of Museveni, U.S. engagement was often externally focused—particularly on maintaining Uganda’s participation in counterterrorism efforts in Somalia—leading him to conclude that there would be little scrutiny of his domestic actions. That message is magnified under the Donald Trump administration, given its reluctance to defend democratic norms as evidenced by the absence of relevant senior officials, such as an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.
The United States has policy options if its leaders recognize that American interests are threatened by East Africa’s democratic decline. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is right to argue that “authorities who ignore the rule of law and change their constitutions for personal gain are all obstacles to the development of prosperous, free societies.” When those constitutional changes are pushed through to benefit the incumbent, the United States should respond by automatically reviewing all foreign assistance and reconsidering programs that may be advantageous to the executive. Washington should also adopt a region-wide, rather than country-by-country, strategy to promote democracy and good governance given the spillover effects at work. Finally, the United States should increase support to the African Union’s Department of Political Affairs, the arm of the organization charged with advancing democratic governance but which is often lacking in staff and resources. The onus is on Africa to reverse the democratic decline, which threatens not just individual freedoms but stability and prosperity as well, but the United States can certainly help.