Emmanuel Mutaizibwa

Despots extinguish Africa rising narrative

Arusha, the seat of the East African Community Legislative Assembly (EAC), bustles with its sleepy rhythms and cosmopolitan air. I am here to attend the 2nd Africa Drive for Democracy Conference both as a guest and speaker.

The Africa Drive for Democracy Elders Retreat and Annual Conference, which took place between 17-21 July 2023 is meant to facilitate dialogue and engage grassroots movements, giving citizens an opportunity to be heard and to collaborate and innovate on strengthening democracy. This annual gathering of the continent’s pro-democracy community in Arusha, Tanzania, converged delegates from more than 45 African nations, including former heads of state, academics, leaders of political parties, social movements, professional associations and active citizens.

The continent is currently in flux. Military coups in West Africa. A sharp decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarian, kleptocratic regimes. The repressive tactics towards civil liberties. The rise of unemployment and the groundswell of resentment amongst youths towards their respective governments. A desire to migrate abroad for better conditions. No wonder security analysts fear that Africa is ripe for another cycle of revolution and the coups in West Africa could have a domino effect on the rest of Africa.

The Elders Retreat, which was chaired by Sierra Leonean President, Earnest Bai Koroma and constituted former Mozambiquan President, Joachim Chissano, former Tanzania President, Jakaya Kikwete and former Ethiopian Premier Hailemariam Desalegn, provided the conference with impetus and legitimacy that leaders who peacefully hand-over power, provide the edifice for the respect of institutions, rule of law and affirm the protection of Africa’s fragile democracy.

The retired leaders spoke candidly about the growing despondency about Africa’s declining democracy. Desalegn made a quip about the African Union arguing that while he was Ethiopia’s leader, the meetings at the glittering building in Addis Ababa were largely ritualistic but barely addressed concerns in regard to the sticky issues of governance and democracy.

He also spoke about the fleeting success of revolutions, which usually collapse as a result of organisational incapacity and state-craft. It is a message, which bore resonance with the winds of change, that swept across Egypt, Sudan and Zimbabwe only for the revolution to be nipped in the bud by the deep state’s shadow military structures. Because they control the levers of power.

I spoke specifically about the theme on social movements and their role on Africa’s democratic trajectory.

This was largely premised on a transnational investigation between November 2022 and January 2023, conducted by investigative journalists in five African countries, members and associate members of the Network for African Investigative Reporters and Editors (NAIRE) and co-operating in a project under the auspices of ZAM.

The journalists submerged themselves in pro-democracy movements and found important growth in all five cases: from Nigeria’s #EndSARS and Revolution Now to resistance in the face of violent oppression in Cameroon, and from exasperation with one-party-rule in Zimbabwe to an increasing culture of mockery and disdain towards Uganda’s autocrats.

It also found increased oppression in response. Journalists and activists have been abducted, tortured and killed in Cameroon; in Uganda, citizens live in fear of unmarked vehicles which can make you disappear; in Zimbabwe, ruling party thugs haunt opposition members; local governors hire young men to act as militias in Nigeria and in Kenya dozens of bodies have been found in rivers with their hands cuffed behind their backs. The driving force behind the growth of democracy activism, rebellion -and consequently the rising challenge to autocrats-, was, the team found, an overwhelmingly young population who are urbanised, aware and social media savvy, and staking a claim to their futures. Vocally fed up with the lack of development and freedom, they demand the dismantling of the patronage systems that only benefit a political elite. They are also increasingly demanding that their leaders’ foreign development partners look more critically at who and what they’re actually supporting.

Development partners should look more critically at who and what they’re actually supporting.

I also shared with the audience the recent ‘Arizona Project’ investigation undertaken by ZAM Magazine and NAIRE into the killing of Cameroon Journalist, Martinez Zongo. It concluded: “Vultures circling over the expected-to-be-dead-soon autocrat President Paul Biya sacrificed a competitor and covered up their own plunder in one fell swoop. When radio journalist Martinez Zogo’s severely mutilated body was found on the side of a street in a Yaoundé, Cameroon suburb on 22 January 2023, Cameroonian police immediately went out to arrest the alleged mastermind of the killing.”

One of the ladies in the audience was a former Cameroon radio journalist, who previously worked with Zongo and was deeply touched by the story and so was the rest of the audience.

But beyond the empathy, Africa ought to halt such extrajudicial killings and egregious forms of torture that citizens are subjected to for expressing alternative views and for carrying out their vocations such as media practice.

If this rot in not halted, it will inevitably lead to violent uprisings that could eviscerate the little democratic gains that have painstakingly been achieved.