Hopes of progression along a reformist democratic path in some key sub-Saharan African states appear to be receding. Greater democracy, enhanced freedom of speech and the media have all suffered setbacks in some countries where hopes of long-term change were high.

A number of African political systems have appeared to slip back from the promise of the 1990s. Hopes of more democratic and accountable systems in which the people would be empowered and able to hold leaders to account have begun to fade.

That is what has become of the three 1990s poster boys of the new politics in Africa – Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia. For a period they were held up as the stars of the now increasingly discredited “Africa Rising” narrative. They became repositories of hope that decades of conflict and, in Rwanda’s case genocide, would be replaced by accountable governments and systems of rule. But today their political trajectories are clearly blocking the path to meaningful popular empowerment.

Over time, their leaders have strengthened their hold on power, entrenched themselves and reduced accountability. In doing this, they have been able to play on Western security concerns in eastern and central Africa. This has replaced the earlier good governance mantras. The “War on Terror” and fear of instability are greater drivers of Western policy than encouraging the rule of law and democratic freedoms.

This trend is set out well in a new study of the links between insurgent authoritarianism and Western aid in Africa, and is captured well in the very interesting collection of essays, Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa.

But the contributors also observe that it’s not all gloom and doom. There has been progress in empowerment and accountability in some areas.

Playing the security card

Take Uganda. Echoes of the good governance mantras of the late 1980s and 1990s can still be heard periodically in Western statements on aid to African states. But, in fact, the country’s President Yoweri Museveni and his supporters have militarised, centralised and personalised power. They have created a repressive system of government in which elections are held, fixed and used as just another way of entrenching power. State and informal coercive instruments have been used to

intimidate, harass and terrorise perceived opponents of the state [page 67, Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa]

David Anderson and Jonathan Fisher’s well-focused contribution to Aid and Authoritarianism... sets out the success with which Museveni has deployed these various weapons. They explain how he has been able to play on Western fears of regional instability to retain budgetary and military aid that bolsters his ability to hold on to power. His latest comments on withdrawing Ugandan troops from Somalia by the end of 2017 may be part of a new attempt to put pressure on the West to maintain support for him, despite misgivings about the election and moves against opponents and the free press.

He wasn’t alone in doing this. The volume highlights the strategies that regimes in Rwanda and Ethiopia have also developed to deal with donors to ensure a range of favourable outcomes. These include:

  • that conditionality is on paper only;
  • that the contribution of those countries to ensuring stability in a volatile region stretching from Congo to Eritrea to Somalia is paramount; and
  • in presenting an image of planned and controlled development the regimes can demonstrate – in technical terms – efficient use of some of the aid.

The chapters on the three countries, along with Nicolas van der Walle’s well-argued conclusion, show how the good governance slogans and conditionality clauses were just paper tigers. They never had real bite, especially in the face of skilled and single-minded politicians like Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

They cottoned on from the start that lip-service was all that was really required. This was especially as they were restoring stability and security in their own states, and contributing to Western strategies for ending or limiting conflict in what had been a volatile region. They were able to argue that their non-party or ethnically inclusive approaches were long-term strategies for developing internal stability and indigenous democratic forms.

In fact they were using their political experiments to consolidate power. If this didn’t work, they would confront donors and in effect dare them to withdraw aid and see how far that got them.

Their ability to resist conditionality and continue to garner substantial budgetary and military support was bolstered by 9/11 and the launch of the War on Terror. They were able to argue that they were sources of stability and key military allies in a region that could provide a foothold for Islamist movements antagonistic towards Western interests.

The support they garnered enabled them to entrench power at home while being key links in the security chains the West wanted in place to shackle Islamist or other movements perceived as threats to regional stability. And to Western security.

Not all doom and gloom

But the book is not one bewailing the demise of democratic hopes in Africa or seeing all as gloom and doom. Van de Walle, as well as Nic Cheeseman in his nuanced look at democratisation in Africa, stress that there is no gainsaying that the region today enjoys a higher level of political competition and popular participation than at any time since independence.

This has coincided with a general reduction in the number of violent conflicts in Africa.

In “Democracy in Africa. Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform” Cheeseman observes:

In the 2000s, elections and term limits replaced death and coup d’état as the most common ways in which African presidents and prime ministers left office.

This is important given that commentators and journalists writing about Africa are inclined to see all as lost.

What the volume and Cheeseman’s book do is once again emphasise that there is not a one-size-fits-all model. There is also no timeline for political change in Africa. Each state develops according to its own historical, political, economic and social factors, and not to one Western-ordained pattern and speed.

It should also be remembered, when there are comparisons of political systems in Africa with those in Europe or North America, that it took from Magna Carta in 1215 to the passing of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise Act) of 1928 for Britain to move from the absolute power of a monarch to a fully inclusive system of electoral representation.

Too often commentators have a very ahistorical view of political development and try to apply timescales and models that are not appropriate. There is a tendency always to demonstrate some failing on the part of people or states in Africa. The books referred to in this article do not and are valuable additions to the literature on political evolution in Africa and the relationship to aid and donor-based development.

Keith Somerville, Visiting Professor, University of Kent

This article first appeared on The Conversation.