Has 2017 been a step backwards for politics in East Africa?


African leaders have dominated the news throughout 2017. From Kagame’s third term to Kenyatta’s eventual election win to Kaliba’s refusal to step down, we’ve witnessed a key year for politics across the continent.

Above all, it’s been a good year for East Africa’s incumbent presidents with two of the region’s biggest leaders holding on to their positions. This isn’t an issue in itself but the nature of these recurrent wins might be a concern for anyone seeking a more democratic Africa. Likewise, we’ve seen a number of leaders pave the way to extend their reigns beyond the term limits set out by their nations’ constitutions – a trend that shows no signs of stopping.

The notion of African democracy is losing its meaning and 2017 feels like a real step backwards in politics across the continent.

Africa’s incumbent winners

The biggest political headlines this year revolved around presidential elections. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame secured his third term in power with a landslide victory after successfully making changes to the country’s constitution that allowed him to run again. It’s a move that further taints Kagame’s divisive regime – one’s that pulled his country out of genocide into one of Africa’s most exciting technology innovators.

However, it’s come with serious reports of human rights violations, political repression and the emergence of another African leader staying in power beyond the legal term limits in place when he was sworn in.

Over in Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta’s route to securing his second election win was far less straightforward than Kagame’s. It took two election attempts for the incumbent leader to secure his position as Kenya’s president for another term after the Supreme Court annulled his first victory amid claims of vote fraud. Luckily, Kenyatta was the only candidate in the country’s second election attempt after his rival Raila Odinga surprisingly pulled out of the race.

However, Kenyatta’s eventual win was marred by political violence and a low turnout as many appeared to boycott the second election. It’s hard to imagine how Kenyatta’s government could have sustained more reputational damage while actually winning an election.

If 2017 wasn’t a major step backwards for Kenyan politics then, at the very least, it was an embarrassing revelation of how farcical the country’s political system truly is.

Paving the way for long-term power

You certainly can’t accuse East Africa’s leaders of failing to plan ahead. Yoweri Museveni has built a long career out of making the necessary constitutional changes to legalise his stay in power and the Ugandan president isn’t done yet.

This year, Museveni has all but removed the last hurdle that could have stopped him being Uganda’s president until the day he dies. After removing the country’s constitutional two-term limit in 2005, Museveni has now removed the constitution’s age limit that would have prevented him from running again in 2021.

The move means Museveni could now remain in power until 2037 by which point he would be 93 years of age.

Uganda’s president has shown East Africa’s leaders how to successfully orchestrate a presidency for life and his counterparts appear to be taking note. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame has emulated Museveni’s term-limits overhaul and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza is now preparing to do the same.

Burundi descended into political turmoil in 2015 after Nkurunziza ran for a third term in power. Burundi’s constitution limits presidents to serving a maximum of two terms but Nkurunziza’s government argued that his first term didn’t count as he was elected by parliament rather than the people. And now the government is working to remove the two-term limit so Nkurunziza can run again in 2020.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila refuses to step down as president, despite his term coming to an end in December 2016. The DRC’s electoral commission now says it won’t be ready to hold elections until late 2018 and opposition groups suspect the government will use this time to scrap the country’s constitutional term limit.

A step backwards for politics in East Africa?

When you look back at 2017, it’s hard to think of it as anything other than a step backwards fro politics in East Africa. It’s not only a question of leaders of holding onto power but the continued political battle in South Sudan, the oppressive nature of Ethiopia’s government and John Magufuli’s increasingly dictatorial actions in Tanzania.

One of the few positives to take from politics in the region this year has been the election of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo as Somali’s new leader. Farmajo has stepped up the country’s fight against Al-Shabaab, pushed for stronger negotiations with opposition parties and asked extremists to surrender and rejoin the country in building a better nation.

Meanwhile, there’s also hope that Kenya’s election fiasco could prompt political reform in one of East Africa’s most influential countries.

Elsewhere, the region seems to be gearing up for a new wave of dictatorships disguised as faux democracies. Leaders extending their stay in power beyond constitutional term limits is no longer a trend in East Africa; it’s becoming the norm.

Featured image: By © ITU/J.Ohle, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31853376

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.