More than a week after the elections in Uganda, the main opposition leader remains under house arrest. Police have been camped outside Dr Kizza Besigye’s home since election day, and whenever he attempts to leave, he is promptly detained. From his confinement, Dr Besigye, who finished second in the closely fought but flawed presidential election, issued the following challenge to the international community: “At least have the courage to admit that you don’t care about democracy and human rights in Africa.”
Is Dr Besigye right? Have donors abandoned democracy, despite their lofty statements to the contrary? The answer is not straightforward. Donors have never been unconditional supporters of democracy in Africa and political freedoms have often been sacrificed to geopolitical agendas. Now, however, there are worrying signs that democracy is sliding yet further down the scale of international priorities on the continent. The main reason is the fear of terrorism and the preoccupation with security.
Security and democracy are always and everywhere awkward bedfellows — and no more so than in contemporary Africa. Uganda is a case in point. President Museveni has been in power since 1986 and won the recent election amidst widespread and persistent intimidation and harassment of the opposition. In the run up to the vote, all social media was shut down and Kampala was dubbed the “teargas capital of the world” due to the frequency with which the police resorted to violence against political rallies of the opposition.
Despite this creeping authoritarianism and the steady erosion of democratic freedoms, Uganda remains one of Africa’s top recipients of international development assistance. In fact, three of the top ten aid recipients in Africa in the last few years — Egypt, Ethiopia, and Uganda — are ruled by regimes that severely restrict democratic participation and criminalize political dissent. Rwanda and Kenya, two other countries where democratic freedoms are routinely under threat, also continue to receive large amounts of foreign aid.
What these countries have in common is their success in positioning themselves as key allies in the fight against terrorism. Together they commit the majority of troops to African peacekeeping missions and spearhead the battle against groups like al-Shabaab. In return, they receive large amounts of foreign assistance, especially to reform and strengthen their police and armed forces — and only muted critique of their anti-democratic practices and human rights abuses. Put differently, donors appear willing to sacrifice democracy in the name of security.
If further proof is required, consider Ethiopia, second only to Egypt in terms of official development assistance. In the May 2015 election, the Ethiopian ruling party and its allies won 100% of the parliamentary seats — a better result than most one-party states can hope for! Despite the serious harassment of the opposition, the suppression of freedom of expression, and the denial of citizens’ rights to participate freely in public affairs, President Obama chose Ethiopia as one of the stops on his last Africa tour, twice referring to the authoritarian government as “democratically elected.” Ethiopia, of course, is central to the fight against terrorism in the horn of Africa, having maintained a continuous military presence in Somalia since the late 1990s as a main contributor to the AMISOM peacekeeping mission.
The danger of this bargain between the international community and Africa’s top aid recipients goes beyond the erosion of democracy and human rights. It also carries the risk of strengthening already oppressive security institutions and militarizing societies. In Uganda, the police and military forces that have benefitted so richly from foreign assistance in terms of training and the provision of equipment, weaponry, and technology are the same forces that hold Dr Besigye under house arrest and tear gas peaceful political rallies. In other words, highly trained and well-funded security forces are not only used to counter extremist violence, they are also put to political use in the interest of regime security. Further militarization is evident from Museveni’s appointment of military officials to a variety of key organizations, including the police, the intelligence services, and the interior ministry. Similar developments can be seen in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya, where the military is playing increasingly important roles in politics and in the economy.
The fight against terrorism and insecurity in Africa is real and requires careful consideration and assistance by the international community. A strategy that privileges stability and security over democracy and human rights, however, risks placing military actors at the heart of strong, statist policies and giving governments a stake in the maintenance of securocratic governance. We are already witnessing the return of the generals to politics, and if current trends continue, the result might be a further strengthening of the military–state complex. This would not only be a terrible blow for Africa’s struggles for democracy and freedom, it would also amount to a poor counter-terrorism strategy. While we don’t understand all the reasons why people join extremist organizations, we do know that political exclusion and marginalization is often a contributing factor. We also know that abusive and repressive security forces are a key factor pushing people towards violent reactions. In other words, building strong militarized states may well end up exacerbating the conditions of political violence rather than alleviating them.
Thus, as donors direct their assistance towards building and training stronger police and militaries that can assist in the fight against terrorism, they must take account of the complex relationship between states and militaries in African countries. Otherwise, Dr Besigye will be proven right, and the international community will rightfully stand accused of having sacrificed democracy and human rights in the name of security and stability. Let’s hope it does not come to that.