When I read that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was considering stepping down after the next elections in 2010, I couldn’t help remembering the Clinton administration’s ‘New Generation’ of African leaders: Meles, Eritrean President Isayas Afeworki, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Congolese warlord-turned-president Laurent Kabila.
All of these leaders had come to power through the violent overthrow of existing regimes in their countries, which made the Clinton administration’s characterization particularly odd at the time. Nevertheless, they did at least appear to be open to democratization, which is probably more where the administration was coming from. Certainly in the case of Ethiopia, Eritrea and the DRC, the new regimes appeared a vast improvement on the dictatorships they’d overthrown.
Ten years or so later, they’re all still in power (barring Kabila, whose son Joseph replaced him upon his assassination in 2001 and is still in power):
- Museveni, who has been in power since 1986 and whose inclusion in the original list of ‘new’ leaders was slightly incongruous anyway, has cleared the way for his pursuit of a third elected term, and will probably win the 2011 election (barring his death — he’ll be 65 this year).
- Kagame is firmly in control of Rwanda’s politics, and shows no signs of leaving power anytime soon. Political space is fairly well controlled by the regime.
- Isayas has tightened his grip, and no elections or other transfer of power are in prospect for the foreseeable future. His regime has sponsored rebels in Ethiopia, funded factions in Somalia’s conflict and even picked a fight with Djibouti over their border.
If Meles leads the way and steps down, will it be the beginning of a trend in the region? I’m not optimistic.
Even if it did, the trend wouldn’t necessarily be a welcome one. First of all, Meles isn’t talking about completely leaving power: he’s mooted staying on as leader of the EPRDF, but allowing a successor to take over as PM. Moreover, although the regime has certainly delivered on some developmental goals — especially in terms of physical infrastructure — political space remains severely constrained. Opposition parties barely registered in the April 2008 local elections, after the ruling party came back with a strong response to the challenge it faced in the 2005 general elections (when opposition parties expanded their parliamentary representation from 12 to nearly 200 seats). The leaders of oppsition parties have been jailed recently. The government also recently passed a law restricting ‘foreign’ NGOs from working in areas considered politically sensitive, including women’s and children’s rights and conflict resolution. ‘Foreign NGOs’ are now defined as any which receive more than 10% of funding from abroad, a very low threshold.
Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda have definitely seen some economic development during the past ten years, although the same can’t be said of the DRC and Eritrea. The global economic downturn will prove a serious challenge to all these governments, in terms of maintaining that growth. These and other leaders may now find themselves facing the consequences of not opening political freedoms apace during the boom years, in terms of increased social unrest during the economic squeeze.