Africa's Fallen Stars
Western democracies should learn that the key to establishing liberal values in Africa lies with institutions, not individuals
By Carine Kaneza Nantulya
Western democracies should have learned an important foreign policy lesson by now: Placing trust in individual leaders rather than in democratic institutions often leads to disaster. This has happened all over the world, with depressing frequency. Ethiopia’s recent descent into authoritarianism and armed conflict—a mere two years after its prime minister accepted the Nobel Peace Prize at Oslo’s City Hall—is an astonishing example of the all-too-familiar story.
These leaders come into office promising to lift their countries out of crisis by safeguarding human rights, building new democratic institutions, and securing the rule of law. For a while, their countries seem to make strides, and the West holds them up as models for reform. In time, however, these once-promising leaders abandon their early commitments and fall from grace as their countries slip back into crisis.
Here are some of Africa’s fallen stars: countries and leaders at first welcomed wholeheartedly by Western democratic governments, now failing to live up to their promises.
Abiy Ahmed Ali rose to power in 2018 following widespread, popular protests and his promises to democratize Ethiopia. After decades of repression under the Ethiopia People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front, Abiy projected an ambitious reformist agenda hailed as a political breakthrough for the country. He continued to release political prisoners, a process initiated by his predecessor; invited exiles back; and implemented a number of legal reforms. For negotiating a peace agreement with Ethiopia’s arch-rival, Eritrea, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Domestically, however, the authorities were cracking down on dissent. Government security agents carried out abusive operations against individuals and armed groups in the regional state of Oromia. Intercommunal violence and attacks against minority communities escalated in several regions, leading to killings, displacement, and property damage.
Then, in November 2020, Abiy ordered military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the dominant party in the former ruling coalition. Under Abiy’s watch, the Ethiopian military and regional forces have both committed their own atrocities and failed to prevent serious abuses by Eritrean forces operating inside Ethiopian borders in the Tigray region. Over 90 percent of the Tigray population now requires emergency food aid, according to the World Food Program.
Abiy’s fall from grace, from a darling of the international community to the subject of widespread condemnation, was swift but, to closer observers, perhaps unsurprising. A former soldier and founder of Ethiopia’s repressive surveillance and security agency, Abiy apparently never fully outgrew his military roots.
On taking power in 1990 after the brutal eight-year rule of Hissene Habre, the late Chadian president, Idriss Déby Itno promised to create a new society founded on democracy. His government convened a national conference to draw up a new constitution, one that assured fundamental freedoms and basic human rights. But the promise did not last long. Chad’s first elections, in 1996, were marred by allegations of fraud, a pattern that has repeated itself ever since.
By the mid-2000s, Déby’s Patriotic Salvation Movement had abandoned its reformist agenda and focused on entrenching its leader in power indefinitely. Déby rolled back the reforms introduced in the 1990s and steadily militarized the state and key institutions. The more Déby entrenched himself, the more members of his inner circle broke away and joined rebel groups.
There was hardly any effort by international actors to step in. Déby positioned himself as a staunch security ally of major Western powers such as France and the U.S. in a region wracked by armed insurgencies and instability, and his excesses were overlooked. When Déby died on the battlefield in April, days before starting his sixth term, he left a government with a long track record of cracking down on fundamental freedoms. His son, General Mahamat Idris Déby, has replaced him. Thirty years after the promise of democracy, Chad’s government is instead ruled by dynastic succession.
Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986, castigating leaders who cling to power and overstay their welcome. Yet he is still in power 35 years later. In 2017, his government removed presidential term and age limits from the constitution, effectively setting him up to be president for life. The most recent elections, in January, were marred by violence and intimidation. Security forces killed protesters; carried out enforced disappearances, with some of the victims turning up dead or severely tortured; and arrested members of political opposition parties and presidential candidates.
Opposition politicians have petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate Museveni’s alleged human rights abuses. Western powers, though, have regarded him as a guarantor of stability in the region. He committed Uganda to the Global War on Terrorism; sent forces to Somalia to fight an armed group linked to Al-Qaeda; and even allowed private firms to recruit Ugandan manpower to protect U.S. embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. once famously hailed Museveni as part of “a new breed of African leaders,” and he was described as second in stature only to Nelson Mandela. Oxford University started a scholarship in his name to support Africans pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy. Although he has far from lived up to these accolades, he has leveraged his reputation as a Western ally to shore up his power and international image.
When South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, the international community had high hopes, believing that the new country would emerge as an example for democracy, religious freedom, and national unity. It had, after all, come about following a 22-year armed struggle by the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement against the repressive rule of Sudan’s Islamist government.
When Salva Kiir became president of the new nation, he promised to create a democratic, peaceful, and united South Sudan. But the stability and optimism wouldn't last long. In mid-December of 2013, a vicious civil war triggered by a power struggle between President Kiir and his then-deputy, Riek Machar, and other senior SPLM leaders threw the country into chaos. The war was marked by horrific cruelty and violence. Civilians bore the brunt of war, with all sides targeting them for abuse.
In their rush to support the newest state on the international stage, world leaders had ignored signs of this impending crisis. The region that would become South Sudan had suffered two brutal civil wars during the last half-century. As a result, in 2011, the new leadership inherited a country plagued by corruption, neglect, ethnic and regional tension, and displacement; millions remain refugees both within and outside of the country. The international community’s optimism had blinded it to the instability beneath South Sudan’s promising exterior.
Consequently, a decade into independence, and despite the ongoing implementation of a 2018 peace agreement between President Kiir and rebel factions, the promised dividends of statehood—including stability, basic freedoms, and economic development—remain elusive.
What should the international community learn from these examples?
First, institutions, not individuals, are the best predictors of long-term reform. That is the case no matter how capable the leaders are and how much they profess their democratic credentials. Too often, the international community has feted promising leaders in its search for success stories, first ignoring warning signs and then under-investing in strengthening institutions.
Second, sacrificing the rule of law, human rights, and democracy in the name of stability has tragic consequences, both for the people of authoritarian regimes and for the future prospects for democracy across Africa. Moreover, each of the countries highlighted remains deeply unstable—a sign that sacrificing democracy in the name of stability is rarely successful.
Authoritarian world powers, including China and Russia, often design their foreign policy with an overriding focus on stability. When Western democracies do the same, they strengthen the argument that there is little fundamental difference between authoritarian government calculations and democratic ones. Instead, the international community of liberal democracies must distinguish itself and encourage the hard work of building institutions devoted to liberal and democratic values.
Carine Kaneza Nantulya is Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.