Why “the war for history” matters now: “authoritarian momentum in East Africa” (Part Six)

Efforts to retroactively legitimize the 2007 Kenyan election and turn away from the questions of why election fraud was allowed to stand also help divert attention from the current questions of what the United States and Kenya’s other diplomatic “partners” will do or not do now in the face of the current retrenchment of hard won freedoms and democratic openness. Kenya is less free and less secure now than it was in 2007. When a few more years have gone by will 2002 still be a remembered as a turning point for democracy in Kenya or just a false “spring” producing only a temporary thaw in authoritarian governance?

Here is some good context from Freedom House from April of this year.

“Authoritarian Contagion in Africa” by Robert Herman, Vice President for Regional Programs, on the Freedom at Issue blog:

The broader phenomenon illustrated by Kenyatta’s actions [seeking restrictions on civil society and the press] is not just a matter of coincidence or independent imitation. Whether they are selling sophisticated technology to track down dissidents online or sharing legislative approaches that provide a patina of legitimacy for their crackdowns on political opponents, repressive governments are actively working together to push back against nonviolent movements for democratic change. Indeed, such authoritarian solidarity has arguably outpaced collaboration among the world’s democratic states, which are often feckless in mobilizing to defend their own values and assist likeminded activists under duress.

In East Africa, evidence of authoritarian contagion is growing. The governments of Uganda, once seen as a great hope for democracy, and South Sudan, the world’s youngest country and a recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign assistance, are contemplating restrictive legislation targeting NGOs.

However, the true regional pioneer of this approach has been Ethiopia. Under longtime prime minister Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, the Ethiopian government issued laws on NGOs, the media, and terrorism that have collectively devastated the country’s political opposition and civil society. The most prominent democracy and human rights groups have been forced to abandon or radically scale back their work, and many of the leading activists have fled into exile.

Other leaders in East Africa and beyond no doubt observed with interest as the international community failed to mount any serious challenge to the Ethiopian government’s repressive actions. Donor countries declined to use their extensive development aid as leverage. Instead they meekly promised to monitor how the new laws were implemented. Whether out of consideration for Ethiopia’s role in combating terrorism in Somalia or fear that the country would turn to China as an alternative patron, the world’s wealthy democracies declined to challenge the Meles regime even after its legislation’s ruinous effects became apparent.

The citizens of Kenya, particularly those who opposed Kenyatta’s presidential candidacy or documented his role in fueling past ethnic violence, may now be paying the price for the international community’s hesitation to act on Ethiopia. It is certainly possible that Kenyatta—facing an international indictment—would have taken the same steps in the absence of a successful model for repression in the region. But his political allies might well have deserted him if they had reason to believe that Kenya would pay some meaningful price for antidemocratic initiatives.

One hopes that the United States and other democratic donor governments will draw their own lessons from these experiences, finally recognizing that the prioritization of security and macroeconomic concerns over democratic performance is a self-defeating strategy. In the long run, repressive states are less stable, less prosperous, and less friendly to democratic partners than open societies, and the spread of authoritarian practices can only damage the interests of Washington and its allies.

Last month Freedom House awarded it annual Freedom Award to Maina Kiai “in recognition of his fearless leadership in advocating for constitutional reform, fighting political corruption, and educating Kenyans of their basic civil and human rights.” The same Maina Kiai who pushed for release of the 2007 IRI/USAID exit poll and challenged the U.S. to live up to its principles: “A Deal We Can Live With” by Maina Kiai and L. Muthoni Wanyeki, New York Times, Feb. 12, 2008.

 

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  1. Pingback: The “War for History” Series to date | AfriCommons Blog

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