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Opinion

Opinion: Generation hashtag rebels in Africa

2016 is set to be a year of elections in Africa. Hopes for more democracy are dim but young Africans are starting to kick against autocratic rulers, writes Claus Stäcker.

As the year came to a close, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame secured backing for a potential three further terms in office in a referendum with a Soviet Union-style electoral outcome of 98.4 percent. The Rwandan electorate is not stupid. Maybe they opted voluntary for stability and the certainty that accompanies the familiar. In other words, they chose security over liberty.

Kagame led Rwanda out of the chaos that followed the 1994 genocide, putting it on a successful course for reform. It seemed that the ends justified the means. Analysts refer to this as "development dictatorship" and there are reasons to prefer it to anarchy. But Kagame has his hand firmly on the tiller and he won't let anybody else anywhere near it. The only genuine opposition party, the Democratic Green Party (DPGR), is muzzled in the true authoritarian tradition and it wasn't allowed to mount a campaign against the referendum. This was a vote in which Rwandans were offered no choice.

The regime in neighboring Burundi may take comfort from Kagame's referendum. An African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission to Burundi was soundly dismissed by that country's parliament as an "invasion." Burundi was at peace, said Pascal Nyabenda, chairman of the National Assembly. As a consequence of the opposition boycott of the last legislative elections, parliament no longer represents the people in Burundi and President Nkurunziza's brutal crackdown on the protest movement has robbed him of any remaining shreds of legitimacy.

Unfortunately, he lacks the insight to relax his grip on power and grasp his one remaining chance, which would be to agree to a negotiated settlement brokered with the help of the AU and the United Nations (UN). Unlike his neighbor Kagame, Nkurunziza cannot bring security to his country. An AU intervention force, deployed on its very first mission in 2016, could at least restore some degree of security.

Burkina Faso as inspiration

What about Central African Republic and that all-important question of "liberty or security" which is preoccupying Europeans in the wake of the Paris attacks? Most Central Africans would settle for a semi-workable peace strategy. The elections in the country (scheduled for December 30), which has been ravaged by civil war, were scheduled very early in its transition to democracy. Nobody is thinking of liberty. The victims of attacks in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Mali or Kenya will hardly pause to weigh up improvements in security against parallel infringements of liberty. Security always comes first.

Deutsche Welle Claus Stäcker

Claus Stäcker is the head of DW's Africa service

But these two apparent opposites - liberty and security - need not be mutually exclusive. Burkina Faso's Balai Citoyen (Citizen's Broom) movement evolved on social media and drove the unpopular Blasie Compaore out of the country. Citizen's Broom rejected authoritarian rule and embraced liberty. Ever since the French Revolution - at the very latest - people have wondered whether liberty, equality and fraternity were universal values. They are just that. No despot, religious fanatic or "development dictator" has the right to place himself in authority over those who may be different or hold different beliefs. Enemies of liberty may be justified in criticizing the West for its excesses or its egotism, but totalitarian regimes are bereft of creativity and innovation. Ideological stagnation, the absence of new ideas, opposition to progress, intellectual laziness, fear and violence are the hallmarks of fenced-in societies.

Africa's hashtag generation

Africa's youth in particular are rebelling against the well-entrenched ideologies, clans and commercial alliances of earlier generations. Social media are dominating communication habits in Africa and are the political platform of choice for the hashtag generation.

In Nigeria, they contributed to the country's peaceful democratic transfer of power from government to opposition. In South Africa, their spontaneous protests unnerved President Zuma. Even trade unionists and African National Congress (ANC) veterans are using #ZumaMustFall to protest about their muddled and unscrupulous leader. If the municipal elections in 2016 end badly for the ANC then Zuma's days are numbered. In Tanzania, the remarkable anti-graft and war on waste policies of newly-elected President John Magufuli have turned him into a star on Twitter and Facebook. Magufuli is trying to reform the stale and corrupt ruling party, CCM, from the top downwards. #WhatWouldMagufuliDo turned into an indicator of the moral state of the rebellion and a yardstick for humor in the whole of Africa. Those presidents who are seeking reelection at all costs in 2016 should be warned!

Ten countries in Africa go to the polls in 2016, but there is little reason for unbridled optimism. Democratic transition is only routine in Ghana and Zambia. In Niger, which is on the front line of struggle against terrorism, media rights and the right to free assembly are under threat ahead of February's election. The Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila is using tricks to try and delay the elections, is heading straight for a crisis. In Chad, Congo Brazzaville and Uganda, long-time rulers have not the slightest intention of stepping aside. They still have these fenced-in societies more or less under their control.

But these members of the old guard, who have kept themselves in power through nepotism, theft, disinformation, and repression of their opponents, are on their way out. In the open networks of the 21st century, they no longer have an undisputed monopoly on politics or political systems. In an increasing number of African countries the #hashtag 'generation for open societies' is trending.

This generation needs allies. Democracy, freedom of expression, or a change of government do not guarantee a job, not even a daily meal. Open societies have to be worthwhile. They must pay their way. They have to be stable, innovative and able to create jobs. They have to offer the most convincing visions for future prosperity and feasible solutions for today's problems. Open societies need stamina. Blue helmets can defeat machetes and Kalashnikovs, but they cannot win the battle for hearts and minds. Those who campaign for open societies must accept a "multi-speed" Africa in which different countries develop or progress at different rates. In crisis-torn countries such as the Central African Republic or South Sudan, security takes priority over liberty. But in the long run, the free, open society must prevail - complete with discourse, chatter, freedom of opinion and mistakes - with competing ideas jostling peacefully for position.

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