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Have they outstayed their welcome?

Martina Schwikowski db
November 28, 2017

African autocrats are closely watching events in Zimbabwe after the successful coup against longtime leader Robert Mugabe. Calls for a change in power are becoming louder in Cameroon.

Cameroonian president Paul Biya addressing the United Nations
Image: picture-alliance/ZUMA Wire/W. Ying

Robert Mugabe's  political fate in Zimbabwe  sent shock waves to regions in Africa where autocratic leaders must increasingly fear uprisings by the population and the opposition. Mugabe's resignation last week after 37 years as the country's president is a signal to heads of state across Africa who have clung to power for decades, though never to the advantage of their people.

Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo tops that list. He has been in office for 38 years, the longest-ruling African president. His neighbor, Cameroon's Paul Biya (seen above), is a close second.

85-year-old Biya - who has ruled Cameroon with an iron fist for 35 years - is the continent's oldest president. These days, the mood of change palpable in Zimbabwe has been spilling over into Cameroon, where the opposition is increasingly demanding that Biya should step down. People in the capital Yaounde sing anti-Biya songs more often than ever before.

A woman sits in a doorway looking at a Mugabe mural
Robert Mugabe resigned after a coup removed him from powerImage: Reuters/P. Bulawayo

'Very dangerous' situation in Cameroon

The "eternal president" refuses to implement much-needed reforms, divides the country and has critics locked away, his opponents argue. Joshua Osih is convinced developments in his country will be similar to those in Zimbabwe. "I would never hope for bloodshed to happen, but nothing is being done today to avoid it," said the vice president of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), Cameroon's largest opposition party. "When there is no visibility, everything becomes explosive and today in Cameroon that is the big problem - nobody knows what is going to happen, when it will happen, how it will happen, we just know that it will happen."  It is a very dangerous situation, Osih concluded. 

Cameroon is a powder keg that may very well explode, agreed Boniface Mbey, a political scientist at the University of Yaounde. "But unlike Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Biya has a firm hold on the military, all of them loyal men in key positions," he said. "If more parties join the SDF's opposition movement, Cameroon might be the next hotspot after Zimbabwe."

President Biya's supporters hold a completely different point of view. "Biya is very different from President Mugabe because he has never openly shown any signs of instituting a dynasty in Cameroon," argued Biya's righthand man Aboubakar Ibrahim, a legal expert for the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) party. "I don't think that Mugabe's difficulties came because of his long stay in power but because Zimbabweans saw how he was preparing his wife to replace him."

People in many African countries hope the era of the long-term ruler is drawing to a close, which would pave the way for more democracy.

Whatever the future may bring, Africa's autocratic rulers certainly watched what happened to Robert Mugabe, said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a senior research consultant at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria. "They also saw the people ecstatically dancing in the streets," she told DW, adding that, like Mugabe, some of these rulers are "completely removed from what regular people feel."

No Arab Spring in Africa

However, Louw-Vaudran warned against generalizing the coup in Zimbabwe or drawing premature conclusions. In Burkina Faso in 2014, she pointed out. President Blaise Compaore fled after a coup and 27 years at the helm of his country. People thought this was the beginning of Africa's Arab Spring, and that other rulers would step down, too, she said. "But nothing happened."

Alpha Conde
Alpha Conde says age is not the issueImage: Getty Images/M. Medina

One shouldn't make too many comparisons, according to Louw-Vaudran: the situation in Equatorial-Guinea under Obiang is different from that in Zimbabwe. Equatorial Guinea has seen more than one coup in the past, the country is rich in oil and the small population is downtrodden, Louw-Vaudran said.

Oil is also key in the Republic of the Congo, ruled for many years by Denis Sassou-Nguesso. He would probably face unrest, too, so he rules with an iron fist, said Louw-Vaudran. He has changed the constitution in his favor and removed restrictions limiting the terms of office, just like Chad's President Idriss Deby, who has been in power for 27 years and suppresses any form of opposition.  Under those circumstances, turmoil and protests are not much of a threatening scenario for rulers.

Reaction in Uganda

Some countries, however, reacted immediately to the surprising end of the Mugabe era. "Right after Mugabe's resignation, Uganda's President Museveni raised the salaries of soldiers and officials," said Louw-Vaudran. "That was a telling move."  Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986, and is one of the leaders who could be affected by Mugabe's sacking, she added.

Nicholas Opiyo, a  leading Ugandan human rights lawyer and recipient of the 2017 German Africa Prize, said the situation in Uganda is moving in the same direction as the situation in Zimbabwe, where a president does what he can to stay in power, including "electoral fraud, intimidating the opposition and exploiting a corrupt system."

We have reached a point where the last safety valve in our constitution – the age limit for a presidential candidature – is about to disappear," he said.  

Nicholas Opiyo
Nicholas Opiyo has handled many politically sensitive cases in Uganda Image: DW/A. Gitta

Young people are Africa's chance

How can Africa become more democratic in the long run?

Alpha Conde, Guinea's president and head of the African Union, said opportunities for a better future lie with Africa's youth. The heads of state are aware of that fact, Conde told DW, adding that is why the young generation are the focus of the EU-Africa summit in Abidjan. It is important to invest in young people and in good governance, Conde said, to ensure that Africa is ruled for the benefit of its people, in particular women and young people.

Like many other long-term rulers, 79-year-old Conde also can't seem to relinquish power after 7 years as head of state.

"Age isn't the issue – it's whether you know what is good for these young people," he said. "You can be 30 and do nothing for the youth, or you can be 90 years old and do a lot for young people."

"As far as I'm concerned, that debate is headed in the wrong direction," Alpha Conde said.