Africa’s despots fear the gales will blow south

Published in The Times (March 11th, 2011)

Juan Pedro Mendene was midway through his weekly radio programme, ironically called Total Relaxation, when the live broadcast was interrupted by his nation’s Minister for Information storming into the studio. He was ordered to leave the microphone immediately, forbidden to return to the station and suspended from duties. His crime? To have made passing mention of Libya’s leader in the introduction to his show.

Such is the paranoia in the more autocratic countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where long-serving despots are trying to impose news blackouts on the revolts in the north of the continent. From Angola to Zimbabwe, nervous rulers hope a strict media clampdown will be enough to stop waves of unrest from rippling south and washing away their governments.

Mendene was in Equatorial Guinea, ruled for more than three decades by one of the most corrupt and venal regimes in the world, with an unpleasant first family frittering away the vast revenues of an oil boom while their subjects endure grinding poverty. He had breached a ban on discussing events not just in Libya but Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen and Ivory Coast, where tensions are growing after a disputed election five months ago.

Fortunately, enough people have satellite television, radio or the internet to ensure that untainted news filters through the censorship. But this kind of repressive response to the Arab revolutions is far from unique. It is important that we avoid being so absorbed by events in North Africa that we ignore the tightening of screws elsewhere in the continent.

The autocrats have cause for concern, with echoes from North Africa heard thousands of miles away. In Gabon, thousands of protesters took to the streets and were met with violence and teargas last month. In Sudan, there were clashes this week after women protested at the alleged rape of an activist by security police, then opposition activists demanded the overthrow of President al-Bashir.

There have been tentative protests in Angola, where the response has included death threats against activists, the arrest of reporters and rappers, and the blocking of internet sites. In Cameroon, where there have been more serious clashes, journalists have been beaten, cyber-activists arrested and Twitter suspended on mobile phones for the past three days. In Swaziland, where a “day of rage” is planned next month against Africa’s last absolute monarch, the BBC has been removed from state channels.

Things are little better in the Horn of Africa. Independent media are banned in Eritrea, so no mention of revolutions there, while in neighbouring Djibouti, where protests have flared up, news from North Africa is heavily censored on the state broadcaster. In Ethiopia, a prominent journalist was picked up by armed police after leaving a cyber café and warned about his columns on Egypt posted on a US-based forum. “If anything happens, we will first come for you,” he was told by a senior officer.

Inevitably, the offenders include Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, where there is a near total news blackout — although the CIA was blamed for Hosni Mubarak’s overthrowin opinion pieces in state- controlled newspapers. A group of 45 students were charged with treason after attending a lecture with video footage of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. Six remain in solitary confinement.

Clearly there are a lot of worried dictators. So will the big men, many of whom have clung on to power for decades, manage to suppress dissent in their own nations?

There is no doubt that sub-Saharan Africa shares many of the problems that gave rise to the revolutions in the north. Nearly two thirds of the population are under 24, and many are angered by chronic unemployment, rising food prices, rampant corruption and the ageing, arrogant elites in charge of many countries. There have been protests and self-immolations, even in democracies such as Senegal.

The conventional wisdom, however, argues that the lack of a strong middle class, lower levels of social networking sites and tribal divisions mitigate against the tide of revolt sweeping south. And the armed forces are more likely to shoot protesters than side with them against their governments.

Despite this, there is cause for optimism. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were only three democracies in Africa. Today, amid the Jasmine Revolutions, there are seven times as many, if of widely differing quality. The unstoppable forces of capitalism and consumerism, combined with the power of the media and information technology, are driving change. All those loathsome autocrats face the despot’s dilemma: the more their countries grow, the more likely they are to be forced out.

The hope is that we have learnt the lessons of recent weeks. Stability is not founded on repression and censorship. So we must stop propping up these autocrats and start doing everything we can to support those courageous figures seeking to build a civil society across the continent. Those winds of change will blow across the Sahara eventually.

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