Africa’s ‘authoritarian contagion’

freedomhouseThe recent pressure on civil society and independent media in Kenya is not only a significant threat to democracy in a geo-politically important country, but also the predictable outcome of the international community’s failure to punish earlier, comparable state-driven repression in Ethiopia, another African nation that is viewed in Western capitals as a strategic partner, says Robert Herman, Vice President for Regional Programs at Freedom House. 

There is nothing terribly surprising about the attempt by newly elected Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta to create a more hostile environment for advocates of democracy and human rights, he writes for the group’s Freedom at Issue blog. He had telegraphed his intention in the run-up to the March 2013 presidential vote, all but vowing retribution against such activists because of their support for the International Criminal Court’s indictment of those—including Kenyatta and his now vice president, William Ruto—accused of directing ethnic and political violence following the 2007 presidential election, which left more than 1,200 Kenyans dead and some 600,000 displaced.

When the retribution came, it followed a sadly well-worn script developed by authoritarian states, which are more inclined and better equipped than ever to export “worst practices” when it comes to repressing civil society and silencing dissent.

The broader phenomenon illustrated by Kenyatta’s actions 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.

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.

RTWT