Political Survival and the Modern African Prince

By Brett L. Carter

The Two Africas

The Third Wave of democracy reached Africa in January 1989 when throngs of Benin students protested the government’s failure to disburse scholarships. Five years later, with the Cold War over and food prices soaring, Africa’s autocrats bowed to popular demands for reform. Some fell, others survived. But virtually all were subjected to nominally democratic institutions: term limits, parliaments, and regular multiparty elections. African politics in the decades since has been a contest between autocrats and these democratic institutions. In some countries—Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa, most notably—the democratic institutions won. Elections grew more competitive, losers were forced to respect the will of voters, and equitable economic growth produced a middle class. But elsewhere—places like Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon—elections remain a sham and ruling families grow wealthy while their citizens remain the world’s poorest. There are, increasingly, two Africas: one democratic, the other autocratic. Scholars know much less about the latter.

Map of Africa with political institutions in 1985Virtually all African autocrats now govern with parliaments and organize regular, multiparty elections. They have little choice. Since the end of the Cold War, Western governments have required nominally democratic institutions in exchange for economic aid, investment, and debt relief. In an era of YouTube and smartphones, moreover, violent repression is impossible to conceal from the international community. Life as an autocrat has thus grown more perilous. Since 1989, autocrats forced to govern with nominally democratic institutions have been nearly 80 percent more likely to lose power each year than autocrats who proscribe political competition. Accordingly, between 1986 and 2000, the number of autocracies in Africa fell from forty-five to thirty.

But Africa’s autocrats are learning to survive despite democratic institutions. As the pace of democratization in Africa slows to a trickle, surviving autocrats are securing their place among the global super rich, earning the attention of French courts in the process. As part of their ongoing corruption investigation—known as the bien mal acquis affair—French investigators recently seized a handful of Paris apartments belonging to the ruling families of Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo, with Gabon’s to be targeted next. One, belonging to the Equato-Guinean president’s son, was valued at some $180 million; it includes 101 rooms, a Turkish bath, a hair salon, two gym clubs, a nightclub, and a movie theater.

How do contemporary African autocrats survive democratic institutions? To answer this question, my dissertation develops a model of modern autocracy based on two stylized facts. First, most autocrats are removed by regime elites: the people to whom they entrust their government’s most important portfolios. Autocrats must prevent elites from acting collectively—from one elite mobilizing co-conspirators—when the act of seizing power is simple and the gains significant. Second, autocrats must prevent popular uprisings. For the international community’s insistence on regular elections creates “focal moments”— periods when the citizenry is engaged, discontent is palpable, and opposition politicians easily mobilize their supporters. Once citizens appreciate the extent of popular frustration, unrest easily coalesces into mass protest. When violence against civilians is difficult to conceal, modern autocrats must prevent protests altogether. Regular elections make this difficult.

The exigencies of political survival in the early twenty-first century compel autocrats to organize politics in novel ways. With political institutions fixed, Africa’s autocrats increasingly secure elite compliance with social tools. Moreover, Africa’s autocrats have learned to minimize the risk of popular unrest surrounding elections without employing violence. To understand how, my dissertation focuses on a single, contemporary autocracy: the Republic of Congo, ruled by Denis Sassou Nguesso for all but five years since 1979. This essay discusses the modern African autocrat’s techniques of elite control and popular repression in turn. The concluding section addresses the dissertation’s implications for development policy.

Social Tools of Elite Control

Nominally democratic institutions render elite compliance more difficult for Africa’s autocrats to secure. Seats in the National Assembly earn politicians a measure of independence from the autocrat, while nominally independent media provide a platform to communicate. Consequently, autocrats must persuade elites that loyalty to the regime provides the best path to political success. They do this, in part, by truncating the “labor market” for the regime’s most lucrative positions: by limiting the pool of candidates to a narrow, well-defined segment of the population. By committing to geographic recruitment strategies, autocrats persuade occupants of—and aspirants to—the most sensitive positions that their career prospects would be far worse under an alternative regime. In Congo, then, the best predictor of whether an elite ascends to one of the regime’s lucrative financial or military portfolios is not co-ethnicity with Sassou Nguesso or even loyal service during the 1997 civil war. Rather, the best predictor is simply the travel distance between an elite’s home village and Sassou Nguesso’s own. The mere possibility of eventual appointment keeps elites within the geographic boundary loyal even when excluded from the government.

Truncating the labor market is difficult, however, when elections reward cross-regional alliances. For securing electoral alliances requires offering ministerial portfolios that would otherwise be distributed within geographic boundaries. To monitor these new appointees, Africa’s autocrats create social institutions. Membership in these institutions is costly: initiates are monitored by the autocrat’s most trusted loyalists and marked as collaborators with the regime, diminishing their prospects under democracy. These social institutions increasingly take the form of freemasonry lodges. A legacy of French colonialism, they are now operated by over half of Africa’s autocrats. In Congo, virtually all high-level office holders are now members of the lodge; after initiating, elites engage in far less anti-regime behavior than before. These freemasonry lodges also enable Africa’s autocrats to learn from each other. In 1995 Abdou Diouf, then the ruler of Senegal, initiated Sassou Nguesso, and Sassou Nguesso, in turn, has initiated François Bozizé of the Central African Republic, Thomas Yayi Boni of Benin, and Idress Déby of Chad.

Securing elite loyalty in the absence of conventional bureaucratic institutions is essential, and so Africa’s most affluent autocrats employ a second technique: assigning multiple appointees responsibility for a single portfolio. These tournaments generate competition for the autocrat’s favor, however, only when competing elites are unable to collude: to mutually agree, perhaps, to steal oil or tax revenue together. Consequently, Africa’s autocrats pair elites who are separated by ethnic or family rivalries, which render trust unlikely. Cleavages, in short, can be useful.

Scholars have long believed that autocrats arbitrarily shuffle elites among government posts. When tenure is precarious, the conventional wisdom goes, appointees believe they owe their fortunes to the autocrat’s favor. I find little evidence of this in contemporary Africa. Indeed, modern African autocrats are nothing so much as shrewd personnel managers. And, increasingly, they behave like the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies: They reward loyal service with reappointment, and they punish malfeasance with termination. As in the private sector, senior regime figures serve for years.

Popular Suppression without Violence

Modern African autocrats are as concerned about elite conspiracies as their predecessors. They are, however, far more concerned about popular uprisings. Since elections create new opportunities for popular collective action, they are dangerous even when autocrats guarantee victory with fraud. Moreover, smartphones and YouTube make violence costly for autocrats beholden to foreign creditors. Modern African autocrats, in turn, have learned to suppress citizens in new ways.

Although electoral fraud is costless and widespread, modern African autocrats forge electoral alliances with opposition parties. They do so not to secure victory, but to render popular protests less likely. For opposition leaders in contemporary Africa constitute the centers of broad social networks; since they inevitably gain most from political change, they also happily bear the risks of mobilization. Autocrats, accordingly, target opposition leaders who are most capable of mobilizing popular unrest: those with the broadest, most cohesive social networks. These alliances cost opposition leaders their political careers. After joining the regime they once impugned, they have little credibility among frustrated citizens. Of course, when opposition leaders believe the only way to political power is to join the regime, it’s a sacrifice they accept.

Not all elections in Africa’s autocracies, however, are fraudulent. Indeed, regime lieutenants often compete against each other for seats in the National Assembly. For intense electoral competition generates genuine goodwill for candidates: Candidates court voters by offering jobs in the local bureaucracy, cash transfers, and in-kind gifts. Consequently, Congolese citizens often refuse to vote for Sassou Nguesso, but fervently support the regime’s candidates in local elections. And as long as these regime emissaries believe the autocrat’s blessing is more important for career advancement than popular support, they use their accumulated goodwill to generate support for the regime. In short, competitive local elections, carefully organized, stabilize Africa’s autocrats.

Scholars have long viewed repression as the defining feature of autocracy. And, indeed, repression is central to survival in contemporary Africa. But repression must also be credible to deter popular protests, and increasingly it is not: Civil society activists know that Africa’s autocrats are loathe to jeopardize foreign investment with violent suppression. Africa’s autocrats are learning to construct their internal security apparatuses in ways that render violence at least somewhat credible, while not provoking local populations. Some ninety percent of Sassou Nguesso’s presidential guard—stationed in the capital and responsible for his personal security—is drawn from his native region. Where popular uprisings are most likely, however, Sassou Nguesso employs regional natives at lower levels of the security apparatus and non-natives at senior levels. This combination persuades frustrated citizens that senior officers would indeed open fire on the population, while also minimizing the human rights abuses—rape and expropriation, most notably—that exacerbate popular frustration and render protest more likely. Modern African autocrats employ ethnic cleavages to intimidate without provoking.

Policy Implications

Map of Africa's political institutions in 2013The dissertation’s broadest argument is that autocrats are powerful when their citizens believe so. Financial resources are surely useful. They enable autocrats to reward loyalty, assign multiple elites similar responsibilities, and lure opposition leaders into alliances that diminish their public credibility. But security, I find, begets security. When opposition leaders believe their only path to power is partnering with the autocrat, their support becomes cheaper to purchase. When prominent regional politicians believe the autocrat’s blessing is more useful for career advancement than popular support, autocrats commission electoral competition to create a veneer of popular support. When young men who would otherwise take up arms against the regime believe doing so is futile, they police their hostile native region on the regime’s behalf. When citizens believe the autocrat’s threats of violence are credible, they acquiesce.

All this is good news for policymakers. Political scientists increasingly believe that nominally democratic institutions stabilize Africa’s autocrats. Democracy promotion efforts that mandate democratic institutions, in short, may have unintended consequences. If the conventional wisdom is correct, the way forward for the international community is unclear. My dissertation, however, suggests it is not.

The international community should require democratic institutions as a condition of foreign aid, investment, and debt relief. But it should do so knowing that Africa’s autocrats are learning to work around these democratic institutions. International creditors, I believe, should recognize their strength. Many African autocrats require Western aid, investment, and debt relief to finance their regimes. To attain them, Africa’s autocrats are often willing to make real concessions to Western creditors. This moment of Western bargaining power, moreover, may prove fleeting. For as China has expanded its investment portfolio, Africa’s autocrats may soon be less disposed to Western human rights norms.

Image Captions

Top: The political institutions of all of Africa’s autocracies in 1985, on the eve of the Third Wave of democracy. Bottom: The political institutions of all of Africa’s autocracies today. Democracies appear in white on both maps. Map credit: Brett L. Carter

Brett L. Carter is a Graduate Student Associate, Samuel P. Huntington Doctoral Dissertation Fellow, Graduate Fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government. His research interests include: political economy in non-democracies; the politics of food insecurity; political violence; and the Republic of Congo.