UPDATED 2 November, 2020

Once again, another corrupt African politician – President John Magufuli of Tanzania – has abused his country and people by undermining democracy with allegedly fixing the 28 October 2020 presidential elections and by arresting, beating up and even having political opponents killed over the past several years. The European Union has criticized the electoral process for its lack of transparency – Magufuli claims to have been elected with 84 per cent of the vote. And once again, institutions such as the African Union are doing nothing.  

As previously reported by Global Geneva, corruption is alive and well amongst many of Africa’s politicians. As part of a report by the International Consortium for Investigative Reporting, the BBC revealed earlier this year (see report) that Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of former President Dos Santos of Angola and the richest woman in Africa, got access to lucrative deals involving land, oil, diamonds and telecoms when her father was president.

The following background piece by Keith Somerville, first published by Global Geneva in late 2016, explores how – and why – Africa’s ruling and largely dictatorial elites prefer to keep themselves in power by using and abusing their economies at the cost of progress and on the backs of Africa’s masses. It is worth reading now as it also helps to explain why the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which supports democracy, human rights and an end to corruption, failed in 2016 to select – yet again – a deserving winner for its prestigious 2016 prize that recognizes former presidents who have developed their countries for the benefit of their people. There was simply no one worthy of the prize – $5 million awarded over 10 years and then $200,000 per year for life. Only in 2017 did it manage to award the prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, but no one in 2018 or 2019. 

Africa over the past months has seen closely-fought elections whose integrity was far from clear – alongside serious outbreaks of protest and violence in a number of countries.  The continent has also experienced a surge in death and population displacement as civil wars flared up once more in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, to name but two examples, along with continuing insurgencies in Somalia, Nigeria and Mali. This challenges the complacent and self-serving view on the pace and depth of democratisation and accountability of many African governments. It has also clearly demonstrated the ability of its leaders to use the media, forces of coercion and informal networks to retain power and crush opposition. Regrettably, in Africa, the past is still present.

Gabon is currently undergoing protests and a general strike looms as defeated opposition candidate Jean Ping and his supporters reject the questionable victory by incumbent president Ali Bongo.  In mid-August, President Edgar Lungu clung to power in Zambia following an election campaign marked by violence and inflammatory speech. At the same time, the Ethiopian government used extreme force to suppress demonstrations in Sondar province and among the large Oromo community bitter about a perceived political and economic marginalisation in addition to being the victim of land grabs favouring elite groups and foreign states, such as China and Gulf States, who have close economic ties with the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.   UN aid agencies have reported that the protests and violent repression are obstructing attempts to get food aid to malnourished children, suffering as a result of food shortages.

Weeks before, forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army loyal to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir launched attacks on the troops of Vice President Riek Machar effectively wrecking a painstakingly-constructed peace deal to end the civil war. Machar was subsequently sacked by Kiir. Earlier in the year, that other cowboy-hatted African leader, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, was re-elected in a far from clean election. In typical African fashion, Museveni used state media, restrictions on independent journalism and the frequent arrest of opposition leader Kizza Besigye to ensure victory at the polls.

Not to be outdone, Zimbabwe’s ailing President Robert Mugabe remained in office, at the age of 92, despite an unremittingly crumbling economy and bitter in-fighting of competing factions of within the ruling ZANU-PF, all with an eager eye on succession to the throne. Over the years, Mugabe had lost the backing of the key network of war veterans, once the bedrock of his patronage system.

These examples all demonstrate the ability of long-serving presidents and their support networks (formal and informal) to retain power. It also enables them to duck any form of real accountability for their well-documented records of economic mismanagement, corruption and violations of basic human rights.

Can this stark continuum of failure, and worse, at the top be explained by the use of force and state resources? Or are there other instruments in the African stay-in-power tool-box? For all their willingness to use coercion and naked force, how do they actually manage to stay in power despite weak state structures and institutions not to mention the distractions caused by seemingly structural factions and in-fighting?


In all these countries, from Angola to Congo, the political, social and economic dynamics are indeed different. Over-simplifications are often misleading. There are no easy explanations. That said, there are common factors that lead to the development, and maintenance, of such autocratic, repressive and unaccountable systems.

The single most influential factor is that sub-Saharan African economies are crucially dependent on export revenues, the inflow of foreign aid and loans from international institutions or commercial banks.  This enables ruling elites to control incoming and outgoing financial flows. This they do by extracting rents, which they then use to bolster their hold on power through patronage networks and, naturally, to enrich themselves even further.


Many of Africa’s economies have become inordinately dependent on export revenues, primarily based on agricultural or mineral commodities. In most cases, this reliance on exports also is coupled with a chronic failure to re-invest earned revenues, including loans and international aid, into the necessary diversification and broadening of those export-led economic sectors critical to development. Domestic industrial, agricultural production and commercial networks (providing consumer goods, processed foods and fuel) would generate jobs plus a significant (and vital) domestic tax base. Instead, these economies, largely because of insufficient reinvestment in local infrastructure have performed poorly and so explain economic stagnation. Income from exports is skimmed off by political elites and sent abroad to be lodged in banks or invested in Western economies rather than being used as the seed-corn for domestic growth.

In Nigeria, with all its oil earnings, economic diversification and investment in agriculture or non-oil related industries have been poor with little generation of depth and breadth to the domestic economy or job creation.  The African Development Bank recently disclosed that the numbers of Nigerians living in poverty has increased to 61 per cent compared with 55 per cent in 2004 – between 1970 and 2000, the population of poor has risen significantly from 19 million to 90 million. The failure to develop domestic agriculture and industry and over-reliance on fickle export income means that many countries remain heavily dependent on foreign aid to support basic government budgets (almost 90 per cent reliance in Ethiopia and 40 per cent in Malawi, for example).

The end result?  Highly unbalanced economic systems, that in turn impede the growth of independent, private business classes rendering government revenues unduly reliant on export income. The warped system affects not only royalties earned from mineral and agricultural production but taints to the point of negating much of the sought developmental effect of those budgetary and investment finance projects and programmes from donor nations, international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, and foreign commercial banks.

Domestic business or personal taxation ranks low as a source of official income, despite a burgeoning middle class in some countries. With taxpayers few and far between, the link between taxation and representation, or participation in decision-making, a  corner-stone of democracy, remains limited or non-existent. For a variety of reasons (self-serving ones not least), these governments and their ruling elites shun such forms of cash generation. Instead, they prefer to exploit easier financial resources. Taxation, though encouraged by donors, also enables accountability – the last thing these particular leaders want.

This continental-grown and carefully nurtured economic selfishness and self-serving structures frees governments, especially those inclined to authoritarianism, from the shackles of domestic economic and political constraints. This gross imbalance in most African economies not only reinforces the abusive powers of these elites, it also prevents them from dealing with key developmental issues, such as food insecurity, inequality, unemployment, stagnant agricultural production and widespread poverty. Patronage – whether typified by food aid deliveries being used to reward or punish communities according to their political allegiances, job-generating local projects benefiting communities that are part of patronage networks, or even by the contributions of some rich politicians to things like funeral costs of the poor in their key support areas – becomes even more critical enterprise as an informal yet unquestionably influential tool of power. More perverse still, it compels the ruling elites to rely even more tightly on a form of foreign funding influenced by global markets and aid donors policies over which they have little control.  This means these leaders and their cronies can (hope to) continue to hold or perhaps just simply cling on to power whilst hidden assets grow in off-shore bank accounts or investments abroad – the Angolan elite is one of the biggest investors in the Portuguese economy, for example, while the non-oil sectors in the country are starved of investment.

As gatekeepers, they have the resources to pay off their client-patronage networks, such as party officials or key figures within the army, police and other support groups. Unsurprisingly, in Africa as elsewhere, money and privilege buy the most effective forms of loyalty. Equally unsurprisingly, due to spiralling requests and demands, their ability to extract wealth either for themselves or to fuel ever-greedy elite groups, becomes even more extroverted. Hence, for these regimes control is survival.

Yet despite the patronage or perhaps because of it, African power elites are unabashedly distant from their own people. They seek to rule through the instruments of state coercion, such as secret police, and in addition to informal networks of patronage that power and access to rents brings them. In countries such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Rwanda, power networks are based on the military or former military officers, and on the home areas of political leaders. Or they manipulate business elites by judicious management of government contracts, assets available thorough divestment of state resources (usually under externally-driven structural adjustment programmes), or import licenses.  As gatekeepers, leaders can mix and match their patronage networks to whatever is need to maintain the regime in power.

Perhaps paradoxically, this also generates overt or covert backing of authoritarian governments by Western states, those supposedly committed to the extension of democracy. Uganda and Rwanda are obvious examples. In both countries, nascent democracy is increasingly undermined by the steadfast external support for Museveni and Kagame, seen by Washington, London and Paris as manifest guarantors of the goal of stability. Such regimes are indeed perceived by the outside backers, investors and sundry development managers as the only credible bulwarks against terrorist and anti-Western movements, notably Al Shabaab in Somalia.  French interventions in the Central African Republic and Mali play similar roles.

The French political scientist Jean-Francois Bayart identified the core of ‘extraversion’ as a system representing “the creation and capture of a rent generated by dependency and which functions as a historical matrix of inequality, political centralisation and social struggle.”  This is a viewpoint also supported by the Cameroonian political scientist and theorist Achille Mbembe, who emphasises how revenue extracted from export and external financing transactions helps develop and maintain “local systems of inequality and domination” in many African states, often facilitating the formation of elite coalitions and worsening factional conflict.

Gate-keeping thus allows those in power to counter or at least contain most threats by emerging from factional struggles or domestic opposition if, and only if, they are seen by the king-making elites as the only approved if not obligatory points de passage as recipients for foreign “benevolence”.   As Yale University historian Frederick Cooper stressed, this can result in the development of a domestic ruling elite “distant from the population it governed, exercising control over a narrow range of resources focused on the juncture of domestic and world economies”.

Regimes operating in this way only become fragile when export revenues fall or when they suffer a loss of foreign loans generally a result of severe indebtedness. Or because banks refuse – or not allowed – to continue to fund those engaging in glaring mismanagement and corruption. The ensuing fall from Western monetary grace can in turn lead to a loss of domestic stability.

In recent years, however, one source of external backing that seems to have enabled a variety of gatekeepers from Mugabe to Bashir, Dos Santos, Meles Zenawi/Hailemariam Desalegn and Museveni to keep their options open and even defy Western opprobrium or even sanctions, is China.

As the past two decades have seen, China has its own agenda in Africa. This includes the search for raw materials, markets for cheap manufactured goods and even ways of exporting surplus labour.  Such support does not include political conditionality. Chinese cash comes with no strings. The legitimisation of base economic practices – corruption in plain words – can therefore be conveniently cloaked under the emotional appeal of “national independence” or “sovereign respect”. This means Chinese economic support, infrastructural aid and finance are only leading to a widening of options for canny gatekeepers. If need be, they can play West against East in the hope that never twain shall meet, and thus increasingly reduce their dependence on those Western backers who can be so fickle in the eyes of many an African autocrat. Switzerland, for example, has been under local and international pressure to stop African dictators from using its banks as havens for dumping cash and storing jewellery in its secretive safes and vaults under the Lac Léman. Indeed, in recent years, the Swiss have been making noted efforts to return ill-gotten funds back to their home countries.

Over the past decade, this new reality has been often typified by Western commentators and politicians as “Africa Rising”, notably the growth in GDP (essentially through booming commodity exports), increased Chinese trade and aid, and, in some places, certain advances in democracy and aka the regular holding of elections.  Nevertheless, Africa’s dominant elites and their patronage networks continue to depend largely on their gatekeeper roles for rents, wealth and survival.  And they do not hesitate to use such wealth to adapting their political strategies for survival at the cost of their own people. They continue to maintain their power networks by openly manipulating the advantages of incumbency, such as Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza’s efforts to change the constitution to enable him to run for a third term. Or Mugabe’s and Museveni’s ability to distribute sufficient patronage to win or rig elections. Uganda’s Museveni has tended to rely on both state and informal power networks through his clients in the military or among the new (frequently ex-military and highly state dependent) unofficial networks go a long way in explaining his hold on power for over 30 years.

Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who still insists that British colonialism is the real reason behind his country’s disastrous economic collapse, and Bashir in Sudan have done much the same.  Except that Mugabe’s ZANU-PF thugs have openly indulged over the years in the beating, incarceration and murder of political opponents as well. In the case of Zambia, Lungu used control over the state media, restrictions on the main independent newspaper, The Post, violence from his supporters and then state power to limit campaigning in some areas to ensure his re-election.

Without doubt, there have been advances over the last 25 years in freedom of the press, the development of multi-party political systems and some improvement in the flow growth in accountability of governments.  Yet even with such progress, Africa’s ruling and increasingly wealthy power elites have proved adept at manipulating their formal and informal instruments of control to cede as little power as they can. And as usual, it is ordinary Africans who are expected to bear the brunt.

Clearly the “winds of change” won’t come from China (or Pyongyang!) and equally clearly most people agree that solutions for Africa’s problems can only come from Africans themselves. Perhaps some level of hope can be derived from the initiative put forward recently to open up an African “common market” allowing for the free flow of people, goods and capital between a number of African nations.

Perhaps hope can be derived too from the increasing role of some African States to seek to tackle African problems (through an increased role for the African Union and its Peacekeeping forces as well as the need to confront some dictators with their past deeds and requests for justice – Hissene Habré’s trial in Dakar – headed up by a Swiss prosecutor no less – being notable progress in this respect).

Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent. His book, Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent was published in December 2015 and the updated paperback edition is coming out in January 2016, published by Penguin.


  1. You should check the brotherhood of East African Leaders too esp Uganda, Ruwanda, Tanzania and Burundi. You did not include what Magufuli is doing to his people and especially arbirtary arrests of opposition MPs and leaders and the overall attacks on HR and democratic system

  2. Whether its technological, political manipulation, or outright corruption, the continent of Africa has not learned its lesson. History will again show how easy it is for foreign powers, China being the latest, to exploit Africa. During the ’70’s the IMF (International Monetary Fund) lowered its standards and made huge loans to African countries knowing full well they could not repay them. Those African leaders pillaged their own constituents and lined their own pockets with the money. Finally the IMF forgave those loans. Again no lesson learned.
    If China is such a “good” trading partner, where is the “African Footprint in China”? There isn’t one because China has no intention whatsoever to allow Africa into their borders, If they do, show the rest of the world (fat chance). WHEN will Africa learn that Africa can help itself? When foreign powers come calling have the wherewithal to kindly say NO!

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