The American founding fathers were great men. They had their faults but the one thing that no one can criticize about them is that they left power at the right time. They must have believed or dreamed that America would someday become a powerful influential democracy that could be an example for all nations. Did they step down because they understood their historical significance or were there too many powerful like minded leaders that wouldn’t allow dictatorship to flourish in our new fragile democracy?
Africa also had honorable leaders but few of them willingly left power when their terms were up. There were a few that may have left power when they were supposed to but one can argue that they weren’t remarkable men like the founding fathers. Like George Washington, Uganda’s Museveni, Eritrea’s Isaias, and Zimbabwe’s Mugabe were all great military leaders that liberated their countries through a grassroots effort. All were tremendously popular and strove to create a foundation of democracy in their country. Like the American founding fathers, many great African leaders were not fans of dictators, yet they have failed their people and have become exactly what they liberated their people from (in some cases even more oppressive).
Uganda is one of the more pleasant African countries to live in. With its beautiful fertile countryside, vast resources, hospitable people and richness in culture, the sky is the limit for this amazing country. They could achieve economic success through tourism, exporting various commodities, including flowers, and are slowing developing their service industry, which is a result of the investments they have made in education. The US spends less than 2% of its budget on education and in past years Uganda has spent up to 15% of its annual budget on education. In 1986, Museveni liberated this country from oppressive, corrupt Ugandan rulers through a guerrilla war where he won the support of his people. Communities in southern Uganda came together to help him take over the country. Once in power he preached democracy and created a local district system where local communities had more power than ever before. Justice and rule of law was promoted and a constitution was enacted in 1995. The constitution put in place several checks and balances and ensured equal representation for women, youth, and interest groups in the government. It was truly an extraordinary document. However, Museveni destroyed the very institutions he had worked so hard to create in 2005 when he bribed parliament to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. The strongest aspects of Uganda’s democracy are that the courts are independent and they have a high level of freedom of press compared to other African countries. People are free to criticize the president on the thousands of independent radio stations throughout the country. Museveni also allowed political parties to be formed for the first time in 2005 to appear more legitimate, but it is impossible to develop a viable opposition within the system Museveni has created. Museveni has become increasingly corrupt, filling top positions with people from his ethnic group and other close allies. His close friends are leaders in all aspects of society, which discourages people from running against him. They are not officially restricted but he has not created the open democratic society that he promised. With the ethnic hatred that was revealed during the riots in September, it is becoming apparent that there is great animosity towards those perceived to hail from Museveni’s ethnic group. The challenges that Uganda faces are not simple and cannot be fully addressed here; however, Museveni’s apparent blindness to the nepotism within his system has fueled this ethnic hatred that could destroy Ugandan society. Museveni may be considered one of the least oppressive dictators on the continent but the tragedy of the Ugandan story is the opportunity lost. It was within his grasp to become the father of Uganda and create a legacy of democracy that would live on for generations. Instead he has developed a system which enriches him and his cronies to the point that his inner circle probably won’t allow him to leave office even if he wanted to.
Eritrea is a unique country with a history like no other African country. Like Uganda, there are good and bad elements to the Eritrean story. In 1991, Eritrea won independence after a brutal 30 year war with Ethiopia. The war hero and leader of the EPLF, Isaias Afewerki, became the country’s first president. He was extremely popular and the Eritrean people were elated to have their own nation. Developed through their tremendous struggle, Eritreans have strong sense of nationalism that is the envy of the continent. No other African country has the unity across ethnic groups and religions that Eritreans have achieved. Eritrea also has low levels of corruption and built a lot of infrastructure since independence. In 1997, the constitution was adopted setting up the the foundation of democracy and established a multi-party system, but the constitution was never implemented. Also, Isaias has not allowed other parties to organize and has not held a presidential election. Eritreans have been patient with their leader and understand that their country is in its infancy; however, the reality for Eritreans has gotten dramatically worse in the last two years. One major challenge to assessing the level of democracy in Eritrea is that it is a very closed society with no freedom of press. The government shut down the independent media in 2001 and last year Eritrea ranked dead last below North Korea in freedom of press. Since there is virtually no truthful information about the daily lives of Eritreans outside the country, I must rely on blogs and first hand horror stories from friends and family who recently lived in Eritrea. A very good friend of mine who spent much of 2009 in Asmara described how Eritreans cannot get basic supplies due to government rations. Gasoline, cooking oil, sugar, bread, and many other household basics are strictly limited per person. My friend told me a story about whenever they have other Eritreans visit, they take them to the gas station and other stores a bunch of times to collect their rations so they can survive. Eritrea is quickly becoming one of the worst Marxist oppressive societies to ever exist on the continent. The saddest tragedy of all is the forced military service. The government is currently forcing men to serve in the military and not allowing them to leave. My friend’s brother was forced to be in the military for 15 years and he had to pretend to be crazy to get out. It is said that several Eritreans are trying to escape the military by fleeing through the desert to Sudan and dying. Eritreans are not allowed to bring printers into the country because the government is worried people will print letters that will dismiss men from the military. Isaias has no incentive to end the border war with Ethiopia since it creates a great excuse for him to have a free source of labor through the military. We had another friend who was forced to be a spy against his will since he spoke fluent Amharic and he was terrified of being caught and tortured by the Ethiopians. There is very limited information about the realities of this brutality but the horror stories are there. The major supporters of Isaias seem to be some people in diaspora that really have no idea what is going on in Eritrea. Issaias was once beloved by his people and he has sourly disappointed them. Parade magazine ranks him as one of the world’s worst dictators. To make things worse, now the international community is threatening sanctions since Issaias is supporting the Muslim extremists in Somalia, when Eritreans are already struggling to get by. It is impossible to understand Issaias’ reasoning and how he justifies such oppression when he and his people sacrificed so much for freedom.
Mugabe was a political prisoner in Rhodesia for ten years in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1974, he joined the Rhodesia bush war and “emerged as a hero in the minds of many Africans”. Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s first prime minster in 1980 and then head of state in 1987. As the sole political force in Zimbabwe since independence, his government has been marked with violent oppression, massacres, and lack of political freedom. Despite Mugabe’s flaws, his people and Africans all over the continent continued to view him an African hero for liberating his country from white opressors. However, due to Mugabe’s greed and misguided policies, Zimbabweans have suffered tremendously in the last few years and he is increasingly viewed as a tyrannical old man. The state of the Zimbabwean economy has been a major factor in his decline. The economy started to struggle with Zimbabwe’s participation in the second Congo war and was magnified by his land reform program where he confiscated the majority white owned farms and redistributed them. The general concepts of his land reform plans were not bad, but Mugabe foolishly gave the land to his political cronies rather than the black Zimbabweans who had always worked the land under white ownership. Zimbabwe was always an exporter of food in the past and now 11 million Zimbabweans are on the brink of starvation. Since the farms were confiscated violently, the UK and several other countries imposed economic sanctions. In addition, he printed hundreds of trillions of Zimbabwean dollars resulting in hyperinflation of 10,500,000% in 2008, which is unheard of anywhere else. By 2008, it was clear that Mugabe had lost of the support his people and Mr. Tsvangirai gained more votes than Mugabe in the election. Officially no candidate received the required 50% of the votes to win the election but it was obvious that opposition supporters were jailed, harassed, beaten, and tortured. The runoff election was not free and fair and marred by violence. At the end of 2008 due to international pressure, Mugabe and Tsvangirai entered into a power sharing agreement; however, it was clear that Mugabe had no intention of loosening his control over the government. Mugabe’s greed for power and blind selfishness has brought his country to its knees and its a prime example of the last thing that any great man would ever want to become.
These dictators have not only tarnished their own legacies, but they have robbed their people of the great leaders they long for. I was personally struck by Museveni’s unjust third term. Before he decided to wrongfully run again, I was advocating Museveni and his party to other students (probably future leaders) at the public university, Makerere, explaining that his democratic model was much better for Uganda than a western style democracy. His one party system acted as a two party system with competition between his supporters and the reformists. I was crushed when he decided to run again and I’m sure there were a lot of other young Ugandans saddened also. The Eritrean people have undergone tremendous sacrifice for the independence of their country, only to suffer under Isaias’ oppression and do everything they can to flee the country they fought so hard for. Every Eritrean no matter what country they live in, has had relatives or friends die in the war or border conflicts with Ethiopia. And for what? Isaias’ greed? The most tragic story of them all is Mugabe. He wins the prize for the most horrible African dictator currently in power. The suffering and hardship experienced by the Zimbabwean people in the last two years has been unimaginable. Some would argue that Zimababweans were doing better during colonial times, which is difficult to imagine. The longer these dictators stay in power, the more they will be hated and destroy the prospects of their nations becoming great democracies someday. The people of their countries deserve better and so do their generations to come.