How the US Fuels Authoritarianism in the Horn of Africa

Gathering world leaders for a cause is seldom an easy task. Last month, Paris saw one of the biggest solidarity displays after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. The Paris events were so shocking internationally because they targeted one of the bastions necessary for any functioning democracy: freedom of expression. But while joining the #JeSuisCharlie march might have been good publicity for many governments, the reality is that the majority of journalists and activists in the world face tremendous pressure and are subject to censorship from those same leaders. A new type of authoritarianism is emerging at the global level characterized by autocratic leaders that hold on to power by crippling the opposition and organizing sham elections, while legitimizing their rule through a narrative of security and extolling their strategic importance for the U.S.

Since the second part of the 20th century, democratization has been the dominating doctrine on the world’s agenda. Liberal democracies became the benchmark for most political systems, with the idea that economic growth, social development, and human rights would follow suit. Optimism grew as more countries around the world seemed to be adopting democratic processes and putting in the rearview mirror the days of military dictatorships. This narrative evolved to such a point that now only three countries in the world openly accept they are not a democracy. However, in many cases democracy came only in the form of elections than with the complex institutions and processes that are needed.

That is the case in many countries in Africa, often with the backing of the United States and its endless crusade against terrorism. Under the guise of enforcing bilateral ties with strategically placed African countries, Washington has kept in power and has actively supported some of the worst dictators in the world.

Political rights have improved considerably in Africa; almost 1 billion people in the continent are expected to vote in their national elections. The problem is that elections in Africa do not necessarily produce representative governments. While there are indeed success stories, the continent’s democratic track record is rather superficial in most cases; the citizens barely have any influence on leadership beyond casting a vote. This new form of authoritarianism provides the citizen – and international observers- with a facade that electoral democracies are flourishing, even if in reality traditional power elites monopolize all the institutions and resources that are required for a democracy to thrive,

African leaders have become specialists in disguising dictatorships in shiny democratic clothes. A party led by the same man for over 30 years and winning 98% of the legislative seats is not a proof of great leadership but a clear manipulation of the pillars of democracy.

Silent Horn

Reporters without Borders rank Eritrea at the bottom of its 2015 World Press Freedom Index , while neighboring Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti rank 174, 172, and 170 respectively out of a total of 180 countries. Ethiopia has the second most journalists in exile after Iran. What can explain this unfortunate convergence? The growing threat of al-Shabaab terrorists in Africa and the slow disintegration of Yemen on the other side of the coast have caught the attention of the US which has sought to befriend East Africa’s nasty leaders. Smelling the opportunity, the governments passed harsh anti-terrorism laws that were then used to imprison journalists or political activists. Labeling any dissident opinion as a security threat while also impeding the work of independent media outlets has given the governments of the region the monopoly of every election with virtually no opposition.

The Ethiopian People`s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has won every election since 1995, Meles Zewani claimed victory in 4 consecutive elections until his death in 2012. Zewani ruled the country for 21 years with the EPRDF winning over 80% of the seats at a 90% voter turnout average. While international observers often qualified the elections as "free and fair" they seldom give any explanations as to why would a man that had kept the country sunk in poverty – Ethiopia’s GDP per capita is 500 USD – had never faced opposition.

The next elections will be held this year and will be the first under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalgen, whose government charged 29 prominent activists and leaders in 2012 under a 2009 Anti-Terrorism law. The ERPDF`s censorship is not restricted to national media, foreign outlets like Voice of America and Deutsche Welle are routinely targeted in Addis Ababa, their personnel have received death threats and their satellite transmissions are often jammed. The country is a strategic ally of the U.S., which operates a key drone base in Arba Minch and receives roughly half a billion dollars per year in aid.

Dangerous liaisons

Just like Ethiopia, Djibouti is ranked among the most repressive countries in the world according to most international statistics. The state controls all radio and television channels while opposition voices often face arrest. Like its neighbor, the US military maintains a massive drone base in the Camp Lemonnier facility.

Djiboutian president Ismael Omar Guelleh came to power in 1999 after being handpicked by his uncle who ruled unopposed for 22 years. After changing the constitution to be able to run for a third term, Guelleh has been re-elected twice. In the 2011 elections Guelleh won 80% of the votes after forbidding all demonstrations and prosecuting opposition leaders.

Apart for their economic interests, Ethiopia and Djibouti also coincide in their approach to treat political opposition as "terrorists". In 2009, the Djiboutian government slapped terrorism charges on the Dubai-based business man Abdourahman Boreh, accusing him of planning a grenade attack in the capital. Boreh`s assets were then frozen until November last year when the charges were questioned by a UK court. Boreh insist that the charges were politically motivated as Guelleh perceived him to be a viable political adversary.

Djibouti has capitalized on its strategic location to attract many foreign military bases, ensuring the steady investment of foreign governments who prefer to disregard the constant violations of human rights in the country. The newly enforced partnership between Djibouti and Ethiopia with the US will only consolidate modern authoritarianism as a staple of the region.

David Berggren is a Swedish security consultant currently based in New York. He spent the past 10 years working in several countries in Africa as a security adviser mainly working for NGOs.