The African Lions: An Authoritarian Challenge to Development Theory

Addis_Abeba-07122011 Michelle Sieff in World Politics Review:

Since 1995, Africa has experienced high rates of economic growth, averaging 5-6 percent annually. Media coverage usually focuses on countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya — high-growth countries where political and civil liberties are relatively well-protected. But if Asia had its “tigers,” Africa has its “lions,” countries such as the East African nations of Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda that are successfully combining political repression and economic development.

Stories from Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda rarely make it into mainstream Western publications. Those that do usually highlight the ongoing repression of journalists and opposition politicians by the governments of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Ethiopian President Melas Zenawi and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In the Western imagination, these three men are the faces of tyranny on the African continent.

There is no question that these countries' governments repress political and civil rights. Freedom House currently classifies Rwanda and Ethiopia as “not free” and Uganda as only “partly free.” None are described as “electoral democracies.” The Economist Intelligence Unit, in its 2010 Democracy Index (.pdf), described Rwanda and Ethiopia as “authoritarian regimes” and Uganda as a “hybrid regime,” as opposed to the higher rankings of “full” or “flawed” democracy.

Like countless others throughout history, these governments justify the restriction of political and civil liberties in the name of national security, though the specific threats to security differ. In Rwanda, opposition politicians and journalists are prosecuted and convicted for speech that is deemed to constitute “divisionism” and “genocide ideology” — crimes under Rwandan law. In Ethiopia, opposition supporters are intimidated as part of the government's battle against terrorism and separatist movements. In Uganda, laws against “sedition” and “sectarianism” have repeatedly been used to crack down on journalists who criticize the government.