Over the last four years, Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Angola, Gambia, and Algeria have all had their forever presidents fall from power. Collectively, these six presidents spent 188 years in office. What has kept many of them in power for so long was the abolition and/or manipulation of constitutional term limits, the rigging of elections, gross human rights violations, and a lack of governmental transparency. With many countries seeing their long-standing authoritarian regimes change, how will the United States respond to new leaders that might look to remain in power indefinitely?
Since decolonization, Africa has seen its fair share of political strongmen come and go. Forever presidents have caused harm to millions through political repression and deprived their nations of billions of dollars through economic mismanagement. However, since 2011, many of these leaders, for example Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and Chad’s President Idris Deby, were either forced from office through elections, term limits, or they passed away while serving as president. The majority — six out of ten — were ousted by popular uprisings. These rare changes in leadership present a timely opening for the United States to demonstrate its commitment to democratic values in these and other countries globally.
During Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, he presented plans to hold a global Summit for Democracy within his first year in office. To show that the United States is adjusting its relationship with global democracies, the summit intends to reinvigorate champions of democracy and address the critical democratic backsliding taking place around the world. Details of the Summit for Democracy have yet to be released, but it looks to reposition U.S. diplomacy in the direction of democracy promotion. This summit, if it takes place at all, will come at a time when we see a global decline in democracy and a rise in authoritarianism. In order to address democratic backsliding, the United States will need to do more than hold a summit on democracy, it will need to act by ending its tacit support for authoritarians and forever presidents anywhere in the world.
Some of the U.S.’s closest democratic African allies like Uganda and Nigeria are experiencing pervasive setbacks in their democracies. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who has been in office since 1986, is an example of a leader who has sustained strong relations with the United States despite being such an anti-democratic figure. The United States recently took a harder stance against President Museveni by applying targeted sanctions against Museveni’s regime for human rights violations committed during Uganda’s presidential election. President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria recently banned Twitter in the country after the social media company removed his tweet that encouraged violence. This direct attack on the freedom of speech and expression comes after gross human rights violations committed by the Buhari administration during the ENDSARS movement in 2020. After reports of Nigerian soldiers killing protestors, the United States has done little to hold President Buhari and the Nigerian government accountable for the Lekki Toll Gate massacre.
African governance monitoring indexes have indicated that freedoms in the democratic process are regressing on the continent. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation Index of African Governance’s participation, rights, and inclusion score has reached a nine-year low. This figure — which measures political pluralism, civil society space, and personal liberties across Africa — has been on a downward trend since 2012. A recent African Peer Review Mechanism annual report details how, despite reforms to safeguard constitutions, presidents often overpower reforms to remain in power past their constitutional limits.
The United States needs a new policy approach to address anti-democratic leaders. This means tying prospective trade, aid, and security assistance efforts to the democratic practices and good governance within a country. A greater emphasis on assisting and monitoring the development of strong institutions within our democratic allies is paramount in addressing authoritarians globally. Limiting strategic aid would allow the United States to leverage its partnerships in favor of democratic values and strong institutions. Significantly reducing U.S. assistance over democratic backsliding will send a clear message that the United States will no longer tolerate repressive regimes in aid recipient countries like Tanzania and Zambia.
The international community also shares responsibility in sustaining the longevity of strongmen around the world as it often accepts poor democratic behavior by heads of state. A reduction in U.S. aid coupled with unified targeted sanctions from the United Nations and the European Union will have a greater chance of altering the attitude and actions of oppressive regimes. Targeted sanctions will put more pressure on anti-democratic leaders while sparing the local economy of civil societies that bear the brunt of non-targeted sanctions.
Though the actions on January 6th in the U.S. Capitol highlighted the U.S.’s continued struggles with democracy at home, the United States can still be a champion for democracy abroad while mending its own democratic rift at home. To revitalize democracy in the 21st century, pressure must be put on authoritarians and forever presidents who seek to undermine democracy. At the Summit for Democracy, the United States must signal that it will not stand idly by while autocrats reverse democratic progress. With many African countries currently being governed by first-term presidents, the transitional focus must be on solidifying democratic values, especially since their predecessors have had a stronghold on their respective countries for 20+ years.