While the old world seems to be ending, Africa is beginning

Thursday January 11 2018

A man raises his fist as he chants slogans during a demonstration on July 24, 2017 outside Istanbul's courthouse.

A man raises his fist as he chants slogans during a demonstration on July 24, 2017 outside Istanbul's courthouse, where journalists and directors of Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet are on trial. PHOTO | BULENT KILIC | AFP 

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The world is changing “bigly”. Take, for example, the results of a new poll conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that ranked US President Donald Trump, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt as some of the world’s leading oppressors of press freedom and free speech.

Also in that club is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar) and Andrzej Duda of Poland.

If this poll had been done 25 years ago, it would have looked very different with African and Latin American strongmen making a stronger showing than they are doing today.

In fact, in the last few days, Ethiopia, once the leading jailor of journalists, made a surprise announcement that it was going to release several political prisoners and close a prison notorious for torture in order to “widen the democratic space for all”.

It is hoped that the country’s long-suffering journalists might benefit from this unlikely opening.


And, as if to illustrate that Addis Ababa never lost its sense of humour, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the Mae’kelawi prison would be converted into a museum.

In Zimbabwe, in what has been called “barracks democracy”, in November, the military ended President Robert Mugabe’s disastrous 37-year rule, giving the country’s media a small break.

In 1988, when I was a very young man, I bought a book that was causing waves then. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, by Paul Kennedy, was a 1,200-page or so tome that had been published the previous year.

Because then I had no responsibilities, I locked myself in the house over Christmas and read it all.

One of Kennedy’s most controversial theses was that American power was on the wane, much as had happened with previous global powers such as the Romans and the British.


It sounded outrageous, considering that the Soviet Union was in the throes of death and the US looked poised to straddle the world like a colossus.

Yet, here we are today, and Kennedy’s prognosis no longer looks like a long shot. Liberia’s outgoing President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (and half of Africa’s leaders) is considerably less frightening than Trump.

Many ideas about the world that we had held to firmly continue to tumble. A few of them continue to be true.

For example, that the Middle East is generally not fertile ground for democracy. Even Israel, which sees itself as the only democracy in the region, torments its Arab population and is a cruel occupier of Palestinian lands.

Thus, it was held that economic prosperity usually leads to liberal democracy.

China tells us that that is not necessarily true. While social freedoms have opened in China, the Communist Party keeps its boot firmly on the necks of media and political freedoms.

Poland has become more repressive when it’s rich than when it was poorer in the early years of its post-communist life in the 1990s.

The bottom of global poverty rankings is still dominated by African countries.


However, many of them — such as Mali, Liberia, Guinea and Burkina Faso — are far freer than Russia, Turkey and, possibly, Poland, right now.

Within Africa, we are also seeing both strange and exciting developments.

For example, the two places that are most likely to hold truly free elections in Africa today are the Somali breakaway republics of Puntland and Somaliland, which are not internationally recognised.

There are also three countries, where either the president or his family have ruled for nearly 40 years, that are restless.

It seems there was again a coup attempt a few days ago in Equatorial Guinea against Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been dictator there for 38 years.


In Cameroon, strongman Paul Biya, in power for 34 years, is facing separatist insurrection in the south of the country and is beginning to look wobbly.

In Togo, Faure Gnassingbe — who between him and his ruthless father Gnassingbe Eyadema, whom he succeeded in 2005, have ruled for over 50 years now — has been besieged by pro-democracy protests for nearly a year now.

If all those three fall this year, for the first time in modern times, over 75 per cent of Africa could live in freedom by this time next year.

You couldn’t have bet on that two years ago.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter: @cobbo3