The Last Dictators? Kazakhstan and Algeria Enter New Eras

The reigns of two long-standing dictators are, in theory, at an end. Nursultan Nazarbayev has stepped down as President of Kazakhstan having led the country since the dying days of communism in the late 1980s. In Algeria, meanwhile, the ailing and reclusive Abdelaziz Bouteflika has abandoned attempts to serve a fifth term as president after protesters took to the street to oppose him.

Algeria has been rocked by street protests in recent weeks

Both departures – should they be realised – will mark a major turning point in each country’s history and, arguably, these two dictatorships were born out of a necessity that is no longer required.

Nazarbayev has overseen Kazakhstan’s development since the Soviet Union collapsed and, until his surprise resignation, was the only president his independent nation had known. Marshaling a vast, impoverished, country into the 21st century was no mean feat and relied as much on political repression and restriction of civil liberties as it did on profitable oil and gas exports.

Nazarbayev has been accused of fostering a personality cult

Bouteflika, on the other hand, was a seasoned campaigner in Algerian politics when he ascended to the premiership in 1999 in the latter stages of a bloody civil war. Having fought the French during their brutal final stand in the Algerian War (1954-1962) he negotiated an end to the most recent conflict – one that had killed more than 150,000 people – in 2002. Amending the constitution so that he would go on to serve an unprecedented four terms, Bouteflika has generally been successful at preserving a tenuous peace in a region plagued by domestic instability and transnational terrorist violence, aided too by vast natural gas reserves.

Both Kazakhstan and Algeria are deemed ‘not free’ by the Freedom House democracy index. In line with modernisation theory, political development is put on hold until economic prosperity creates a middle class eager for greater representation. For many people¬† in both nations, Nazarbayev and Bouteflika are the only political voices they have ever known.

Is the time for democratisation now? Kazakhstan’s economic growth rate has slumped from a +8% GDP increase in the years prior to 2013 to a comparatively measly 3.9% in 2017. Algeria was used to 4% growth rates in the post-civil war years but that has since decreased to just 1.4%.

With a younger generation struggling for jobs and perhaps less indebted to the enforced ‘stability’ provided by their dictatorial masters two to three decades ago, perhaps real political change is possible.

Even the tightly-policed Kazakhstan has seen popular protests in recent years as the economy has slumped

But – and there is always a but when it comes to authoritarian rule – slow degradation is far more likely than revolution. Nazarbayev, for instance, has not gone away. He has named his successor as president, elevated his eldest daughter to the second most powerful political position in the country, and been given the honorific ‘Leader of the Nation’. The capital Astana is even being renamed Nursultan!¬†

It is somewhat different in Algeria where Bouteflika has basically been incapacitated since suffering a stroke in 2013. He has barely been seen in public since and sends delegates to official meetings and international forums. That said, it is under Bouteflika’s watch that the shady ‘Le Pouvoir’ (‘The Power’) has gained increasing informal power. It is thought that a group of military officials, politicians from the ruling National Liberation Front, and wealthy businessmen influence all key government decisions. How much sway Bouteflika has, particularly in his fragile condition, is unclear.

Bouteflika has not spoken in public since 2014

Either way, the state in Kazakhstan and Algeria has been captured by nefarious elites that will persist beyond the reigns of their figureheads. How effective people power and civil society will be in drawing concessions from them remains to be seen.

In Kazakhstan, it will likely take the death of Nursultan Nazarbayev to see whether a challenge to his daughter,and by extension her father’s legacy, will materialise. In Algeria, Le Pouvoir is unlikely to let go whilst the true extent of its reach is unknown, or until a mobilised populace rises up to sweep it away.

In an era of seeming democratic retrenchment, don’t expect these hotbeds of authoritarianism to perish with their leaders.


On the Eve of Destruction: Cameroon’s Colonial Legacy Sets Alight

With ethnic and political violence flaring around the world, and humanitarian disasters unfolding in front of our eyes, the last thing we need is a new crisis. Yet that is exactly what appears to be happening in Cameroon, traditionally seen as one of Africa’s most stable countries.

A protest in Bamenda, northwest Cameroon. The government has tried to censor information about the violence in its English-speaking regions

Thousands of people are fleeing bloodshed in the country’s English-speaking western provinces, where separatists are fighting for a new state (Ambazonia). It comes shortly before a national election, in which President Paul Biya expects to win a seventh term.

As an 85-year old who has shed all semblance of responsibility for the Anglophone part of the country, established a virtual one-party state, and is in no mood to relinquish power, Biya is reminiscent of Robert Mugabe. Still, the historic split between French and English-speaking provinces in Cameroon adds an unwanted powder keg that could ultimately explode to embroil neighbouring states in what is a particularly restive region.

The veteran Biya is a virtual dictator accused of human rights abuses

As with many of Africa’s present troubles, Cameroon’s has its roots in the colonial and post-colonial era. Having initially fall under control of the German Empire in 1884 during the ‘Scramble for Africa’, Kamerun – as it was known – was ‘liberated’ by British and French forces during World War One.

In 1919, the League of Nations – that nascent international organisation whose failings are well known – designated Kamerun an international mandate. The larger, eastern part of the country was to be administered by France as Cameroun, with the west falling under control of the British as the Cameroons.

Bananas being loaded for export to Germany in 1911

For the next four decades these separate yet inextricably linked territories were subjected to the same cultural indoctrination as France and Britain imposed on their other African colonies. This did not necessitate a disappearance of indigenous culture, only that succeeding generations grew accustomed to a certain societal existence that spilled into the independence era.

‘Freedom’ came in the early 1960s when both European powers were retreating from empire, having come to the belated realisation that the 19th century had long since past. French Cameroon secured its independence in 1960, having fought its colonisers and their local allies throughout the 1950s.

The changing face of Cameroon

In 1961, a plebiscite was held in the British Cameroons to decide on where the peoples’ future lay. The Muslim-dominant northern part of the territory joined with Nigeria, with the Christian south electing to fuse with their French-speaking neighbours in a Federal Republic of Cameroon. This became a non-federalised republic in 1972 and Paul Biya assumed power in 1982.

It is since Biya’s ascension that the seeds of Cameroon’s current woes began to be sown in earnest. An avowed Francophone with a penchant for unduly rewarding his allies, he has neglected his English-speaking people. The government in Yaounde is exclusively French-speaking and judicial officials sent to the western provinces are too.

Paul Biya with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy – the Cameroonian leader has retained a strong relationship with France

What had been a decades-long peaceful agitation for a separate state has turned into brutal violence, with civilians as usual bearing the brunt of the fighting. A relatively strong economy – in terms of Africa – has perhaps discouraged a bigger uprising until now. Commodity markets, including coffee, bananas and rubber, have provided opportunities for French and English speakers alike.

But stagnation and discrimination have fanned the flames. A national army accustomed to waging war on an arbitrary scale against terrorist groups like Boko Haram are committing atrocities reciprocated by the separatists.

It seems a simple suggestion, but why not allow a separate English-speaking state? An official return to the colonial divide could bring stability without overlordship.

Sadly, no government will willingly suffer a degradation of their nation’s sovereignty. In Paul Biya, moreover, Cameroon has a leader with nothing to lose. He has less than a decade to live, has a secure rule backed by France, and a government staffed by loyal apparatchiks. The majority of his Francophone brethren seem to offer him at least tacit support and now, in the face of an Ambazonian insurgency, he can call on them to defend the motherland.

The ironic flag of the self-declared state of Ambazonia

With the societal upheaval that endemic violence brings already evident in west Cameroon, the territory has the potential to become a haven for Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, who have been forced out of previous strongholds by regional governments, aided by their international partners.

France has the ability to put pressure on Biya but is unlikely to do so, Paris still reveling in its supposedly paternalistic relationship with its former colonies. Britain has little to zero influence in West and Central Africa these days and other global powers will be loath to embroil themselves in another far-flung catastrophe.

Watch this space…with election day looming, Cameroon is on the eve of destruction.