Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia: What to Know Before Their Referendums

Two different independence referendums are scheduled to occur within the next two weeks. The first will take place in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, and the second will take place in Catalonia on October 1. Both of these referendums are the latest developments in long independence movements, and both have potentially wide-reaching consequences. In order to understand these consequences, it is important to understand how Kurdistan and Catalonia have come the place they are now.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The location of Kurdistan in Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan comprises three provinces in northern Iraq with a population of roughly 6 million inhabitants. It is populated mostly by the Kurdish people, an ethnic group with an estimated 35 million members. Before the First World War, most Kurdish areas were under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Now, however, the Kurdish people are divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

The area inhabited by the Kurds

Kurdistan is one of the most prosperous regions in Iraq. It has large oil reserves, which contributes a steady flow of revenue. Its military wing, the Peshmerga, has been successful in fighting ISIS in Iraq. The region began to enjoy a degree of autonomy after the United States enforced a no-fly zone over Northern Iraq during the Gulf War. Since then, Iraqi Kurdistan has become the most democratic and economically developed part of the country.

As a result of Kurdistan’s relative prosperity, not to mention the statelessness of the Kurdish people, it is not surprising that the notion of independence has proven popular. A poll shows 52.9% support for “yes” as opposed to 25.6% for “no” and 17.9% for “undecided.” Despite its support among the Kurdish population, the referendum is staunchly opposed by the Iraqi government and many international actors. Iraq’s Supreme Court and Prime Minister have already demanded that the referendum be suspended, and Israel is the only country to have officially endorsed Kurdish independence.

The reason that so many foreign actors oppose the referendum is due to its possible negative ramifications. The lack of support from Baghdad makes the result of the vote unenforceable, meaning it is unlikely that a “yes” vote will actually result in independence. Nevertheless, a “yes” vote would be an important bargaining chip for the Kurdish independence movement. As a result, the governments of Turkey, Iran, and Syria fear that a successful referendum would strengthen calls for independence among their Kurdish populations, consequently compromising their territorial integrity. Numerous western governments, including the United States, oppose the referendum because they fear it may undermine unity in the Middle East, thus threatening the security situation.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum largely reflects the awkward position in which the Kurdish people has long found themselves since they were divided between four states. While a single, unified Kurdish state would theoretically be viable, the current status quo makes self-determination almost impossible. Similarly, while the relative prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan means it could potentially be a successful state, the division of the Kurdish people makes such a prospect difficult. Moving towards Kurdish independence and unity undermines the unity of the current Middle Eastern state system. Thus the world would like to promote unity in the Middle East, but doing so has so far required maintaining the division of Kurdistan.


The location of Catalonia in Spain

Catalonia is a region in Northeastern Spain with a population of 7.5 million. Centered on the the prosperous city of Barcelona, it has the largest economy of any Spanish region. It contributes over 20% of Spain’s economic output despite containing only 16% of its population. It also contributes more in tax money than it gets back, which is one of the arguments in favor of independence. Furthermore, the region has a distinctive language and culture, which has contributed to rising nationalist sentiment and has propelled Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a separatist coalition, to power in the regional government. On September 6, the regional government passed a law that a “yes” result of the referendum will be binding and will result in a declaration of independence, so the stakes of the referendum are high.

Catalonia held a non-binding referendum in 2014, and in it the voters overwhelmingly supported independence. This may be misleading, however, as it had low turnout and was boycotted by members of the opposition. Polls indicate that, although the majority of the population supports holding a referendum, it is roughly evenly split between support for and opposition to independence. This means that a “yes” vote is possible but far from guaranteed.

As a result of the possibility of losing its most industrialized region, the Spanish government feels threatened. Just as Baghdad strongly opposes the Kurdish referendum, Madrid has attempted to halt the Catalan referendum. The constitutional court ruled that the independence vote is illegal, and on September 20 Spanish police raided government offices and detained 13 senior Catalan officials. The Catalan government has nevertheless pressed on with its preparations for the vote, prompting a crisis.

At the moment, it is not certain whether or not the referendum will even be able to take place amid such vehement opposition by the Spanish government. Furthermore, even if Catalonia votes “yes” to independence, the Spanish government would likely contest the legitimacy of the vote and take steps to prevent Catalan secession. Catalonia, therefore, is in an awkward position just like Iraqi Kurdistan. It seems to be on a road toward even greater confrontation.


Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia have both scheduled independence referendums within the next two weeks, but whether or not they will actually occur is not certain. Furthermore, that they will result in independence is not only uncertain, but unlikely. Unlike the Scottish independence referendum, these two regions do not have the support of their respective central governments. That means that, while independence has been called for in response to numerous legitimate problems facing the people of Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, it cannot come without causing problems of its own.

Protests in Togo: 50 Years in the Making

On Tuesday, the Israel-Africa summit, scheduled to be held in Togo in late October, was postponed indefinitely. Last week, the Togolese government shut down the internet. Clearly, things are amiss in this small, West African country. The cause of these upheavals is the country’s most significant political protests since 2005. Hundreds of thousands of Togolese citizens are taking to the streets to demand constitutional reform and protest the rule of Faure Gnassingbé, who rose to power after his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, died. Eyadéma took control of Togo in 1967, meaning his family has controlled the country for 50 years. Unfortunately, five decades of experience has not taught the Gnassingbé dynasty how to improve the lives of its citizens. As a result, Togo’s people are demanding change.

Togo is a small country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin. It is fairly densely populated, with just under 8 million citizens living in an area about the size of Croatia and slightly smaller than West Virginia. Togo was colonized by Germany during the “Scramble for Africa,” but, after Germany lost its colonies following its defeat in WWI, it was divided between Britain and France. What is now called Togo is what was once the French portion. After WWII, European empires began to collapse, granting independence to their colonies. Togo was no exception, becoming independent from France in 1960.

The location of Togo in West Africa

For its first three years as an independent state, Togo was led by Sylvanus Olympio. In 1963, however, Olympio was assassinated and overthrown in post-colonial Africa’s first of many military coups d’état. Gnassingbé Eyadéma was instrumental in that coup d’état, and it is widely believed that he is the one who fired the bullet that killed Olympio. Eyadéma would not become president until 1967, however, after another coup d’état. His rule, which lasted from 1967 until his death in 2005, was characterized by authoritarian tendencies and economic stagnation.

Gnassingbé Eyadéma

Although Eyadéma was not unusually cruel, he ruled his country as a dictator. He established a one-party state and harassed members of the opposition. Disappearances and political assassinations were not uncommon. Eyadéma belonged to the Kabye people, a minority ethnic group making up only 12% of the population. During Eyadéma’s rule, however, 70% of the armed forces were Kabye. Over time, Eyadéma’s supremacy gradually weakened. In 1979, he transitioned away from military dictatorship towards civilian rule. The 1990s were characterized by a power struggle between Eyadéma and the opposition, and the struggle at times turned violent. In 1992, domestic and international pressure forced Eyadéma to accept a new constitution, which included presidential term limits. As a result, although Eyadéma managed to hold on to power, his power was no longer absolute.

Faure Gnassingbé

By 2002, however, Eyadéma had succeeded in removing term limits, allowing him to win an additional term in 2003. That term was his last. In 2005, Eyadéma passed away at the age of 69, and the military installed his son, Faure Gnassingbé, as president. This was a violation of the constitution and was called a coup by international observers. It sparked massive, nationwide protests and a violent crackdown by the military. As a result, Gnassingbé agreed to step down and stand in elections, which he won. He has run the country since then, and it is his rule that is currently being protested.

Similarly to his father, Gnassingbé has thwarted democratic norms. In 2015, the regional economic bloc ECOWAS proposed imposing term limits in all of its member states. Togo and The Gambia were the only two out of 15 countries that opposed the measure, and it consequently failed to pass. Now that The Gambia has a new president, Togo is the only country in ECOWAS opposed to term limits. Gnassingbé has also failed to develop his country’s economy. Most of the population depends on subsistence agriculture, and 42% of the GDP is derived from agriculture. Structurally, the economy remains poorly developed. As a result, it has low standards of living: its Human Development Index (HDI) is ranked 166th in the world and shows little growth.

Lomé, the capital of Togo

This is the context in which protests have again erupted. The Togolese protesters want term limits. They want constitutional and electoral reform. They have a government with 50 years of experience clinging to power but very little experience improving standards of living. The government shows no sign of changing, which means standards of living show no sign of changing. That is why so many people are protesting. If Faure Gnassingbé’s rule had brought significant improvement to the lives of Togo’s citizens, the citizens would have little to protest about. But his rule has had little positive effect, which means its continuation would similarly bring little progress.

Thus the protesters are teaching Gnassingbé a lesson that leaders around the world have learned time and time again: that the best way to maintain power is to positively impact standards of living. China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States have all learned this lesson, and they have consequently been able to maintain authoritarian political systems. 50 years should have been more than enough time for the Gnassingbé dynasty to learn this lesson. So far, however, it has not.

Why a Domestic Debate in Nigeria Matters Internationally

In the space of only two days, two events have occurred in Nigeria which highlight an issue that is both a symptom of its past and fundamental to its future. On Thursday, political leaders belonging to the Yoruba ethnic group held a summit in which they endorsed “restructuring,” a term that refers to an initiative to decentralize power away from the federal government. On Friday, Nigeria’s army announced that it would launch an operation called “Python Dance II” in the country’s southeast. Both of these events are concerned with tensions between Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups—tensions that will begin to matter internationally as Nigeria leverages its massive population to achieve regional dominance.

Nigeria, located in West Africa, is by far Africa’s largest country in terms of population. With 192 million inhabitants, it is much larger than Ethiopia, which comes in second with 104 million. Furthermore, Nigeria is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s third most populous country by 2050. This massive population, coupled with its position as sub-saharan Africa’s largest oil producer, makes Nigeria the continent’s largest economy. Thus the country is already very influential, and it has the potential to become a regional hegemon. To reach that potential, however, it will have to reckon with a wide range of social issues.

The location of Nigeria in Africa

The Yoruba summit and the launch of operation Python Dance II attempt to address one of these social issues: how to govern 192 million people divided into 389 ethnic groups, three of which dominate different parts of the country. Restructuring is one strategy. It seeks to empower Nigeria’s states or regions to the point that they are responsible for the majority of decision-making. Although Nigeria is currently a federal state by name, the central government remains the locus of power in practice. Restructuring would change that, stripping the federal government of most of its powers beyond foreign policy, defense, and macroeconomic objectives.

If restructuring is seen as representing one possible path for Nigeria’s future, operation Python Dance II can be seen as representing the opposite. The operation—led by the army, an institution of the central government—is meant to repress “criminals and agitators” and promote rule of law in the southeastern part of Nigeria, which attempted to secede from the federation in the late 1960s. Thus the operation can be seen as an attempt to preserve Nigeria’s unity by forcefully imposing the authority of an institution of the federal government. Restructuring, on the other hand, attempts to preserve the country’s unity by accommodating the demands of its various groups. 

Although the rationales behind both calls for restructuring and centralized military operations are focused on the path of Nigeria’s future, the fundamental debate behind the degree of centralization is largely a relic of its past. During the pre-colonial period, Nigeria was the site of numerous centralized kingdoms, but none of these covered the entirety of the country. The Oyo Empire was a powerful, highly urbanized state in the southwestern part of modern Nigeria, and it was dominated by the Yoruba people. The Sokoto caliphate dominated the northern part of the country, and it was populated mostly by the Muslim Hausa people. The southeastern part of the country, centered on the delta of the Niger river, was governed by the Igbo-dominated Nri Kingdom.

Linguistic groups in Nigeria

Thus the three dominant ethnic groups of Nigeria have a long history of political independence, largely due to the viable states they were able to form as a result of their high population densities. When Nigeria became independent from the United Kingdom in 1960, its political system reflected its multipolar makeup: it was governed by a federation that decentralized power to the different regions. From the outset, however, divisions between the country’s three primary regions caused conflict. The north and southwest entered into a coalition government in 1965, isolating the Igbo southeast. As a result, a group of Igbo military leaders overthrew the government in 1966.

Later that year, a group of northern military leaders led counter-coup, which resulted in a government dominated by the north. Igbos living in the north were massacred and persecuted. In 1967, Igbo leaders declared independence from Nigeria, establishing the Republic of Biafra. This led to the Nigerian civil war, which resulted in famine and humanitarian catastrophe. Ultimately, the secessionists were defeated. After the war, Nigeria was ruled by a series of military dictatorships that preferred a centralized political system to the federation that had existed before the war. Although the country has been ruled by a civilian government since 1999, the centralized political system has remained.

The location of the breakaway Republic of Biafra in Nigeria

This context is crucial in understanding the current debate within Nigeria. When Nigerian politicians talk of restructuring, they mean a return to the pre-1966 system—a true federation. When the military is deployed to control “agitators” in the southeast, it undoubtedly conjures images of the suppression of Biafra. In fact, partly because most of the country’s oil wealth comes from the southeast, Igbo nationalism is still very much alive. Furthermore, traditional leaders of pre-colonial states still wield symbolic powers, and religious tension between the Muslim north and Christian south is evident. Thus the divisions that plagued Nigeria after its independence remain influential today, informing modern political discussions. 

Although such divisions and the political question of how to administer them may seem irrelevant outside of domestic Nigerian politics, domestic Nigerian politics will undoubtedly become more and more important in international affairs. Lagos is Africa’s largest city and a business hub. Nigerian businesses have a massive potential domestic market and are aggressively expanding overseas. The Nigerian military is the most powerful in West Africa. As Africa continues to grow economically and in population, it will rise in influence on the world stage. And Nigeria, with the largest population and economy of all, will lead this rise. How the country manages to maintain unity among its massive populace will therefore have implications far beyond its borders.

How Kenya’s Supreme Court Strengthened Democracy

In a 4-2 decision on Friday, Kenya’s Supreme Court annulled the results of the country’s August 8 presidential election, requiring a new one to be held within the next 2 months. The opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, accused the country’s electoral commission of widespread vote manipulation after the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, won a second term with with 54% of the vote. Odinga had previously challenged the results of the 2013 and 2007 elections, claiming electoral fraud, but this is the first time that a court has annulled the results of an election upon the initiative of the opposition in Kenya—and in Africa as a whole.

Although Kenya has had democratic transfers of power in the past, its democracy is far from perfect. Thus a fraudulent electoral commission is well within the realm of possibility, as is a politically biased court ruling. So is the Supreme Court staffed with politicized “crooks,” as claimed by Kenyatta, or has the electoral commission “committed criminal acts,” as claimed by Odinga? The evidence indicates that the electoral commission was, in fact, at fault, and that the court ruling is a positive development for Kenya and African democracy in general by targeting the less obvious threats to democracy. 

The location of Kenya in Africa

Kenya, located in East Africa, is a densely populated country with around 49 million inhabitants. With a robust service sector, high level of industrialization relative to its neighbors, and a healthy tourism industry as a result of its natural beauty, Kenya is the economic hub of East Africa. The country was a British colony until 1963, after which it was led by Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru Kenyatta’s father. Since then, Kenya has progressed similarly to a number of African countries. It has developed functional democratic institutions, but, to quote Freedom House, these are “seriously undermined by pervasive corruption and cronyism, police brutality, and ethnic rivalries that are exploited by political leaders.”

Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and the economic heart of East Africa

In both Kenya and elsewhere, elections became a fusion of democracy and corruption. Voters get to cast their ballots, but elections are often marred by irregularities. In Rwanda, for example, the incumbent gained a ridiculous 98.79% of the vote. Last year in Gabon, vote rigging was more subtle, with only one region reporting unrealistic results. Also in Gabon, and in many countries like it, the judiciary was stacked with judges loyal to the incumbent, meaning it turned a blind eye to the irregularities. Although Kenya has a stronger democracy than Rwanda and Gabon, it and countries like it have been plagued with similar issues in the past. Most of these issues, however, are not overt autocratic institutions. Rather, they are subtle attacks on democratic institutions that tilt the playing field in favor of the incumbent.

According to Al Jazeera, “the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] conceded that they did not use the electronic transmission system they were required to, and instead relied on text messages and photographs of manually filled forms as sources of information.” In fact, the man responsible for the electronic transmission system was murdered in July. Questions were also raised when “a number of the forms provided by the IEBC also didn’t have serial numbers or bar codes, and some were simple lined paper with numbers scrawled on them.” Thus the election was clearly marred by irregularities.

What was not clear, however, was any evidence showing that the irregularities were part of a coordinated effort to aid Kenyatta or had an effect on the outcome of the election. Thus the election was not an overt case of vote-rigging. That is why the court ruling was so important. It shows that intent and politics became irrelevant; the existence of irregularities in and of itself was seen as a justification for nullification. Regardless of whether the irregularities were malicious or had an effect on the election’s outcome, the fact remains the election was deeply flawed due to institutional weakness. That this fact alone was enough to annul the election is of immense consequence.

It is of consequence for two reasons: it is a sign of judicial independence and acknowledges that not all threats to democracy are overt. First, the fact that the Supreme Court annulled the victory of an incumbent is an important sign of the separation of powers between the executive branch and the judicial branch. This means that the judicial branch can act independently as an effective check on the power of the legislature and the executive. Yesterday, Kenyatta declared that the Supreme Court was a “problem” that he hoped to “fix.” While such rhetoric is dangerous because it threatens to erode the independence of the court, the fact that the court isn’t already “fixed” is a positive reflection on the health of Kenya’s democracy.

Furthermore, this ruling recognizes that less conspicuous tactics to erode the effectiveness of democratic institutions can be just as dangerous as a faked election. It shows that the electoral commission is expected to hold elections that are not just free and fair, but also well-run and of a high quality. The ultimate effect of this is that indirect attempts to sway the results of the election will become more difficult. When only direct threats to democracy are targeted, less obvious threats are allowed to remain. By remaining independent and tackling any and all irregularities, Kenya’s Supreme Court is targeting these less obvious threats. That is a victory for Kenyan democracy.

The Rohingya Conflict and Aung San Suu Kyi

In a continuation of months of violence, reports indicate that at least 100 have been killed and 18,500 have fled to Bangladesh after clashes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. According the Human Rights Watch, satellite images show widespread burning and destruction. The most recent clashes began on Friday when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked dozens of police posts, checkpoints, and a military base in Rakhine State. The events of Tuesday appear to be the military’s retaliation to these attacks, and they are the latest manifestation of violence against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.

The location of Rakhine State in Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is a country of about 50 million in Southeast Asia. It has had a long and troubled relationship with its Rohingya minority. The Rohingya, who live primarily in a coastal area near the border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh, have long suffered persecution at the hands of the region’s dominant Buddhists. The government refuses to grant them citizenship, leaving them stateless, and they have suffered violent attacks. In 2012, riots killed around 170 civilians and tens of thousands were displaced. In 2015, at least 100,000 Rohingya migrated from Myanmar en masse. In October of last year, clashes with the government resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Rohingya civilians. Human rights organizations have called the atrocities “crimes against humanity,” and some have accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing.

The violence has received little attention from Myanmar’s government, which began a transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy in 2011. In 2016, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide electoral victory in the country’s first truly fee election, tilting the balance of power in the country away from the military. As a champion of democracy, many in the international community expected Suu Kyi to speak out against the persecution of the Rohingya. Instead, she has done little to address the issue and denied UN investigators entrance to the region, eliciting global condemnation. Headlines like “Aung San Suu Kyi: The Failure,” “Aung San Suu Kyi: Still a Noble Democracy Champion?” and “Aung San Suu Kyi: From human rights heroine to alienated icon,” fill the internet.

A camp for Rohingya refugees

The reason that the international community had such high expectations for Suu Kyi is rooted in Myanmar’s modern history, as is the reason she has failed to meet those expectations. In 1962, a general named Ne Win overthrew the Burmese government and established a military dictatorship. His economic policies, which he called the “Burmese Way to Socialism” and which advocated Burmese self-sufficiency, isolated the country from the global economy and forced millions into poverty. Myanmar became one of the world’s poorest and most repressive countries. Ne Win’s dictatorship was overthrown after disastrous monetary policies rendered the currency worthless in 1988, but it was replaced by yet another military junta.

The new government was called the “State Law and Order Restoration Council,” and it continued the repressive policies of its predecessor. It was during this time period that Aung San Suu Kyi became active in Myanmar as an advocate for democracy and non-violence. She founded the NLD in 1988, and she led her party to victory in a 1990 general election. The military junta, however, refused to acknowledge the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. As a result of her sacrifices in opposition to the abusive military junta, she was effectively canonized by the global human rights establishment, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest in 2010 as the military junta made preparations to transition to a democratic system of government. It drafted a “roadmap to democracy” that included a new constitution. That constitution, however, was careful to ensure that the military remained a powerful political force. It reserved twenty five percent of the seats in the legislature for military officials, and it also required that many powerful ministries of the executive branch be controlled by the military as well. Nevertheless, the NLD was allowed to win the 2016 election, and Aung San Suu Kyi became the de-facto leader of the country. Much of the international community responded with jubilation and hopefulness, expecting Suu Kyi’s reputation as a human rights crusader to translate into positive change in the country. Now, her former champions are condemning her as she fails to address the violence against the Rohingya.

Aung San Suu Kyi: from political prisoner to head of state

The root of the international community’s harsh condemnation of Suu Kyi is largely the result of two characteristics described above: her canonization as a darling of the international human rights community and the power that the military retains over the state. The continuing influence of the military is a significant threat to Suu Kyi’s power, and she is incentivized to remain on the military’s good side by refusing to speak out against the atrocities. It is widely recognized that politicians must change their ways and compromise their principles once they begin to work within the constraints of the political system, and Myanmar’s political system is still deeply flawed as a result of years of dictatorship and the continuing influence of the military. Electing a party with “democracy” in the name is not enough to fix those flaws. Add this to the fact that conflicts as complex as the Rohingya crisis take years to resolve, and it becomes clear that Suu Kyi was doomed to fall short of international expectations from the start.

Furthermore, once Suu Kyi came to be seen an icon, she was no longer seen for what she is: a human and a politician. While there is no denying that she did amazing work, much of her image can be seen as a projection of the international community’s hopes. And reality is rarely as pretty as a projection. Now, of course, her image is transforming into the international community’s projection of disappointment, failure, and betrayal. Both, however, are projections, meaning neither is a fair representation of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her successes did not make her a saint, and her failures do not make her a villain.

None of the arguments above are meant to defend Suu Kyi or absolve her from criticism. Her inaction has rightly been criticized as contradictory to the values she long fought for. That said, both her canonization and demonization by the international community show a tendency to sacrifice intellectual rigor for oversimplified archetypes. The hero and the villain are two very compelling narratives, but there is almost always more to the story.

How Much Will the Election Change Angola?

Angola went to the polls on Wednesday in a general election that, when the results are released in the coming days, will likely prove to be both transformative and inconsequential. It will be transformative because Angola’s incumbent president, José Eduardo dos Santos, has decided not to stand as his party’s candidate, meaning this election will bring an end to his 38 year tenure. It will likely be inconsequential, however, because the result was decided when dos Santos hand-picked João Lourenço to be his successor in December, long before voters went to the polls. Thus this election marks a transition of power that will unquestionably bring change to Angola. What is questionable, on the other hand, is how much change it will bring.

The location of Angola in Africa

Angola, a large country of about 29 million inhabitants on Africa’s Southwestern coast, has been led by José Eduardo dos Santos since 1979. The country became independent from Portugal in 1975, but it immediately thereafter plunged into a civil war as rival groups fought to control it. It was ultimately dos Santos’ political party, the marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), that formed the government. The war dragged on, however, eventually becoming a proxy of the Cold War, as the main rebel group, UNITA, continued to fight with the support of the United States and South Africa. The war finally came to an end in 2002, when UNITA’s leader was killed and the group turned itself into a political party.

The first post-civil war elections came in 2008, and UNITA, transformed into the largest opposition party, won only 10% of the vote and 16 seats, as opposed to the MPLA’s 82% and 191 seats. Another vote in 2012 yielded similar results, with UNITA winning 32 seats and the MPLA 175. Part of the MPLA’s massive lead can be attributed to its repressive policies. According to Freedom House, suppression of protests, restrictions on freedom of speech, and unequal access to state-owned media all contributed to the MPLA’s electoral advantage. When dos Santos announced he would retire from politics in March 2016, it was widely acknowledged that his repressive political system would endure. As a result, Lourenço, as the MPLA’s candidate, likely benefitted from repression as much as dos Santos did, which is why he is widely expected to become the next president of Angola. 

Besides the enduring specter of political repression, there is another reason to expect continuity in Angola’s governing system. An economic reason. Since the end of the civil war, Angola has undergone an economic boom. It is now Africa’s second-largest oil producer (after Nigeria), resulting in a massive windfall for the country, especially its elite class. Although living standards have risen for the general population, the improvement has been modest considering the massive wealth that has been funneled to the top. Dos Santos’ daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is Africa’s richest woman with a net worth of 3.5 billion dollars and stake in a wide array of businesses. In June of 2016, the elder dos Santos appointed his daughter as the head of Sonangol, Angola’s state-run oil company, giving her control of the country’s source of wealth. Thus the elder dos Santos, despite giving up the presidency, is still essentially in control of Angola’s economy. Add that to the fact that he’ll still be the chairman of the MPLA, and he is set to remain the most powerful man in Angola for years to come.

Considering Angola’s economic and political situation, the country’s decision makers have both the incentive and the means to maintain the status quo. If Lourenço is declared the winner, then, change will likely be minimal. As long as Lourenço keeps the money flowing towards the top, he will likely be able to remain popular among the ruling class. Whether such a status quo will remain sustainable, however, is questionable. As a result of falling oil prices, the Angolan economy has stalled. According to the Financial Times, Sonangol made profits of 3.1 billion dollars in 2013, but that fell to 400 million dollars in 2016. Inflation reached over 40%, eroding living standards. The majority of the population, having gained little from the country’s oil wealth, already lives in poverty. A third lives on under 2 dollars per day. The economic crisis will only worsen the situation.

Luanda, the capital of Angola, is graced with glittering skyscrapers and tower cranes.
Most of the population, however, lives in low-income suburbs like this one.

Understandably, people are growing impatient. While the MPLA is expected to win, it is also expected to lose millions of voters as the population airs its frustration with rampant corruption. A poll indicated that 91% of respondents believe the MPLA to be primarily self-interested, and it showed support for the MPLA crumbling. In a repressive political system like Angola’s, in which a victory for the ruling party is nearly inevitable, this is the clearest sign as any that the MPLA has grown unpopular. Perhaps in the past, the MPLA was able to enrich itself while marginally improving living standards enough to maintain popularity. In the midst of an economic crisis, however, such an option is no longer on the table.

That brings us back to question posed at the beginning of this article. Given that dos Santos is retiring but his political system isn’t, how much change will occur in the event of a likely Lourenço victory? The most likely answer is, in the short-run, not much. But in the long-run, Lourenço will probably be forced to make difficult choices about Angola’s future, and, with a less personal stake in Angola’s economy, he will likely make those choices differently than dos Santos would have. So a Lourenço presidency wouldn’t make much of a difference tomorrow, but it probably will in the years to come.

João Lourenço, the likely future president of Angola

Venezuela’s Democracy: Killed By Ideological Purity

Venezuela’s slide toward dictatorship neared completion on Friday when the country’s newly-formed constituent assembly took full legislative powers, effectively rendering powerless the democratically elected National Assembly. The 545-member constituent assembly, which was formed to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, was created by Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela. Its members were elected on July 30 in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition and is largely considered fraudulent, resulting in the election of a body that is completely loyal to Maduro. As a result, the legislature is now under Maduro’s control, squashing the last check on his power. As country that, with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, was once South Ameica’s richest, Venezuela’s recent history is a perfect example of the danger of prioritizing ideological purity above all else

The location of Venezuela in South America

This development is merely the most recent in a litany of authoritarian moves by Maduro’s regime, especially since the opposition won control of the National Assembly in 2015. In March, Venezuela’s highest court, which is loyal to Maduro, usurped the power of the National Assembly. This sparked massive protests, which forced Maduro to reverse the court’s decision. Thus Maduro has been aiming to stifle the National Assembly for quite some time, and the creation of the constituent assembly can be seen as his latest—and most successful—attempt at doing so.

Before that, in October 2016, electoral officials loyal to Maduro blocked the opposition’s attempt to hold a recall election. According to the Venezuelan constitution, presidents cannot be impeached, but they can be removed from office by recall elections if the opposition gathers a petition with enough signatures. The government blocked the opposition’s ability to gather signatures. This shows that Maduro has acted in an authoritarian manner for quite some time, and Friday’s event is a culmination of such a trend. A few decades ago, however, Venezuela had a functional (albeit flawed) democracy and was South America’s richest country in terms of per capita GDP. So what went wrong?

Maduro’s authoritarian policies have prompted millions to take to the streets.

The dawn of Venezuela’s modern political system came in 1998, when the Hugo Chávez was elected president. Chávez was elected on a platform of populist socialism, promising to reduce corruption and enact a series of social programs aimed at eradicating poverty. The beginning of his presidency coincided with a rise in global oil prices, allowing him to fund his populist programs and gain a large following. For awhile, he succeeded in reducing poverty and raising standards of living. As time went on, however, corruption remained rampant and Chávez began to consolidate authoritarian rule. When Chávez died in 2013, Maduro succeeded him and continued the two signature characteristics of the Chávez presidency: populist socialism and increasing authoritarianism.

When oil prices fell in 2014, Venezuela’s oil-dominant economy could no longer fund such extensive social programs, but they continued anyways, plunging the country into economic crisis. It was largely the worsening economic conditions that allowed the opposition to win control of the legislature in 2015. Since then, economic conditions have continued to deteriorate dramatically. 720% inflation has caused the prices of necessities to skyrocket. Price controls led to shortages of basic goods, including medical supplies. Malaria incidence has risen, as has infant mortality. Stores shelves are empty. Unemployment has risen considerably. People cannot afford food; they are starving. The discontent has led to rioting and street violence.

Violent confrontations have become more and more common in Venezuelan cities.

Thus Venezuela is now nearing a breaking point. Rule of law has been destroyed, the economy has nearly collapsed, and violence is escalating. The country’s path to its current precarious state is open to many interpretations and offers many lessons. This article, however, will explore only one: that Venezuela shows the danger of prioritizing ideological purity above all else. As populists, Chávez and Maduro presumably believed that their ideology, called Chavismo, represented what was best for “the people” of Venezuela. They began to value the purity and longevity of their ideology above the survival of Venezuela’s governing institutions. This had two effects: an attack against democracy and an unwillingness to modify bad policies.

One obvious characteristic of democracy is that governments (and their ideologies) can be voted out of power. Thus democracy can be seen as a threat to the survival of an ideology. To a leader whose priority is the survival of his or her ideology, democracy may naturally become a target. This is what happened in Venezuela. Chávez and Maduro are so convinced of the all-importance of their ideology that they were willing to attack democracy in order to achieve its longevity. The events of this Friday mark a culmination of this idea.

Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crisis stems from another characteristic of prioritizing ideological purity: an unwillingness to modify ineffective or harmful policies. Ideological purists believe that their ideology is infallible, and, as a result, are unwilling to acknowledge the shortcomings of their beliefs when things go wrong. Purity demands that believers find external blame. This is what Maduro is doing when he blames American interference for Venezuela’s woes. Unfortunately, however, Venezuela’s economic collapse is largely the result of bad policies. Price controls cause shortages, and printing too much money causes hyperinflation. Since Maduro is unable to accept the fallibility of his ideology, he is unwilling to reconsider these disastrous policies. As a result, Venezuela’s people are starving and dying.

Every day, the situation in Venezuela deteriorates further. Maduro has not compromised ideologically even as starvation, lack of healthcare, and street violence claim more and more lives every day. Democracy, too, has been sacrificed in the name of Maduro’s political longevity and the longevity of Chavismo. If he continues with his blind adherence to his ideology and desperate grasp on power, he risks plunging his country into civil war, and no amount of ideological purity can justify a civil war. Uncompromising adherence to ideology has brought disaster to Venezuela. It is time to compromise.

China-India Border Standoff: Why Do They Care About Doklam?

Sometimes countries do things that, at first, don’t seem to make much sense. Take the initially bewildering case of the Doklam standoff, for example. Since June 16, a few hundred troops from the world’s two largest countries, both of which are nuclear powers, have been engaged in a standoff, camping out just 100 meters apart on a remote mountainside in the heart of the Himalayas. Doklam is a tiny, mountainous area located near where the borders of Bhutan, China, and India come together. The area is generally considered to be a part of Bhutan, although China also claims it. The crisis began when the Chinese army started building a road through Doklam, and Indian troops, acting on Bhutan’s behalf, halted the construction of the road. Since then, the crisis has only escalated, and just yesterday India put an additional 50,000 troops on alert as a result of the standoff. So why do two of the world’s most powerful countries care so much about an insignificant piece of land?

The location of Bhutan in Asia
The location of Doklam in Bhutan






The answer, of course, is that Doklam is not as insignificant as it seems. Not only is it the latest chapter in a long, historical dispute, but it is also representative of China’s foreign policy and strategically significant to India’s security. China and India have had tense relations throughout much of their modern history. Before 1950, there were no border disputes between China and India because they did not share a very long border. At that time, Tibet, a vast region north of the Himalayas, was an independent kingdom. It was not until 1950 that China annexed Tibet and gained its long Himalayan frontier with India. After China’s annexation of Tibet, the region’s religious and political leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India. India’s acceptance of the Dalai Lama constituted the first source of tension between China and India, and the diplomatic rift it caused has endured until today.

Besides India’s acceptance of the Dalai Lama, the poorly demarcated border between the two countries has sparked conflict between them. They both claim the region of Aksai Chin, a Chinese-administered part of what was once the Indian princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Furthermore, China claims an entire state of India, Arunachal Pradesh. These conflicts led to the Sino-Indian war in 1962, which, although not resulting in a change in territory, led to an Indian military defeat and an abandonment of Indian expansion. Another armed skirmish occurred in 1967, and the two countries nearly went to war once again in 1987. Since then, however, diplomatic tensions have never involved the military as much as they have in recent months. So what changed?

The current conflict is largely the result of an expansionist tendency that has defined China’s foreign policy in recent years. China has the world’s largest population, second largest economy, and largest standing army. It is becoming an increasingly influential global power, allowing it to pursue foreign policy objectives against smaller, less influential countries. It has attempted to project its power in the South China Sea and used its economic might to expand its influence in Africa. It has also attempted to intimidate one of its neighbors: Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom wedged between China and India. China has numerous border disputes with Bhutan, including a dispute over Doklam. Thus, when it began building a road through Doklam, China was essentially re-creating the strategy that it uses when it builds artificial islands in the South China Sea: using its economic advantage to legitimize its control over areas claimed by countries with considerably shallower pockets.

It is now clear why China is so invested in the Doklam dispute: in keeping with a recent trend in its foreign policy, it is attempting to project its relatively newfound global influence. Why, though, is India involved in a dispute over Bhutanese territory? India and Bhutan have long had a special relationship, with India largely responsible for Bhutan’s foreign policy and defense. The Doklam standoff perfectly illustrates Bhutan’s motives for entering into such a relationship: fear of Chinese expansionism. India’s motives are more geopolitical: Bhutan acts as a buffer between China and one of India’s most fragile strategic weaknesses.

After Bangladesh was separated from India during the partition, India was left with seven Northeastern states almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country. The only thing connecting those seven states to the rest of India is a narrow strip of land called the Siliguri Corridor. Bhutan lies very close to the Siliguri corridor, and the construction of a road in Doklam puts the Chinese military even closer to the strategic area. In the event of a war, China could march over the border and isolate the Northeast entirely. Thus India is fiercely protective of Bhutan and, by extension, Doklam; it must protect its territorial integrity. 

With troops on high alert and fierce diplomatic rhetoric, a resolution to the Doklam standoff does not appear imminent. A remote plateau in Bhutan may seem trivial to observers, but, given the context of recent trends in China’s foreign policy and its strategic importance to India’s territorial integrity, it is extremely consequential to two of the world’s most powerful countries. As a result, while the chance of war between the two countries is extremely slim, they will likely expend a massive amount of resources maintaining the standoff and seeking to resolve it. Now, at least, it’s clear that those resources will not be wasted.

Progress and Fear Coexist in Rwanda—For Now

Last Friday, incumbent Paul Kagame of Rwanda won 98.79% of the vote in his country’s presidential election. In most countries, leaders who win such a staggeringly huge share of the vote must be either incredibly popular or, more commonly, extremely repressive. At first, it is difficult to tell which of these best describes Kagame’s rule—his proponents point to the progress that Rwanda has witnessed under his guidance while his opponents point to the harassment of the opposition. So how did Kagame do it? Is he loved or is he feared? In short, the answer is both.

Located in the African Great Lakes region, Rwanda is continental Africa’s most densely populated nation. Its roughly 12 million inhabitants live in an area slightly smaller than Massachusetts and Belgium. Despite its small size, Rwanda’s troubled history has played an outsized role in international affairs. At the time of its independence, it had been controlled for years by an elite ethnic group called the Tutsi. Shortly before independence, however, Rwanda’s ethnic majority, the Hutu, took control of the country and prompted thousands of Tutsis to flee. Paul Kagame’s family was one of those that fled to Uganda during this time.

The location of Rwanda in Africa

After years of tensions between the Hutu-dominated government and the Tutsi minority, hostility finally turned to outright war. By 1990, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had been formed, and it launched an invasion of Rwanda from Uganda. After the leader of the RPF was killed, Kagame took control of the group. The war began to stagnate until April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, killing them both. Extremists in the military, the police, and various militias used this as pretext to initiate a systematic massacre of Rwanda’s Tutsi civilians and moderate Hutus. Over the course of 100 days of slaughter, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 civilians were murdered. Led by Kagame, the RPF resumed its offensive and took control of the country, putting an end to the genocide.

Rwanda’s GDP has taken off in recent years.

This is the first reason why Kagame is so well-respected in Rwanda. He is rightly credited with bringing stability and peace back to Rwanda. But he didn’t just bring peace. He brought prosperity. Despite the horror of genocide and the destruction of much of Rwanda’s infrastructure, the country has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with an average GDP growth rate of 8% per year between 2001 and 2014. Kagame introduced an ambitious development program that has reduced poverty, tackled corruption, minimized wealth and gender inequality, improved health and education outcomes, and restructured the economy to reduce dependence on agriculture. Glittering new high-rises now grace the skyline of the capital, Kigali. Kagame himself has said that his goal is to turn Rwanda into the “Singapore of Africa,” and he has certainly made progress in doing so.

Shiny new skyscrapers grace the Kigali skyline.

Thus Kagame is not a corrupt dictator whose hold on power is reliant only on repression. He genuinely wishes to improve the lives of Rwandans and has already done so, making him very popular. That said, he has been harshly criticized for his government’s dictatorial tendencies and human rights violations. One warning sign appeared in 2015, when his government held a constitutional referendum that removed term limits, indicating his intent to stay in power. Furthermore, according to the Freedom House, “journalists and members of banned opposition groups reportedly faced arbitrary arrests, beatings, politicized prosecutions, and enforced disappearances during the year.” He is also accused of creating an environment of political intimidation and surveillance.

Ultimately, therefore, Kagame’s victory in last week’s election is likely a combination of the two hallmarks of his government—huge improvements in development and repressive authoritarianism. These two characteristics, crucial in determining the outcome of the election, will similarly be crucial in determining Rwanda’s future progress. A wealth of historical and economic evidence indicates that Kagame’s authoritarianism is what his country needs to sustain its high level of development. Numerous Asian governments, including Kagame’s Singaporean inspiration, oversaw breathtaking development by implementing authoritarian regimes. Developmental states require strong government intervention, which means that complete democracy may not be the best political system for the job. As a result, changing the constitution to allow Kagame to run for a third term was likely the best course for the country.

It will not, however, be the best course for the country forever. African history is replete with stories of leaders who, although initially appearing promising, neglected their countries for the sake of maintaining power. Authoritarian regimes are notoriously bad at planning ahead for after the end of their rule. Progress becomes entirely dependent on the skills of the government, meaning progress stops when the next government takes power. Or worse, progress reverses in the ensuing power vacuum. Thus Rwanda’s development must not become dependent on Kagame. He must build the institutions necessary to facilitate long-term development, just like the countries of East Asia did.

Kagame’s victory is, ultimately, a positive reflection on his track-record for development. His re-election is a good thing for Rwanda because the country’s prosperity is dependent on him and, to a certain degree, on his authoritarianism. Someday, however, he won’t be around. When that day comes, it is imperative that Rwanda no longer be dependent on him. In order to build a future in which his country can develop on its own, Kagame must shift his attention from reinforcing his own power to reinforcing Rwanda’s institutions.

Upcoming French Elections: Why Macron Must Defeat Le Pen

The first round of the French presidential election is set to be held in a little under a month. On April 23, eleven candidates will face off, and the two who come out on top will proceed to a runoff on May 7. The result of this election will undoubtedly affect every citizen of the European Union, and by extension it will likely affect nearly everyone in the world. So if you’re not French and/or are unfamiliar with how the platform of each candidate will affect the greater global community, you’ve come to the right place. It is important to note that this article is not impartial, but rather starts with a description of the candidates and ends with an endorsement of one candidate from a global perspective. With that in mind, the first priority of the French electorate should be to defeat Marine Le Pen and the xenophobic nationalism that she stands for, and the best way to do so would be to elect Emmanuel Macron as the next president of France.

Of the eleven candidates, only five participated in the campaign’s first televised debate earlier this week. Benoît Hamon is running for the incumbent center-left Parti Socialiste (PS), François Fillon for the center-right Les Républicains (LR), Marine Le Pen for the far-right Front National (FN), Emmanuel Macron for his upstart centrist party En Marche! (EM), and Jean-Luc Mélenchon his upstart far-left party La France Insoumise (FI). Macron and Le Pen are currently leading in the polls, which, considering the poor performance of Fillon and Hamon, are indicative of a desire to shake up the establishment.

Hamon, for example, is unlikely to advance to the runoff because he belongs to the same party as François Hollande, France’s current president. Hollande’s presidency has been plagued by dismal economic growth and high unemployment, pushing his approval rating to historic lows. As a result, Hollande’s Parti Socialiste is expected to be punished for its poor governance. The PS is one of France’s two mainstream political parties, the second of which is Fillon’s Les Républicains. Although Fillon initially performed well in the polls, his popularity plummeted after it was discovered that he had used taxpayer funds to pay his wife and two children for a nonexistent jobs, essentially scheming the French people out of 900,000 Euros. As a result, the PS and LR have largely convinced the French electorate that mainstream politics is synonymous with fecklessness and corruption.

Thus the rise of the non-mainstream politicians, exemplified by Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Le Pen’s FN, which was established by her father, has long been seen as a fringe party for its past anti-semitism and current Islamophobia. Macron, who is essentially running as an independent, has built a new political movement around himself in order to transcend the traditional boundaries between left and right. Considering his desire to leave mainstream parties behind, his relative youth (he is 39 years old), and his political background (he has never held elected office), he, too, is seen as a political outsider. Despite their shared outsider status, however, Le Pen and Macron could not be more different.

Macron, a former investment banker and Minister of the Economy, is economically to the right of the current socialist government. He is in favor of recent efforts to reduce employee protections, proposes spending cuts, seeks to reduce regulation, and would like to streamline the pension system. Nevertheless, he recognizes the need for a social safety net and has promised not to lengthen the workweek or cut pensions. He does not worship the free market, but he believes that the outdated, bloated French government is hindering the economy. Macron is also strongly in favor of the European Union. He would like to increase integration in defense and energy, and he seeks to “restore the credibility of France in the eyes of the Germans” (Bloomberg). His primary criticisms are that he is too inexperienced and that his economic program is vague and poorly developed.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, has been waiting for this moment for her entire life. The daughter of the founder of the FN, she has devoted her career to transition the party from an anti-semitic fringe to a viable contender. It is only a viable contender, however, in the unique time period in which we currently find ourselves. Her worldview is one in which globalization, Islam, and immigration are all malicious existential threats to the French Republic. She is like Donald Trump only much more articulate. She would like to strip dual citizens of their French citizenship, curtail immigration, and impose protectionist trade barriers. She has vowed to hold a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union.

The implementation of Le Pen’s policies would be nothing short of disastrous. France would become a diplomatic pariah. Protectionism would cause price of goods in France to rise. The European Union, which has its roots in the ruins of post-WWII Europe and has been crucial in maintaining European peace, would likely not be able to survive the secession of France. Furthermore, it is important to remember that, although Le Pen would likely disagree, France is objectively no longer a white, Christian country. She seems to believe that one cannot be French if one is Muslim, of Arab descent, or of African descent. If such a belief becomes government policy in a multicultural country, France’s Muslim, Arab, and African communities, which together contribute millions of French citizens, would suffer immensely. Le Pen’s worldview is, in short, a paranoid, ethno-nationalist revolt against the post-WWII order of increasing global cooperation. A Le Pen victory would threaten this order everywhere in the world, further strengthening groups whose ideologies looks strikingly similar to those that tore Europe apart in the 1930s. As a result, defeating Le Pen should be the primary concern of any observer who values global cooperation.

Ultimately, Macron is the best candidate to defeat Le Pen. He is a much more viable candidate than the corrupt Fillon. Unlike the more leftist candidates, he understands that the French economy must be liberalized if it wishes to remain competitive. Finally, and most importantly, he seeks to strengthen France’s position within the European Union. The Union’s reputation as a faceless bureaucracy controlled by Germany is part of what is causing the populist revolt against European integration. Of all the candidates, Macron is the one most likely to challenge this reputation. In doing so, the European Union would be strengthened rather than destroyed. Today is the Union’s 60th anniversary, a fitting occasion for us to remember the ultra-nationalist, militarized world that led to its creation. A Le Pen victory would bring us one step closer to that world, and a Macron victory would help ensure that we never return to it.