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.

In Prosecuting Oromo Leader, Ethiopia Continues Dangerous Policy

A few days ago, Dr. Merera Gudina, a leading opposition figure for Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group and the leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, was charged with terrorism. Gudina was originally arrested in December after returning to Ethiopia from Belgium. His arrest and prosecution come as part of the Ethiopian government’s six month state of emergency designed to curb massive protests by the country’s Oromo and Amhara populations. Since it began its crackdown against dissent, the violent protests have largely subsided, but over 500 protesters have been killed in the process. Thus the Ethiopian government is using force to put down protests while continuing the very disenfranchisement that sparked the protests in the first place, putting the future of the country at risk.

Ethiopia, with Africa’s second largest population and fastest growing economy, is a regional powerhouse despite its widespread poverty. It has over 100 million citizens, about 34% of whom are Oromo and 27% Amhara. As NewsAware explained in an October article, the country’s government is running a developmental state that aims to emulate the rapid economic growth of Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and China. The problem? The government running the economy is dominated by the Tigray ethnic group, which makes up only 6% of Ethiopia’s population.

Ethiopia’s location in Africa.

The October article concluded that sustained development under such conditions is untenable because a disproportionately large share of the benefits will go to the Tigray, fueling ethnically charged resentment. The Oromo and Amhara are calling for democracy to free them from the repression by the Tigray, but a democratic system would undermine the developmental state, which requires authoritarian intervention. For the developmental state to continue, it must construct a powerful Oromo and Amhara elite that can buy into Ethiopia’s current economic and political model alongside the Tigray.

Doing so, however, is very unlikely. To construct an Oromo and Amhara elite would mean sharing the fruits of development more equally, resulting in smaller gains for the current Tigray elite. As a result, the current elite is far more likely to protect their share rather than divvy it up. To do so, they must repress the Oromo and Amhara even more. If the events of this week are any indication, that is exactly what they are doing. By charging Dr. Gudina with terrorism, they are silencing one of the loudest voices advocating for greater Oromo representation, and the state of emergency as a whole is little more than a ploy to legitimize widespread repression. Foreign media has been restricted, a curfew has been imposed, and protests have been criminalized. The government is reacting to discontent by suppressing it.

This is an incredibly foolish path to follow. The elite believes that it is protecting itself by attacking its opponents, but it is only short-term protection. In the long-run, it is hurting itself. Whatever the goal of the Tigray leadership, it seems that it is tied to an increase in wealth through an aggressive pursuit of development. It sees widespread protests as an existential threat to this system, so it attempts to suppress them. The real existential threat, however, is the root cause of the protests: the systemic disenfranchisement of the Oromo and Amhara. If the resentment caused by that disenfranchisement boils over, it risks dethroning the Tigray and throwing the entire developmental state into disarray. In imposing a state of emergency and harassing opposition leaders, the government is engaging in the very same disenfranchisement that is fueling this resentment in the first place.

It is time that the government recognize that attacking its largest ethnic groups is not only wrong, but is also an existential threat the Ethiopia’s current model of economic development. Allowing greater representation for the Oromo and Amhara is not only the right thing to do, but is also within the interests of the Tigray leadership. Ultimately, the Tigray elite must decide what it values most: Tigray dominance or development and wealth for Ethiopia as a whole. It cannot have both. The former is doomed to collapse and undermine the latter as ethnic resentment boils over, and the latter will benefit both the Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia’s population. It seems like an easy choice, but the events of this week indicate otherwise.

Somalia’s New President: Should Democracy Be His Priority?

Since its descent into civil war in 1991, Somalia has come to be known as the world’s prime example of a “failed state.” Between 1991 and 2012, it had no central government. The central government that exists today is wildly corrupt, and it struggles to administer its territory and provide basic services to its citizens. The Islamist militant group al-Shabaab controls portions of the country, and a large section of the country’s north is administered by a separatist government. As of Wednesday, Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, is now the man in charge of country’s slow healing process.

The location of Somalia in Africa

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, nicknamed Farmaajo, became the president of Somalia after a long-awaited and much-delayed election. Considering the fact that Somalia does not have the resources to extend the vote to all of its citizens, Farmaajo was elected not by the people but by 275 Members of Parliament and 54 Senators. These, in turn, had been elected by a group of 14,000 elders within Somalia’s traditional clan system. According to the New York Times, the election was marred by characteristic Somali corruption, with bribes from numerous sources buying off clan elders and MPs. It is surprising, then, that the victor of this expensive election is widely seen as the toughest on corruption during his tenure as prime minister.

For eight months in 2010 and 2011, Farmaajo was appointed the prime minister of Somalia. The prime minister has considerably less power than the president, but is responsible for numerous administrative duties. Farmaajo became known for reducing the number of ministers, regularly issuing military salaries, and setting up an anti-corruption commission. As a result, he became widely recognized as having the interests of the population at heart. He was dismissed by the president and speaker of the Parliament in 2011 “as part of their deal to extend the transitional government,” and “although the president was reluctant to see Mr. Mohamed go, he agreed in order to keep his own job.” After Farmaajo’s dismissal, riots broke out in response to what the people saw as one of the country’s few selfless politicians being dismissed by in a selfish act by his superior.

Farmaajo’s reputation for selflessness is accentuated by the fact that, after he stepped down as prime minister, he returned to his previous job in Buffalo, New York. A dual citizen of Somalia and the United States, Farmaajo had worked for many years as a nondescript employee of the New York State Department of Transportation, and he returned to his old cubicle in 2011. Thus his humble background is promising in that he appears to be motivated by a desire to help Somalia rather than by the pursuit of wealth or power, but it also raises the question of whether he will be able to rein in those who are not as selfless as he is.

The Somali government only controls the areas colored red on this map.

While he was prime minister, his harsh criticism of corruption failed to translate into progress. According to the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, “more than $72 million in donor assistance was stolen between 2009 and 2010, and a further $250 million in revenues could not be accounted for.” Clearly, the Somali government is plagued by a deep-rooted culture of corruption. Furthermore, the fact that the government frequently recruits high-ranking officials from overseas as it did with Farmaajo is indicative of the fact that the political elite is made up of only a tiny sliver of the population. What this ultimately means is that, despite Farmaajo’s best efforts, political power will likely remain concentrated within this very small, very corrupt group until the country’s security and developmental situations have improved enough to allow for greater civic participation. That’s something that the international community does not seem to understand.

After Farmaajo’s election, the US State Department released a statement that said “We encourage Somalia’s new administration to take credible steps to stamp out corruption and to establish strong electoral institutions to enable a free and fair one person one vote poll in 2020.” The west’s primary aim is to facilitate the establishment of democratic processes. This is a noble aim because democracy in western countries has largely succeeded in increasing the government’s accountability to the people, but it has often failed to live up to its promises in countries with dire security situations, low levels of development, and tiny governing elites. The real priority in Somalia should be to discourage a selfish political culture and encourage an accountable one, and building easily abused institutions around those who may exploit them may not be the way to do so.

The most promising aspect of Farmaajo’s election is that his attitude toward government seems to indicate that he will not exploit Somalia’s governing institutions. What is less promising, however, is the fact that the international community continues to push the belief that democracy is the ultimate goal. Before reaching for this goal (and reach for it he should, eventually), Farmaajo should focus his honest governance on prioritizing the security and developmental issues that impede it. Much of the world believes that democracy is an end to strive for. In reality, it is a means to achieve the end of a more responsible government. While it is often the most effective means to achieve that end, we mustn’t forget to question whether there are times when it is not.

With Foresight, Kazakhstan Tweaks Its Constitution

Earlier this week, the government of Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed changes to Kazakhstan’s constitution that would decentralize power away from the president. The changes would grant greater power to the legislature and government ministers. The legislature is to be given more power over the ministers, and the ministers will be granted administrative powers that were previously reserved for the president. While decentralizing his own power may seem a surprising move for a leader who is usually regarded as a dictator, it is widely believed that Nazarbayev is doing so with a future political transition in mind.

The location of Kazakhstan in the center of Eurasia

Kazakhstan is a vast country located on the steppes of Central Asia. It has the largest landmass of any landlocked country, and contained within its great expanses are valuable deposits of natural resources. The most significant of these are oil and natural gas, which have fueled a boom of modernization and development in the post-soviet country. As a result, it has a much higher GDP per capita than its Central Asian neighbors, all of which were also constituent republics of the USSR until 1991. Like many its Central Asian neighbors, however, Kazakhstan’s totalitarian roots have contributed to the rise of a de facto one-party state. Nazarbayev has been Kazakhstan’s president since before its independence, and since then he has ruled the country with an iron grip.

One of Kazakhstan’s aforementioned Central Asian neighbors is Uzbekistan, whose history closely mirrors that of Kazakhstan besides one key difference. It, too, was a Soviet Republic until 1991. It, too, developed an authoritarian dictatorship. In fact, it is considered even more corrupt and repressive than Kazakhstan. The key point at which the modern histories of Kazkahstan and Uzbekistan diverged occurred in September of 2016. It was then that Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, passed away.

Because Karimov had led Uzbekistan since its independence, just as Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since its independence, his death gave rise to an unprecedented situation: Uzbekistan’s first political transition as an independent nation. Because Karimov had maintained such stranglehold on political power, there were fears that his death could give rise to a dangerous power vacuum. Analysts voiced concerns that such a power vacuum could lead to political unrest, and, considering the Karimov government’s hard-line opposition to radicalism, some even worried that the Muslim-majority nation could become a haven for Islamist extremists in the event of a sudden decentralization. None of that came to pass, however, and the country experienced a relatively smooth transition of power as the ruling elite rallied behind the Karimov’s Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

The 76 year old Nazarbayev is less than two years younger than Karimov, so he likely paid close attention to the transition unfolding in his country’s southern neighbor. He knows that, eventually, his country will go through a similar transition, and he is likely keen on preventing a damaging power vacuum. As a result, he has been reshuffling key government positions in what analysts believe is an attempt to assemble an administration whose purpose is to guide the country through its future transition. The recent proposed constitutional changes, too, are viewed as an attempt to facilitate the country’s future transition. By weakening the presidency and strengthening both the legislature and ministries, Nazarbayev can create institutions that prevent a complete vacuum. He can create a state that is capable of functioning without an autocrat.

Throughout history, succession crises have again and again devolved into terrible chaos. Autocrats often act as the primary unifying figures of their countries while elites jockey for greater influence. Once the autocrat is gone, the elites have little incentive to maintain unity as they vie for the top spot. In Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, this phenomenon engendered violent sectarian strife. In many African countries, it caused a circle of dictatorship that reduced the likelihood of future prosperity. In nearly every case, it gives rise to numerous challenges associated with the corrosion of state control, some of which were discussed in last week’s article about the fall of Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia. Considering the violent history of political transition, it is no longer surprising that Nazarbayev would weaken his own office. Why? Because what he is actually doing is weakening the office of his successor.

The Gambia: The Crisis Has Ended, But the Challenge Has Only Just Begun

The dramatic story of the Gambia’s 2016 presidential election is finally coming to a close. After an ECOWAS military force led by Senegal entered the country on Thursday, Yahya Jammeh finally agreed to step down and go into exile. Now, Adama Barrow, the country’s new president, is ready to usher in a “new era of Gambia.” Barrow has promised to free political prisoners, cultivate an independent judiciary, rescind Jammeh’s decision to leave the ICC, and do away with the repression that characterized Jammeh’s rule. After 22 years of dictatorship, however, Gambian democracy is in many ways a blank slate. As a result, Barrow’s rise does not mark the end of a transition to democracy. Instead, it is only the beginning of the next challenge: building the necessary institutions for sustainable reform.

For anyone who isn’t yet caught up, the Gambia, a small country on the Northwest coast of Africa, has been in crisis since last month, when Yahya Jammeh lost the country’s presidential election after 22 years in power. Considering Jammeh’s repressive rule, the world was shocked when Adama Barrow, a newcomer to politics, triumphed in the election. The world was even more shocked when Jammeh conceded defeat the next day. A week later, however, Jammeh rescinded his concession and refused to cede power. Meanwhile, ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the international community threw their support behind Barrow, Barrow was inaugurated in the Gambian embassy in Dakar, and ECOWAS prepared for a military intervention. Now that the intervention has occurred, Jammeh has finally stepped down and gone into exile.

A close-up map of The Gambia
The Gambia’s location in Africa. It’s the tiny sliver of land inside the circle.

The Gambia has now entered a phase that has, throughout recent African history, proven immeasurably crucial in determining future levels of prosperity: the post-strongman political transition. After the African continent was decolonized, its politics came to be defined by a long list of dictatorial strongmen who dominated narrow elites. These strongmen, who often co-opted the corrupt institutions established by their former colonial overlords, ensured that their countries remained steeped in poverty. When they fell, and they always did, the dearth of democratic institutions would facilitate the rise of a new strongman who similarly co-opted corrupt institutions. This pattern was seen when Kabila toppled Mobutu in the DRC, when Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo toppled his uncle in Equatorial Guinea, and in the Gambia itself after Jammeh overthrew Dawda Jawara. Clearly, establishing democracy after dictatorship doesn’t always work out as planned.

In some cases, however, countries have been able to escape the vicious cycle of corrupt strongmen. Many African countries that were once controlled by repressive dictators now have effective democracies. Ghana, for example, was once a one-party state run by Kwame Nkrumah and later a dictatorship under Jerry Rawlings, but Rawlings led a transition to democracy. Last month, the country completed yet another transition of power as one of Africa’s most stable democracies. While the Arab Spring launched Syria, Yemen, and Libya into civil wars, it launched Tunisia into democracy with the overthrow of its longtime strongman. The question, then, is this: will Barrow fulfill his promises to turn the Gambia into a democracy, or will it ultimately circle back towards autocracy?

The Gambia’s current situation poses a risk to democracy mainly because it does not have a stable, democratic foundation. In order for a democracy to succeed, the power of the executive must be limited, the people must be educated and engaged enough to exercise their vote responsibly, and government officials must commit to putting the interests of the people above their own interests. As of now, the government is structured around a strong executive, the people are ill-informed due to restrictions on freedom of information, and, according to the Freedom House, “official corruption remains a serious problem.” As a result, Barrow could easily assume dictatorial power if he wanted. But he has so far shown a commitment to building a democracy, promising to restore freedom of speech and do away with the culture of fear. While doing so will empower the people, it is not enough to guarantee success. Instead, fundamental cultural and institutional changes must be made within the government.

Even if Barrow has no interest in assuming autocratic power, both he and his successors will have the incentive and ability to do so unless there is serious institutional reform. It would not be surprising if a future leader of the Gambia takes advantage of Jammeh’s institutions to re-establish a dictatorship. As a result, Barrow’s primary challenge over the next few years is to build a political culture that makes this impossible, and that is an immense challenge. Today is certainly a triumphant day for the Gambia, but the rise of a democratically elected leader does not mean that long-term democracy is guaranteed. The sun has set on a brutal and oppressive era, but diligence is still needed to ensure that the sun never again rises on such an era.

Crucial Elections to Follow in 2017

The numerous elections that took place in 2016 will likely come to be remembered as some of the most consequential in recent history. Many of last year’s elections will leave a lasting mark on the states of their countries, regions, and the world. Countless observers around the world reacted to the Brexit referendum and the United States presidential election with horror, and many will likewise view the coming of 2017 as a welcome riddance of the dreadful 2016. But like 2016, the year that lies ahead of us will bring more than a few elections that have the potential to continue disrupting the global political order. So which elections should you be paying attention to in 2017? Let’s find out.


In 2016, multiple African leaders attempted to extend their stays in power. Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo amended his country’s constitution to allow himself to run for a third time. Ultimately, he won the questionably conducted election. Burundi’s president also sought to amend his country’s constitution, as did Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. In 2017, this trend is set to continue. While Kagame has already amended Rwanda’s constitution, his real test comes in August of this year when he will stand for reelection. If Kagame wins, as he almost certainly will, the defining trend of 2016 will stretch into 2017.

Another African country that is set to go to the polls is Angola. Despite being conducted under a de facto one-party state with weak democratic institutions, this election is nonetheless important because the current president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos, has promised to step down after 38 years in power. Not one to cede control easily, however, dos Santos has handpicked a former defense minister named João Lourenço as his successor as party leader. The question, then, is this: will Lourenço do the bidding of his predecessor, or will he forge a new path forward for Angola?


In 2014, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took the streets after their government introduced electoral reforms that would affect the 2017 election of Chief Executive, the Special Administrative Region’s highest office. The reforms effectively required that any candidate for Chief Executive would have to be approved by the central government in Beijing. Hong Kong’s democratic culture has become increasingly incompatible with the mainland’s one-party rule since the former British Crown Colony reunited with the People’s Republic in 1997. This incompatibility flared once again when 5000 marched in a pro-democracy protest on New Year’s Day. As a result, the election this March, whose procedures caused so much controversy in 2014 and are once again beginning to draw ire, is likely to be very tense.


Iran is also preparing to hold polls for its highest elected office, that of the President. While many in the West view Iran as an ultra-conservative theocratic pariah, most don’t realize that it has a large reformist bloc within its government. In fact, the current president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is a moderate, and the Iran nuclear deal would never have passed if the government had been controlled by more conservative lawmakers. In 2017, however, Iran’s moderates are under threat. First of all, their promise of immediate economic gains following the removal of Western sanctions failed to live up to the hype. Furthermore, one of Iran’s former presidents and arguably the most influential figure behind the Iranian moderates, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, passed away last week. As a result, Rouhani and the moderates have lost a crucial ally, weakening their prospects for the May 2017 elections and increasing the likelihood of an Iran that is once again isolated from the international political scene.


Of all the elections that will be affected by the trends of 2016, none will be more heavily influenced than those in Europe. The very same forces that gave rose to Brexit and Trump are still on the rise across Europe, and they have been empowering far-right nationalist parties who will be seeking electoral gains in 2017. The Netherlands, France, and Germany are all holding crucial elections, and each could have a significant effect on the fate of not only their own countries, but the European Union as a whole.

In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic Party for Freedom is riding on the momentum of the very same backlash against globalization that helped boost Trump and the Leave campaign. In France, Marine Le Pen’s ultra-nationalist Front National is widely expected to advance to the second round of the presidential election. In Germany, Angela Merkel will struggle to remain in power after her openness to refugees proved wildly unpopular with the German people. At a time when far-right parties are actively advocating for the dissolution of the EU, the outcome of these elections will determine the future of the organization. Like the elections of 2016, they will, in many ways, force voters to choose between two conflicting worldviews: one of internationalism and another of nationalism.

Ultimately, as much as we may want to make 2016 disappear forever, the forces that affected elections last year will continue to do so this year. In Africa, a handful of authoritarian leaders will continue attempting to use flawed elections to gain legitimacy. In Asia, rival factions in Hong Kong and Iran will continue to quarrel. In Europe, national elections will be fought between internationalists and nationalists. As consequential as 2016 was, 2017 will likely be the same. For this reason, we must diligently follow each of these elections. They will come with implications for everyone, not just those who are casting the ballots.

China’s New Economic Power is a Weapon in Old Disputes


A month ago, the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, visited Mongolia. Despite years of repressive communist rule, more than half of Mongolians consider themselves Buddhist. The primary sects of Buddhism followed in Mongolia are descendants of Tibetan buddhism, meaning the Dalai Lama has visited numerous times to connect with his followers. This time, however, was different. Why? Because of China.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty at the dawn of the 20th century, Tibet had existed as a de facto independent state. Once the Communist Party consolidated control over all of China, however, it turned its attention towards Tibet. In 1950, it began a campaign to absorb Tibet into the People’s Republic of China, and in 1959 the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India. Since then, he has continued to advocate for greater Tibetan autonomy. As a result, China has embarked on a campaign to discredit him as a separatist.

The 14th Dalai Lama

It’s no surprise, then, that China wasn’t happy with the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia, but that has never stopped Mongolia from welcoming him before. After this particular visit, however, the government decided to give into China’s demands and announced that the Dalai Lama would never again be welcome in the country. So what changed?

This time, Mongolia can’t afford to anger China. A few years ago, Mongolia’s economy was booming as a result of its rich mineral deposits. But since global commodity prices have nosedived, the country has struggled to repay its debts and has received a credit downgrade. As a result, it is seeking a $4.2 billion dollar loan from China. Furthermore, China accounts for a huge majority of Mongolia’s imports and exports. Leveraging its economic advantage, China closed a major border crossing with Mongolia and froze talks regarding the terms of the loan deal. Ultimately, the Mongolian government decided that its economy was more important than its religion. So the Dalai Lama is no longer welcome in Ulaanbaatar.

São Tomé and Príncipe

The location of São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa

The government of São Tomé and Príncipe, a small island nation off the west coat of Africa, has decided to shutter its embassy in Taipei. Before Wednesday, São Tomé and Príncipe was one of 22 countries that recognized the Republic of China, based in Taiwan, as the legal successor of the Qing Dynasty. Now, that number has dropped to 21. The rest of the world recognizes the People’s Republic of China, based in Beijing, as the successor of the Qing Dynasty.

Although most people believe Taiwan, an island of the east coast of China, is an independent nation, its status is actually quite a bit more complicated. Following the fall of the Qing dynasty, a republic was established in China. The republic, however, was never able to successfully consolidate control over the entire country. First, power was concentrated in the hands of several regional warlords. Then, the Japanese invaded the country. In the meantime, a civil war was being fought between the Republic of China and the Communist Party of China. Eventually, the Communist Party of China began to triumph. As a result, the leaders of the Republic of China fled to Taiwan and established a government there. Since then, they have claimed to be the legal representative of all of China, not just Taiwan.

The Republic of China only controls Taiwan, the purple island on the far right side of this image. But it claims to control all of this.

Thus the government of Taiwan does not lead an independent country; rather, it is a government in exile that claims to represent all of China. Because of this, a country cannot diplomatically recognize both the government of Taiwan and the communist government of China. By recognizing Taiwan, a country is at the same time delegitimizing the People’s Republic of China. So when São Tomé and Príncipe declared that it would sever ties with Taiwan, what it is really doing is switching its allegiance from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China.

Doing so is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, island nations in the Pacific often switch sides depending on which government seems more likely to grant them development aid. So like Mongolia’s recent decision, the reason for São Tomé and Príncipe’s decision is economic.

Over the past few years, China has poured billions of dollars into Africa. It has granted loans, bought land, and built infrastructure. From Nigeria to Ethiopia to Kenya, it has funded massive projects across the continent. São Tomé and Príncipe has benefitted little from China’s massive injection of capital, probably because of its recognition of the Republic of China. So in shifting its diplomatic ties, it is likely attempting to gain a piece of the People’s Republic’s bountiful pie.

Old Beefs, New Bounties

For decades, the People’s Republic of China has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Now, it is second behind the United States. When the leaders of the Republic of China crossed the straight to Beijing, China was an agrarian society steeped in crushing poverty. When the Dalai Lama left Tibet, it had yet to develop into a great power. It had nuclear weapons and massive population, but for years its poverty held it back. But times have changed. Now that China has made progress in development, it has become a powerhouse. Smaller nations like Mongolia and São Tomé and Príncipe can no longer afford to stand up to an economic empire. Beijing is fully aware of its newfound power, and it’s using it gain an upper hand in old disputes.

The Gambia After the Election: The Winner is Uncertainty

2016 has seen more electoral upsets than any other year in recent memory. First, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Next, the United States elected Donald Trump as its president, shocking the world. But what may be the most shocking election result of the entire year is in neither of these countries. Instead, it is in continental Africa’s smallest country, the Gambia, where Adama Barrow defeated the incumbent Yahya Jammeh in the country’s presidential race. Unlike the elections in the United Kingdom and the United States, which were largely the culmination of long-term political trends in The West, the election in the Gambia stood in complete contradiction to recent African political trends. The drama that has unfolded over the two weeks following the decision, however, is very much in line with the trend that the election itself so shockingly rejected.

In triumphing over Jammeh, Barrow achieved something that seemed impossible: he defeated a dictator in an election. In the context of African politics, that almost never happens. In February, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni easily secured re-election for the fourth time. In March, the Republic of the Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso won re-election after changing the country’s constitution to allow him to run for a third term. In April, Africa’s longest serving president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, further extended his time in power by triumphing in his country’s elections. In September, the incumbent president’s narrow margin victory sparked nationwide protests and justified allegations of fraud in Gabon. Across the continent, autocrats frequently stage elections to project an air of legitimacy. But they never lose them.

So how did Jammeh lose his? In order to understand how Barrow triumphed, it is necessary to understand why and how fraudulent elections are held in the first place. The purpose of these elections is to act as a cushion against accusations of dictatorship. Leaders hold elections in order to gain legitimacy. As a result, they often try not to make them blatantly rigged, and they often permit a certain degree of opposition to maintain the illusion of democracy. Take the example of Gabon’s election in September. Gabon’s leader, Ali Bongo, is widely considered an autocrat. Yet he does not use traditional dictatorial tactics to remain in power. He allows opposition and is far less repressive than Jammeh. Instead, he maintains power by building institutions that favor his rule. He controls the media, has staffed his government with friends and family, and has filled the courts with loyalists. As a result, he didn’t need the population’s approval to win the election.

Jammeh uses the very same tactics as Bongo, except he even takes it a step further and imprisons the opposition. As a result, he likely felt incredibly confident about his ability to win the election. After triumphing by a huge margin in 2011, it is not surprising that he told the BBC that he would rule for “one billion years.” When the media, the military, and most of the government is loyal to a ruler, electoral victory seems like a given. So Jammeh probably didn’t feel the need to prepare for an elaborate rigging of the vote. He would simply let his political dominance do the job. But considering that the opposition was united for the first time, youth unemployment is high, and thousands of Gambians are leaving the country for Europe, political dominance was not enough. The voters decided that it was time for a change.

And in what was probably the most shocking event of the last few weeks, Jammeh conceded. His loss is explainable when factoring in foolishness, but his concession truly baffled the world. In a country where he could have chosen to remain in power had he truly wanted to, it seemed almost as if Jammeh was willingly ceding control. The situation seemed unlike any that an African country had faced in years. In a continent where many leaders are holding fraudulent elections or attempting to remove constitutional term limits, here was a dictator of 22 years who was willingly choosing to give up power peacefully! What a relieving break from recent political trends! Or not. A little over a week after the election, Jammeh recanted his concession.

And so the Gambia’s break with the mainstream broke down as Jammeh called for new elections and deployed troops into the streets of Banjul, the country’s capital, and Serrekunda, its largest city. In doing so, he plunged the Gambia into a period of uncertainty. Jammeh has the backing of the Presidential Guard, but Barrow has the backing of the people and of the international community. As a mediation effort led by various West African heads of state failed, fears are rising that the Gambia is headed towards violence. Some have warned of the risk of civil war, and there has been talk of foreign military intervention by other West African states. Jammeh’s unpredictability has forced his country into a very difficult predicament.

Three weeks ago, this blog published an article entitled What to Know Ahead of Thursday’s Election in The Gambia. Now, it is clear that the contents of that article were not enough to truly make sense of the drama that has plagued the Gambia over the past few weeks. In truth, no amount of background information can confidently predict the outcome of this crisis. Jammeh has shown that he really, really does not want to leave office, and he fears that he will be prosecuted by a Barrow administration. That can be said for certain. But his inability to effectively rig the election has left him cornered. And if Jammeh was incredibly unpredictable before he was cornered, it is difficult to imagine what he will do now that he is.