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.

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.

What to Know Ahead of Thursday’s Election in The Gambia

The Gambia made headlines a few weeks ago when it became the third country to announce its intention to leave the International Criminal Court. In the coming days, it is likely to make headlines once again after of its December 1 presidential election. In order for you to understand the coming headlines, you may need some background information. So here it is: everything you need to know to make sense of the upcoming Gambian presidential election.

Let’s start with some basic information about the Gambia. It is a tiny country, the smallest on the African mainland. Surrounded on three sides by Senegal, it is a geographical anamoly that came into being as a British colonial outpost surrounded by the sea of the French colonial empire. The country follows the course of the Gambia river, a fairly densely populated area with a population of around two million. Much of the population is concentrated along the country’s Atlantic coast; the capital, Banjul, is located there, as is the country’s largest city, Serrekunda. Around 95% of its two million residents are Muslim, and its current president recently declared it an “Islamic Republic.”

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

Now that we’re on the subject of the Gambia’s current president, let’s introduce the candidates who will be standing in the election on December 1. Yahya Jammeh, the current president, is in the running. His primary opponent is Adama Barrow, who most of theopposition has rallied around. The third candidate is Mamma Kandeh, an MP. Jammeh has ruled the Gambia since 1994 when he took power in a coup d’état. Since then, he has won the country’s previous four elections. Over the course of his rule, he has become known for his oppresive rule. He has overseen a brutal crackdown against the LGBT community and threatened to behead gay Gambians. He has claimed that he can cure AIDS and Ebola. He has declared that “Allah elected me, and only Allah can remove me.” As a result, he is famous in the west as a reclusive dictator.

Jammeh’s most significant opponent is a politician by the name of Adama Barrow, a prominent businessman in the Gambia. A coalition of seven opposition parties has decided to throw its weight behind Barrow in an attempt to unseat Jammeh. Barrow has agreed to resign from his party, the United Democratic Party, in order to transcend political divisions. He is running as a unifier who promises to end the repressive tactics of the Jammeh regime. Barrow faces competition from Mamma Kandeh, the leader of the Gambia Democratic Congress party who has stressed the importance of economic development. Despite the fact that the opposition is divided between Barrow and Kandeh, the coalition behind Barrow means that it is more united than at any time since Jammeh took power in 1994.

Considering the profile of the candidates, it is not surprising that Jammeh has lost popularity over the years. However, despite the relative unity of the opposition, it will also not be surprising if he wins the election next Thursday. According to the Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental advocacy group, “Gambian security forces have used enforced disappearances, torture, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests to suppress dissent and preserve Jammeh’s grip on power.” Freedom House, a non-governmental research organization, reports that “elections are violent and rigged.” As a result, it is unlikely that voters will oust Jammeh.

5 more years of the Jammeh regime will likely result in few changes for the country. The primary virtue of the regime, its stability, will ensure the continued profitability of the Gambia’s largest industry, tourism. Jammeh will also continue with his strict Islamist program. Thus the short-term effects will likely be minimal. In the long-term, however, Jammeh’s misrule will likely have severe negative effects on the Gambia’s economy. Why? Because the Gambia is leaking.

It is leaking people. Gambians account for the largest number of migrants arriving in Italy per capita. In this year alone, 10,000 Gambians have already left the country to seek better lives in Europe. While a small elite leads comfortable lives, the vast majority of the population faces grim economic prospects at home with 60% of the population living in poverty. In order to escape poverty, Gambians escape their country. And many never arrive at their destinations. Just last week, the goalkeeper of the Gambian women’s national soccer team drowned in the Mediterranean. As a result, the Gambia is facing a crisis. The people are the lifeblood of any nation, and the Gambia is bleeding. On Thursday, we’ll have a clearer picture of whether the president-elect will be able to heal the country’s wounds. As of now, the prognosis is not bright.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Next Conflict

Like the United States, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is set to face a political transition in the near future. Like President Obama, the DRC’s Joseph Kabila’s second and final term is scheduled to expire in the coming months. The similarities, however, end there. Unlike Obama, whose successor was chosen in an election, Kabila has postponed elections over and over again. Unlike Obama, who is preparing to leave the White House in January, Kabila is not prepared to cede control of the DRC. Instead, he intends to extend his mandate, creating the perfect conditions for a political crisis.

In an attempt to de-esecalate the situation, Kabila appointed a politician from the opposition, Samy Badibanga, as his Prime Minister last Thursday. The appointment of Badibanga is a culmination of a “national dialogue” between the government and opposition that concluded last month. The talks, which were boycotted by most major opposition parties, agreed to delay elections in return for a degree of power sharing. While the purpose of the talks was to avoid a violent political crisis, if history is any indication (and it’s usually a pretty good one), the appointment of Badibanga is far from a sustainable solution. To understand why, you’ll need some background information about the DRC.

The location of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The location of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a massive country. In area, it is the largest country in sub-saharan Africa. Its territory spans from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the African Great Lakes in the east to the vast Congo rainforest in between. With such a large territory, it’s no surprise that the DRC is endowed with vast natural wealth. That wealth, however, has not translated into prosperity for the DRC’s equally vast populace. With 67.5 million inhabitants, it is the third-largest country in Africa in terms of population. As a result of its history as a colony of Belgium, it is also the world’s largest Francophone country. Also as a result of its colonial history, its post-independence history has been marred by unprecedented brutality.

Historically, political transitions in the The Democratic Republic of the Congo have been synonymous with violence and suffering. Almost immediately following independence in 1960, the country was swept by violent riots in protest of the lingering Belgian influence. The provinces of Katanga and South Kasai attempted to secede from the new state. The President and Prime Minister had a falling out, and the Prime Minister was dismissed. As a result, a rival government was set up in support the deposed Prime Minister. The government was paralyzed by infighting. Amid the chaos, a man named Mobutu Sese Seko took power in a bloodless coup in 1965. He quickly consolidated absolute power in an attempt to alleviate the violence and political deadlock.

Mobutu did not live up to his promise to save the country from ineffective politicians. Although he ended political infighting, he did so through repression. Mobutu’s government became nepotistic and kleptocratic, siphoning billions of dollars from the country’s mineral wealth for his own personal use. Supported by The West as an opponent to Communism, he lost crucial backing after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In 1997, with his health failing and neighboring countries vying to overthrow him, Mobutu, too, was deposed violently by Laurent Kabila as the country descended into civil war.

In 2005, another violent political transition rocked the DRC. Laurent Kabila was assassinated, and Joseph Kabila, his son, took his place. Thus Joseph Kabila came to power based on a long history of dysfunctional power transitions caused by politicians who were all too happy to hold onto power. According to the constitution of the DRC, another transition is scheduled for the near future. Will it maintain the tradition of dysfunction and violence?

At this point, it can be reasonably assumed that the “national dialogue” achieved very little in securing a long-term solution. This is mostly because the largest opposition party, the UDPS, boycotted the talks. Badibanga, too, is unpopular with the UDPS and its leader, Etienne Tshisekedi. As a result, the UDPS declared the appointment of Badibanga a “provocation” and has vowed to stage protests calling for Kabila’s ouster. So although Badibanga’s appointment was meant to signal reconciliation between the government and the opposition, hostility is still very much alive.

Ultimately, the future of the DRC lies in the hands of Joseph Kabila. If he agrees to hold elections and step down in accordance with the constitution, the DRC may witness its first ever peaceful transition of power. But he does not appear to be willing to step down peacefully. If he intends to rule indefinitely, there are truly only two possibilities. Either he will outsmart his opponents as he has with his “national dialogue,” further consolidating his rule. Or opposition leaders will continue to call for him to stop down, furthering the tense standoff and opening the door to greater violence. Ultimately, the self-interested desire of Congolese politicians to remain in power has brought untold suffering to the country’s people. So far, Kabila is continuing that tradition. The seeds of the next conflict have already been sown. While it is too early to tell whether violence will be prevented from blossoming, the appointment of Badibanga has done nothing to tackle the roots of the issue.

The ICC Is Not Racist

The Brexit storm has battered the European Union. Since the United Kingdom voted “leave” in June, international observers have wondered whether other members will follow suit. The stability of the organization has been called into question. So far, however, no other European country has shown any sign of following the lead of the United Kingdom. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is not so lucky.

Over the course of the last two weeks, three countries have announced their intentions to leave the ICC, and it is likely that many more “exits” lay ahead. It started with Burundi, which last week decided to withdraw from the organization. It was followed a few days later by South Africa and the next week by the Gambia. Of the 124 countries that signed the Rome Statute—the document that established the ICC—dozens, all of them in Africa, have expressed interest in leaving.

An mass exodus of African nations would be a major blow to the ICC
This map shows the member states of the ICC. Countries in green are members; countries in red are not. A mass exodus of African nations would be a major blow to the organization.

At this point, you may be wondering what exactly it is that the ICC does. The International Criminal Court is the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal. Its job is to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide, and its function is similar to that of the Nuremburg Trials following the Second World War, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia following the Yugoslav Wars, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda following the Rwandan genocide. The ICC was established in 2002 as the international community recognized the need for a permanent tribunal.

Since its foundation, however, it has come under increasing criticism from African governments. Last January, the ICC was widely criticized during the summit of the African Union. During the summit, the President of Kenya submitted a proposal that the AU develop a roadmap for a mass withdrawal from the ICC. Later, in May, Uganda’s president called the ICC “a bunch of useless people” during his inauguration, causing a number of Western diplomats to abruptly walk out of the ceremony. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president who currently has a warrant for his arrest issued by the ICC, attended the inauguration ceremony. According to the ICC, he should have been detained—but he was not.

If dozens of countries are considering withdrawing, the level of animosity must be extreme. But why? Why is the organization so hated by African leaders? According to its detractors, the ICC is a racist organization. To date, it has issued arrest warrants for 39 individuals. All of them have been Africans. This has many African leaders asking why the ICC has not investigated activities of the United States and United Kingdom in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, the court has been accused of anti-Africa bias, racism, and even neo-colonialism. Leaders have gone so far as to accuse it of acting as a Western tool for meddling in domestic African affairs.

Are these accusations fair? Well, a little bit. But not very. It is certainly fair to criticize the court for lack of involvement in continents besides Africa, but to call it neo-colonial or racist is unjustifiable. For one, five of the eight African countries that were brought before the court were self-referred, meaning their governments willingly sought the assistance of the court’s institutions. Furthermore, the court seems to recognize its problematic focus on Africa. Of its ten current preliminary investigations, six involve countries outside of Africa—including one that is investigating the role of the United Kingdom in Iraq. It’s also important to consider that many of the the non-African countries that the ICC would normally investigate are not part of the organization. The United States never ratified the Rome Statute and is therefore one of these countries that cannot be prosecuted.  Finally, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, is from the Gambia. Thus the court is not composed of Western officials going after African officials as is often portrayed. Rather, it is composed officials from around the world going after justice on every continent.

Besides the fact that the court’s activities offer a blow to the argument of racism, so too does the uncomfortable fact that many of the worlds existing crimes against humanity occur in Africa, and a handful of African leaders are running from their responsibility for these crimes. Burundi offers a prime example. When the president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he would run for a third term despite a constitutional ban on doing so, he brought his country to the brink of civil war. Hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Now, Nkurunziza’s government has withdrawn from the ICC. Whether crimes were committed by the government, rebel groups, or individuals is beside the point. Thanks to the decision of the Burundian government, the victims of the recent violence will forever remain without justice. While leaders may claim to be leaving the ICC over racism, a subconscious (or maybe conscious in some cases) instinct of self-preservation may also be affecting their judgment.

Africa remains the world’s least developed continent. As a result, a handful of countries are or have recently been marred by some degree of violence. And a few of the perpetrators are most certainly still in power. Thus we can come to a simple conclusion: the ICC is heavily involved in Africa because more ICC member-states are plagued with violence in Africa than ICC member-states on other continents. To many, such an assertion would be seen as racist. But it isn’t. It’s simply true.

Not everyone is buying the narrative of racism. The government of Botswana, one of Africa’s most democratic countries, has repeatedly voiced its support for the ICC. And Fatou Bensouda, unlike the government of her home country, is not going to turn a blind eye to justice. As she put it, “We say that the ICC is targeting Africans, but all of the victims in our cases in Africa are African victims.” While it may not be fair that the ICC has not pursued more cases outside Africa, African leaders are still responsible for committing war crimes, and they should still be punished for doing so. The international community should not let empty accusations of racism from African leaders prevent it from honoring its duty to African victims.

Why Ethnic Fissures are Undermining Ethiopia’s Developmental State

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and its fastest growing economy. By aggressively pursuing a state-led model of development similar to that of China, Ethiopia’s government is attempting to maintain an annual growth rate of around 10%. This, in theory, should be lifting millions out of poverty. Yet the ethnically-charged violence that has plagued the country over the last few weeks paints a far bleaker picture. This violence, which is caused by a feeling of disenfranchisement among Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, is indicative of the cracks that are starting to appear at the foundation of the country’s developmental state.

For months, the Oromo people–Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group–have been protesting against the government in Addis Ababa. The protests began last November with a plan to expand the capital region into Oromo territory. Feyisa Lilesa, an Oromo marathon runner, crossed his arms in protest as he took second place in the Rio Olympics. He told the press that “The Ethiopian government are killing the Oromo people and taking their land and resources.” On October 2, an anti-government protest was held during a religious festival in the Oromia region. 52 protesters were killed when security forces opened fire. In the meantime, protests have spread to the Amhara region, home to Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group. In light of these protests, the government declared a state of emergency last week that gives the already powerful government even greater authority.

Ethiopia is divided into 9 regions–each is dominated by a certain ethnic group.
Ethiopia is divided into 9 regions. Each is dominated by a certain ethnic group.

One of the government’s primary fears is that recent protests are endangering its developmental program. Like in many East Asian countries during the 20th century, the state exercises enormous influence over the economy. It is following a model under which the state pours investment into certain key industries, and the results have been positive so far. As protesters target assets owned by foreign firms, however, there are fears that foreign investments will dry up. So if the government is pursuing a form of development that has served countries like South Korea and China so well, why are the people protesting? Well, there are historical and economic factors that mean Ethiopia’s model of the developmental state has caused major resentment among the Oromo and Amhara people.

The current government came to power in 1991 following a brutal civil war. After Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, a communist junta called the Derg was established. Under the leadership of the Derg, insurgencies sprung up across the country. A massive famine in the 1980s caused millions of deaths. Eritrea’s war of independence and an invasion by Somalia further weakened the Derg’s hold on power. In this context, a rebel group called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began to fight against the Derg in the Tigray region. Eventually, it became the dominant member of a coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In 1991, the EPRDF overthrew the Derg and assumed its position at the head of the Ethiopian goverment–a role that it has maintained until today.

The TPLF domination of the EPRDF means that the government is dominated by the Tigray ethnic group–which constitutes only 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Thus the Oromo and Amhara–which make up around 34% and 27% of the country, respectively–have little representation while the Tigray are extremely powerful. Now let’s connect the dots. If development is largely driven by the state and the state is dominated by the Tigray, this means that the gains from development have disproportionately benefitted the Tigray while the Oromo and Amhara have remained steeped in poverty.

That dynamic–under which one ethnic minority largely controls the economic trajectory of the country–is the fundamental structural problem of Ethiopia’s developmental state. It is a significant reason why Ethiopia is unlike South Korea, China, or Taiwan, and it presents an existential threat to the country’s path of development.

Like in Ethiopia, the almost miraculous development of the Four Asian Tigers and China occurred largely at the hands of authoritarian leaders and their cronies. Because general population benefitted from rising standards of living, however, the people allowed the status quo to continue enriching their countries even though it disproportionally benefitted the upper class. But in Ethiopia, the upper class is not just a group of politically well-connected individuals. It is a group of politically well-connected individuals who all belong to the same ethnic group. That is a recipe for ethnically-charged resentment, and it is why protests are sweeping across Oromia and the Amhara region.

Many of the Oromo and Amhara protesters are calling for a representative democracy that will grant them independence from the Tigray elite. Yet a democracy would completely undermine Ethiopia’s developmental state, as the heavy hand of the government is a necessary part of its model of development. If the Tigray elite wishes to continue with its authoritarian developmental vision–and it should, because it has made significant progress so far–it needs to end the marginalization of the Oromo and the Amhara. While it does not yet need to transition to democracy, it does need to show the people that wealth is not just open to the Tigray. It needs to construct a powerful Oromo and Amhara elite that can buy into Ethiopia’s current economic and political model alongside the Tigray. If the elite can overcome ethnic boundaries, the people will follow. Otherwise, resentment will continue to mount, and the entire developmental state will be at risk of destruction.