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The variety in climate, vegetation, and population density in Central Africa is enormous, but some of the main features of policymaking and informal rules of politics—at first sight at least—appear quite similar between N’Djaména and Kinshasa, between Libreville and Bangui, in a vast territory bigger than the European Union: clientelism, personalization of power, politicized ethnicity, the impact of external intervention, and a legacy of repeated political violence establish some constant features. On the other hand, the variable size of countries (from island states in the Gulf of Guinea to large territorial states) has also come with various challenges. Also, Central Africa features land-locked countries such as Chad and Central African Republic, which negatively impacts economic development, in contrast to countries located at the Gulf of Guinea with an easy access to maritime trade routes. At closer inspection all of the eight countries have a specific history, but this overview article rather stresses the commonalities. Featuring in this contribution are the countries of Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial-Guinea, Gabon, and São Tomé and Príncipe. The limited achievements of pro-democracy movements in Central Africa in the 1990s have enduring consequences on politics in Africa. Authoritarian regimes have consolidated their grip on power after surviving severe crises in most Central African states. Big man politics continue to prevail, only few opposition parties have upheld their initial strength and lack internal democracy. Enduring violent conflicts in DRC and CAR (and arguably to a somewhat lesser extent in Chad), have undermined conviviality between groups and state capacities in providing public goods with dramatic consequences on effectiveness and legitimacy of the state and its representatives. Prospects for a future allowing for more participation, truly competitive elections, and a peaceful change of government are therefore also grim. However, both violent and peaceful forms of contestation since about 2015 are also signs of renewed mobilization of citizens for political causes across Central Africa. New topics, including consumer defense and ecological issues, plus now-ubiquitous social media, may all be drivers for a new episode of engagement after two decades of frustration. The limited achievements of regional integration and the lack of dynamism of subregional organizations means that Central Africa is still a much less consolidated subregion compared to, for example, West Africa.

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During the 20th century, seizures of power led by military officers became the most common means of imposing new dictatorships. The consequences of military rule have varied, however, depending on how widely power has been shared within the military-led government. Most military-led dictatorships begin as relatively collegial, but the dictator’s position in collegial military regimes is inherently unstable. His closest collaborators command troops and weapons with which they could, if they are dissatisfied with his policy choices, oust him without ending the regime. This vulnerability to ouster by close allies both constrains the dictator to consult with other officers in order to keep them satisfied and gives him reasons to try to protect himself from coup plots. Common means of protection include taking personal control of the internal security police, in order to spy on officers as well as civilian opponents, and creating paramilitary forces recruited from personal loyalists. Dictators build new paramilitary forces to defend themselves from attempted coups staged by the regular army. A military dictator who can withstand coup attempts need not consult with other officers and can concentrate great power in his hands. Military dictators who have to share power with other high-ranking officers (juntas) behave differently than military rulers who have concentrated power in their own hands (strongmen). These differences affect the well-being of citizens, the belligerence of international policy, the likelihood of regime collapse, how military rule ends when it finally does, and whether it is followed by democracy or a new dictatorship. In comparison to junta rule, strongman rule tends to result in erratic economic decision-making and high rates of corruption. Strongmen also behave more aggressively toward their neighbors than do juntas. Nevertheless, regimes led by strongmen last longer, on average, than do juntas. When faced with widespread opposition, juntas tend to negotiate a return to the barracks, while strongmen often must be overthrown by force. Negotiated transitions tend to end in democratization, but forced regime ousters often result in new dictatorships.