From Algeria to Zimbabwe: how Africa’s autocratic elites cycle in and out of power

In 2021, coups d’état ousted four heads of state in sub-Saharan Africa.
Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe greets supporters massed at his party headquarters shortly before his ouster in 2017. Jekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images

In 2021, coups d’état ousted four heads of state in sub-Saharan Africa. Army interventions in Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan halted a years-long decline in military takeovers. Some heralded this as the comeback of the army in African politics.

Elsewhere in Africa, elected leaders in Tunisia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, among others, were accused of pivoting to authoritarian rule. Common authoritarian measures include suspending parliamentary assemblies, confining opposition leaders, extending term limits and violently repressing opposition and dissent.

Here lies an apparent paradox: despite decades in which democratic institutions have become prevalent across the continent, African states continue to be vulnerable to military takeovers and autocratic forms of power.

Multiple interpretations aim to explain this seeming contradiction. A popular explanation suggests that the world, and especially Africa, is entering a new phase of ‘democratic backsliding’. This follows a decades-long era during which several leaders were ousted by popular movements.

Nowhere was this more evident than in North Africa. Here, the democratic aspirations of the 2011 Arab Spring were overshadowed by a return to authoritarianism and conflict. Yet, in many of Africa’s competitive autocracies, the removal of leaders is not associated with revolutionary change. In fact, there is a remarkable stability of senior elites and institutional practices across regimes. This seems to point to their resilience in the face of a supposed trajectory towards democracy.

The literature on political survival provides a more compelling narrative to explain political change in competitive autocracies. A leader’s survival is conditioned on the support of senior elites. Leaders can typically spread power among their ‘rival allies’ to keep it and co-opt enough of those elites in exchange for political support.

These actors can in turn leverage their collective power to secure greater influence and rewards from the centre. The concept of a ‘political marketplace’ has aptly captured the transactional nature of regime strategies to determine association, loyalty and alliances with senior elites.

Drawing on these insights, our recently published paper seeks to explain political change in African competitive autocracies using the notion of ‘regime cycles’. This framework, which produced rich insights into the failed democratisation processes of the post-communist states during the 1990s, suggests that elites must act collectively if they are to challenge the leader, identifying four stages within a regime cycle.

Our research seeks to explain political change in African autocracies by looking at the role of political elites, focusing on cycles of power between a leader and their rivals which determine their survival. In doing so, we propose an alternative conceptual framework to interpret dynamics of change in African autocracies.

Four stages of the autocratic regime cycle

Each stage of the cycle is determined by the nature of contestation between the incumbent and senior elites. The balance of power between these actors varies in each stage, according to the level of fragmentation of authority within and across those groups.

The four stages are accommodation, consolidation, factionalisation and crisis. But they do not necessarily follow a chronological order.

During the accommodation phase, leaders build coalitions by distributing rents and authority among senior elites. The intention of this stage is to reward loyalists and co-opt prospective allies. The incentive is integration and inclusion.

The narrowing of competitive influences leads to the consolidation stage. The leader seeks to assert authority over a coalition of ‘rival allies’. This phase coincides with the height of a leader’s authority, where the threat of being removed is lowest.

At this stage, the leader may be perceived to be excessively centralising power. One sign is, for example, replacing security chiefs with loyalists. This may be a threat to other elites. Senior elites may organise along factional lines to create opposition within the regime. This creates factions.

Factions can consist of rival senior elites, who tactically join forces to get the leader to spread power. The intention is not to depose the leader or split the regime, but rather to bargain the terms of inclusion. Leaders also use disorder to try to prevent elite cooperation to lessen the strength of senior elite coalitions.

However, a crisis may occur when factions decide to take advantage of a critical juncture to forcibly reshuffle the ruling coalition. The jostling for power among senior elites typically leads to such crisis moments. This can result in military takeovers, forced resignations, constitutional coups or power-sharing agreements.

Regime crises reshape the existing power structures by disposing of the old leader. They also reshuffle senior elites into a narrow ruling coalition.

Culmination of ripened factionalism

In our paper, we apply these observations to the removal of three of the longest-serving heads of state in Africa.

Between 2017 and 2019, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe were ousted after a combined 90 years in power. Our analysis shows that their removal was the culmination of ripened factionalism. In each case, this had blossomed after the leaders’ attempts to centralise power. It was not a direct consequence of mass protests and economic downturns.

Senior military and security elites took advantage of the crisis moment to dispose of the leaders and their loyalists and reshuffle the regime. Naturally, they were once regime insiders and allies of the ageing autocrats. Stages of accommodation, consolidation, factionalisation and crisis preceded and followed the removal according to a cyclical logic.

Our analysis emphasises elite dynamics over the role of mass protests and popular opposition. True popular demonstrations can spark crises within a regime. But leaders and senior elites are more likely to produce significant and durable changes.

Democratic breakthroughs cannot be ruled out. But they are typically the product of a political stalemate. They are not ideological preferences or public appeals for political change.

The forceful removals observed in 2021 seem to conform to this cyclical logic of political change. Senior elites took advantage of a crisis moment to seize power and reconfigure the regime to their own advantage.

This is a reedited version of this blog first posted on January 13, 2022.The Conversation

Andrea Carboni, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Sussex and Clionadh Raleigh, Professor of Political Geography, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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An interesting academic western perspective of African autocratic dictatorships and as you say…’autocratic regime cycling’. I would like to have seen some opinions expressed on what appear to be obvious, but missing dictatorships – that are setting African records on a daily basis and certainly fall into some of the criteria laid out above.

Firstly Uganda and Museveni iron grip on same since taking power after one of the most infamous despots ever in Idi Amin. Museveni has been in power for close to 4 decades and although claims democratic wins, they are allegedly anything but. When you look at who is being groomed to takeover this will likely extend for another few decades. So we have Museveni, an autocrat and ruling with brutality, crushing any dissent, currently in his 37th year of rule – here is the absence and even any pretence of regime change.

However to Uganda’s east lies probably Africa’s GREATEST example of autocratic regime cycling and it lives and breathes still to this day and has done so since 1964 – KENYA. They have demonstrated a master class in how to essentially recycle the ruling elite without ever changing anything under the surface. They (the tiny elite – 3 families) are approaching in short order – 6 decades in power. We started with Jomo Kenyatta who ruled in one form or another from 1964-1978, in his rule Daniel Arap Moi served as ‘3rd vice president’!? – on Jomo Kenyatta death Moi succeeded him and ruled as a true autocratic and sometimes heavy handed leader until his death in 2002, upon which Kabaki his long serving VP became president, who ruled from then until 2013.

In 2013 Uhuru Kenyatta – son of Jomo Kenyatta, took power and remains in power today. As you can see from simple search on google – the Kenyatta family have never been out of power, they have rotated as needed. If you want to know a little more look at billionaire businessmen like Joshua Kulei – Daniel Arap Moi personal secretary (an innocuous title for such a powerful position in reality) during his rule and one of the richest men in Kenya to this day. Between the Moi family and Joshua Kulei family they control over 100 companies and just about anything that matters in Kenya. The president Uhuru Kenyatta was the largest land owner courtesy of his father when he came to power, I imagine that has only expanded further with his strong bonds and ties to the Kulei and Moi families to this day. As you can see the leaders are one and the same, connected with a common strand of glue through the last 6 decades – in Kulei and a couple of others.

Surely a living and breathing (apparent) autocratic dictatorship like that in Kenya deserves a deep dive or even mention. Add Uganda and you have 100 years of combined rule. Very closely knit into these 2 countries similarities sits Rwanda a mere teenager by comparison in terms of autocratic rule – but Paul Kagame has now been in power for over 22 years and does not look set to move anytime soon.

You also do not make mention of probably one of the most influential countries in Africa in terms of power and money, with an autocratic leader in Muammar Gaddafi of LIBYA. You do mention the Arab Spring but do not dive into any potential reasons for it and how it was linked to countries that you do mention. Also how Libya was inextricably linked and still is today to countries like Uganda, Kenya and many more. You will be hard pressed to find any African countries where there was not major Libyan influence and investment. Even South Africa has a very interesting history with and links still to this day with Libya. Gaddafi – Brutal as he was generous in his 3 decades in power, his influence on Africa is undeniable… the story there is very interesting to say the least and deserves its own article.

I feel you could have included a lot more details for the RSA readers – there is an assumption of rotational regime change based on certain criteria you have ‘identified’, yet the single biggest factors and examples are omitted. What about the massive influence of the West – just the French alone control the currency (CFA) in 14 West African countries and guarantee same. The influence of Belgium till this day over DRC – i understand these are political hot potatoes. But foreign influence is and always has been the major driving force in Africa and the regime changes you talk about – there is little that has happened on this continent without a nod and wink from the west for many decades – this is my opinion of course, formed by living and working in most countries on the continent at one stage or another.

Maybe something your research teams could compile in a future article, would be the – Western Influence on African dictators and long standing autocratic states. Is it real or imagined and do they determine when one dictator should leave and when another should ‘succeed’?

End of comments.




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