LAGOS NIGERIA WEATHER | John Steenhuisen | The authoritarian pandemic: SA’s telling silence on African election fraud

South Africa must return to the position of moral authority it held on the African continent as it did when Nelson Mandela led the Commonwealth to impose sanctions on Nigeria after the then-regime of Sani Abacha executed Ken Saro-Wiwa in the 1990s, writes John Steenhuisen as Uganda prepares to hold its elections.

Ugandans will vote for a new president on Thursday, following one of the most unfair, violent, and discredited election campaigns of recent times.

This election follows Tanzania’s re-election of President John Pombe Magufuli in October 2020. Condemned by a wide range of international agencies and NGOs, including the Commonwealth and the European Union, Tanzania was commended by President Cyril Ramaphosa “for upholding democratic principles and holding peaceful elections”. 

Once again, ties to liberation movements have trumped human rights.

Former president Nelson Mandela, who said human rights would be “the light that guides our foreign affairs”, must be spinning in his grave.

Today, South Africa appears more interested in protecting incumbents than promoting human rights. This is all the more telling given Ramaphosa’s position as the chairperson of the African Union.

The pandemic of authoritarianism

Africa now faces a second virus, one that will be perhaps even more costly than Covid-19, the pandemic of authoritarianism. Along with the recent decline in number of African democracies as noted by Freedom House and others, comes reduced standards of competitiveness and accountability.

Ramaphosa had the temerity to suggest to the US that we might teach it lessons about democratic transitions. We should be saving these for our own region first.

In Uganda, the government of Yoweri Museveni has meted out killings, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, harassment, and intimidation on an industrial scale as it faces a challenge from the youthful movement led by Bobi Wine.

These abuses have been, thanks to social media and cellphones, widely documented and broadcast to millions across the continent.

READ | Refusing to retire Uganda’s Museveni doubles down on power

Most recently, Wine was aggressively pulled out of the car in which he was conducting an interview with an international observer by security forces. The Ugandan opposition leader’s bodyguard was killed last month after allegedly being run over by security forces.

Using the cover of Covid-19, Museveni’s government has banned meetings and rallies – although its officials appear to be exempt from this ban – and used the disease as a pretext to severely restrict campaigning by the opposition.

Through all of this, South Africa has remained ominously silent.

This may be because of the long-standing liberation movement links between the ANC and Museveni or the fact that Ramaphosa is a personal friend of the 76-year-old, the Ugandan leader for the past 34 years. He did, after all, buy a herd of cattle from him prior to becoming president.

Silent diplomacy 

This “silent diplomacy” approach which was applied to stolen elections in Zimbabwe and has been applied to highly suspect elections elsewhere, including Tanzania and Zambia, has been thoroughly discredited because it allows dictators and enemies of democracy to carry out sham polls, which, in turn, lend them undeserved international legitimacy.

Far from helping fix Zimbabwe, “silent diplomacy” and its advocates must take a large share of the responsibility for its continuing decline and the effect this is having on the entire region. The chaos at Beitbridge can trace its origins to the ANC’s foreign policy failure.

Whatever the reasons offered for this “silent diplomacy” in response to the abuses in Uganda, it must stop now.

READ | Opinion: It is time for SADC states to break with Zimbabwe

South Africa must return to the position of moral authority it held on the African continent when Mandela led the Commonwealth to impose sanctions on Nigeria after the then-regime of Sani Abacha executed Ken Saro-Wiwa in the 1990s.

The continent’s dictators might not have liked this human rights-led approach to foreign policy, but Mandela earned himself a place in the hearts of all Africans who have suffered under such regimes. We should put these people and not their power-hungry leaders first in our foreign affairs.

Ramaphosa must match action with rhetoric on democracy. He must put aside his personal ties with Museveni and speak out against these abuses now to avoid another post-election catastrophe on the continent, one that runs counter to our principles – that is, if we are in fact concerned about the fate of democracy on the continent.

 – John Steenhuisen is the leader of the DA.

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