THE unthinkable has happened, and Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States. It’s a victory that has stunned many, if not most observers, so improbable just in October that it wasn’t even worth contemplating. And yet, here we are.
Coincidentally, in history’s grim humour, as some observers have noted, twenty-seven years ago yesterday – the same day Trump’s victory was announced – the Berlin Wall came down, a physical breaching of an ideological wall that had shaped the world events for more than forty years.
And by his victory this week, the walls seem higher than ever; he has promised to build a literal wall along the US’ border with Mexico.
But even though it may seem so, Trump as a historical phenomenon did not come from nowhere. His unlikely ascendance to the world’s most powerful executive office is the product of many forces – a global economy that many feel have left them behind, a changing demographic profile that leaves (mostly) white America feeling as though their country is unrecognisable.
And it’s not just isolated to the US. This year the UK voted to leave the European Union, far-right parties are already running governments in Poland and Hungary.
And early next month, Austrians will vote in a presidential election that could see Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party become the first far-right head of state to be freely elected in western Europe since 1945.
It seems political hardening is increasingly a global phenomenon. Though the local factors that drive a nativist, authoritarian, or anti-liberal mood might be unique to each country, the broader trends are apparent.
In Africa too, twenty-two countries have seen an increase in political hardening in the past two years (2014-2015), according to data from African Economic Outlook.
Political hardening is measured by several factors shaping the political space, including whether there is a state of emergency or curfews; arrests and incarcerations of opponents for political reasons; police violence, judicial harassment, death threats, propaganda or censorship; extrajudicial prosecutions or executions, or bans on strikes, demonstrations or public debates.
The worst drop has been in Burundi, which was plunged into political violence in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third term, which he went on to win in July.
Since then, there’s been a spike in police violence, torture, targeted assassinations of opposition leaders, exiles and disappearances of journalists and other opponents to the regime.
Some 250,000 Burundians have fled, including a significant portion of the political and economic establishment as well as civil society activists.[advanced_iframe securitykey=”68f51ed951ec4f22230bb7eb91315944cb08a912″ src=”//datawrapper.dwcdn.net/A0pgC/1/” frameborder=”0″ transparency=”true” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”100%” height=”555″]
Angola comes in second, where a group of 17 activists, members of the Luanda Book Club, were arrested and jailed as they held their group reading of Gene Sharp’s Dictatorship to Democracy, A Conceptual Framework for Liberation.
The government threw all manner of charges against them, and the charges changed constantly during the trial: attempting a coup, attempting a rebellion, criminal association, criminal conspiracy, and threatening the life of the president and key officials.
In March, in a verdict widely dismissed by rights groups as a travesty of justice, the 17 were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to eight years. They were conditionally released in June.
Chad, Guinea and Gambia have also seen a significant constriction of political space.
Nigeria is similarly on the downward trend, just a year after a huge boost in the political climate by the win of Muhammadu Buhari over Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, the first electoral defeat of an incumbent president in Nigeria’s history.
Ethiopia’s 2016 protests and current state of emergency is not captured in this data set, but next year, its performance in the rankings will clearly be on the decline.
The forces in Africa driving the trend toward greater political control and authoritarianism are, granted, different from the one driving the anti-elite outrage in the US that Donald Trump’s campaign has embodied.
In the US’s case, blue-collar, middle America has felt left behind in a 40-year structural transformation that has seen the manufacturing sector decline, and with it, dreams of prosperity for the white working class.
But Africa’s story is, counter-intuitively, linked to its economic success of the past decade and a half.
Increasingly, appeals to term extensions in Africa, or of broadening executive power, are not done in the manner of a nefarious, naked power grab.
They are framed in the benign language of “continuing” good work, or maintaining stability, tapping into the fear of losing the “good things” people have today that they never had in the past – this has recently been the case in Rwanda, Mauritania, the Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone.
In the “classic” authoritarian bargain, as one would find in Ethiopia, the system is set up such that leaders focus on a top-down, state-engineered approach to delivering tangible economic benefits to citizens, in “exchange” for a narrowed political space where the government can maintain control, without the distracting noise of free-wheeling, liberal democracy.
It is modelled on Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, esteemed in some African circles for its “development today, democracy tomorrow” model of governance.
But it is as though tomorrow never comes. In other words, the experience in Africa lately has been that better economic management brings a greater incentive for political hardening, not necessarily freedom or broad-minded liberal ideals.
You have seen it in Tanzania, where President John Magufuli has been celebrated for his anti-waste, tough, efficient approach to government since he ascended into office late last year, but has been found to be quite thin-skinned, prosecuting people for “insulting” the president on social media.
But there are limits to this model, as Ethiopia’s protests this year have shown us – there is only so much “development” you can shove down people’s throats before they start gasping for air.
The question in the America’s case, is if it can work the other way round – if a nativist, anti-liberal, politically narrow stance can deliver the economic revival that middle America is so desperate for today.