Lockdowns have helped African strongmen to tighten grip on power

Friday May 22 2020

Seith Kangume Barigye

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided another chessboard move to African strongmen in their continued manoeuvre to hold onto State power.

At least lockdowns of most of these countries have enabled the leaders to have a better and more powerful grip and control of the societies over which they exercise their authority.

In the first instance, it has given them ‘legitimate’ reason to crack down on the work and organisational capacity of the Opposition, given the obvious restrictions on gatherings to prevent the spread of coronavirus. This has made it extremely difficult for the Opposition to operate within these circumstances, often facing the wrath of the State machinery.

To their advantage, these leaders have had a one-man show by being exclusively covered by mass media, especially regarding announcement of measures and guidelines, and to take all the political credit for the fight against the deadly pandemic.

I must confess that I have never seen almost every citizen of Uganda, for instance, pay utmost attention to President Museveni’s addresses the way they have under this crisis. I believe he feels more President than he has ever been.

With the lockdown that has resulted in loss of employment and the closure of businesses for many people, survival has become very real. Therefore, the question of access to food is indispensable and the distribution of food rations has become an exclusive preserve of these powerful leaders, making them look like guardian angels.


An endeavour to break this monopoly by other leaders has been, in some instances, threatened with “attempted murder” charges.

The typical authoritarian African leader will, in such circumstances, please a few members of the upper class with whatever ‘gifts’ at his disposal, and will make sure he tightens his defence and security while allowing a few sectors in maintaining a threshold level of State sustainability in the form of agriculture and food transportation, essential services like water, electricity, telecommunications, and the import and export of essential goods to continue operating.
Such an arrangement only leaves the majority of the population vulnerable and only looking up to the President for survival.

This situation also explains the paradox that is the use of economic sanctions on authoritarian leaders by the West in order to exert on them economic and political pressure to leave power.

This has proven even worse. The ordinary citizens of these countries suffer worse conditions of poverty, hunger, unemployment and human rights abuse, among others. The cases of Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe and others are very telling.

The target leaders of the sanctions transfer all the economic burden onto the citizenry while they remain with just enough resources to provide food and essential services to the people. These leaders become even more powerful and feared. At the end of the day, they get means of circumventing the situation, and stably and more tightly holding onto power.

For Africa, at least, my prayer is that by the end of this crisis, we should have learned lessons that will push us into a direction of more independence and self-sustainability.

Our capacity to produce what we need for consumption and for export must take real shape. Our planning must be more sophisticated to allow us become more resilient to such pandemics in future. This, I say because, after all, the events that will happen after this may well be out of my control.

Mr Barigye is a Labour rights advocate.