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'Putinsanity' Energizes Nascent Democratic Movements In Sub-Saharan Africa

01/08/2015 05:18 EST | Updated 03/10/2015 05:59 EDT

I have borrowed the term "Putinsanity" from Daniel Kaufmann, a renowned economist who specializes in governance. Kaufmann used the term in 2012 after Vladimir Putin was re-elected as president of Russia once again, having already served as head of state twice between 2000 and 2008. After appointing a figurehead ruler and awarding himself premiership, Putin merely awaited his next term as president which began in 2012 and is expected to end in 2018, thanks to the constitutional amendment that extended presidential tenure to six years. If Putin wins re-election in 2018, he will be president until 2024. He will have ruled Russia for nearly two and a half decades.

Looking back now, Putinsanity was still mild in 2012 when Kaufmann invented the term. Putin's actions were to become more lethal in 2014 when he annexed the Crimea, exported fighters into Ukraine who are suspected to have downed a civilian airliner, and dared the rest of the world to do something about it. Putinsanity had by then turned Putin into a global strongman with no "Achilles' heel." Putin was simply invincible.

Then a funny thing happened. Russia's economy imploded following the collapse of oil prices -- the country's primary source of income -- which soon brought down the Russian currency, too. Helmed in also by Western sanctions, panic soon set in. One can only imagine the atmosphere in which Russia's central bank bureaucrats met in the middle of the night in a futile attempt to save the rubble by raising interest rates from 10.5 to a shocking 17 per cent. Putinsanity appeared to be checkmated. Suddenly Putin was the biblical giant warrior waiting to be slain by who knows what kind of a David.

But what has Putinsanity got to do with Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) you ask? Plenty. There, too, seemingly invincible rulers abound, bullying their way into infinite power through various methods that make Putin envious.

The Inheritors are heads of state who either took power when a parent or an uncle passed on, or who grabbed power from a relative. Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, aged 68, is the President of Djibouti for 16 years who succeeded his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon. Uncle and nephew have been in power for 38 years. Gabon's Ali Bongo Ondimba, 56, has been president of Gabon since 2009, when his father Omar Bongo who ruled from 1967 died.

Father and son have been in power for 48 years. Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, 49, took over when his father Gnassingbé Eyadéma died in 2005. Father and son have also ruled for 48 years. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, 72, has been in power since 1979, after ousting his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema through a military coup in which the latter was killed by a firing squad. Uncle and nephew have ruled Equatorial Guinea for 48 years. Joseph Kabila, 44, has been President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 2001 after his father, Laurent Kabila was assassinated. Father and son have ruled DRC for 18 years.

Other heads of state in perpetuity include rulers whose presidential terms are not subject to termination, a feat achieved via constitutional amendment or electoral manipulation. These include Cameroon's 81-year-old Paul Biya who is one year short of 40 years as premier and as president. Jose Eduardo dos Santos who has run Angola for 35 is 72 as well. The 90-year old Robert Mugabe has led Zimbabwe first as prime minister and president for 34 years. At 71, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda has been in power for 28 years. The 70-year old Omar al-Bashir has ruled Sudan for 25 years. Isaias Afwerki is the first President of the State of Eritrea, a position he has held since 1991 -- the 69 year old is in power for 24 years.

The new amenders, or those attempting to remove terms include DRC's Kabila, and Prierre Nkurunziza of Burundi; their second and last terms end this year. Paul Kagame of Rwanda who, from 1994 ruled through a figurehead, becoming head of state in 2000, is now in his second term of 7 years that end in 2017. Kagame appears not to be taking any chances -- he has given his ruling party "homework" on a formula for "continuity" while affiliated junior parties have already given him the green light to amend the constitution and run again. If he is "reelected" in 2017 -- this is a gentleman who wins by margins above 93 per cent -- Kagame will complete his third term in 2024 at the age of 67, having ruled Rwanda for 30 years. The Rwandan ruler might go for a fourth term, which would end in 2031, with Kagame still a young man of 74.

But might a totally unexpected "funny thing" happen to tame Putinsanity in Sub-Saharan Africa? Or are SSA heads of state so invincible that they defy Sir Isaac Newton's science of "what goes up must come down"?

The pessimistic or even racist view would be that no change of democratic kind is possible in SSA and that the above summation of a variety of dictatorships proves how hopeless the situation is. Far from it. Putinsanity has been tamed in Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Botswana. Countries such as Nigeria, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, and Kenya are consolidating democratic gains since emerging from one party-regimes of the 1990s, occasional setbacks notwithstanding.

And remember the Burkinabé people power? Just like the collapse of oil prices and rubble that have shaken the foundation of Putinsanity in its homeland, the Burkinabé uprising came from "nowhere" to end a 27-year Blaise Compaore' s dictatorship in two days. People had just had enough of the regime. Well now, these seemingly unrelated events remind us that no country or region is preordained to remain a playground for some strongman. On the contrary, these occurrences energize nascent democratic movements in Sub-Saharan Africa by inspiring courage to abandon fear and status quo.