Michelle Gavin: “The status quo is unsustainable and change will eventually come to Uganda.”
GP Interview on the demands of Africa’s youth for political participation, current trends in governance and the human rights situation
Michelle D. Gavin is senior fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has over twenty years of experience in international affairs in government and non-profit roles. She was formerly the managing director of The Africa Center, a multidisciplinary institution dedicated to increasing understanding of contemporary Africa. From 2011 to 2014 she was the United States ambassador to Botswana, and served concurrently as the United States representative to the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
In our GP Interview Ms Gavin talks about the demands of Africa’s youth for political participation, current trends in governance and the human rights situation, especially in Uganda.
The enormous age gap between the population and the government in various African states leads to many young Africans feeling excluded from active participation in politics. Michelle Gavin calls for change: “The leadership is going to have to start looking more like the society it purports to lead.”
The latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance shows a decline in African governance performance for the first time in a decade. Africa is part of a global trend of democratic recession and surging authoritarianism – especially in times of a pandemic. However, as Gavin points out in our interview, various African states have been making progress. “It’s not as if there are no positive stories about democracy and respect, particularly for civil and political rights on the continent.”.
As Michelle Gavin analyses, “there is no question that the electoral process [in Uganda] was deeply flawed”. The pre-election conditions, the consistent intimidation of opposition candidates such as Bobi Wine and their supporters at the use of state resources as well as the disappearance, abduction and torturing of opposition supporters reveal deep problems in the governance system in Uganda. But Gavin has high hopes: “The status quo is unsustainable and change will eventually come to Uganda.”
To strengthen systems of governance in Uganda and elsewhere, and thus prevent human rights abuses and enable fair elections in the future, Gavin calls for the international community to exchange more “with young people in African states to get a clearer understanding of how they feel about government, the political process, their opportunities to engage”.
Read the full interview here:
GPI: The African continent has the youngest population in the world with a median age of 19.5 years, whilst the average age of an African president is 62 years. Many young Africans feel excluded from active participation in politics. What are your thoughts on this?
Michelle Gavin: I actually think this is one of the most important issues to wrap our minds around if we’re really going to understand the trajectory of most African states. The population skews incredibly young. The leadership – more so even than in other regions – tends to be quite old. And that gap in lived experience is where I think we’re going to see the kind of drivers for political change going forward. There is an awful lot of young people looking for opportunity and a sense of ownership and a stake in their society. So, I think that has not only serious economic structural implications, but big political implications. And it’s going to have to change the society – the leadership is going to have to start looking more like the society it purports to lead.
GPI: The newly published Amnesty International report states that authoritarian leaders are increasingly violating human rights. The COVID-19 pandemic is being used to facilitate these violations. These findings are in line with the latest Ibrahim index, which shows a decline in African governance performance for the first time in a decade. What is your interpretation of the state of human rights across Africa in 2021?
Michelle Gavin: These reports are really interesting because they do show us a set of worrying trend lines, but most of the reports, from the Ibrahim Index or the Freedom House, show sort of a divergence. There’s a set of African states that have been making progress. It’s not as if there are no positive stories about democracy and respect, particularly for civil and political rights on the continent. But there has been a lot of backsliding. Africa is part of a global trend of democratic recession and surging authoritarianism, and certainly the global pandemic, which requires measures of social control that are far outside the norm, does present opportunities for leaders with authoritarian tendencies to assert themselves and roll back freedoms. But I think it also shows us a lot about the importance of trust in the state. It’s hard to effectively impose public health measures over a long period of time without some social trust in the leadership. So, I think that there are real challenges to democratic governance all over the world, and Africa is no exception, but there are bright spots. The last thing I’ll say on this is, if you look at the polling in Afrobarometer there is some really great polling. Consistently, African populations, including those living in states that have been backsliding on democratic indicators, want democratic and accountable government. They also want a government that works. They want both.
GPI: That’s very understandable. I guess everybody is looking for a government that works, be it in Germany or in Uganda, where a presidential election occurred on January 14th 2021. The Ugandan electoral committee declared President Museveni the winner. And however, opposition parties, including Bobi Wine, claim massive voter fraud and do not accept the election results. So how do you assess the current situation in Uganda?
Michelle Gavin: Well, there’s no question that that electoral process was deeply flawed, aside from what happened on Election Day itself. Just the pre-election conditions, that consistent intimidation of opposition candidates and their supporters at the use of state resources to bolster the incumbent. It’s a hugely problematic exercise. And what we’re seeing now in the wake of it is equally disturbing, the disappearances, opposition supporters being abducted, tortured, it’s a deeply worrisome echo of other periods of Ugandan history.
And I think that’s important to remember, too, that for quite some time it’s been clear that there are deep problems in the governance system in Uganda, that the state has become sort of more and more authoritarian, more sensitive to criticism. And over time this has been ignored largely by the international community, sort of acknowledged and then forgotten. I think in part because there’s this hope of that Uganda will be an island of stability in a very difficult region. President Museveni is a known quantity and but it’s clear that it’s unsustainable. The status quo is unsustainable and change will eventually come to Uganda. So I think that one doesn’t even have to be a critic of President Museveni to acknowledge that there’s got to be a conversation about Uganda’s future that isn’t wholly dependent on him in his authority.
GPI: Talking about a way forward, Bobi Wine and other opposition leaders are calling for an international audit of the election, drawing inspiration from a similar case that occurred in Afghanistan. How likely is if for such an international audit to take place in Uganda?
Michelle Gavin: Well, candidly, I am not optimistic that that will take place, in part because in the case of Afghanistan, you already had a tremendous amount of international intervention and stake in the process and the state. It’s a different story in Uganda. And I think the kind of reckoning that I was talking about, the acknowledgement that things are clearly going in the wrong direction, that is a process that’s still unfolding. So, what you definitely don’t have are a set of regional actors who will be very, very important, even decisive in a conversation like that, ready to impose on an unwilling President Museveni any kind of exercise like that. But that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost and it doesn’t mean that it’s not an effective strategy for Bobi Wine and others in the opposition to call for that kind of accountability.
GPI: You were talking about the international community. In your opinion, how could the international community engage more effectively to strengthen systems of governance in Uganda and elsewhere?
Michelle Gavin: The first prescription that I would make is a more honest look earlier, not a crisis response, but an honest assessment with all of our international partners about the nature of governance. Critically, hold more conversations with young people in African states to get a clearer understanding of how they feel about the government, the political process, their opportunities to engage. It’s tremendously illuminating to actually talk to the dominant demographic in a given place.
GPI: A reminder to consider the youth and young people and political processes. Thank you very much, Michelle Gavin from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Nora Kiefer, Project Management