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Africa’s inclusive autocrats are seemingly handing over power through decentralisation processes. In reality, they are tightening the grip.


‘An autocracy is a system of government in which supreme power (social and political) is concentrated in the hands of one person’ [or party, Ed.]

Wikipedia entry, accessed November 6, 2017


Many African leaders are amongst the most authoritarian leaders in the world. At the same time, several of them have promoted, pushed or merely accepted wide-ranging reforms aiming to distribute power to the local levels. They are so-called inclusive autocrats. The paradox of the inclusive autocrats form the background for CMI researchers Lovise Aalen and Ragnhild Louise Muriaas’ new book Manipulating political decentralisation: Africa’s inclusive autocrats.

The myth of ‘deepening democracy’
Political decentralisation has been a mantra for donors worldwide. Distribution of political power to lower levels are believed to have positive effects on democracy, yet the realpolitik of the inclusive autocrats tells a different story.

-Africa’s inclusive autocrats have strategically used decentralisation processes and reforms to strengthen their power. They use decentralisation as a means of co-opting people and as a means of crushing political adversaries, says Lovise Aalen.

The potential misuse of decentralisation reforms and processes feeds directly into debates on democracy and governance. The belief in decentralisation as a tool for deepening democracy has led donors to push for local elections and a redistribution of funds and resources to the local level in many countries.

-The donor drive for decentralisation has failed. Strong party structures ensure that control and power remain in the hands of the political elite, says Aalen.

Manipulating strategies
Aalen and Muriaas use examples from Africa’s inclusive autocracies to demonstrate how political decentralisation processes and reforms are manipulated to secure and reinforce power for the central authorities.

The New York Times recently published a news article on how Ethiopia became a land of informers; a society stained by fear that your neighbor will snitch on you for not being loyal to the regime. The Ethiopian regime has gone to extremes in the quest for absolute control and power, pursuing a strategy Aalen and Muriaas describe as national dominance. -Ethiopia is in effect a one party state. The regime has placed loyal cadres all over the country, and uses them actively to keep any political opponents as well as the population as a whole in check. If the central party’s interests are at stake, the local cadres step up and regain control, says Aalen. Protests against the regime in the two most populous regional states, Amhara and Oromia, in 2015 and 2016, may however lead to new dynamics, where regional governments manage to reinforce their position vis-à-vis the central government.

While Ethiopia has, at least up until now, had an infallible system, other inclusive autocracies, like Uganda and South Africa, have systems that involve a certain amount of risk.

Uganda, another inclusive autocracy, has chosen a different strategy. The party in power has managed to overwhelm the opposition by taking decentralisation processes to the extremes. Uganda has an intricate system of special representation at all levels and for all groups. There are elected committees for women, for people with disabilities, and for a wide range of interest groups. In practice, there are separate elections for so many levels that the opposition is unable to mobilise a sufficient amount of people to stand for election. Yet, there is political maneuvering space for an opposition to exist.

In South Africa, the central authorities have allowed and even contributed to create regional opposition enclaves. The governing party, the African National Congress (ANC) is so strong that it knows that a few regional opposition enclaves cannot threaten its power. The country’s history, economy and ethnic composition are factors that still contribute to secure absolute power for ANC.

-It seems unlikely that ANC’s position will be challenged in the near future, says Aalen.

 An interesting aspect of the South African case is that although the country is defined as a democracy, the ruling ANC uses elements of the same strategies of manipulation as autocratic Ethiopia and Uganda. This shows again how decentralisation and democratisation should not be considered as two sides of the same coin, which is the main message of Aalen and Muriaas’ new book.