How do dictators keep power in Africa?

Yonatan Morse/How Autocrats Compete Book Cover
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How do dictators retain power? And why do some autocrats manipulate elections more than others? Yonatan Morse explains the most important lessons from his great new book.

We live in an era where democracy is increasingly challenged, and more and more countries are referred to as competitive or electoral authoritarian. Africa is no exception, and while multiparty elections are still commonplace, increasingly they are not free and fair.

Yet, not all unfair elections are created equally, and a closer look across the continent reveals a range of manipulative practices. Some regimes regularly use more drastic forms of election meddling like stuffing ballot boxes or arresting political opponents. But, others resort to less obvious subversions of the democratic process and nonetheless emerge victorious.

In my new book How Autocrats Compete, I argue that these differences are actually quite significant and tell us something deeper about how authoritarianism operates. I claim that decisions about manipulation in unfair elections are shaped by the ability of autocrats to rely on consistent elite and voter support. In other words, if autocrats can win elections with less overt manipulation, they will.

The question is of course, how do autocrats secure this consistent support?

Most autocracies are not afforded such guarantees. No dictator can be sure that their friends today will not be their enemies tomorrow. Life in autocracies can also be very transactional – a quid pro quo for political support rather than a real steady relationship.

Indeed, that kind of authoritarian environment is quite common in Africa. We often assume that autocracy in Africa survives because rulers cleverly use the sticks and carrots at their disposal, in part to manipulate ethnic divisions to shape election outcomes.

But, this image can be misleading. At times, authoritarian regimes rely more heavily on institutions – political parties to be specific – to bind elites and voters. In the book I draw attention to what I call a credible ruling party and use this factor to explain when an autocrat might manipulate less, but nonetheless win elections decisively.

The book provides evidence from a range of African cases, and focuses in-depth on Tanzania, Cameroon, and Kenya. Here I discuss the two major ways a credible party helps autocrats compete in unfair elections with examples from Tanzania.

Credible Parties Stabilize Elite Careers

Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s eminent father figure once wrote, “no party which limits its membership to a clique can ever free itself from fear of overthrow from those it has excluded.” In that succinct statement he captured the key dilemmas of autocratic rule.

For many reasons, the ruling party in Tanzania (CCM and its predecessor TANU) was more inclusive than in other countries. The party held lively national congresses and competitive primaries for decades before elections were even held. In 1985, Nyerere stepped down and introduced a competitive primary system to select the party’s presidential candidate.

These qualities limited a number of tendencies that characterize other autocracies. To get ahead, one had to play by the rules. The president, while powerful, had to cede some independent authority to the party. While corruption eventually became a major issue, the party fought to keep its procedural integrity intact. This structured and stabilized elite careers in ways that other autocracies did not.

My research shows that these developments also influence how CCM now contests elections. Across similar periods, CCM elites express fewer grievances and were less likely to defect than in other cases. Moreover, the party has frequently inserted itself into local disputes, especially during the nomination process, to level the playing field. This has provided the regime with greater certainty prior to elections.

Crucially, the presidential primary system neutralized a key source of elite tension in authoritarian regimes  – succession. This was clear in 2015 when Edward Lowassa’s nomination stirred controversy due to his involvement in corruption scandals. While Lowassa was popular, CCM’s ethics committee rejected his candidacy in favor of John Magufuli. This was a powerful signal that the institutional processes within the party mattered. Lowassa defected, but few elites joined him.

Credible Parties Foster Wide Voter Support

Autocrats also worry about popular support, and the African experience is noted for the use of clientelism and ethnicity as a basis for political power. Yet, in Tanzania the process of building popular support looks different than in other cases.

First, Tanzania built a party that was remarkably large. While some debate the real success of this endeavor, the regime claimed to have a party office for every ten homes in rural and urban areas. This put everyday citizens in daily touch with the ruling party.

Second, Nyerere deliberately targeted rural constituencies with public goods, regardless of their ethnicity. This fostered a relationship with the ruling party that did not depend on the identity of the individual in charge, but the presence of the party in power.

Once again, this was influential during elections. In the book I find that in addition to CCM’s general rural electoral edge, it win’s particularly big in areas that benefitted from a specific phase of economic planning in the 1970s. Opposition parties often make reference to the closed mindset of voters from these areas.

This is quite different from other electoral authoritarian regimes in Africa, where autocrats at times could only rely on their co-ethnics for support and had to use repression to prevent defeat. In cases like Cameroon, autocrats could only rebuild voter support by co-opting ethnic groups.

Why Understanding How Autocrats Compete is Important

Understanding how autocrats compete teaches us important lessons about authoritarianism. First, it tells us not to conflate a seemingly less repressive election with a greater propensity toward democracy. In fact, a less repressive electoral authoritarian regime like Tanzania’s might actually signal a more confident regime.

Second, it tells us that the nature of institutions created by autocrats have consequences. Arguably, Tanzania’s credible ruling party provides it with more legs to stand on, and an ability to prevent challenges rather than just react to them. On the other hand, when regimes depend on blatant manipulation, authoritarian survival is far less certain.

This means that we need to be careful when we assess terms like “authoritarian stability” by referring simply to an autocrat’s time in office. It is crucial to look under the hood and appreciate how power is exercised in authoritarian regimes, and to grasp the real diversity of authoritarian institutions and politics.


Yonatan Morse is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut




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