Bad Guys Still Matter

Why 2011 is turning out to be a very bad year for dictators.

The rot appeared to set in for autocrats with the fall of the Soviet Union. Democracy became the only respectable way to govern. It was the "end of history." For the following decade, prospects looked bleak as new democracies took root in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. But gradually, autocracy rallied. Dictators and strongmen learned how to go through the motions of an election while maintaining power.

The techniques were not so complicated once you got the hang of them. If you had sufficient money you could bribe enough swing voters: Think the 2007 Nigerian elections. Failing that, your army could intimidate the supporters of your opponent into staying at home: (Zimbabwe, 2008). As a default option you could always miscount the votes, à la Kenya in 2007.

While these techniques were sufficient to frustrate the "end of history," they did not challenge it intellectually. But the rise of China did just that: Autocracy appeared to outperform democracy at delivering economic development and social peace. Once-failed states like Rwanda put up impressive numbers by following the Chinese model: plenty of state-led growth, but very little freedom. Authoritarian city-states like Singapore and Dubai surged to global prominence. In Africa, autocrats saw that they could not just resort to skulduggery to win elections; they could hold their heads high while doing so.

By 2010, autocracy looked to be so firmly back in business that Laurent Gbagbo, the dictator of Ivory Coast, felt emboldened to take the final step in the degradation of democracy. Gbagbo succumbed to the Achilles' heel of autocrats: sycophancy. Any informed observer could have told him that he stood no chance of winning a fair election. But his entourage did not dare to tell truth to power. So duped was Gbagbo by his toadies that he actually invited the United Nations to observe the election and pronounce on the result. The United Nations duly announced that he had lost. What followed was the logical culmination to a decade in which democracy had been undermined both by incumbents' low tricks and China's high growth. In what might have been the coup de grâce for democracy in Africa, Gbagbo declared himself to be the winner despite the vote.

And then came the disaster of 2011, which in its first few months was already a dark year in the annals of autocracy. Out of the blue, the two helpful forces of cheating and China were countered by two new and utterly different forces: one from the top down, the other from the bottom up.

The top-down force was the international community. This was a surprise. Although after the genocide in Rwanda the United Nations had been embarrassed into adopting the "responsibility to protect" doctrine -- the idea that countries lose their sovereignty when they kill their own people -- it had remained a dead letter. Partly as a reaction to the Iraq war, most governments have been hyperallergic to international interference in other countries' internal barbarisms. Autocrats were lulled into a belief that the international community was made of jelly. But at some point even jelly solidifies.

In 2011, the international community was at last faced with actions that it found intolerable. In Ivory Coast its interventions, while far short of heroic, were sufficiently resolute to weaken Gbagbo to the point at which the modest military force available to the winning candidate, Alassane Ouattara, was sufficient for victory. One might quibble with the pace of intervention, but the amazing thing was that sufficient action was taken to trigger the regime's downfall. The world has drawn a new line in the sand. And it happened just in time: In the coming months Africa faces 19 elections. Incumbents will now be more cautious about overriding election results.

And that is not the only shift: The bottom-up force of information technology, which has shifted the balance of power between governments and their citizens, is making it much harder for governments to keep things secret and is radically lowering the cost of citizen coordination. This is the extraordinary implication of the North African revolutions: Young people can mass in huge numbers through channels that the state cannot control. Autocrats now fear the street in the way that they once feared the IMF. Although the organization of the street may be inchoate, its message to government is unambiguous: jobs and justice. For all but a few autocracies, it's a chilling demand. They lack the technical competence to deliver jobs, and to deliver justice would strike at their raison d'être, which is the preservation of privilege.

All this has combined to produce an excruciating squeeze even on the world's seemingly most secure incumbents of power, from Sudan's Omar Hassan al-Bashir to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe to Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, all of whom have amassed some of the worst governance records of the last several decades, as the Failed States Index shows in devastating numerical detail. If repression can no longer be relied upon, the only remaining models for autocrats are generosity and efficiency. Government handouts can probably still buy off citizens, but the scale needed probably makes it viable only in truly resource-rich states. Efficiency is so difficult that it is simply beyond the capacity of most autocrats. China's astounding growth can probably underpin its autocracy, but even this carries risks. It may be that income growth eventually brings with it pressures that destabilize autocracy: Whereas political violence appears to decline at higher income in democracies, in autocracies it actually appears to increase.

Last year, I wrote in Foreign Policy, "Bad guys matter, and when they rule, they make weak states weaker." Failed states like Zimbabwe aren't simply the product of bad luck; they're invariably the result of terrible decisions made by terrible men.

What we have seen in 2011 is not the end of autocrats. But perhaps history will shortly be over after all.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Democracy Unleashed

With a flurry of elections hitting Africa this year, here are four countries where things could get lively -- maybe too lively.

It's the year of the African election, with 27 countries scheduled to hold presidential, legislative, or local polls throughout 2011. And as much as elections can contribute to democratic progress, in the immediate term they can often be a flashpoint for conflict. Recent examples abound: The Ivory Coast was thrown into a four-month crisis when its outgoing president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to accept the victory of his opponent, President Alassane Ouattara. Uganda's incumbent President Yoweri Museveni won reelection in February, but the opposition has cried foul and his inauguration was marred by violent protests. In regional giant Nigeria, post-election violence killed as many as 800 people.

In many cases, this instability derives not from the elections themselves but from the pressures and fractures that voting brings to the surface. Those cleavages and weak spots are exactly what the Failed States Index (FSI) measures. So what can this year's FSI results tell us about the readiness of these 27 countries for election year? Here is a look at a few of the biggest hot spots.


Elections: General, February 2011

FSI Rank: 21

Just weeks after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni won reelection, hundreds of Ugandans walked to work in protest, heeding the calls of opposition leader Kizza Besigye to demonstrate against the rising cost of living. The police responded forcefully, and Besigye was arrested. The protests gained traction, spurred by videos of Besigye's treatment, and soon thousands took to the streets. By the time Museveni was sworn into office for a fourth term in May, tear gas was suffocating protesters who tried to disturb the festivities. His mandate will extend his rule to 30 years.

The events of early 2011 are emblematic of the multitude of challenges Uganda faces, from economic strain to democratic decline, many of which show up clearly in this year's index. Uganda faces severe demographic pressure, with a rapidly growing population and high youth unemployment; by some estimates, nearly one-third of the youth in Kampala, the capital, are unemployed. The country's economic development has been significant but poorly distributed throughout the population (half of the population still lives on less than $1 per day). Political power is concentrated in the ruling party, and the security apparatus has been used to crack down on the opposition. In recent years, rising costs of food and fuel have exacerbated poverty, particularly in rural areas.

On top of the material challenges, there are the political ones: There are strong divisions between the ruling party and the opposition, which contributed to the protests and violent response. Besigye's arrest, as well as the arrest of other opposition members and leaders, raises questions about human rights and freedom of political expression. And an ongoing spat between Museveni's government and the ethnic kingdom of the Buganda has periodically erupted in violence. On top of it all, the Somali militant group al-Shabab poses a new security threat, having bombed two restaurants in Kampala in July 2010. At exactly the moment Uganda needs to unite, it looks as divided as ever.


Elections: Presidential, legislative, and regional; April 2011

FSI Rank: 14

When Nigeria held elections in April, observers declared them the most credible in the country's history. For the most part, voting went smoothly, and the ballot-stuffing was far less prevalent than in previous years. But the voting itself aside, these were in fact among the most violent elections in Nigeria's history. In addition to local-level candidates who were abducted, killed, or otherwise intimidated prior to the election, post-election violence left some 800 dead, according to Human Rights Watch, and displaced thousands more. Even in a country where politics has often been marred by bloodshed, these were devastating stats.

The Failed States Index offers some clues about the devastating mix of grievances, political cleavages, and economic strains that produced this post-election violence. Although many indicators have improved slightly in the last two years as an amnesty has helped reduce militant violence in the Niger Delta, the future of the arrangement is far from certain, and the underlying grievances remain. Many of Nigeria's 250 ethnic groups have historical bones to pick with the state, and these often cut along geographical and religious lines. A low-level rebellion in the oil-rich Niger Delta has been fueled by the contrast between the region's poverty and the lucrative petroleum extracted from it. In the country's so-called Middle Belt, economic pressure to control scarce farm and grazing land has pitted neighbor against neighbor. Across the board, inequality is pronounced, with 64 percent of the population living on less than $1 per day. Public services are limited -- just 58 percent of the population has access to clean water. After years of corruption, trust in the state is low -- such that in some areas, citizens and even local government officials have turned to vigilante groups to crack down on crime.

Although Nigeria's elections have passed, the underlying pressures that contributed to the post-poll violence remain: poverty, inequality, corruption, grievances against the state and rival identity groups, and a proliferation of armed militant groups. The country's stability going forward will depend on how effectively the new government tackles these issues.


Elections: General, October 2011

FSI Rank: 26

Just minutes after you arrive in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, many of the West African country's weaknesses are vividly on display. Poverty is overwhelming, there is no water system, and only seldom does electricity flicker on without a generator. But construction sites also highlight the country's slow and steady forward momentum. Elections in October will be watched around the world as a test of the country's progress, now almost a decade after its 14-year civil war came to an end.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in office since 2006, has been widely hailed abroad for the investment boom she has ushered into the country. On the ground, however, many Liberians feel that progress isn't moving as fast. Unemployment remains high, with only 15 percent of the population employed in the formal sector. Meanwhile, land rights are a major source of tension, frequently erupting into violence. Families and individuals often lack records of their land ownership, and there have also been disputes over the demarcation of towns, districts, and even county boundaries that have complicated the voter registration process. Liberia has also been affected by a major influx of more than 150,000 refugees fleeing violence caused by the disputed election in neighboring Ivory Coast, putting pressure on border communities. For now, Liberia's security is relatively assured; the country is home to a 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission. But as those forces are eventually whittled down, Liberian forces will face a daunting challenge patrolling a country with few paved roads.


Elections: General, November 2011

FSI Rank: 4

The Democratic Republic of the Congo earned its FSI ranking through years of conflict, an alarming prevalence of violence, and a lack of government services and presence in much of the country. Presidential elections are scheduled for this November -- the second since the end of a civil war that drew in most of the country's neighbors and may have killed as many as 5 million people between 1998 and 2008.

Yet though Congo's conflict is officially over, much of the worst violence persists, particularly in the country's east. Rebel groups and militias frequently spar over land, resources, and access to the Congo's lucrative mineral deposits. Civilians bear the brunt of this ad hoc fighting; a study released this May indicates that sexual assault is so rampant that annual rape statistics would translate into 48 women every hour. The police force is underequipped and undertrained to deal with the crime, nor has a U.N. peacekeeping mission of nearly 20,000 troops been effective at stemming the conflict.

Congo demonstrates among the worst scores across the board on the Failed States Index, with implications for the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for this November. It is home to 185,000 refugees and more than 2 million internally displaced men, women, and children. The security apparatus is not only among the world's least effective, but it has also been implicated in widespread abuses against civilians; and demographic pressures are exacerbating conflicts over scarce land and resources.

In 2006, the elections turned violent when militias supporting the two major candidates clashed in the capital. This time, the stakes are higher because the runoff round of the presidential election has been eliminated in favor of a single winner-take-all contest, and the state of insecurity in much of the country paves the way for violence and intimidation before, during, and after the polling process.