It’s a telling sign of the times that the UN General Assembly (UNGA) address of Col. Mamadi Doumbouya, leader of Guinea’s military regime, was singled out for praise across social media platforms last week. Doumbouya criticized condemnation of the wave of military coups d’état that has swept across the Sahel and beyond, insisting that “the real putschists” are leaders who “cheat to manipulate the text of the constitution in order to stay in power eternally.” But he didn’t stop there. Apparently it wasn’t just a corrupt and self-serving leader’s third-term bid that forced the military’s hand in Guinea, it was the West, which, in his telling, imposed democracy on unwilling Africans. Having already appointed himself the leader of Guineans, he decided to speak for all of Africa in rejecting democratic governance, suggesting that it is ill suited to African “realities, our customs and environment.” It was a canny mix of legitimate grievances of faux democracies, erasure of the many Africans who sacrificed and struggled for their civil and political rights, scapegoating of a monolithic West, and Pan-African window dressing for a regime that is violently suppressing political demonstrations at home.
Justifying repression as an act of standing up to the West is very much in vogue. Seizing the political zeitgeist, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame framed his recently-announced decision to run for a fourth term in office as an act of defiance, noting that “what the West thinks is not my problem.” “What is democracy? The West dictating to others what they should do?” mused Kagame. In an audacious bit of messaging jujitsu, rather than justifying a coup d’état by pointing to the West’s tendency to overlook the manipulation of ostensibly democratic systems, Kagame deflects attention from his own political manipulation (he pushed through a referendum changing presidential term limits in 2015) by capitalizing on Western concerns about his unwillingness to step down. He needn’t trouble himself about his re-election prospects either; last time he received over 98 percent of the vote, and Rwanda’s tightly controlled political space offers dissenting voices very little room for maneuver.
Across the continent, new and long-serving leaders are finding it advantageous to cast Western powers as neo-imperialist bullies, and to discard democratic norms as tools of oppression. There are many valid criticisms of Western policies that deserve serious attention. Equally, it is clear that the international institutional architecture needs reform if it is to survive, one of several reasons why it was unfortunate that so many Western leaders chose not to attend this year’s general assembly meetings in New York, where attention was supposed to focus on revitalizing efforts to reach critical development goals. But conflating frustration with Western powers and rejection of accountable governance makes little sense, and the idea that strongmen who silence their own citizens represent the political aspirations of people across the continent is absurd.