People's Newsroom

African autocrats have new allies

The police and military are being replaced by thugs as weapons of violence to build a veil of deniability

Autocratic regimes in Africa don’t change their stripes. They do, however, try and disguise them.

For many years African dictators and autocrats relied on the police and other security forces – who used brute force against opposition supporters – to suppress dissent, eliminate critics and consolidate their grip on power.

tudents stage a protest during Liberia's 175th Independence day in Monrovia, Liberia, 26 July 2022. The Presidents of Nigeria, Guinea Bissau, and The Gambia are attending the official event for the 175th Independence day of Liberia. Students of the University of Liberia (UL), campus based Student Unification Party (SUP) staged 'Fix the country' protest against corruption and human rights abuses in the country. Liberia declared its independence in 26 July 1847, making it the oldest democratic republic in Africa.
Students protesting against Liberia’s government in capital Monrovia on the country’s 175th Independence Day, 26 July 2022. Protesters were attacked by goons, who were allegedly close to the ruling party. EPA-EFE/AHMED JALLANZO (EPA)

From Kenya in East Africa to Liberia in West Africa, police organizations have traditionally been known to help dictators in rigging elections, crushing public demonstrations, and abducting members of the opposition and civil society. Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe became notorious for this ever since his ruling party started facing serious political opposition at the turn of the century.

Yet the rise of human rights organizations and their documentation of these practices have helped to pressure African governments, while also informing decisions on foreign aid, sanctions, and other dimensions of international cooperation.

The response of Africa’s autocrats? Police brutality, while still an effective instrument of repression in many countries, is being tactically replaced or aided by a more devious and cruder devise: thuggery. It’s a shift in practice that the international community must recognize, monitor, and adapt to if governments they share aid with are to be held accountable.

In Liberia in July, and in Nigeria and Guinea in recent years, we have seen governments use street goons against members of the opposition. These thugs are often more vicious than even the police, are difficult to trace, and allow governments deniability in ways that make it very hard to hold anyone responsible.

Governments have a ready pool of recruits to tap into, as Africa’s youth continue to battle poverty and economic uncertainty. In Liberia, the “Zogos”, as delinquent youth and petty street criminals are commonly called, are frequently seen at political rallies and demonstrations. Instead of addressing the policy failures that are driving these young people into drugs, crime, and thuggery, Liberian politicians have instrumentalized them as an effective weapon against their political opponents.

Autocrats will always look for new ways to target critics. It’s important for activists and human rights organizations to stay one step ahead of them, in order to demand – and secure – justice.

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