Monday, June 20, 2022

Living successfully with OCD


Thursday, June 16, 2022

I Believe I Can Touch the Sky: From Poverty to Prosperity in Stories


I was born in rural Shelby County, in East Texas, in the 1940s, a time of rigid segregation. Parking in my hometown of 715 people was segregated by race and I went to a separate school where books and desks were hand-me-downs from the town’s white school. The first new textbook I ever laid hands on was a physics textbook in high school when the school district included physics for the first time and had to buy a sufficient quantity for both schools.

     After graduating from high school in 1962, too poor to attend college and refusing to accept the employment available to black people in East Texas at the time, I joined the United States Army to see the world that I’d been introduced to through crinkled pages of old National Geographic magazines.

     In the ensuing fifty-plus years, I rose from the poverty of a small farming town to prosperity, from tending the pigs on our small farm to meeting with kings in their palaces and presidents in their state houses.

     Thanks to the urging of my daughter, Denise Ray-Wickersham, I have finally put down stories from my life in written form—stories that I bored her and her brother with when they were growing up and her children with during the past few years.

     I Believe I Can Touch the Sky: Stories from My Life is not your usual memoir. The focus is not really on me, but on the incidents and events that impacted on me in my life. Short and to the point, much like the novelettes I write, it is a series of stories that stretch back over seven decades. Stories about the famous and infamous, the well-known and the unknown. It is a story of the persistence and patience of a young boy who refused to accept that the pine-covered clay hills were all there was to the world, or that he was limited to what other people said he could do because of the color of his skin.  


Available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle version on Amazon. Get your copy today:

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022


As a non-partisan organization composed of retired Generals, Admirals, Ambassadors, and Senior Government Executives, and dedicated to promoting policies and measures to ensure the security of the United States, democratic principles, and international peace and prosperity, the American College of National Security Leaders fully supports our Commander-in-Chief’s stated resolve to support “a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression,” as articulated in his May 31 “guest essay” in The New York Times. U.S. leadership and collaboration with NATO and, indeed, all of our allies and partners are essential in this effort, as it has now been more than three months since Russia expanded the brutal and unprovoked invasion and occupation of Ukraine—and we must prepare ourselves for the likelihood that this conflict could last many months, if not years. It is important to recall that Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of portions of eastern Ukraine. This conflict did not start in February 2022, rather, this was an escalation of a conflict that has already seen over eight years of violence and repression. Supporting Ukraine is not only the moral thing to do, but it also is in the vital interest of the United States. Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine is also an attack on the rules-based international order that we fought so hard to establish at the end of the Second World War. If Russia’s actions are not met with firm, unified and resolute action from freedom loving nations, other wouldbe aggressors will be emboldened to impose their will on weaker nations. We should take pride in stalwartness of NATO in this effort, remembering that in NATO’s infancy, President Truman termed NATO “a shield against aggression.” The addition of Finland and Sweden, two partner nations, strategically located, who share our values and interests, will significantly strengthen that shield. From a practical aspect, we point out that supporting Ukraine now will save billions (if not trillions) of US taxpayer dollars in the future. We recognize that the current US aid package of over 40 billion dollars is considerable, but this pales in comparison to the price, in lives and money, that United States has borne in previous wars. Let us also not forget that appeasement does not work - it was ineffective in 1938 and again in 2014. Ukraine is not asking us to fight their war, 15 June 2022 they are asking for the tools they need to fight for their own country, their own interests, their own freedom. We also can neither neglect nor forget the second and third order costs of this conflict that will only increase if Russia is allowed to impose its will on its neighbors. The cessation of food exports from Ukraine has resulted in disastrous shortages and exorbitant prices of grain for much of the world, with likely resultant hunger and starvation, especially, in lower income countries. Similarly, severely decreasing energy (petroleum and natural gas) availability yields additional economic and additional humanitarian crises. Hence, Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine directly threatens the welfare of not only Ukraine, but of the entire planet. We, the undersigned members of the American College of National Security Leaders, are resolute in our belief that the United States has a moral obligation to boldly counter the unprovoked and continuing aggression by Russia against Ukraine. American leadership until this conflict is ended, however how long that takes, is in our strategic interest. Along with our allies, our sustained and unified support is critical. 

Lieutenant General Ronald Blanck, USA (Retired) Vice Admiral Kevin Green, USN (Retired) Vice Admiral Dirk Debbink, USN (Retired) Mr. Bruce Lemkin, former Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force (International Affairs), SES (Retired) Major General David Burford, USA (Retired) Major General Mari K Eder, USA (Retired) Major General Sanford Holman, USA (Retired) Major General Margaret Woodward, USAF (Retired) Major General Gale Pollock, USA (Retired) Major General Peter Cooke, USA (Retired) Major General Donna Barbisch, USA (Retired) Major General Paul Eaton, USA (Retired) Major General Randy Manner, USA (Retired) Major General Richard Haddad, USA (Retired) Major General Robert Harding USA (Retired) Major General Steven J. Lepper, USAF (Retired) Major General David Zabecki, USA (Retired) Major General Andrew F. Turley, USAF (Retired) Ambassador Gerald Feierstein (Retired) Ambassador Douglas Silliman (Retired) Ambassador Patrick Kennedy (Retired) Ambassador Dennis Jett (Retired) Ambassador Hugo Llorens (Retired) Ambassador Earl Wayne (Retired) Ambassador Glyn Davies (Retired) Ambassador Pamela White (Retired) Ambassador John M. Jones (Retired) Ambassador Kurt Tong (Retired) Ambassador Cameron Hume (Retired) Ambassador Steven McGann (Retired) Mr. Robert McBrien, SES Dept of Treasury (Retired) Mr. Thomas Countryman, SES State (Retired) Rear Admiral Jan Hamby, USN (Retired) Rear Admiral David Oliver, USN (Retired) Rear Admiral Harold Robinson, USN (Retired) Rear Admiral Charles Harr, USN (Retired) Rear Admiral Todd Squire, USN (Retired) Rear Admiral Sandy Adams, USN (Retired) Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett, USN (Retired) Brigadier General J. Scott O’Meara, USMC (Retired) Brigadier General Ricardo Aponte, USA (Retired) Brigadier Carlos Martinez, USAF (Retired) Brigadier General Joseph V. Medina, USA (Retired) Brigadier General John Douglass, USAF (Retired) Brigadier General Robert Felderman, USA (Retired) Brigadier General David R. Irvine, USA (Retired) Brigadier General Dan Woodward, USAF (Retired) Colonel Robert Gaylord, USAF (Retired)

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Cameroon: Africa's Unseen Crisis

 Originally published by FPRI:  Cameroon: Africa’s Unseen Crisis - Foreign Policy Research Institute (

Cameroon: Africa's Unseen Crisis

by Charles A. Ray and Hermann A. Ndofor

The international community has fallen asleep at the wheel when it comes to the crisis in Cameroon. Brutal killings burned villages and hundreds of thousands of displaced people – and the reaction is a deafening silence.

Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council

In terms of international attention, not all conflicts are equal. Some, like Russia’s war against Ukraine, receive the lion’s share of global media coverage and diplomatic engagement. Others, sadly, are ignored by the vast majority of foreign policy experts. The crisis in Cameroon, the site of one of the world’s unseen wars for nearly six years, falls into that latter category. This Central African country of 26 million people has been locked in a series of conflicts, ranging from fighting between the Francophone central government and Anglophone separatists in southern Cameroon to interethnic clashes in the country’s north. Killings, kidnappings, and internal displacement of people fleeing the violence, if left unchecked, could lead to another Rwanda-type catastrophe. Over 6,000 people have been killed and nearly one million people have already been displaced by the ongoing violence in the country. The presence of Boko Haram in the north, growing ties between Cameroon and Russia, and the recent introduction of the Kremlin-linked private military company, the Wagner Group, only adds fuel to an already volatile situation.

The United States is beginning to recognize the extent of the challenge in Cameroon. Last month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas granted temporary protective status to Cameroonians who were already residing in the United States on April 14. This action, which the Center for American Progress estimates will apply to up to 40,000 people, is for a period of 18 months. While this is a good first step, more needs to be done to stop the violence before it spirals out of control. The Anglophone-Francophone conflict in the south, combined with interethnic violence in the country’s north, if allowed to go unchecked, could very well turn into a Rwanda-like catastrophe that would require outside intervention to prevent genocide. The United States should coordinate with the United Nations, the African Union, regional groupings, and Cameroon’s neighbors to encourage all sides in the separatist conflict to find peaceful ways to settle their differences. Doing so would save lives, prevent an even greater humanitarian disaster, and advance U.S. diplomatic and security interests.

Backsliding in Cameroon

Cameroon was once considered a beacon of stability in Africa. After its independence from France in 1960, Cameroon enjoyed a period of peace that allowed the country to develop critical infrastructure such as roads and railways and profitable agricultural and petroleum industries. The Francophone majority, however, dominated the central government. As a result, the Anglophone region of the country was marginalized and left out of power sharing. Tensions between the two groups intensified when Ahmadou Ahidjo, the country’s first post-independence president, resigned in 1982 and was replaced by Paul Biya, a position he has held ever since.

Differences between Francophone and Anglophone Cameroonians were further exacerbated in 2008, when the constitution was amended to abolish presidential term limits. This allowed Biya, whose Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement holds a strong majority in the National Assembly, to become president for life.

For the last several years, international experts have been concerned that Cameroon could descend into chaos. In 2016, lawyers, students, and teachers from the country’s English-speaking minority launched protests objecting to their under-representation and cultural marginalization by the central government. The state responded with a brutal crackdown. The ensuing violence has caused a massive dislocation. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Cameroon security forces have engaged in a scorched earth policy of razing villages and indiscriminately torturing, maiming, and killing civilians with tactics that border on ethnic cleansing. These actions have targeted the people of Southern Cameroon, home to the country’s Christian Anglophone minority. Genocide Watch has described the actions of the Cameroon government in Southern Cameroon as “extermination”—the ninth stage of genocide. The tenth and last stage is denial. The Norwegian Refugee Council identified Southern Cameroon as the world’s most neglected displacement crisis in 2019.

Russian Advances in the Gulf of Guinea

Cameroon lies in the center of the Gulf of Guinea in Central Africa. The region accounts for 60 percent of the continent’s oil production and contains 4.5 percent of proven global oil reservesCameroon produces 66,000 barrels per day and is the fifth-largest oil producer in Africa (Nigeria is the largest producer of oil on the continent). Cameroon’s population is projected to rise to 50 million by 2050 and to nearly 90 million by 2099.

Despite it’s geopolitical significance, the United States routinely ignores this part of Africa. Washington, for example, allocated only 8 percent of the meagre $2 billion budget for U.S. Africa Command in 2020 to the region. The United States currently only has a nominal presence in the Gulf of Guinea. In the past, France was the dominant foreign power.

But as in the Sahara, the sands of the Gulf are shifting, and not necessarily in favor of U.S. interests, or even France’s for that matter. From the Central African Republic through Mali to Guinea, there is a distinct and dramatic move away from relying on French military support. In its stead, Russia and China are quickly securing strategic positions within the region. Russia has become the preferred military partner of the Central African Republic and Mali in their fights against insurgents. In March 2022, France announced the withdrawal of its troops from Mali, the first time Mali will be without French troops since 1892. The dominant foreign military presence in Mali now is the Russian government-linked private military company, the Wagner Group. The group is fast becoming the preferred military support option for governments in the region, undercutting U.S. efforts to promote rule of law and respect for human rights in sub-Saharan Africa. With the Wagner Group’s focus on protecting ruling elites and critical infrastructure in exchange for commercial concessions, it is inevitable that Cameroon is likely to be their next target.

On April 12, 2022, Cameroon’s defense minister, Joseph Beti Assomo signed a military cooperation agreement in Moscow with his Russian counterpart. A few days later, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy tweeted, “I cannot believe that the Cameroonian government, in incredibly bad timing, signed a military agreement with Russia – at the height of the aggression in Ukraine.” In U.N. General Assembly votes condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Cameroon—like many African countries—abstained from voting.

While China has not yet established a significant presence in Cameroon, there has been speculation that the Chinese navy is working with Equatorial Guinea to allow the construction of a Chinese naval base at the mainland port of Bata. Few details of the Chinese plan are currently known, but if true, having a Chinese naval presence on Africa’s west coast—placing warships within easy striking distance of targets on the U.S. eastern seaboard—has implications for U.S. national security. China has also provided military training and equipment to Cameroon, ostensibly to use in its operations against Boko Haram, but there have been unsubstantiated reports that much of the Chinese-provided equipment has been shifted to the south for use in the fight against the Anglophone separatists.

Cameroon’s growing ties with Russia and its stance in the United Nations come despite extensive American assistance to the country. Over the past decade, the United States has provided significant military aid to Cameroon. The fiscal year 2020 amount, for instance, was $8.4 million under the category of cooperative threat reduction. However, in 2019, U.S. Africa Command cut over $17 million of funding to Cameroon due to “growing concerns over the government’s human rights record.” According to a 2012 PBS report, in 2010, the United States provided $1.5 million in military aid to Cameroon, and the total amount of aid from independence from 1960 to 2010 was $71.5 million. At the same time, reporting in 2022 suggested that the United States was still supporting and employing a Cameroonian unit alleged to have committed atrocities, including extrajudicial killings to conduct counter-terrorism operations against violent extremist organizations, especially Boko Haram. This came eight months after the announced cut because of human rights concerns. There have also been reports that elite units that were trained by the United States for the fight against Boko Haram were deployed to fight against the separatists. Until early 2020 there were reported to be as many as 300 U.S. military personnel deployed to Cameroon in connection with the counter-terrorism operations.

Implications for U.S. Policy

In addition to granting temporary protective status to Cameroonians, on April 18, 2022, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 2 travel advisory for the country, advising Americans to “exercise increased caution in Cameroon due to crime” and not to travel to the northwest and southwest regions due to armed conflict.

But Cameroon seems to be under the radar, especially with the current focus on the situation in Ukraine taking up most of America’s diplomatic attention. While both sides in the conflict have been accused of committing atrocities, it is the people of Cameroon who bear the brunt of the suffering. With the introduction of Russian mercenaries into the equation and the lack of attention from the United States and France, the situation is likely to worsen. The presence of Boka Haram and China in the region only complicates matters for the United States and its Africa policy. Until the current conflict in Cameroon is ended, it will be difficult to establish the kind of bilateral relationship that would be mutually beneficial between Washington and Yaoundé.

Besides the humanitarian imperative to end the conflict in Cameroon, the United States has a legitimate security interest in stabilizing the country. Boko Haram is active in Cameroon. The terrorist group has killed at least 80 civilians since December 2020 and looted hundreds of homes in the Far North region.

Countering extremism and terrorist activity is an important goal but the pursuit of this goal should not lead to undermining the U.S. commitment to respect for human rights and rule of law. The vetting of individuals and organizations to receive assistance in counter-terrorism operations should be comprehensive. Past support of terrorist groups should be examined and appropriate actions are taken to terminate any ongoing support to human rights violators.

It is important that the United States not be seen as taking sides in Cameroon’s domestic disputes. Both the central government and the separatist movement should be held accountable for any actions taken against the civilian population or violations of human rights. The roots of the current Francophone-Anglophone conflict have been growing for decades, as have the ethnic conflicts between other groups in Cameroon, such as the 2021 clashes between Arab Shoa cattle herders and Massa farmers and Mousgoum fishermen in northern Cameroon. Inter-communal tensions in the Far North region of Cameroon have been amplified by the negative impacts of climate change, with increased desertification that has led to water scarcity and decreased access to grazing land.

There are no quick and easy solutions to the crisis in Cameroon. Likewise, the ability of the U.S. to directly affect affairs in Cameroon is admittedly limited. But the United States can pursue diplomatic efforts to influence the African Union, and Cameroon’s neighbors, most notably Nigeria, to work with all sides in Cameroon to end the violence. In particular, Washington should empower the African Union to take a more active role in mediating the conflict.

The United Nations also has a role to play. In October 2021, for example, despite the reports of the central government’s failure to provide adequate protection to civilian populations, Cameroon was re-elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2022–2024 term. This was a major setback to international diplomacy and weakened any effort to compel the warring parties in Cameroon to respect human rights.

If the United States does not take an active diplomatic role in seeking to end the conflict in Cameroon, the situation there will only get worse.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Lessons Learned in the Strangest Places

The central theme of the first book that I wrote on leadership, Things I Learned from My Grandmother About Leadership and Life, was that principles of leadership are not necessarily learned in formal schools. I stressed that most of the leadership training I received after joining the army merely reinforced the principles taught to me by my grandmother, a woman with limited formal education but tons of native wisdom. What I neglected to mention in that book, though, is that life skills and effective leadership techniques can be learned in many other places as well.

     For example, in 1968, shortly before beginning my first tour in Vietnam, I was sent to the US Army School of the Americas in Panama to attend the Jungle Operations Course. The purpose of the course was to prepare military personnel to operate and survive in jungle environments similar to what many faced in Vietnam. I learned a lot during that short three weeks, and as I look back on it, I realize that a lot of it had nothing to do with just surviving in a jungle environment but how to be successful wherever you are.

     On the first day of the course, for example, we were assembled in bleachers and given an introduction to the course and the jungles surrounding the school. Then, several sergeants walked out carrying an anaconda that had to be twenty feet long. They stopped in front of the bleachers and the chief instructor began calling us out several at a time and directing us to line up in front of the snake-holding sergeants. I grew up in East Texas, a place with four different varieties of poisonous snakes and dozens of non-toxic varieties, and I could tell this snake had recently eaten or had been drugged. It appeared to be sound asleep. Not everyone in my class was as observant. So, when we were lined up and asked to take the snake from the sergeants, I complied. Some of my fellow classmates—soon to be ex-classmates—refused. One even fainted. Needless to say, they were immediately disenrolled from the course.

     What was the lesson learned from that incident? Be observant and think a situation through carefully before you react. Logic told me that they wouldn’t do something deadly without having protective measures in place. I could also see that the snake was inert and non-responsive. I’d also read somewhere about anacondas and that they killed their prey by wrapping around it and squeezing. Since it wasn’t trying to squeeze the sergeants, I reasoned it was safe. Those who refused to touch it, and the one who fainted, let their fear of snakes override reason. Another lesson. Don’t let your emotions overrule your reason.

     Later in the course, we were taken out for a two-day exercise to test some of the survival skills we’d been taught up to that point. One of the cautions the instructor emphasized was that when you climbed into your hammock at night, you should wear your boots to enable you to respond quickly in an emergency, but you should ensure that your laces were securely tied so they wouldn’t come loose during the night and slide across your leg. Why? Because there was a particularly poisonous snake that was prone to getting into tents and hammocks and crawling under your pants legs to find a warm place to sleep, and a loose, wandering bootlace might feel like a reptile crawling on you.

     One of our group ignored the instructions and loosened his laces before retiring because he said trying to sleep with laced-up boots was uncomfortable. Later than night, I was awakened by a shriek, followed by the sound of boots hitting the soft jungle earth, the sound of running, then another dull thud followed by screams of pain. When we were finally able to get some flashlights on, one of our party was seen impaled on the trunk of a spiny palm (I believe it’s called a needle palm) from head to crotch. He was gingerly disengaged from the tree and transported to the post hospital where they spent several hours pulling spines from his body. Luckily none of them hit his eyes which could have blinded him. It did, however, result in him having to drop out of training.

     Lesson learned. Know the instructions or SOP, and before you vary from them, make sure you’ve thought it through. Are the risks of not following the instructions less than whatever benefit or comfort you gain from ignoring them? If not, follow the rules.

    The final lesson I learned at the jungle school was that sometimes it is necessary to disobey the rules and ignore the instructions. The final exercise of the course was a land navigation exercise that began late one afternoon and was set to run through the night, ending on the banks of the Chagres River where we would be transported back to the fort to prepare for graduation later the next day. The entire course was through thick jungle and we were told that anyone who felt unable to finish could come out to the road that paralleled the course and they would be taken back to the barracks. It wouldn’t keep them from graduating, but they would be ineligible for award of the Jungle Expert patch which went to those who excelled in all aspects of the course. At that point, my entire team was in the running for the patch as we’d excelled in every aspect of training and were considered one of the best teams in that particular session. We were a mixed crew. There was me, a US Army captain and recent graduate of the Army’s Special Forces School, two Naval Academy cadets, a Marine infantryman, and an Air Force sergeant who was being assigned to one of their special operations units in Vietnam.

     We got off to a good start and were making excellent time when it started raining. The ground underfoot turned slick and as luck would have it, the Air Force sergeant, while serving as our point man, slipped on the top of a rise and slid down hill until he was stopped by a small tree that slammed into his crotch with enough force to cause that portion of his anatomy to swell up and made it difficult for him to walk.

     As team leader I was faced with a dilemma. The sergeant, even though he wanted to try, couldn’t complete the exercise in his condition, and was in need of medical attention. If I assigned someone to escort him to the road to get help, I would take him and them out of the running for the Jungle Expert patch. On the other hand, I could not in good conscience allow him to continue to suffer or worse, endanger his health, so I turned the team leadership over to one of the naval cadets, got the sergeant in a fireman’s carry and hiked out to the road.

     Typical of bureaucracies, of which the military is a prime example, the vehicles that were supposed to be patrolling the road to pick up stragglers or dropouts, weren’t there, so I had to hike to the river where luckily I found a Panamanian fisherman and his son who were doing night fishing and talked them into taking us across the river.

     From the river I hiked to the post hospital and turned the sergeant over to the doctors. Exhausted, I then went to the barracks and went to sleep, convinced that I’d just shot my chances at that coveted patch but not really caring.

     To my surprise, at the graduation ceremony that morning, when the patches were awarded, I was one of the first ones called up and the sergeant, still recovering in the hospital, was also named as a recipient. No one made a big deal of it despite everyone knowing that he and I hadn’t completed the navigation course. The members of my team all patted me on the back—they got their patches too, and that was that.

     What was the lesson learned from this incident? I learned that sometimes you have to choose between following the rules and doing what’s right. The rule was if you quit you lose your chance at that particular reward, but the right thing for a leader to do is take care of his or her people.

     Life’s like that. Everything you encounter or experience is a learning opportunity if you’ll only open your mind to it.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Dusty Saddle Roundup - Episode 1

 I was honored to be the first author featured on Peter Alan Turner's Dusty Saddle Roundup. You can listen here:

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Black History Month 2022 - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


I was honored to have the Black History Month 2022 exhibit at the consulate general in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam named for me. My only regret is that I was unable to join them in person.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Is Democracy in Retreat in Africa?

 Published at Foreign Policy Research Institute, March 10, 2022

Is Democracy in Retreat in Africa?

Charles A. Ray – March 10, 2022

n 1953, Rollo May, an American psychologist, wrote the following in his book Man’s Search for Himself: “Authoritarianism in religion and science, let alone politics, is becoming increasingly accepted, not particularly because so many people explicitly believe in it but because they feel themselves individually powerless and anxious. So what else can one do . . . except follow the mass political leader . . . or follow the authority of customs, public opinion, and social expectations?”

May identified the reason for this trend, which has accelerated in the past few decades, not to the existence of psychologically disturbed, power-hungry politicians who want total control—which have existed since the beginning of organized government—but to the lack of courage of citizens who are unwilling to take the necessary actions to turn back the tide of repression.

Since Rollo wrote these words, the world has seen a rise in autocratic and authoritarian governments. In the countries of the Global South, such as on the African continent, this trend appears to be accelerating, with a decline in constitutional, rule-based governments who respect the rule of law and human rights.

Why the Decline in Representative Government?

When the European colonial powers ended their rule over Africa, they were replaced by local governments lacking effective governing institutions or true national identities. While the post-independence leaders often adopted the putative democratic constitutions of their colonizers, the challenges of state-building caused many of them to quickly turn to authoritarian rule. This was caused in part by the patterns of governing they had inherited from colonial rule; the influence of the ideological conflict of the Cold War, when many countries felt abandoned by the West and turned to the USSR and China; and the fact that in many of these new countries the military was the only institution with any leadership or organizational capacity.

In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, Africa saw a wave of democratization. This golden age of constitutional rule, rule of law, and peaceful transfer of power, however, did not last long. Many of the democratically elected leaders attempted to establish family dynasties, ethnic or clan-based rule, or, in many cases, direct rule by the military. These rulers have learned how to use the “democratic” process to subvert truly representative government—curtailing freedom of speech and association, muzzling the independent media, and violating human rights with impunity.

An example was the military’s intervention to end the decades-long autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in November 2015. Welcomed at first by the population, and adamant that they were not staging a “coup,” the military soon began running the country in the same way that Mugabe and his cabal had since independence in 1980—violently cracking down on demonstrators who were demanding elections and more freedom. The crisis was precipitated when the ninety-three-year-old Mugabe fired his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and expelled him from the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF)—apparently in favor of Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, who had been positioning herself to take over from him for some time.

Mnangagwa, a former defense minister and an intelligence officer during the independence struggle, was a favorite of the military and aligned with the main war-veterans association, while Grace Mugabe was head of a rival faction of younger veterans known as the G-40 and was popular with young ZANU–PF party activists.

Neither side sought true constitutional liberal democracy, as subsequent events have shown. What has emerged in Zimbabwe, and many other African nations, is what Fareed Zakaria, in a 1997 article in Foreign Affairs, called “illiberal” democracies. In the article, Zakaria refers to American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who in 1996 worried that those elected in the Bosnian elections would be racists, fascists, and separatists who would be opposed to peace and reintegration of all the different ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia. Holbrooke turned out to be right, and this has been the case in many countries in Africa as well.

The trend toward authoritarianism increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, when autocratic leaders used control methods for stemming the outbreak of the disease as cover to consolidate and extend their control. Governments around the world, including in Africa, used the pandemic as justification to stop demonstrations, muzzle journalists, and stifle dissent. In 2020, sixty-two journalists were killed and 274 imprisoned—many for criticizing their governments’ handling of the pandemic. The biggest offenders in this regard were China, Turkey, and Egypt, who jailed the most journalists. Many people were questioned and arrested in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Madagascar, Tunisia, Niger, and Cameroon for expressing views on the COVID situation or sharing information. The Global Expression Report 2021, which scores countries for freedom of expression and the right to information, states that two thirds of the world’s population lives in a country where freedom of expression is highly limited. In Asia and the Pacific this is true of 85 percent of the population. Not one country in Africa scored in even that distressing metric.  

Power from the Barrel of a Gun 

In 1927, at the beginning of the Chinese Civil War, which eventually led to communist control of the country, —the first leader of the People’s Republic of China and a supporter of many African liberation movements—coined the phrase, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

This would appear to be a lesson that many African militaries learned well. According to the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) there have been twenty-one attempts by military forces to overthrow incumbent governments since 2015 alone—with recent attempts in Mali, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Of these attempted overthrows, 38 percent were successful. Since 1950, ICIR has tracked 494 attempted coups worldwide, with 222 of them taking place in Africa.

Coups and attempted coups in Africa are blamed on lack of credibility of elections, lack of good governance, and pervasive corruption. Some blame is also laid at the feet of regional groupings such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) for failing to vigorously condemn these unconstitutional attempts to seize power. The Western countries, including the United States, have expressed opposition to coups, but with even the U.S. scoring lower in the Global Expression Report—especially during the period from 2016 to 2020—credibility is not high, and influence on events is minimal.

In addition to violent attempts to overthrow governments, Africa is plagued by extremist violence and interethnic conflict. Examples include the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia between the central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), fighting between Anglophone separatists and government forces in Cameroon, and the violence in South Africa following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma.

Hope or Hopelessness—Whither Africa?

The ongoing violence has caused incredible loss of life, damage of property, and suffering on a continent that is already taking severe body blows from the negative effects of global climate change.

As is often the case, the negative news out of the continent tends to overshadow the good. There have been a few bright spots, like the rise of credible opposition movements in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. These gains, however, have not translated into true increases in liberal democracy. Indicators of political and economic governance continue to deteriorate, leading to increased political instability and lack of sustained economic growth.

What has occurred in Africa, as in much of the rest of the world, is a growth of Fareed Zakaria’s illiberal democracies. Even countries such as Uganda and Mozambique have been classified as “moderate autocracies,” as they have moved to more authoritarian rule, while countries such as Burundi and Zimbabwe are classified as “hardline autocracies.”

These trends tend to mask the diversity of Africa, though. Of the fifty-four nations on the continent, sixteen are classified as hardline autocracies and fifteen as defective, or illiberal, democracies. In those countries considered most stable, such as Ghana, Liberia, Namibia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, between 2015 and 2017 there was a decline in their anti-corruption rating.

What appears to be happening in Africa is a widening divide between democratic and autocratic countries, with some countries improving slightly and others dipping lower in the ratings. This only makes things more difficult for the already nearly ineffective regional groupings such as the AU.

If Africa is to pull itself out of this decline and develop the continent’s economies to meet the needs of a rapidly growing and increasingly young and energetic population, it will need to mobilize all its resources—both natural and human. This will require a renewed commitment to good governance, establishment and nurturing of the institutions that provide support to citizens and oversight of government, more freedom of the press and individual expression, and sustained economic development.

While international assistance can be useful in establishing the conditions for the revival of constitutional democracy in Africa, it is the people of the continent who must be the prime movers of this renaissance. Regional organizations need to step up and become a voice for change, standing firm for rule of law and respect for human rights and speaking out against deviation from this path. This won’t be easy, and it will not happen overnight—and this word of caution is for international actors as much as for Africans themselves. Setting unrealistically short timelines for change will only lead to disappointment and disillusionment and will further hinder the growth of the responsive, responsible governance that Africa needs to realize its full potential.

Change, though, is possible. When Ahmad Tejan Kabbah became the first democratically elected president of Sierra Leone in 1996—despite grinding poverty and a vicious war that was being supported by Charles Taylor, the dictator of neighboring Liberia—all the signs were initially hopeful. Kabbah was overthrown by a rogue element of the army a year later, requiring the intervention of Nigeria (representing ECOWAS) and the U.K. (Sierra Leone’s former colonizer) to reestablish the government in 1998. Unfortunately, after being reinstalled, Kabbah, like many African leaders, became more and more autocratic and intolerant of dissension. He did, though, fulfill his promise to end the civil war in 2002 and went on to win a final five-year term in office that same year, serving until 2007.

Although Sierra Leone is still one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, it has remained stable politically. In November 2012, for instance, the country held its third election since the 2002 end of the civil war, with Ernest Bai Koroma running for re-election against Julius Maada Bio, who was the deputy, and then leader, of the military junta, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), which took power in 1994 and handed over power to Kabbah in 1996. Bio lost that election but went on to win the presidency in 2018.

This demonstrates that it can be done—and with the will of the people, and the support and encouragement of the international community, it can be done in other countries. It’s a matter of having hope and being willing to do what’s necessary.

Democracy is weakening in Africa, as it is in many other parts of the world, but it’s not yet in full retreat.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Charles A. Ray, a member of the Board of Trustees and Chair of the Africa Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, served as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Zimbabwe.


Is Democracy in Retreat in Africa? - Foreign Policy Research Institute (