The world is changing “bigly”.
Take for example, the results of a new poll conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that ranked US President Donald Trump, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt as some of the world’s leading oppressors of press freedom and free speech.
Also in that club is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Poland’s President Andrzej Duda.
If this poll had been done 25 years ago, it would have looked very different, with African and Latin American strongmen making a stronger showing than they are doing today.
In fact, in the last few days, Ethiopia, once the leading jailor of journalists in the world, made a surprise announcement that it was going to release several political prisoners and close a prison notorious for torture, in order to “widen the democratic space for all”. It’s hoped that the country’s long-suffering journalists might benefit from this unlikely opening.
And, as if to illustrate that Addis Ababa never lost its sense of humour, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the Mae’kelawi prison would be converted into a museum.
In Zimbabwe, in what has been called “barracks democracy”, in November the military ended Robert Mugabe’s disastrous 37-year rule, giving the country’s media a small break.
Now in 1988, when I was a very young man, I bought a book that was causing waves then. Titled The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, by Paul Kennedy, it was a 1,200-page or so tome that had been published the previous year.
Because then I had no responsibilities, I locked myself in the house over Christmas and read it all. One of Kennedy’s most controversial theses was that American power was on the wane, much as had happened with previous global powers like the Romans and the British.
It sounded outrageous, considering that the Soviet Union was in the throes of death, and the US looked poised to straddle the world like a colossus.
Yet, here we are today and Kennedy’s prognosis no longer looks like a long shot. Liberia’s outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (and half of Africa’s leaders) is considerably less frightening than Trump.
Many ideas about the world that we had held firmly to continue to tumble.
A few of them continue to be true. For example, that the Middle East is generally not fertile ground for democracy. Even Israel, which sees itself as the only democracy in the region, torments its Arab population and is a cruel occupier of Palestinian lands.
But several are falling. Thus, it was held that economic prosperity usually leads to liberal democracy. China tells us that that is not necessarily true. While social freedoms have opened in China, the Communist Party keeps its boot firmly on the necks of media and political freedoms.
Poland has become more repressive when it’s rich than when it was poorer in the early years of its post-communist life in the 1990s.
Today, the bottom of global poverty rankings are still dominated by African countries. However, many of them like Mali, Liberia, Guinea and Burkina Faso, are far freerer than Russia, Turkey, and possibly Poland right now.
Within Africa, we are also seeing both strange and exciting developments. For example, the two places that are most likely to hold truly free elections in Africa today are the Somali breakaway republics of Puntland and Somaliland, which are not internationally recognised.
There are also three countries, where either the president or his family have ruled for nearly 40 years, that are restless. It seems there was again a coup attempt a few days ago in Equatorial Guinea against Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been dictator there for 38 years.
In Cameroon, strongman Paul Biya, in power for 34 years, is facing separatist insurrection in the south of the country and is beginning to look wobbly.
In Togo, Faure Gnassingbé, who between him and his ruthless father Gnassingbé Eyadéma, whom he succeeded in 2005, have ruled for over 50 years now, has been besieged by a pro-democracy movement for nearly a year now.
If all those three fall this year, for the first time in modern times, over 75 per cent of Africa could live in freedom by this time next year.
You couldn’t have bet on that two years ago.