Democracy in Africa is in retreat

Democracy in Africa is in retreat
But the clamour from the street for representation and justice is getting louder


In the decade following the Cold War, Africa saw many democratic success stories. In 1991, Benin and Zambia became the first former dictatorships to hold multiparty elections after the fall of the Soviet Union. In both countries, the opposition beat the incumbents. In 1994, South Africa replaced apartheid with majority rule, and soon after that, Nelson Mandela was elected president. Later that decade, Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi also held elections and saw power change hands. All told, by the middle of the first decade of this century, every major peaceful state in Africa except Eritrea and Swaziland, the continent’s last absolute monarchy, was, at least in principle, committed to holding competitive elections.

But in recent years, Africa’s political trajectory has begun moving in the opposite direction.

In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni who has been in power for over 34 years is doing everything possible to intimidate the opposition leader Bobi wine.

The singer turned presidential aspirant, has survived arrests, beatings and what he alleges were two assassination attempts as bullets strafed his vehicle.

In the past few weeks, his supporters have been sprayed with tear gas and hot water from security forces in uganda during campaigns.

Mr Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was four years old when President Yoweri Museveni came to power after overthrowing another dictator.

If leaders like Mr Museveni are the immovable object, then challengers like Mr Wine are the unstoppable force. The result is likely to be more and more confrontations across the continent in which ordinary people, frustrated with crooked elections, demand change. 

Surveys by Afrobarometer, a pan-African polling organisation, show that Africans express consistent support for multi-party democracy, direct elections of their leaders and, above all, presidential term limits. In a 2019 survey of more than 30 African countries, three-quarters of respondents said they wanted open and fair elections.

More than in Asia, where some autocracies have delivered economic success, most Africans persist in the belief that democracy is the surest path to development, says Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, Afrobarometer’s co-founder.

After years of gaining ground after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy in Africa is in retreat. Leaders like Mr Museveni have grown adept at manipulating democratic norms to deliver the appearance of democracy without its content. In Burundi, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Rwanda and many other countries, leaders have engaged in constitutional chicanery to extend term limits.

Former soldiers have donned democratic robes. Chidi Odinkalu, senior manager for Africa at the Open Society Foundations, reckons there are 21 former military men in power in Africa — including Angola, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.

In Mali this year, soldiers moved straight into the presidential palace, without bothering to pass the ballot box. International condemnation of even naked power grabs has been muted. “Donald Trump has made dictatorship hip again,” says Mr Gyimah-Boadi. He hopes the needle may shift back under the US president-elect Joe Biden.

Still, African governments are less reliant on western donors, who at least made some pretence of linking aid with respect for democratic norms. Instead, until Covid at least, they have borrowed from eurobond markets for whom prompt repayment is more important than credible elections.

Money has flowed, too, from the Gulf and the Middle East. For 20 years, one-party China has been the biggest lender of all. “The model of authoritarian developmentalism has come from China,” says Mr Odinkalu. “And it comes with a spigot of Chinese money.”

If external pressure to democratise has waned, pressure from the street has intensified. Mr Wine represents a civic pushback in a continent where ordinary people continue to make the case for liberal values.

In Sudan, the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir ended in 2019 after millions took to the streets to demand his exit. This February, Malawi’s constitutional court annulled the results of the 2019 “Tipp-Ex election” after months of mass protests in which tens of thousands poured on to the streets to denounce a fraudulent poll. The election was rerun and the incumbent ejected.

The streets of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, have also been in flames as mass protests erupted against police brutality. The echoes of their “EndSars movement” — named for a brutal unit of the Nigerian police force — has hash-tagged around the continent.

Ghana has seen no rest after the declaration of the December 7th general elections which saw the ruling party retained.

The major opposing party has been on the street demonstrating heavily against the results.

For a constitutional democracy to “survive and flourish”, says John Mukum Mbaku, senior non-resident fellow at Brookings, it must have both a “robust and politically active public” and “political elites dedicated to maintaining the country’s constitutional institutions”.

The clamour from the street is loud and clear. But few in the palaces appear to be listening.

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