As the 2021 International Day of Democracy draws closer it is imperative to assess and review the state of democracy in Africa; to celebrate the achievement of significant milestones hitherto whilst charting new pathways towards the attainment and realization thereof, of liberal democracies in the continent. One of the key aspirations of Africa’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, the African Union’s (AU) shared 50-year development and transformation program, for realizing the full potential of the continent is an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of Law. However, on the brink of an abyss, most democracies in Africa stand, beset by a plethora of challenges which begs the question if the concept of a government of, by, and for the people is truly working for the continent? In reiteration Goal 16 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) advocates for the promotion of the rule of law to ensure equal access to justice.
Many countries remain governed by authoritarian regimes and populist movements who in a bid to cling onto power have instigated constitutional reforms, to prolong their stay at the helm; some initiating the postponement of national elections to further their agenda. Notwithstanding, according to a recent study by Afrobarometer which was based on public-opinion surveys in 34 countries, it was revealed that contrary to fears of a democratic recession, large majorities of Africans continue to support democracy and reject authoritarian alternatives. In addition, the findings indicate that fewer Africans are getting the democracy they demand and even fewer, a paltry 15%, are insistent enough on better democracy to form a bulwark against authoritarian encroachment. During the third wave of democratization that swept across much of Africa in the wake of the Cold War, Africans had greatly anticipated to enjoy freedoms of citizens living under the former colonial regimes, but much to their disappointment this never quite materialized.
The continent is home to some of the oldest presidents in the world; to them age is but a number and they have clung to their positions for decades and do not seem to be relinquishing the position anytime soon, ever so keen to impede any potential opposition at any cost. Inarguably, the Covid-19 pandemic has further dented the state of democracy in the continent, having struck at a critical time for some of Africa’s democracies and coincided with several elections scheduled for 2020 and 2021. Albeit some countries proceeded to the polls some rescheduled and postponed indefinitely. Elections form an integral part of a healthy democracy and therefore postponed elections places democracy in a precarious position that can easily become the root of instability in a country. The pandemic has provided the ultimate pretext for postponing elections in countries like Ethiopia and Somalia.
The emergence of the digital era has influenced democracy a notch higher, with social media increasingly empowering the youthful population to play a more proactive role in politics; such as the case of Uganda’s presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu popularly known as Bobi Wine, who leveraged on the digital platform to garner support for his ‘People Power Movement’. However, this was curtailed by the enforcement of a social media ban by President Museveni. Digital repression has become a common tool by leaders to thwart potential opposition.
Is Democracy Truly Working for Africa?
Just recently, South Africa’s democracy has been vehemently tested with the violent riots and looting that engulfed the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, described as the worst violence since the end of apartheid that has left hundreds dead and property loss of insurmountable value, following the sentencing and imprisonment of former South African President Jacob Zuma over a host of corruption charges. The incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa told the nation that South Africa’s young democracy had been targeted to provoke an insurrection, cripple the economy and severely dismantle the democratic state but citizens have stood up in defense of the country’s hard-won democracy. Still in Southern Africa, Zambia is celebrating the end of President Edgar Lungu’s brutal regime which has eroded the country’s democracy, having been formerly renowned across the continent as a bulwark. The election of Hakainde Hichilema is a historic moment for millions of Zambians and in his inaugural speech, has vowed to foster better democracy, rule of law, restoring order and respecting human rights, liberties and freedoms. In the neighbouring Eswatini, King Mswati III’s army continue to jail, brutally maim and kill pro-democracy protesters who have been calling for democratic reforms in the last defective feudal dictatorship in Africa.
In North Africa, Tunisia is facing a gigantic crisis in a decade of democracy, coming after President Kais Saied ousted the government and froze all parliament activities sparking protests. Yet a decade ago the country ousted an autocracy in favour of democratic rule during the Arab Spring revolution, but has hitherto failed to deliver sound governance and prosperity. Similarly, war-torn Libya is on the edge of a precipice, experiencing a chronic political dysfunctionality and efforts to hold parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for December this year that have reached an impasse. This has attracted intervention from neighbouring Algeria and Egypt who in a co-ordinated effort hope to restore stability and expel terrorist militias and foreign external forces. Turkey has also expressed its support to Libya to help establish the foundations of a stable democracy. In Ethiopia, the second most populous country on the continent, elections have been rescheduled twice since August 2020, ascribed to the Covid-19 public health concerns, plunging the country into deeper authoritarianism; however, leaders from the Tigray region held local elections in defiance which birthed the ongoing crisis where the Tigrayan population is being starved into submission.
Roadblocks to Fruition of Liberal Democracy in Africa
The fragility of African democracy can be attributed to numerous hurdles that continue to shrink the democratic space, retrogressing political and socio-economic development. Conflict and civil wars have stifled many democracies across the continent. Just recently the Security Council expressed concern over the expansion of terrorism in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin as well as in the wider West African region coupled with piracy in the Gulf of Guinea that has caused a massive humanitarian crisis. Consequently, in such a state of anarchy, democracy cannot thrive. By the same token, in countries such as Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali, Nigeria and Sudan, Islamic extremist groups have also brewed conflict causing a dire humanitarian crisis thereby retrograding democratization efforts. Ethnic tensions have especially receded democratic prospects in many countries in Africa, such as Kenya in the 2007/08 post-election violence that erupted between the two largest ethnic tribes in the country. Similarly, the ethnic divide in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by the Hema and Lendu tribes have slowed down democracy. Currently the ethnic conflict in Cameroon between the Musgum and Arab Choa ethnic groups has displaced thousands. Chief among these factors heretofore, is the deeply entrenched corruption across many African countries. This has had a domino effect cutting across all sectors of the socio-economic fabric in respective countries crippling development goals. The tell-tale signs of bad governance are unmissable such as huge inflation, unemployment, stifling debt and rising food prices under the corrupt governments, which have dealt a heavy blow to the full realization of democracy in the continent.
African Democracy for Sale?
Democracies across Africa are facing a humongous crisis and more often than not are sold to the highest bidder with vested interests. Some presidential candidates in the continent have looked to the West and East to fund their campaigns, selling out democracy deeming them mere puppets to propagate foreign agenda on African soil. Colonial legacy is still very much at play behind the curtains in certain countries and continues to influence politics and the leadership thereof; with some endorsing their own candidates, which explains the unaccountable and untraceable flows of campaign money used for bribery and even rigging elections.
Rebuilding African Democracy
Brick by brick, Africa’s democracies are in dire need of reconstruction to restore trust in the system by the legislation and implementation of feasible structural reforms. Deepening democracy in the continent encompasses strengthening the institutions and practices of democracy. Building institutional infrastructure will additionally promote a democratic trajectory in Africa. African governments should ensure that political parties do not tamper with democratic institutions and that the principles of democracy like liberty, justice and equality are effectively implemented. Inclusion of marginalized communities to participate in political processes is vital in deepening democracy. Corruption needs to be urgently addressed as it continues to erode democracy and the rule of law; justice systems need to remain impartial on all grounds. Good governance which embraces the elements of transparency, accountability, combating corruption, citizen participation and fostering legal and judicial frameworks will undoubtedly propel African democracy. Fires of ethnic and tribal clashes need to be dampened whilst the roots to civil wars need to be established and resolved impartially and amicably. Religious affiliation should be omitted from the ambit of politics and governance. Furthermore, the rights to freedom of speech, expression and information should be availed to all citizens devoid of bias.