Remarks by our Executive Director at "The Future of Angola" event (August 31, 2017)

Remarks by Jeffrey Smith, Executive Director of Vanguard Africa

 The Future of Democracy and Human Rights in Angola: Looking Beyond the 2017 Election (August 31, 2017)

Africa has witnessed a spectacular growth in competitive elections since the 1990s. Recall that only three countries held genuine multi-party elections during the whole of the 1980s. Today they are the norm. Importantly, elections are a key indicator of the strength of democracy, which, one could argue has been reflected in Southern Africa.

First, the relative good news for the region:

In all of sub-Saharan Africa, there are currently 9 countries that register as ‘free’ according to the methodology used by Freedom House. Of those 9 countries, 4 of them are located in southern Africa: Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius and South Africa. Similarly, those same countries also feature in the top ten of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

On several important indicators, Southern Africa is ahead of other regions of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Asia – specifically in terms of political participation and other democratic advancements. Even Africa’s remaining tyrants, and what I refer to as “dinosaur presidents,” seek popular legitimacy through multiparty elections.

This sounds pretty great, until you start interrogating the issues in-depth.

Here is the bad news that should be cause for concern.

Staying with the Ibrahim Index for a moment, if you look into the declines taking place on human rights particularly, the most significant are occurring in what have previously been and continue to be the region’s democratic standard bearers (for better or worse): namely South Africa and Botswana. This poses a very significant threat to the region. When regional powerhouses begin to stifle basic freedoms and experience significant setbacks, this inevitably provides cover to other countries to do the same.

To be sure, regional standard-bearers are not living up to their responsibilities, helping to solidify the context in which the quality of civil liberties in the region is actually declining, as is the functioning of government, according the Economist Intelligence Unit.

International partners, and global leaders like the U.S., are also failing by not supporting these regional leaders to promote broader democratic ideals. In addition to a decline in low-level support to democratic actors – as evidenced by the massive spending cuts to U.S. democracy and governance programming – the United States has also been missing the mark at a higher diplomatic level, and I think Angola’s a good example here.

To date, Angola remains one of only three strategic African partners to the U.S., along with Nigeria and South Africa. In line with previous administrations, President Trump is poised to maintain the status quo, which includes strong ties with leaders in Luanda, despite its evident lack of respect for the basic political and civil rights of its people. In May of this year, Angola’s then defense minister, and now president, met with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, during which a new security agreement was signed and the country was praised for its “leadership.” Among other items, the agreement confirmed the continued training of (notoriously abusive) Angolan security service members in the U.S. The current president also touted the need for increased military cooperation, capitalizing on the long-held and entirely counterproductive belief in the U.S. that “stability” somehow trumps respect for basic human rights, civil liberties and democratic freedoms.

A few additional thoughts on what might be causing the regional backsliding and the political volatility that often comes with it.

First: political elites are holding onto power by any means necessary, and doing so in more clever ways that don’t necessarily attract international headlines or condemnation. Generally, a good test for the health of a democracy is whether leaders leave office when the law says their time is up. These days, leaders are increasingly securing longer terms through “constitutional coups,” proposing amendments that allow for additional terms in office. This practice gained particular intensity after 2000, when many postcolonial leaders were nearing the ends of their constitutional mandate. Since then, at least 30 presidents have tried to extend their rule and 17 have of them have succeeded, including in southern Africa: Angola and Namibia being the two primary examples.

In these environments, there is, quite simply, a lack of genuine political contestation. According to a recent Afrobarometer survey, just 40% of Africans (polled in 36 countries) believe that their last elections were ‘free and fair.’ Leaders in these countries have invested significant resources to ensure a favorable outcome by stifling democratic space: rigging the registration process, misusing state resources to dispense patronage, controlling the flow of information (through state media monopolies, for instance) and, if all else fails, directly manipulating the results, frustrating any subsequent legal challenge, or jailing their opponents (ex. Zambia).

It should thus come as no surprise that in southern Africa, no liberation movement turned political party has ever lost an election at the national level. This undefeated streak continued in Angola, and will likely persist for the foreseeable future. To date, the record stands at 35-0. In these environments, the ruling party = state. Where the state and party have become one, the political opposition is typically portrayed by governments in the grammar of security (i.e. ‘enemies of the state’). It also usually transforms into a grammar of violence around election time.

There are dire consequences here; for example, studies have shown a strong correlation between Africa’s entrenched leadership and developmental and security challenges, including conflict or instability, stagnant or declining economies, and democratic backsliding. Overall, extended terms in office have contributed to the slowing down of democratization we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s.

A second reason for democratic backsliding in the region is that we’ve collectively allowed the democratic bar to be lowered to a dangerous and wholly unacceptable level. As a recent report from the Brenthurst Foundation put it: “a crude ethos has developed…that if there was no violence, then basically it was a ‘good’ election.”

Due to a changing global power balance, rigged or outright stolen elections in Africa face fewer international penalties than ever before. The AU, for instance, and the various regional economic communities like SADC, consistently prioritize stability in pronouncing on election processes, favoring the incumbent elite rather than their challengers. The international community, writ large, often appears untroubled by the idea that elections that wouldn’t pass muster in the major powers are somehow ‘acceptable’ in Africa. This is both disrespectful and unsustainable.

In sum: there is a positive relationship between electoral democracy and development. A report by the Institute for Security Studies last year found that democracy steadily contributes to good governance, development and economic growth. This only happens if the key components of electoral democracy – including genuine political contestation – are present.

Another report by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) notes that: Because democracies are accountable to the public rather than the elite, they are more likely than autocracies to produce public goods, maintain rule of law, and protect individual rights. More often than not, autocrats fail to implement reforms to sustain development because they are not held accountable (and because it’s not in their interests to do so). This is where we are with Angola today and throughout much of the region.

Supporting genuine political contestation, consolidating democratic forces and ensuring truly free and fair elections is therefore of paramount importance. Popular support for democracy, for all its imperfections, remains high in the region. It is the supply side that has been sadly missing. By focusing efforts on addressing this evident discrepancy we can help empower citizens to take local ownership over the democratic process that can ultimately lead to a brighter more prosperous and stable future.

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is one existing institution that can and should be utilized to this effect. The AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance is another. Adopted in 2007 and entered into force in 2010, only ten African countries have, to date, signed and ratified it. To improve democracy and entrench democratic rights in Angola – and elsewhere in the region – this is the direction we must ultimately head in.

Thank you very much.