Remarks by our Executive Director Jeffrey Smith at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard University (March 2, 2018)

Successes and Challenges of Democracy in Africa

Many scholars and practitioners alike point to the post-Cold War era as an unquestioned time of democratic development, wherein citizens across the world were able to break the repressive bonds of communism and courageously stand tall to demand their inalienable rights. This momentous period gave rise to “The End of History” narrative and a so-called “global march to freedom.” There was a prevailing theory that the universalization of Western liberal democracy and the enshrinement of civil liberties and basic political rights were inevitable. And indeed, between 1980 and 2000, democratic gains across the world were evident. By any reasonable standard, democracy flourished, including in Africa.

Africa, for instance, experienced a spectacular growth in competitive elections during the 1990s, following an impressive post-colonial rebirth. Recall that only three African countries held genuine multi-party elections during the whole of the 1980s. Today they remain the norm (to varying degrees of freedom, credibility and success).

However, the brimming optimism of the post-1989 era has now ceded way to what one scholar has aptly labeled a “democratic recession.” Specifically since 2000, the global narrative on democracy began to fundamentally shift. Declines in key democratic indicators have now outpaced gains for twelve consecutive years, according to the international watchdog group Freedom House. Similarly, a study by the Varieties of Democracy Project has determined that the quality of democracy has declined in more countries than the number in which it has increased over the past five years.

Africa has been no exception: over the past decade in particular, democracy has been in steady retreat as political freedoms decline, attempts are made to stifle civil society, muzzle the press, dismantle democratic institutions, and restrictions on presidential term limits are lifted.

Compounding this problem is that populist, nationalist and oftentimes-xenophobic forces based on fascist foundations are clearly gaining in democratic states. Brazil, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea and the United States are a few examples of this trend. Other nations like Hungary, Turkey, and Ukraine have fallen even further on the authoritarian scale.

Likewise in Africa, democratic standard-bearers are largely failing to live 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 to the latest index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The simple point here is that influential countries provide regional counterparts with expedient political cover to violate the rights of their own citizens (ex. Ethiopia). It also allows abusive leaders to maintain political power and access to their country’s wealth, often at the expense of their citizens who are mired in poverty. Sub Saharan Africa, for instance, has lost an estimated 6% of its GDP from 2002 to 2011 through “illicit financial outflows,” a catchall term that incudes tax evasion, official corruption and graft, and myriad financial crimes.

In general, leaders strategically hide behind the principles of sovereignty and non-interference, which are enshrined in the United Nations charter. The real aim, however, is to curb criticism of their brazenly horrendous human rights records, as well as those of their allies and friends. These leaders also conveniently eschew the notion of “responsible sovereignty,” which has lost much of its luster in recent years. Human Rights Watch has referred to this a “callous solidarity.” The rising political and military influences of China, tech support from North Korea, and an emboldened Putin regime in Russia have also contributed to this vexing downward trend.

Global leaders and wealthy democracies like the United States are also failing by not supporting regional leaders to promote broader democratic ideals in their respective backyards. 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. The current administration and its seemingly daily embrace of bloody autocrats around the world are certainly not helping the advance of democracy, or otherwise emboldening activists on the ground. President Trump has also touted the need for an increased military presence in Africa, building on the long-held and counterproductive belief that “stability” somehow trumps respect for basic human rights, civil liberties and individual freedoms.

I would argue that what we have witnessed is the unequivocal rise of modern authoritarianism, which is quite distinct from earlier epochs. First: political elites are holding onto power by any means necessary, but they are doing so in more clever ways that do not necessarily attract negative headlines or international condemnation. Again, embracing an autocrat in Egypt as an “excellent guy” or cheerleading the man responsible for the brutal suppression of the press, assassination of critics and dissidents, and the blatant subversion of democratic elections in Rwanda do not help either.

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, African 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 18 of them have actually succeeded. Not surprisingly, countries lacking term limits in Africa tend to be more unstable. Indeed, a third of these 18 countries are currently facing armed conflict. In contrast, just two of the 21 countries with term limits are in conflict. This research comes courtesy of the African Center for Strategic Studies.

Strong regional variations in adherence to term limits are also evident:

  • Central Africa: 8/10 countries have had term limits undone
  • Horn of Africa: highest concentration of countries w/out term limits
  • Southern and West Africa: greatest strides in adhering to term limits

Where term limits are not respected, there is a lack of genuine political contestation, and in turn, a depressed faith in democratic processes. 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 in a number of underhanded ways: rigging the registration process, misusing state resources to dispense patronage, controlling the flow of information (through state media monopolies, for instance, or shutting down the internet when it suits their selfish purposes) and, if all else fails, directly manipulating the results, frustrating any subsequent legal challenge, or jailing their opponents.

Disillusioned with elections, deliberately shut out of political processes, and limited in their ability to speak freely and organize, citizens are becoming more and more apathetic and frustrated. A Pew Research poll from last year showed that only 18% in Africa are now “committed to representative democracy” – the second lowest percentage in the world (Asia-Pacific).

In many of 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. As the new book “How Democracy Dies” points out: “Democracy depends in no small part on elite’s willingness to … work with political opponents and to exercise political power with restraint rather than ruthlessness.” The authors go on to argue: “when the political elite begin playing no-holds-barred politics, nations risk slipping toward authoritarianism.”

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 overall democratic backsliding. In total, extended terms in office across Africa 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 have collectively allowed the democratic bar to be lowered to a dangerous and wholly unacceptable level. As a recent report from the Brenthurst Foundation in South Africa 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 stolen elections in Africa face fewer international penalties than ever before. The African Union, for instance (which has never disavowed an election in its history), and the various regional economic communities, consistently prioritize stability in pronouncing on election processes, favoring the incumbent elite rather than their democratic challengers. The international community, writ large, often appears untroubled by the idea that elections that would not pass muster in the major powers, including here in the U.S., are somehow ‘acceptable’ in Africa. This is both disrespectful and unsustainable.

Relatedly, and as I recently wrote in the Washington Post with two colleagues of mine: election observers need to start doing their jobs. Full stop. Too often the election cops are letting the bad guys get away. Worse, they are abetting the theft of many nascent democracies.

Election monitors regularly fly into a country to watch voting. Ideally, they are objective witnesses to a poll, helping to deter violence and to boost the credibility of the end result. Monitors are supposed to help make democracy work. Recent elections in Africa, however, suggest the opposite. Observers keep missing -- willfully or otherwise -- the actual ways in which elections are being stolen. All too often, they confuse peaceful voting with a “free and fair” election. This misplaced tolerance leads them to endorse illegitimate outcomes. Rather than expose rigging, monitors are too often helping undemocratic leaders hold onto power. Kenya’s election last August was the most recent and most glaring example of this phenomenon.

Other examples: Zanzibar (2015): Gabon, Zambia and Uganda (2016)

Now, why does all of this matter? In sum, I want to critically point out the positive relationship between electoral democracy and sustainable development. A recent report by the Institute for Security Studies 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 and free and fair elections -- 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 the rule of law, and protect individual rights. More often than not, autocrats and other abusive leaders -- who hang on to power for decades at a time -- fail to implement reforms to sustain development because they are not held accountable (and because it’s not in their interests to do so).

Supporting genuine political contestation, consolidating democratic forces and ensuring truly free and fair elections are therefore paramount. Popular support for democracy, with all of its imperfections and flaws, remains high in one critical segment: Africa’s rapidly growing youth population. As my colleague John Githongo from Kenya recently wrote: “a massive generational struggle is now underway between entrenched elites and impatient youthful populations across the continent.” Recall that it is young people who have made up the bulk of demonstrators battling with police in recent months from Togo and the DRC to Kenya and Cameroon. Their optimism has been buoyed in part by the rise of an aggressively independent media and online platforms for dissent, and by the proliferation of NGOs fighting to hold repressive governments accountable.

Across Africa, it is the supply side of democracy that has been woefully 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 be leveraged and 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 signed and ratified it. This is the direction we must ultimately head in if we are to collectively fight back against modern authoritarianism and to entrench democratic rights; and in turn, inspire a new, emboldened generation of democracy defenders.

That so many people across Africa, particularly the youth, remain undaunted by the major trials ahead, offers a ray of hope that citizens with good intentions are more than capable of meeting this formidable challenge.