Remarks of our Founding Director at the International Republican Institute

Democracy, Human Rights and Good Governance in Central Africa
International Republican Institute (September 5, 2019)

 Jeffrey Smith, Founding Director of Vanguard Africa

Many scholars and practitioners alike point to the post-Cold War era as an unquestioned time of democratic advancement, wherein citizens across the globe 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.” At the time, there was a prevailing theory that the universalization of Western liberal democracy and the enshrinement of civil liberties, political rights and fundamental freedoms were inevitable. And indeed, between 1980 and 2000, democratic gains were evident. By any reasonable standard, democracy flourished, including in Africa.

In particular, the African continent 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. Though the quality of elections surely varied, this was nonetheless an incredible step forward.

In 1991, Benin and Zambia became the first former dictatorships to hold multiparty elections. 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, with the exception of Eritrea and Swaziland, the continent’s last absolute monarchy, was, at least in principle, committed to holding competitive elections.

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 has begun to fundamentally shift. A study by the Varieties of Democracy project, as just one example, has determined that the quality of democracy declined in more countries than the number in which it has increased over the past five years.

This corroding commitment to democracy on the part of political elites, specifically, has filtered down to the average person. According to a recent survey, a median of 51 percent of people polled in 27 different countries are dissatisfied with how democracy is presently working for them.

Likewise, across Africa – despite the African Rising storylines – the political trajectory is moving in a negative direction. According to Freedom House, just 11% of the continent today is politically “free,” and the average level of democracy, understood as respect for political rights and civil liberties, fell in each of the last 14 years. According to this same study, not a single democracy exists in Central Africa, each of them being rated Not Free. Likewise, the latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance shows that democratic progress lags far behind citizens’ expectations. The vast majority of Africans want to live in a democracy, but the proportion who believe they actually do falls almost every year.

In Central Africa explicitly, this has been a time period marked by entrenched leaders, some whom have been in power for nearly four decades – Paul Biya in Cameroon, Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, and Sassou Nguesso in Congo Brazzaville, for example – working closely with private Western firms, including major lobby and PR companies, to varnish their horrific records on human rights. Long-ruling family dynasties, like the one in Gabon, provides another example of a regime that has relied heavily on foreign consultants – including here in Washington – particularly through election periods, during which positive spin and media manipulation are key components to help legitimize entirely flawed electoral processes. Gabon’s brazenly rigged and stolen election in August 2016 is, to my mind, the most troubling example in recent memory.

Throughout the course of my work at Vanguard Africa and elsewhere – both in Washington and in parts of Africa – I have found that African democracy is threatened by several key factors. This includes the rise of sophisticated politicians – not the retrograde, cartoonish dictators of the past – who subvert the rule of law for their own selfish interests; the corrupting influence of oil, gas, and minerals; growing debt burdens; spreading Chinese and Russian influence; and the so-called “developmental autocrats” who promise economic success in exchange for political repression. Underlying all of these toxic factors is Western indifference and, sometimes, hostility towards Africans’ democratic aspirations.

For the sake of time, I will delve into several of these issues here, but hopefully we can address the others during the course of this morning’s conversation. Namely, I will focus on leaders’ modern sophistication and specifically the growing assaults on constitutional term limits; the myth of the benevolent dictator; and the role of the U.S., including the present day, in undermining democracy and democratic leadership in the region.  

First, as we have clearly seen, political elites in Central Africa and elsewhere are holding onto power by any means necessary, but they are doing so in more clever ways that do not necessarily attract international condemnation or consequences. Many African leaders, afraid of a global backlash if they openly defy their laws, have taken to changing, rather than breaking, them. International donors are often quick to censure governments that flout the rules but are far slower to cut off relations with those that change the law through due process, even if they are brazenly rigging the system in their favor. This helps explain former President Joseph Kabila’s innovative strategy in the DRC – knowing that his own people and the international community expected a transfer of power in the December 2018 election, he successfully retained control by essentially faking one.

Overall, a good test for the health of a democracy, in Africa and elsewhere, is whether leaders leave office when the law says their time is up. So far, term limits in Africa have been respected more times than they have been disregarded. But a growing number of leaders have removed such restrictions or given themselves longer terms through “constitutional coups,” which rewrite the rule books to effectively make the incumbent president for life. Since 2000, at least 30 African presidents have tried to extend their rule, and 18 of them have succeeded.

For the sake of this particular conversation today, 8 of the 10 countries where term limits have been undone are in Central Africa.

Unsurprisingly, African countries lacking term limits tend to be more unstable. Indeed, a third of these 18 countries are currently facing armed conflict. By contrast, just two of the 21 countries with term limits are deemed to be in conflict. This research finding comes courtesy of the African Center for Strategic Studies.

If politicians don’t respect term limits, the rule of law loses its meaning and citizens’ faith in the democratic process erodes. According to a recent Afrobarometer survey covering 36 countries, just 40% of Africans believe that their last elections were “free and fair.” If citizens are disillusioned with the electoral process, deliberately shut out of politics, or unable to speak and protest freely, they will grow apathetic and frustrated. The proportion of citizens saying that democracy is the best political system for their country increased from 63% in 2003 to 75% in 2013, but by 2018, it had fallen back down to 68%. That should be a wake-up call for democracy’s advocates, including those in this very room. African leaders and their supporters should worry, too. After all, research shows that in the long term, democracy contributes to human development and economic growth, a point that I will return to in my concluding remarks.

A second issue I will focus on here is the role of ideas and how they can play as important a role as policies in undermining democracy. One of the most dangerous ideas for democracy today is the misguided belief in the “developmental autocrat”— a leader who will sacrifice human rights and respect for democracy in order to spur economic growth. All the rage in the 1970s, this idea has recently experienced a revival among African leaders and a number of media commentators and policy advisers, driven by the apparent economic success of authoritarian Rwanda. Under President Paul Kagame – in power for over two decades – the country’s highly centralized and oppressive political system has delivered seemingly impressive economic results, with growth rates estimated to be around eight percent from 2001 to 2013, although many academics and critics of the regime dispute these figures. Recent comprehensive studies by the Financial Times and others, including the Review of African Political Economy, have highlighted this issue, the latter claiming just this week that "Rwanda’s official poverty statistics are verifiably false.”

In short, copying Kagame makes for poor economics and even worse politics. Even if we take Kagame’s perceived economic successes as fact, we must not lose sight of the fact that they are based on tight control over a centralized system of patronage that does not exist—and would be extremely difficult to construct—in the vast majority of African states. Moreover, Rwanda has achieved its so-called progress on the back of grave abuses that, if they carry on unchecked, will very likely destabilize the political system and undermine the country’s otherwise positive gains.

However incompetent they prove in the long run, developmental autocrats are also bad news for political freedom and human rights in the short term. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, the past three years have set annual records for the numbers of journalists jailed worldwide, and at least five journalists were killed in Africa last year alone. The top jailers in Africa last year were all authoritarian states – who receive significant support from Western democracies – including several in Central Africa including Cameroon and Rwanda.

On top of their internal problems, African democracies occupy a less friendly world than they did a few years ago. A third issue that cannot be ignored is the Trump administration’s disdain for the democratic ideals that anchor the modern international system. Trump’s transactional worldview, in particular, has pushed democracy promotion off the U.S. government’s list of priorities. The administration’s Africa policy, finally unveiled in December 2018, does not contain a single mention of democracy, free and fair elections, political and civil rights, or civil society. The position of assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor—the United States’ highest human rights official—remains vacant. The State Department’s top Africa post remained unfilled for 15 months after Trump took office, until June 2018.

Little wonder, then, that some of Africa’s longest-ruling despots have expressed an affinity for the American president. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who busies himself charging political opponents with treason and then torturing them, says he “loves” Trump. The decline in U.S. funding for pro- democracy movements in Africa, combined with U.S. diplomatic support for autocrats does not bode well for the continent’s brave but battered democratic activists and human rights defenders.

To be sure, literally embracing illiberal strongmen and rubber-stamping stolen elections spans multiple U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican. However, the Trump administration’s endorsement of deliberately broken democratic processes – in the DRC, for example – and the leaders who have benefitted from them has shifted America’s position toward democracy promotion from tepid to outright hostility. What this indicates is that leaders who are actively disinterested in being held accountable by their citizens do not see the Trump administration as just tolerating their destructive impulses, but rather as affirming them.

I will close by ending with the observation that we have collectively allowed the democratic bar to be lowered to a dangerously unacceptable level, in Central Africa and elsewhere. The fault largely lies with the U.S. government — again, under both Democratic and Republican administrations – as well as the growing number of foreign firms that are cozying up to, being paid handsomely by, and providing access to U.S. decision-makers for autocratic strongmen. As a recent report from the Brenthurst Foundation summed it up: “a crude ethos has developed…that if there was no violence, then basically it was a ‘good’ election.”

Due to this changing global power balance, rigged or stolen elections face fewer and fewer international penalties than ever before. The African Union, too, which has never disavowed an election in its history, consistently prioritizes 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 flawed approach, described as “peaceocracy” by some scholars, is patronizing, insolent and altogether unsustainable in the long-term. Again, Central Africa is replete with recent examples of this trend – I already mentioned Gabon in 2016, but I would also highlight the inherently flawed elections in March 2016 in Congo-Brazzaville and those that recently took place in Cameroon last October, the fallout of which is still being felt in the country and across its borders.

Many people may be asking why does all of this matter, though hopefully not those in the room today? It matters most significantly because there is a positive relationship between democracy and human development.

Indeed, democracy has been shown to improve a nation’s overall health. This is because democratic governments are inherently more open, more accountable and transparent, as well as protective of media freedom. This enabling environment allows leaders to be more responsive and use feedback to improve the quality of basic services. Democratic nations are also more likely to increase their own spending on health care in the long term, which benefits all sides involved.

There is also strong evidence that democracy leads to stronger economies. This democratic advantage is especially pronounced for African countries that have remained democratic for longer periods of time. More often than not, autocrats and other abusive leaders fail to implement the needed reforms that would sustain economic growth. Since they are not held accountable — and because the aid continues to flow, regardless — they really have no incentive to act in the public interest.

Studies and available data also show that states which hold free and fair elections, and leaders who abide by basic democratic principles – like constitutional term limits, for example – are inherently less corrupt. They are also better positioned to prevent non-state violence, including acts of terrorism and violet extremism.

Engendering political contestation – which may involve direct support to pro-reform leaders – 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 at Vanguard Africa John Githongo 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 Benin to Zimbabwe and from Cameroon to Togo. Their optimism has been buoyed in part by the rise of an aggressively independent media that is bravely pushing back against the false facades of African strongmen, as well as online platforms for dissent and social media, and by the proliferation of NGOs fighting to hold repressive leaders accountable. Another reason for potential optimism is the fact that while voter turnout is declining globally, it has been relatively stable in Africa over the past few decades. To paraphrase a notable scholar on this topic: While people are questioning the value of democracy, especially in many Western states, African populations who have experienced one-party or military rule are prepared to fight the resurgence of authoritarianism.

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 their democratic processes that can ultimately lead to a brighter, more prosperous and stable future for their respective countries and the continent.

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, 26 African countries have signed and ratified it despite a slow start. This is the direction we must ultimately head in, together, if we are to collectively fight back against modern authoritarianism, entrench democratic rights (as opposed to life-presidents) and ensure free and fair elections that reflect the will of the people; this will in turn inspire a new, emboldened generation of democracy defenders who can stand up against the sweepingly negative headwinds we are now facing. This is desperately and clearly needed in Central Africa, perhaps more than any other region on the African continent, and arguably the world.

That so many people across Africa, particularly the region’s youth, remain undaunted by the prevailing anti-democratic obstacles and major trials ahead, offers a ray of hope that global citizens with good intentions are more than capable of meeting these formidable challenges.