Democracy Demons

African governments and leaders from whatever political stripes are increasingly using democracy and its institutions – parliaments, judiciaries and civil society – to entrench their power over societies.

For many Africans, democratic institutions are increasingly becoming not sources of liberation, freedom and protection, but sources of oppression.

Furthermore, democratic institutions are increasingly being used by many African governments and leaders as an extension of patronage networks for themselves, their allies and their families.

The good thing is that Africa has seen a post-independence turning point whereby no African leader or government will openly say they are against democracy. Even the most brutal African dictator now pretends to stand for democracy.

The bad thing now, of course, is that under the guise of democracy, many African governments and leaders are using democratic institutions to enrich themselves, control and oppress their societies.

The use of democracy and its institutions as instruments of control and enrichment by African governments and leaders represents a new, disturbing form of African governance.

African governments and leaders now “allow” opposition parties, selected media and civil society – whereas in the past, they would have been proscribed or outrightly banned. Now they are present, but contained.

Most African governments have now allowed opposition parties to openly exist. However, sitting governments and leaders used the powers of state patronage, hegemony and force, to marginalise opposition parties in increasingly more sophisticated ways.

Similarly, African leaders and governments now regularly stage elections.

They increasingly use elections to legitimise their power. But many African leaders now rig elections – in more and more sophisticated ways – or the opposition and their supporters are often battered, long before the election day.

African elections are now rigged with more “democratic” veneer.

Many African governments and leaders use state resources, as a matter of course, to secure elections. State broadcasters, media and pork-barrelling are often used to the advantage of sitting governments and leaders.

Opposition parties and leaders’ access to state broadcasters, media and funding, is often choked off during elections.

African state media often ignore the campaigns, views and images of opposition parties and leaders; do not use analysts deemed to be critical of the sitting government and leaders; and report blatantly pro-biased and anti-opposition pieces.

Ominously, sitting African governments and leaders often abuse existing democratic institutions, such as courts and laws, to trip up opposition parties and leaders on false charges.

Such false charges often appear legitimate because of their passage through “democratic” institutions.

In the past, opposition leaders and democracy activists would be made to disappear – this still happens all too frequently.

However, the finesse of democratic institutions and laws are now more frequently used by African governments and leaders to muzzle opponents.

And, of course, African governments and leaders are increasingly stuffing democratic institutions with their cronies who will do their bidding.

Many African parliamentary benches, judiciaries and watchdog organisations are full of stooges.

Most African governments now allow independent media. In the past, only state-owned media were allowed to operate.

However, although private media are now officially allowed in many African countries, they often do not have access to government institutions and leaders.

And governments often do not advertise in them.

Sitting governments and leaders often use laws to sue independent media houses and individual journalists critical of them – using state funds – and frequently bankrupt such media.

In other cases, “independent” media are owned by family, allies and associates of sitting governments and leaders, and are therefore essentially state media, rather than independent.

Independent civil society organisations are now more frequently allowed in African countries. In the past, only civil society groups aligned to the governing party or leader were allowed, unless they were non-political.

However, although independent civil society groups may now exist, they do not receive government funding, and increasingly African governments have introduced laws restricting foreign donor funding.

Africans now have more formal democratic institutions, such as constitutions, parliaments and oversight bodies. However, although there are more individual rights then before, ordinary citizens do not have more access to democratic institutions, nor do they have a bigger say in the decisions they make. Nor are governments and leaders more accountable.

Similarly, more individual rights do not translate into citizens having a voice in government decision-making, or having access to government and leaders and holding them accountable.

For example, women in many African countries may generally now have more rights on paper than before. But these often do not translate into citizens in politics, economics and cultures.

Most African governments and leaders have introduced selective democratic reforms which provide just about enough democratic space, but overall control is vested in them and not the people.

In reality, many African “democracies” have partial democratic rights. The introduction of selective and partial democratic institutions and rights has given many autocratic African leaders and governments a new lease on life. This means that most African countries ordinarily referred to as democracies, are not; at best, they are partial democracies.

The one danger of this is that democracy and institutions – because they are being used to enrich leaders and oppress citizens – may lose credibility.

Ordinary Africans may lose trust in democracy and its institutions. Instead of blaming their leaders and governments, many Africans may blame democracy and its institutions for failure to foster peace, development and growth.

This may result in the phenomenon that ordinary Africans will increasingly look towards undemocratic solutions, whether it is populism, leadership personality cults, or religious, cultural or ethnic fundamentalism.

*This article was published in African Independent. To view the article on their website click here

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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