Is democracy on the retreat in Africa?

Given the terrible new human rights abuses in African countries such as Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR), the question is frequently asked whether democracy in Africa is in retreat.

The answer is that in some countries in Africa overall democracy has deepened, in others aspects of democracy have been strengthened and in others previous democratic gains have been reversed whether in parts or overall.

The answer is that in some countries in Africa overall democracy has deepened, in others aspects of democracy have been strengthened and in others previous democratic gains have been reversed whether in parts or overall.

Since African independence from colonialism starting in the late 1950s, three core African countries have consistently performed better in democracy building than others: they are Mauritius, Cape Verde and Botswana. A second group including South Africa, Tunisia, Ghana, Namibia and Senegal have more recently become democratic.  Of these two groups of genuine African democratic countries Mauritius, Cape Verde and Botswana have certainly over the years been consistently the most democratic overall.

In recent times Mauritius and Cape Verde have broadly continued to deepen democracy. Botswana remains overall democratic, but there have been rising concerns that aspects of democracy gains are being eroded. South Africa may have the best formal democratic institutions, rules and civil society organisations, but making democracy real for everyone, including the poor, and not just for the elite, has been a particularly difficult challenge.

Tunisia saw a decline in democracy – which prompted the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions by angry youth. It does appear that some of the previous democratic gains there are now being enshrined post-‘Arab Spring’.  Senegal has, although having had a few missteps, seen democracy taking root broadly. Ghana has improved on key aspects of democracy. The country has for example introduced social welfare, even if limited, to the vulnerable. But Ghana has also seen a proliferation of local, indigenous, home-grown civil society formations over the past few years – which have been key in mobilising against public corruption and political unaccountability, and making sure that development is more pro-poor. It has also seen exemplary investigative journalistic prowess with Anas Aremeyaw Anas and his recent demasqué of corrupt judges as example.

Over the recent past very few new African countries have improved on the overall quality of their democracies. Namibia is one country that appears to have recently broadly improved its democracy. Most African countries though over the past decade have improved aspects of democracy, rather than democracy broadly. This represents the largest group of African countries that have made democratic progress.

In this group are all the African countries that have adopted democratic constitutions, introduced regular democratic elections and allowed multiparty competition. Many African countries have improved on specific key democratic aspects – if not on the overall quality of the democracy. Although it may not be immediately apparent, in general African countries are more peaceful and political stable than before. The reason for this is that many African countries may not have improved on overall democracy, but they have improved on aspects of democracy, whether Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. Most African countries have now introduced formal democratic rules, laws and institutions – which has not been the case before. In fact, many African countries now on paper have democratic constitutions, laws and institutions.

Again, in practice, the existence of such democratic rules, laws and institutions are in many cases, sadly only on paper, and not acted out. Nevertheless, elections are increasingly been accepted as the legitimate way to seek power.  African ruling parties, strongmen and autocrats are increasingly wanting to legitimize their governments through elections. Although it may not be immediately apparent, there are actually coups on the continent now, as there are more elections. Nigeria is one example where it appears that democratic elections have now become part and parcel of the country’s political culture. In the past coups were the norm in Nigeria to change governments.

Of course many African leaders often rig elections – now in more and more sophisticated ways like the gerrymandering of voter rolls, or the opposition and their supporters are often battered, long before the election-day. Many African countries have for example started to seriously tackle systemic corruption. Corruption is off course one of the banes of democracy in Africa – and has heavily undermined democracy building since the very beginning of African independence. A case in point is Rwanda which has determinedly tackled corruption; this has improved the overall quality of life in the country noticeably.

More African leaders appear to stand down. African leaders wanting to govern until they die in office has undermined the building of democracy since the end of colonialism. It has also led to terrifying violence as leaders use force to stay in power, and opponents respond with violence, coups and terrorism. Although patriarchy, sexism and narrow traditionalism remains a strong feature of Africa’s governing systems, African countries have elected women leaders – from Mauritius and Liberia to Malawi.

Crucially, there are more formal continental and regional democratic rules, laws and institutions in Africa, then ever before. Again, although these continental democratic rules, laws and institutions are often impressive on paper, they are not always genuinely implemented. Many African countries often do not ratify continental democratic systems. Others do not align their domestic political systems to continental democratic ones. Yet, other countries simply ignore them. Nevertheless, the mere presence of continental democratic rules, laws and institutions, in themselves represent democratic progress for the continent.

One result has been that there are fewer conflicts between African countries because continental institutions often do intervene even if agonizingly slowly. Of course, African institutions have often, depressingly, not intervened to deal with continental conflicts and crises. Lack of continental intervention in autocratic regimes in Swaziland, Burundi and in Zimbabwe are cases in point.

The problem has been that African continental and regional institutions are guided by two democracy-undermining principles: one that African leaders are more important than ordinary citizens, and two, that African leaders should not intervene in the affairs of peers, even if their peers are behaving appallingly autocratically. A miss-guided 20th century appreciation of sovereignty prevails.

Sadly, not many African countries which made improvements in aspects of democracy have abandoned winner-takes-all electoral systems, which allow parties and leaders who may often win with only one vote to dominate all power. Africa’s winner-takes all electoral systems have stunted democracy building efforts. It has led to corruption, violence and instability. Given Africa’s ethnic, religious and language diversity winner-take-all electoral systems are destablising. In spite of democratic progress, the quality of political leadership in Africa has not improved.

Clearly, for democracy to flourish the continent desperately needs a new generation of visionary, caring and capable leaders that are committed to inclusive democracy. Sadly, many African countries have defaulted even on the aspects of democracy they had previously improved on.

Burundi is one country that had previously improved on aspects of democracy, but has recently seen such improvements backsliding dramatically. Some countries, where citizens have pushed for democracy through popular protests, such as during the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, have initially secured democratic gains, but then saw such gains rapidly eroded.

*This article appeared on the SABC website and can be viewed 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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