Intro: African countries need to diversify away from their dependence on exporting commodities, which in turn would mean reforming and liberalising markets and bolstering independent institutions
SINCE the end of the cold war multiparty democracy has spread far and wide across the African continent, often with a moving and impressive intensity. Some have referred to it as Africa’s second liberation. Following freedom from European colonisers came freedom from African despots. 1994 is etched into history when many South Africans queued for hours to bury apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as president in their country’s first all-race vote.
The start of the liberation saw many of Africa’s Big Men swept away. Ethiopia’s despot Mengistu Haile Mariam fled in 1991; Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) decamped in 1997; and, a year later Sani Abacha of Nigeria died in suspicious circumstances. In parts of Africa autocrats are still in power and wars still rage. But most leaders now seek at least a veneer of respectability, elections have become more frequent and economies have opened up.
Yet, African democracy has stalled – or even possibly gone into reverse. Often, the continent has become an illiberal sort of pseudo-democracy in which the incumbent lavishly attacks the opposition, exploits the power of the state to stack the electoral contest in his favour and by removing any constraints on his power. That bodes ill for a continent where institutions are still fragile, corruption rife and economies weakened by the fall of commodity prices. One of the previous fastest-growing economies of the world has now become one of the slowest. For Africa to fulfil its promise, the young, dynamic continent must rediscover its zeal for democracy.
Zambia is the latest worrying example. It was one of the first African countries to undergo a democratic transition, when Kenneth Kaunda stepped down after losing an election in 1991. Just last month Edgar Lungu was re-elected president with a paper-thin majority in a campaign that was marred by the harassment of the opposition, the forced closure of the country’s leading independent newspaper, and accusations of vote-rigging and street protests.
Central parts of Africa appear most troubling. Incumbent leaders are changing or sidestepping constitutional term limits to extend their time in office, which often provokes unrest. Kenya, where political tension is rising, is facing concerns over threats of violence in next year’s general election. Freedom House, an American think-tank, reckons that in 1973 some 30% of sub-Saharan countries were ‘free’ or ‘partly free’. In its most recent report that share now stands at 50%. Whilst a big improvement it is down from the 71% which was reported in 2008. Countries that are ‘not free’ still outnumber those that are. A big chunk in the middle is made up of flawed and fragile states that are only ‘partly free’.
The people of Africa deserve much better. For democracy to work, the elected must not be greedy with those losing seats or failing to win accepting defeat. There must also be trusted institutions that invariably act as arbiters and stabilisers for democracy to flourish. In many places, some or all of these basic elements are missing.
Expanding and strengthening Africa’s middle class is the best way for democracy to thrive. Increasingly interconnected to the world, Africans know better than anyone the shortcomings of their leaders. Consider South Africa. Despite its model constitution, vibrant press and diverse economy, it has been tarnished under its president, Jacob Zuma. Whilst he has hollowed out institutions, some of which were tasked with fighting corruption, moves which were an attempt to strengthen his own position, South Africa has also demonstrated the power of its voters. In recent municipal elections, the powerful African National Congress lost control of many major cities. For the first time, a plausible alternative political party of power has emerged in the liberal, business-friendly Democratic Alliance.
Societies and economies which are free reinforce each other. African countries need to diversify away from their dependence on exporting commodities, which in turn would mean reforming and liberalising markets and bolstering independent institutions. The rest of the world can help by expanding access to rich-world markets for African goods, particularly in agriculture.
Other than promoting a middle class, diversification mitigates the ill-effects of a winner-takes-all politics. When a country’s wealth is concentrated in natural resources, controlling the state gives its leader access to the cash needed to maintain power. The problem is aggravated by the complex, multi-ethnic form of many African states, whose national borders may have been created by colonial whim. Voting patterns often follow tribal customs rather than class or ideology, which tends to lock in the advantage of one or other group. Political defeat at an election can mean being cut out of the spoils indefinitely. Dealing with variegated polities require structural changes in society such as decentralisation (as in Kenya), federalism (as in Nigeria) and requirements for parties or leaders to demonstrate a degree of cross-country or cross-ethnic support.
For those democracies which are fragile, the two-term rule for heads of government is invaluable, as it forces change. Nelson Mandela set the example by stepping down after just one term. The two-term rule should be enshrined as a norm by Africa’s regional bodies, just as the African Union forbids coups.
It’s also worth considering what else the outside world can do other than providing African countries with access to markets. China, for instance, has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, supplying aid and investment with few or no strings attached in terms of the rule of law and human rights. Even China, however, now that its own economy has markedly slowed, will not be in the business of propping up financially destitute African autocrats.
This means that Western influence, although diminished, remains considerable – for historical reasons, and because many African countries still look to the West for aid, investment and sympathy from international lending bodies. With the commodity boom at an end, a growing number of countries are facing a balance-of-payments crisis. Any fresh liquidity, particularly in the form of loans, should be conditional on strengthening independent institutions.
Yet, the West has flagged in its efforts to promote open and accountable democracy, especially in places such as those around the Horn of Africa (see appendage) and the Sahel, where the priority is to defeat jihadists. That is myopic. Decades of counter-terrorism teaches that the best bulwarks against extremism are states that are prosperous and just. That is most likely to come about when rulers serve at the will of their people.
Map depicting countries that make up the Horn of Africa.