African democracy: supply and demand at a tipping point?



One of Africa’s most stable democracies is quietly drifting into authoritarian rule, notes Nic Cheeseman of the University of Birmingham.

Until now, Zambia’s progress under multi-party politics has been quietly impressive, he writes. Although the level of corruption has remained high, and a number of highly controversial, elections, the country has consistently pulled back from the brink when authoritarian rule appeared a possibility.

Will democracy be supply-constrained, or demand-driven? K. Riva Levinson* asks. Will leaders be forced to make way for the next generation, or will frustration with the governing authorities diminish the belief of the African people in democratic institutions, opening the door for a return to authoritarianism? Levinson writes for The Hill:

has measured this phenomena. Its latest polling released in November 2016 found that 7 in 10 Africans believe democracy is preferable to all forms of government. And at the same time, more than half of the respondents surveyed are dissatisfied with the quality of their democracy. Afrobarometer [a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy] concludes that there is a “democratic deficit” where demand for democracy exceeds supply, and because of this, the continent is likely to experience popular pressure for democratization, with the danger that unmet democratic demands may contribute to social unrest.

African leaders’ adherence to constitutional term limits is a key component of institutionalizing predictable norms of democratic succession, adds Joseph Siegle, Director of Research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Progress toward establishing this norm has been mixed, however. While a number of African countries have succeeded in upholding term limits over the past two decades, leaders in more than 20 countries effectively do not face restrictions on their time in power, he writes:

  • Eighteen African countries have established a constitutional two-term limit on their executive officeholders. Chief executives in these countries have been in power for less than four years, on average.
  • Ten African leaders have evaded term limit restrictions. The average time in power for leaders in these countries is 21 years.
  • Eight of the 10 countries where term limits have been undone are in Central Africa.
  • Southern Africa is the sub-region with the strongest adherence to term limits.
  • Term limits for leaders in North and East Africa largely remain weak or absent.

New Defend Defenders Statement Encourages African Commission Engagement 

On May 9, 2017, Hassan Shire, the Executive Director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (DefendDefenders), addressed the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and encouraged them to play a stronger role in protecting human rights on the continent. Shire drew attention to a number of recent human rights violations in the East and Horn of Africa region.

  • According to Shire, for almost a year now, South Sudan’s government has killed citizens and humanitarian workers delivering aid in the country. In neighboring Sudan, recent government bombing campaigns devastated the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
  • Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have been detained since Ethiopia declared a State of Emergency in October 2016, which empowered the government to crackdown on political dissent. Shire points out that no one has faced persecution for the ongoing state-sponsored attacks against members of civil society in Ethiopia, as well as Burundi, Eritrea, and Uganda.
  • Restrictions on independent media and freedom of assembly in Kenya and Tanzania have increased, ahead of the countries’ 2017 and 2018 elections.

To address these concerns, Shire recommended that the African Commission establish new legal mechanisms to address grievances in South Sudan, as well as support independent investigations into violations of international law in Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Burundi. Read Shire’s full statement here.

Hassan Shire is a World Movement for Democracy Steering Committee member and is a recent recipient of Refugee International’s Richard C. Holbrooke Award, which honors civil society organizations working in humanitarian crisis zones.

*Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President.”

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