Africa’s fragile democracies stalling



Some call it Africa’s second liberation. After freedom from European colonisers came freedom from African despots. Since the end of the cold war multi-party democracy has spread far and wide across the continent, often with impressive and moving intensity, The Economist notes:

Many of Africa’s worst Big Men were swept away. Mengistu Haile Mariam fled Ethiopia in 1991; Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) decamped in 1997; a year later Sani Abacha of Nigeria died in office (or, as rumour has it, in the arms of prostitutes). 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 more regular; economies have opened up.

And yet, as our reporting makes clear (see article), African democracy has stalled—or even gone into reverse. Too often, it is an illiberal sort of pseudo-democracy in which the incumbent demonises the opposition, exploits the power of the state to stack the electoral contest in his favour and removes 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 fastest-growing regions of the world has become one of the slowest). For Africa to fulfil its promise, the young, dynamic continent must rediscover its zeal for democracy.

Whereas previous waves of democratisation in Africa came from abroad, expect Africans themselves to generate the next democratic tsunami, The Economist notes.

But why has democracy across sub-Saharan Africa’s heterogeneous 48 countries recently stumbled? It asks:

In some places it was never strongly rooted in the first place. ….And even where states embrace the outward forms of democracy, holding regular elections, few enjoy the checks and balances provided by strong institutions and independent courts and civil services. This shortcoming is compounded by the fact that in many African countries the strongest institution is the army.

Nicholas Cheeseman, an academic at Oxford University, reckons that of 91 presidents and prime ministers to have held office on the continent in civilian regimes since 1989, 45% once either served in the armed forces or were guerrillas before becoming politicians. This includes all four presidents in the Great Lakes region around eastern Congo, as well as Nigeria’s Mr Buhari. Coups are far less common these days; the African Union, often an ineffectual organisation, has recently taken a firm stand against them. Yet the prevalence of so many former fighting men in civilian office highlights the influence that armies still wield in politics.


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