Africa’s Democratic Journey: A Tale of Progress, Setbacks, and Hopes

15 September 2023
15 September 2023

After years of colonial rule followed by authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships, Africa witnessed a wave of democratic transitions starting in the 1990s and continuing into the early 21st century. This marked a turning point in the political landscape of many African nations as they embraced multiparty politics, held periodic elections, and implemented democratic reforms. This arose largely from a wide acceptance that democracies perform better than all other existing forms of government in promoting development. Democracy ensures popular participation in public policy-making. With attributes such as the rule of law, transparency, responsiveness, equity and inclusiveness, democracy comes with a full package that is difficult to disassociate from any form of socio-economic development. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is difficult to give a watertight classification of democracy beyond direct and representative, social and liberal. Nevertheless,  depending on the source, there are different forms of democracy, such as direct, representative, parliamentary, presidential, consensus, liberal, and social. Beyond the pre-colonial times when African societies practised direct democracy, what holds sway now is a liberal representative democracy, while there have been decades-long calls for social democracy.

In acceptance of liberal democracy, many African countries transitioned from one-party rule to multiparty systems, allowing for greater political pluralism and competition. For example, countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia ended decades-long single-party dominance and introduced multiparty elections. African nations embarked on constitutional reforms to promote democratic principles, including protecting human rights, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy in the 1990s is a prominent example of such constitutional reforms. Ghana has witnessed a series of peaceful power transfers between political parties since 2000, solidifying its reputation as a beacon of democracy in West Africa. The African Union (AU) and regional organisations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) played crucial roles in promoting democracy and resolving political crises. ECOWAS, for instance, intervened in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast to restore democratic governance and stability.

Nevertheless, the African democratic experiment has faced severe existential threats with the recent coups in Central and West Africa tipping the region back to full military authoritarianism and threatening the survival of regional organisations. Worse still, the fundamental question that has become recurrent in the analytical space is if democracy is truly good for Africa, especially as a widespread celebration often marks the return to military rule in recent times. For many analysts, the long years of democratic practice have not translated to socio-economic development and security in Africa. Others note that democracy is unsuitable for Africa because it is a foreign concept. For this group, Africa has to adapt democracy to its existential conditions or completely evolve a new form of government, while others suggest a return to pre-colonial African governance structures.

The Blame Game and Socrates' Wisdom

In Plato's Republic, Socrates refutes Thrasymachus's definition of justice as being in the interest of the stronger party by comparing justice to a craft and its object. For Socrates, every art must serve the interest of its object. As such, the art of medicine serves the interest of the patient and not the medical practitioner. This he relates to governance by saying, "no ruler, in so far as he is acting as ruler, will study or enjoin what is for his own interest. All that he says and does will be said and done with a view to what is good and proper for the subject for whom he practises his art". Whenever the craftsman deviates from the principle of his art either deliberately for selfish gains or for lack of skills, he betrays his craft and cannot be called a craftsman at that moment nor does he represent the craft. In recent years, there has been a decline in democracy globally with the increasing rise of far-right politics even in Europe and America. Along with this decline, the concept of democracy has been bashed for many of the woes of governance but it is important to distinguish between what democracy is and what it is not. In Africa, the crucial question that should be raised is whether Africa's governance challenges are occasioned by a failure of democracy itself or the betrayal of democratic values by supposedly democratic governments.

Liberal democracy exists in a continuum; at the minimum is the periodic conduct of elections, but there is virtually no maximum. The limits of democracy expand in response to the aspirations of the people and the emergence of new freedoms. However, the electoral processes in many African countries have been marred by irregularities, including allegations of voter intimidation, fraud, and manipulation, weak governance institutions, coupled with widespread corruption, pose significant challenges to democratic consolidation. There has been a decline in the protection of civil liberties and freedom of expression. Restrictions on media freedom, harassment of journalists, and suppression of opposition voices undermine the foundations of democracy. Countries like Ethiopia and Tanzania have witnessed such trends. In Guinea, former President Alpha Condé sparked controversy by changing the constitution in 2020, which allowed him to seek a third term in office. This move was widely unpopular, especially because both the constitutional referendum and the subsequent general election, which he won, were marred by irregularities and lack of fairness. Furthermore, Mr. Condé had been increasingly exhibiting authoritarian tendencies leading up to the coup, which included the imprisonment and violent treatment of his political opponents and anti-government activists. Similarly, former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta faced accusations of manipulating the 2020 legislative elections. These allegations and concerns about growing corruption and escalating insecurity eroded his legitimacy.

While this piece agrees that the above traits threaten democratic governance, it holds that it is erroneous to blame the concept of democracy for practices alien to it. What has happened in Africa can best be described as a betrayal of democracy or the enthronement of civilian autocracies through elections. The fundamental requirement of democracy remains that public officeholders wield public power and resources in trust for the citizens and not for their self-aggrandisement. This has been reduced to mere rhetoric in Africa. The continent battles state capture resulting from the privatisation and personalisation of the state and the use of it for the pursuit of private and sectional. Similarly, in the name of democracy, politics has become the shortest cut to affluence and influence and an instrument to perpetuate oneself in power with little tolerance for opposition. 

Before the recent coups beginning with Mali in August 2020, the Freedom House Index had already revealed that in the past 14 years, 22 African countries suffered score declines, the second-highest of such figures globally within the study period. In fact, of the 12 largest declines globally, seven were in sub-Saharan Africa. Paradoxically, this was when Africa celebrated democracy and the periodic conduct of elections. In 2023, the new report revealed that half of the region's people live in countries considered Not Free, while only 7 per cent live in Free countries.

Military Rule and the Allegory of a Drowning Man

At a point of urgency and desperation, when a person is in immediate danger such as drowning, their primary concern is survival. It suggests that, in times of crisis, individuals are generally willing to accept help from anyone who can provide it, regardless of their differences or affiliations. This captures the return of military coups in Africa. After about a decade of lull, military coups returned to Africa with Mali, the latest being  Gabon, making it the eighth in West and Central Africa since 2020. Out of the 486 military coups that have taken place worldwide since 1950, Africa has witnessed the highest number, comprising 214 of these coups, with at least 106 of them successfully overthrowing governments. About 45 out of the 54 African countries have encountered at least one attempted coup since 1950. 

 Military regimes have argued that they came to power to restore political stability when civilian governments were perceived as corrupt, ineffective, puppets of external governments, or unable to deal with the security situations in their country. Analysts tend to validate military juntas' actions by considering street celebrations in some countries as citizens cheered the ousting of elected leaders as symbols of juntas' popularity or even legitimacy. There was an instance where Mali's football team supporters held a picture of coup leader Colonel Assimi Goita before an  Africa Cup of Nation match. However, what is often ignored is that those who celebrate and are captured by the media might not necessarily be a representative proportion of the vast populations of those countries. Also, the violence depicted by the military would naturally instil fear in citizens with opposing views beyond the fact that a regulated media would not want to publicise dissenting voices.

The military experiences in Africa have shown that they are not remarkably better than their civilian counterparts. Economic policies under military rule have also been characterised by corruption, mismanagement, favouritism and insecurity. In addition, military regimes have a poor human rights and civil liberties record. Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) revealed that from January to June 2023, Burkina Faso recorded 6,084 fatalities in the context of the country’s war against violent extremism. This six-month figure surpasses the annual fatality figures for the past seven years. 

Africa experienced the worse forms of violence and loss of life under its military regimes. For instance, Idi Amin's rule (1971-1979) in Uganda resulted in extreme violence, with approximately 300,000 Ugandan deaths. Mobutu Sese Seko's lengthy rule in Congo (1965-1997) was marked by widespread corruption and personal wealth accumulation at the expense of national development. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe's rule (1980-2017) led to authoritarianism, economic collapse, and hyperinflation due to land seizures and economic mismanagement. Siad Barre's regime in Somalia (1969-1991) featured dictatorship, human rights violations, and a catastrophic civil war that caused the state's collapse. Hissène Habré's rule in Chad (1982-1990) was marked by extreme brutality, including torture and mass killings, resulting in his eventual conviction for crimes against humanity by a special tribunal in 2016. Charles Taylor's presidency in Liberia (1997-2003) brought civil war, atrocities, and regional instability, leading to his indictment for war crimes in 2012. Similarly, Omar al-Bashir's long rule in Sudan (1989-2019) witnessed conflicts and accusations of genocide, war crimes, and human rights abuses, resulting in charges from the International Criminal Court (ICC)

It is important to note that Africa has seen several notable military leaders who have significantly contributed to their countries and the continent. These leaders have often played pivotal roles in shaping the political landscape, addressing conflicts, and promoting development. For example, Emperor Haile Selassie I was Ethiopia's head of state and was crucial in resisting the Italian invasion during the First Italo-Ethiopian War. His leadership and inspiring speeches made him a symbol of African resistance to colonialism and a prominent figure in the Pan-African movement. Also, Thomas Sankara, often referred to as "Africa's Che Guevara," was a charismatic military leader who served as the President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. He implemented far-reaching social and economic reforms, including land redistribution and gender equality measures, earning him a reputation as a progressive leader committed to the welfare of his people. Also, Paul Kagame, who played a key role in ending the Rwandan genocide, has been President of Rwanda since 2000. Under his leadership, Rwanda has made significant strides in stability, economic development, and reconciliation. Despite the emergence of these benevolent autocracies that have had a lasting impact on their respective countries, relying on the process that led to their emergence speaks more to luck than a well-thought-out process. Also, the internal contradictions in autocracies, especially human rights abuses, inevitably lead to their end.

Nevertheless, much like a drowning man who perhaps would like to be saved by his friend but wouldn't mind if help comes from his enemy, Africans prefer democracy but appear to have resolved for any other form of government, including the military, if the tenets of democratic governance would not be adhered to by supposedly elected governments. In a survey of 20 countries by Afrobarometer, only 37% of Africans are satisfied with their country's democracy. Yet, most African citizens choose democracy as their preferred form of government (67%) and reject non-democratic alternatives, including one-party rule (79%) and rule by a single leader (81%). They also support democratic principles like parliamentary oversight (65%), media freedom (67%), and presidential term limits (73%). However, a majority (54%) responded that they are willing to accept military intervention when elected leaders abuse their power. The abuse of power and governance crisis depicted by the drowning allegory shows that fewer (30%) believe that their governments effectively combat corruption, which the majority (62%) perceive to be on the rise. Perhaps the military themselves acknowledge the preference for democracy and its ability to achieve greater economic growth and more effectively deliver public services, so their first ploy after a coup is the promise of a return to democratic governance once the country stabilises.

The Rising Hope of Democracy in Africa

It is important to note that the democratic landscape in Africa is diverse, and there are still many countries on the continent that continue to progress in consolidating democracy despite the challenges faced by the continent. The first glimpse of hope in Africa is a seeming rise in youth interest in politics and governance. Youth-led movements and organisations have emerged across Africa, mobilising young people and advocating for their rights and interests. These movements, such as the "Fees Must Fall" movement in South Africa or the "Y'en a Marre" movement in Senegal, EndSars in Nigeria, have played significant roles in raising political consciousness among young people, demanding accountability, and promoting democratic values. 

Second, the increasing use of technology and social media platforms has opened up new avenues for youth engagement in elections. Young people use social media for political activism, voter mobilisation, and information sharing. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and WhatsApp have allowed young Africans to discuss politics, exchange ideas, and organise movements. 

Third, technological experiment in African elections, especially in the voter registration, voter authentication, and result transmission process, is also a glimpse of hope. Although it faces severe challenges of a digital divide, cybersecurity risks, strong legal frameworks, manpower, technological integrity, and the lack of supporting infrastructure, the continent can harness the potential of technology for transparent, credible, and inclusive elections in Africa. 

Ultimately, no one has a monopoly on democracy. Beyond the widespread introduction of elections, the tenets of democracy, such as the rule of law, transparency, accountability, responsiveness, equity, and inclusiveness, were rooted in African societies long before colonial rule. There is no uniform model of democracy globally; as such, modern Africa is well capable of developing its own models of democracy that would be contextually relevant, consensus-based, and competent enough to deal with the diverse governance issues in Africa, especially security that have become a major anchor for military coups in the continent.

Dengiyefa Angalapu is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development.

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