Democracy in Africa: Time for a “Democratic Dozen”
Posted on 1st March, 2021 in Director's Blog
This June, the British Prime Minister will welcome G7 leaders to a summit in Cornwall. He has announced he will also invite the leaders of India, South Korea and Australia for a meeting of major democracies, to be called the D10. He should now make it a “Democratic Dozen” by inviting the leaders of Nigeria and South Africa, Africa’s two leading democracies, as well.
Africa gets a bad press. In the past year there has been much talk of democratic backsliding on the continent. Elections in Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Uganda have been not only imperfect but damaging to the freedom and progress of their people. In Ethiopia elections were postponed (officially due to the Covid-19 pandemic) and this became another bone of contention between Tigray and the central government which helped precipitate a civil conflict that has caused immense damage to that region and huge cost to the people and the country.
But progress is always bumpy, as we know in Europe, and the long term trends are more encouraging than the short term setbacks. The progress of democracy in Africa over the past 20 years has in fact been faster and more significant than on any other continent. Successful coups have largely become a thing of the past, and governments have more frequently been changed at the ballot box than by the bullet. Since 2000, Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Benin, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Tunisia and even the DRC (after a fashion) have all changed their governments through elections. In Algeria and Sudan as well as Tunisia, popular protest has forced the departure of ageing autocrats and brought in more representative governments.
The military have still intervened from time to time. Zimbabwe’s army removed Robert Mugabe to keep ZANU-PF’s ruling clique in power; in Guinea, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso the military forced a change of government but withdrew to barracks once a transition back to democratic rule had been achieved. In other some other countries, like Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville and Uganda, ageing autocrats cling on indefinitely. But old-style military dictators are pretty much dead and buried.
It is clear enough that change is not always towards a more perfect democratic future. I am no Dr Pangloss, nor even a Whig. But there is a clear trend. The African Union and other regional organisations have increasingly applied peer pressure that has discouraged brute seizures of power. Elections have become the norm, even if they can still be manipulated to preserve the incumbent in power rather than let the people make a change. Term limits come and go, and recently have been amended as often as they have been respected. But it is ultimately for each country to define what is acceptable to its people. Amongst older democracies, some (like Italy) change leader with dizzying frequency; others (like Germany) with unflappable slowness or (like US) with slightly eccentric clockwork.
What matters most is that repeated Afrobarometer polls have shown that African citizens, by a significant majority, want their governments to be more democratic and more accountable. In the end, that will weigh.
South Africa and Nigeria are both unique cases, but stand out for three reasons: they are the two major powers in sub-Saharan Africa; they hold regular, open and relatively peaceful elections; and they have had regular and peaceful changes of leader. As large democracies, they can hold their own with others in the world.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, its 200 million people divided along regional, ethnic and religious lines, and with a past plagued by coups and a vicious civil war. Yet since 2000 it has held five relatively peaceful Presidential elections, changing the party of government twice, and leader three times. No leader has stayed beyond two terms. Its form of patron-client politics is notoriously corrupt, but scarcely more so than many other democratic countries, and last year’s #EndSARS movement showed that young people are increasingly politically engaged and determined to make their voice heard.
South Africa’s particular history has given the ANC a credibility that has kept it in power for the past 26 years. But no one questions that the country’s elections have been free and fair, or that the outcomes were a true reflection of the voters’ views. Vigorous democracy within the ANC itself has led to four changes of leader since 1994, and in Cyril Ramaphosa put in power someone committed to reverse the pervasive state capture by corrupt elements that was experienced under his predecessor. The economy is in the doldrums and the country has suffered badly from Covid-19, but its democracy remains robust.
So why not invite them both? It would show that the world recognised Africa’s political importance, and encourage other African countries to follow the same path.
There can be no substantive objections to making the D10 into a Democratic Dozen. One need only state the objections to realise they don’t hold water: where do you stop? (why start?); Latin America will feel left out (they already do, as does Africa, with whom we have far closer historic links); there’s no space (if it can take ten, it can take twelve; what’s two more between friends; or one could always hold the expanded meeting in London); Asia is where we need to consolidate democracy because of China (and that doesn’t apply to Africa?); the PM will see them at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali the same month (as he will see India and Australia too); it’s too late (it’s never too late to do the right thing)…
Of course, the PM might face some embarrassing questions. Why is Britain cutting aid just when the Covid pandemic makes life even tougher for African countries? Why does he not follow up his warm words on investing in Africa with a little more political investment as well? But he faces these questions anyway, and inviting African countries to a summit of democracies will at the least show Africa a respect and political support that it deserves as much as others. In the wake of Brexit, and while it is broadcasting its commitment to a ‘Global Britain’, the government especially needs to demonstrate its commitment to and credibility with Africa, to strengthen its hand at the UN and in the world at large.
So it’s time to do the decent thing and invite Africa to join a Democratic Dozen. The world is watching.
Nick Westcott is Director of the Royal African Society.