ACSS Senior Leaders Seminar: “Arab Spring and Democratic Governance in Africa”

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 07/06/2012

(Editor’s Note: Since the onset of the events in North Africa and the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, many are wondering what the long-term impacts of the movement will be, especially for North Africa’s sub-Saharan neighbors.  Thus, “The Arab Spring and Democratic Governance in Africa” was the featured topic of a June 19, 2012, plenary session for the 14th annual Senior Leaders Seminar sponsored by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The June 18-29 seminar took place in Arlington, Virginia, and was attended by 70 security sector professionals and other government leaders from 40 Africa nations.  Academic discussions at the Africa Center are conducted under a strict policy of non-attribution to allow free and open discussion. However, several presenters agreed to allow portions of their presentations to appear on the record in order to promote broader exchange of ideas.)

For the third plenary session of the 2012 Senior Leaders Seminar, Dr. Joseph Siegle of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies and Dr. Christopher Fumonyoh of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, both contributing authors of the ACSS report “Africa and the Arab Spring: A New Era of Democratic Expectations,” presented on the Arab Spring and democratic governance in Africa.

After the introduction and welcome by Benjamin Nickels, Dr. Siegle highlighted the importance of the changes that have taken place in Northern Africa over the last 18 months, as well as the counterexamples to democratization to be found in countries such as Mali. He then displayed graph showing a parallel fall in autocracies and rise in intermediate regimes within Africa.

Democracy “takes time” and is not something you can turn on and off “like a light-switch,” Siegle said. It is more than just elections, and backsliding is usually a part of the transition to it.

Dr. Siegle went on to pose the question of why governance matters. He noted that, compared to other forms of government, democracies have higher growth rates, more education, lower infant mortality, and fewer conflicts, among other benefits. Particularly relevant to the audience, he also remarked that studies show the more transparent the government, the more revenue the security sector receives. Opacity, a hallmark of autocratic regimes, allows funding to be diverted.

Dr. Siegle described some of the driving forces of democratization, including institutional change, greater informational access, past elections, and increasing levels of education. He also highlighted some of the ongoing challenges: the patronage mentality, divisions within security sectors, the “natural resource curse,” narco-trafficking, and extremism. In citing narco-trafficking, Dr. Siegle drew a link between the ensuing corruption of leaders and weak governance.

In part two of the plenary, Dr. Fumonyoh provided more details on the events of the Arab Spring. He then presented a map of Freedom House’s 2012 “Freedom in the World” rankings, which engendered many murmurings from the crowd. Dr. Fumonyoh had compiled the map, which color-coded each African country as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free using data from Freedom House’s annual report. He drew a comparison between the countries of North Africa, which were involved in the Arab Spring, and many countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The similarities included hollow political processes, long-serving leaders, the growing presence of social media, and a high youth population coupled with high unemployment.

A major focus of Dr. Fumonyoh’s talk was the African Union and its relationship to democratization. He described the AU as having a duty to stand for democracy, citing strong provisions in support of democracy within the AU Charter. He also discussed the concept of Responsibility to Protect, which includes both the responsibility of individual states to their people as well as the responsibility of the international community to those people. The principle of R2P, as it is sometimes known, has been affirmed by the United Nations. Dr. Fumonyoh remarked that the African Union’s actions during the Arab Spring indicated that it had room for improvement on both the grounds of its own charter and the principle of R2P.

The plenary included a lively question-and-answer session, in which participants asked numerous questions about the above-mentioned map, in particular with regard to the ranking of their own respective countries.

Summary prepared by Elizabeth Casano, economics major at Northwestern University. Ms. Casano is a 2012 summer intern at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

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