Overcoming Africa’s Democratic Setbacks

This article originally appeared at thebrenthurstfoundation.org.

Mali’s rapid descent into instability from what seemed a promising democratic trajectory has been the cover story of African politics since a military coup there disrupted constitutional rule in early 2012. Soon thereafter, the northern half of the country fell under the control of Islamic militants. The seemingly abrupt turnabout was, in fact, the outcome of a steady erosion of state institutions over a period of years by what was an increasingly corrupt, though democratically-elected, regime. Among other allegations, senior members of the government and military have been linked to the growing flow of cocaine transiting the region en-route to Europe. All the while, basic government services, including training and equipping a capable, professional military were neglected.

While few other contexts can compare with Mali’s dramatic collapse, the pattern of African democratizers going off-track and lapsing into autocratic tendencies has grown increasingly familiar. Kenya, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and South Sudan all fit this pattern in recent years. This may take the form of elected leaders weakening nascent checks on executive power be they term limits, the autonomy of electoral commissions, judicial independence, or an assertive parliament. As a result, the norm of big-man rule persists, even under the guise of democracy. With the withering of relatively more independent institutions, corruption and abuses of power soar.

In fact, democratic backsliding is common. In Africa, 65 percent of all countries that start down the democratic path experience at least one episode of regression. Such backtracking should not be surprising. Establishing a more participatory, rules-based political system is threatening to those who have benefitted from the privileges of exclusivity and the patronage benefits this affords. This holds true for leaders of young democratizers that may have previously championed reforms but have since grown accustomed to the privileges of power.

Genuine democratization, therefore, requires creating robust mechanisms of shared power. This includes an independent legislature, an autonomous judiciary, a merit-based civil service, apolitical access to credit and licenses for businesses, and a professional military, among other institutions. Leaders that are subject to such structures of accountability are less able to enrich themselves through public office, use the military as a private protection force, disregard basic needs of the majority, or extra-legally extend their time in power.

Creating such institutions is possible but it takes time—generally at least a decade, often longer. Not only must new institutions be created but entrenched exploitative norms and practices must be undone. The burden for maintaining the momentum for reform until state institutions of accountability can become rooted, therefore, falls to civil society and the media. These are the groups that can raise awareness and mobilize support for more transparent, effective, and responsive government.

Fortunately, democratization experiences are often highly resilient. While backsliding may be common, in two-thirds of these cases there is a resumption of democratic progress within three years. In other words, the emergence of democratic norms is often a back-and-forth process.

The growing accessibility of mobile phones and social media in Africa has provided powerful new tools to help civil society groups in these efforts to inform and connect citizens. As citizens become engaged, democracy’s inherent self-correcting capacities gain traction. Political leaders face stronger incentives to be responsive to citizen priorities. The airing of independent analysis widens policy options and hastens course adjustments. A means for systemically replacing political leaders brings fresh ideas and reduces institutional atrophy.

Africa’s democratic progress, then, depends on sufficient space for civil society actors, independent media, bloggers, and others to foster cross-societal communication and engagement. It is this very potential, however, that makes these actors prime targets for intimidation, imprisonment, and violence by state authorities threatened by greater public scrutiny. Libel and defamation laws are used to stifle dissent. Access to the Internet is restricted. Fifteen journalists were murdered in Africa in 2012. Few of these cases were even investigated. More than 300 African journalists are living in exile.

Strengthening protections for journalists and civil society leaders is vital to advancing democracy in Africa.  Violence against these actors is not an ordinary crime against a single individual. Rather, it inflicts an enormous cost for the entire society by the loss of transparency, oversight, and awareness of the population. It also limits the information available to the international community to constructively engage these regimes. Without independent information, the regime’s narrative dominates interpretations of events.

Since unaccountable governments have little incentive to lead the effort of strengthening legal protections for violence against journalists, regional African courts such as the African Court on Human and People’s Rights should take on an increasingly assertive role in hearing cases of violence against journalists that can’t receive an impartial hearing in the domestic courts. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression should also be called in to investigate cases where journalists and civil society actors are unable to play their roles. In so doing, an impartial assessment of the space for media freedoms can be compiled. Regimes that fail to meet acceptable thresholds of press and speech freedoms should be denied international assistance. Without domestic watchdog groups and independent media, misuse of these monies escalates dramatically—placing donors in the position of inadvertently propping up the big-man syndrome in Africa.

International actors need to be more sophisticated in their support of Africa’s democratizers. There were warning signs in Mali—but these were mostly ignored. The essential measure of progress must be the strength of institutions of shared power. Those who dismantle these institutions, even if fairly elected, must be called out and sanctioned. In effect they are simply executing a coup in a more elegant manner.