Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Farewell, democracy?

The tide of democracy that swept across Africa for 20 years has run its course, writes Haytham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

Africa stood on the cusp of democracy, and then turned back. Twenty years ago, the march of freedom seemed irreversible, with countries ditching long-serving generals to hold free and civilian elections with varied, but generally credible, degrees of success.

The continent, long plagued with military coups, civil war and famine, was about to turn a corner, optimists said. Their predictions looked solid. Since the end of the Cold War, almost 19 African countries embraced free elections to choose their governments. And some even managed to achieve high levels of economic growth at the same time.

But, according to the 2014 Freedom in the World Report, released by Freedom House, a Washington-based democracy advocacy group, only nine countries in Africa today can be called “free”. Some 22 countries are “partly free”, and 23 countries are “not free.”

Nearly 12 per cent of Africans live in countries ruled by democratic regimes, 53 per cent are ruled by semi-democratic regimes and 35 per cent are ruled by nondemocratic regimes, says the report.

Interestingly, Africa is doing better than at any time before in terms of economic growth. In sub-Saharan Africa, the growth rate is at 4.5 per cent annually, mostly because of price increases for gas, oil and minerals. This rate, viewed in regional terms, is second only to Asia.

In various parts of Africa, the middle class is growing, with the same tastes for consumer goods, politics, and culture common in the northern hemisphere. But the fragile structure of the state, ineptness of local bureaucracies, and incompetence of political parties are pushing the continent back from the promised land of pluralistic regimes into the familiar aridity of autocratic rule.

To illustrate the current trend, let’s look at the curious case of Burkina Faso. In October 2014, protestors forced Blaise Compaoré, the officer who ruled the country for 27 years, from office. But it wasn’t long before rival political groups let the army take over once again, citing their fear of a power vacuum.

Michel Kafando, Burkina Faso’s former ambassador to the UN, is now the transitional president, but for all intents and purposes the army is running the show.

“It is we in civil society that insisted the army come and restore order,” says Aristide Zongo, executive director of the Burkinabé Association for Reducing Child Mortality. “From my point of view, it’s quite acceptable,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

In Liberia, where the country was having trouble containing the Ebola epidemic, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf called in the army for help. But instead of isolating individuals with the virus, army soldiers quarantined whole neighborhoods, at one point firing shots into a crowd, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“I did not know what to do,” Sirleaf later admitted.

Armies are historically the strongest institutions in African countries. This is due in part to the fact that they were trained by colonial powers, which mostly used them to control the population and repress calls for independence.

To this day, whenever democracy begins to flutter and flail, armies are called onto the scene in a hurry, to rule or at least assume power for an interim phase.

Let’s take a look at another example. In Sudan, the first coup came only two years after its independence in 1956, when Prime Minister Abdallah Khalil asked army commander General Ibrahim Abboud to take over, for fear that his opponents would vote him out of office in the following elections, slated for November 1958.

From then on, the Sudanese army has never lost the taste for power. It has ruled Sudan a total of 48 years since independence. Nigeria is another example. There, the military ruled for 33 years running, starting in 1966, only six years after independence.

According to the African Development Bank, Africa experienced 60 successful coups between 1960 and 1990. Only a few countries were spared military coups. These include Morocco, Swaziland, Botswana, Senegal and Kenya. But in these countries, the civilians in charge ruled through autarchic methods.

The fall of the Soviet Union, which had backed some of the continent’s military regimes during the Cold War, brought change to the continent. Between 1990 and 1994, 14 countries introduced democratic systems, then five others followed. But in the past decade or so, democracy seems to have waned.

One of the reasons is that Africa’s autocratic regimes have found a new patron: China. With offers of lavish credit at low interest rates and assistance in major infrastructure projects, many governments decided that they could manage without democratisation.

China has supported military regimes in countries such as Angola and Sudan, which are classified as “not free” by the 2014 Freedom in the World index. So far, China has built 23 dams in Africa, 6,500 miles of roads and numerous railway lines, and its help to military regimes across the continent is far from over.

African leaders, given half a chance, opt for a lifelong term of office. The continent’s longest-serving leaders are in Equatorial Guinea (36 years), Angola (36 years), Zimbabwe (35 years), Cameroon (33 years), Uganda (28 years), Sudan (26 years), Chad (23 years), Eritrea (23 years), Gambia (20 years) and Congo (17 years).

The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), which tracks the performance of African leaders, often finds it hard to single out a leader worthy of its annual $5 million award, which also comes with a generous life-long pension. The organisers of the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership have often withheld the prize, for lack of eligible candidates.

The winners so far include Mozambique’s former president, Joaquim Alberto Chissano, in 2007; Botswana President Festus Gontebanye Mogae in 2008, Cape Verde President Pedro De Verona Rodriques Pires in 2011; and Namibia’s Hifikepunye Pohamba in 2014. The Ibrahim Prize was withheld in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 because of the lack of eligible candidates.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal late last year, reporters Drew Hinshaw and Patrick McGroarty argued that the US is also guilty of reinforcing military rule in Africa. The authors note that in 2009, during his first visit to the continent as president, Barack Obama told Ghana’s parliament, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” 

But because of the rise of Islamist insurgencies in Africa, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabab in Somalia, much of the US aid to Africa now goes to building the capacity of the military, rather than supporting health, education and democratic institutions.

Many countries in Africa are considered “fragile states” a term that has just replaced “failed states” and denotes weak governance, inability to protect the population and widespread inequality and social tensions.

According to the Fund for Peace, which publishes an annual index of fragile (or failed) states, Sudan, Somalia, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Zimbabwe are all worthy of the description. So are several other states, including South Sudan, Libya, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Mali.

Egypt was number 31 on last year’s list, doing just a little better than Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

In Sudan, many now believe that an army takeover is the best way to end the rule of Omar Al-Bashir. Civil groups, including political parties, are viewed as too weak and compromised to put the country back on its feet.

It is a good time for the generals, but not for Africa’s dream of democratisation.

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