Democracy suffers as Africa’s strongmen learn to fly without perching

Uganda president Yoweri Museveni

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni takes the oath of office during a ceremony at the Kololo Airstrip grounds in the capital Kampala, May 12, 2011. 


Photo credit: Peter Busomoke | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Africa’s dalliance with western-style democracy is in danger of being hijacked by a new ‘enlightened’ authoritarianism that serves at the altar of dictatorship while performing the rituals of electoral politics.

More African countries are holding elections but democracy and freedoms are in retreat as incumbents manipulate processes and control the institutions meant to check their power.

In 2006, during Uganda’s first multiparty General Election, leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye was nominated while in prison. A court later ruled the rape and treason charges against him were trumped-up. At the next two elections, in 2011 and 2016, he was nominated without incident, but by the time the results were announced, he was, on both occasions, under “preventive” arrest.

Dr Besigye did not run in the 2021 election. But the man who emerged as the leading contender, Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu, better known by his music stage name Bobi Wine, merely inherited the obstacle course. As soon as he finished voting he was arrested and confined to his house for 12 days before being released without charge.

Uganda is the latest, but it is not the first or the last. By the time the final results were totalled in Tanzania in 2020, leading opposition presidential candidate Tundu Lissu was holed up in the German ambassador’s residence in Dar es Salaam, fearing for his life. He had reason to be afraid; in 2017 he was shot 16 times in an assassination attempt but survived.

In Ivory Coast in 2020, there was no leading contender to arrest because the opposition had boycotted the race. In Eritrea it was because there was no leading contender – no election, in fact.

The promise of a new era of competitive pluralist democracy in Africa two decades ago has been replaced by elections that often merely reproduce and legitimise incumbency. African elections are notoriously chaotic. Vote-stealing is high, civic education low, bribery widespread and violence common. But expectations that these were teething problems that would clear through the rinse cycle, and that each vote would bring incremental change, are beginning to disappear.

Most outcomes are contested, in the courts of law and public opinion. In 2017, Kenya’s Supreme Court annulled the country’s presidential election, sparking hope about judicial independence and the willingness of judges to set a higher bar on the quality of electoral processes, not merely outcomes.

Tanzanian politician Tundu Lissu

Tundu Lissu (centre), Tanzania's former MP with the Chadema main opposition party, who was shot 16 times in a 2017 attack, reacts to supporters on July 27, 2020 when he returned after three years in exile. 

Photo credit: AFP

Judicial independence

Two years later, the judiciary in Malawi annulled President Peter Mutharika’s re-election and called for new elections, which the incumbent lost. But these glimpses of judicial independence are exceptions to the rule, which is that most courts limit themselves to ascertaining the contents of the ballot box, not examining the contest that produced them.

An incumbent who controls the army, appoints crony judges, packs allies in Parliament to make favourable laws can rule for life while jailing and killing political opponents and their supporters. It helps if they can ensure peaceful voting on Election Day to satisfy foreign diplomats and the international press parachuted in a few weeks before. The continent’s strongmen have learnt to fly without perching.

Africa’s dalliance with western-style democracy is in danger of being hijacked by a new ‘enlightened’ authoritarianism that serves at the altar of dictatorship while performing the rituals of electoral politics.

When opposition candidates contesting under new multiparty electoral landscapes upset favourites from the ruling and previously omnipotent ‘one-party’ or national party, as for instance Frederick Chiluba did to Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia in 1991, it looked like the dawn of a new wave of democracy on the continent.

The two decades that followed saw the end of many civil wars and demilitarisation of internal contests on the one hand and on the other, political and electoral reforms meant to cement the peaceful handover of power between elected leaders.  

Long-running conflicts came to an end or petered out in Angola, Burundi, Mozambique, northern Uganda, DR Congo and elsewhere, as did newer ones in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia and even, temporarily, in South Sudan.

The plan was to shift power from strong men to strong institutions. Of 98 presidential-system constitutions in Africa between 1960 and 1990, only five – Liberia, Tunisia, Comoros, South Africa, Tanzania – limited presidential terms. Just over a decade later, the number was 30.

One of those countries was Uganda, which in 1995 enacted a new constitution with a two-term limit, and a 75-year-age bar on the presidency. Yet last month, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the country’s ruler since 1986, was re-elected for a sixth term in office. The 76-year-old who once argued, in a book – What is Africa’s Problem? – that it was leaders who overstayed in power, has twice changed the constitution to extend his rule.

The list of reverse reformers is growing longer. According to the African Centre for Strategic Studies, a US think-tank, at least 13 African countries have removed term limits, including Togo and Gabon, or adjusted them to allow incumbents to stay on, as in Rwanda.

Uganda clashes

A supporter of Ugandan musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, carries his poster as they protest against his arrest during a presidential rally in Kampala on November 18, 2020.

Photo credit: Badru Katumba | AFP


Even leaders who rise on reformist agendas find power corrupting. Take Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara. After winning the election in 2010, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to leave office, sparking a year of violence in which about 3,000 Ivorians were killed before Mr Ouattara forced his predecessor out of office.

Yet last October, Mr Ouattara, who had served two terms and publicly vowed to respect the rules, was re-elected for a third term in office in an election boycotted by the opposition, and in which at least 87 people were killed. 

The regression goes beyond the removal of term limits. Elections in some countries have become mere rituals – the Holy Communion before the sin. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan all enjoyed “popular” electoral mandates from their people just before they turned against them.

Last March Mali held a largely peaceful election, only for the military -- anxious about the threat of jihadist insurgents -- to carry out a coup five months later. If anything, elections can undermine belief in and outcomes of democratic processes, as seen by delays in holding elections in Nigeria, or attempts to disenfranchise opposition supporters and prominent opposition candidates in Senegal, Benin, Tanzania and elsewhere.

A 2019 research note from Afrobarometer noted that across 30 African countries, people felt that the quality of electoral process was important but outcomes were more important: elections were only useful if they could bring about change. It doesn’t matter how peaceful elections are if they merely reproduce the outcomes.

This calls for more reforms, not less, say in internal party politics, in greater freedoms, in more civic education, and in restrictive clauses, such as term limits, that are guaranteed to produce new leaders.

Yet most of the on-going reforms are walking back these progressive gains. The Freedom in the World report produced last year by Freedom House, a civil society organisation, highlighted the 14th year of declining democratic governance and respect for human rights, with Sub-Saharan Africa suffering the most reversals. 

After moving forward for a decade and a half, many countries have spent the last 15 years undoing those reforms. Only seven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are now classified as “free” in the Freedom House rankings, the lowest figure since 1991.

A file photo of Presidents Alassane Ouattara (Ivory Coast) and Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya).

Fight for democracy

Change isn’t always in a negative direction. Of the 12 countries that saw the worst erosion of freedoms in 2019, half were in Sub-Saharan Africa yet six out of the seven most improved countries were also from the region.

In addition, support for democracy on the continent remains strong, but it is wavering. An Afrobarometer survey in 34 countries in 2016-18 found that a majority of Africans – 68 per cent – would like to live in democracies, down from 72 per cent in 2012.

“The data tell us Africans today are unsatisfied by, but not dissatisfied with, democracy,” Prof Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, co-founder of Afrobarometer, said as he explained the results. “They just want more dividends from democracy. They want less corruption, more transparency, less impunity, more economic opportunity.”

These tensions are not just an African problem. The Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit looks at elections, civil liberties, governance as well as political culture and participation; in a just-released update, it notes that more than a third of the world’s population lives under authoritarian rule.

The latest global score of 5.37 out of 10 is the lowest since the index began in 2006. However, while restrictions and lockdowns to contain the coronavirus pandemic have curtailed liberties in many countries in the short-term, the problem is more pronounced and longer-term in Africa. 

There are many reasons, but two stand out. First, while there is a large body of evidence of democracy and accountable government in pre-colonial Africa, this new wave of “western-style” democracy was primarily imposed from the outside, often as part of a package of structural adjustment reform programmes in the early 1990s. African countries had to open up their economic and political systems to receive aid and access to global markets.

Many ruling elites grinned and bore the pain of the economic reforms but few were ideologically committed to liberal politics. Thus more than a decade after liberalising their currencies and relaxing capital flows, many still criminalised political competition. The dollar could float freely, dissenters couldn’t.

The absence of local middle classes in many countries also undermined the pillars upon which multiparty political systems were supposed to be anchored. This was exacerbated by attacks on horizontal interest groups such as farmer cooperatives and trade unions while using vertical, narrow religious and ethnic groups to divide and rule.

The identities of the those in charge of it might have changed, at least on the face of it, but the role of the state to control and exploit the many natives for the benefit of a few elites has, in many cases, remained intact.

With limited native agency within the higher rungs of the economic value chain, the expansion of the middle classes in many countries has not increased demand for accountable government or the more equitable distribution of public goods. Instead it has increased demand for private access to resources for them to maintain their own patron-client relations and reproduce patronage down the food chain. 

The second problem is the power of bad example and negative signalling. After Nelson Mandela stepped down in South Africa, after just one of two possible terms in office, few African leaders could claim the moral authority to bend the rules to stay on.

Nelson Mandela

South African President Nelson Mandela dances the famous 'Madiba Jive' at a rally in Brakpan, Tsakane, on October 24, at the start of the African National Congress (ANC) 1999 election campaign.

Photo credit: File

Accountability standards

Yet one successful attempt to amend the constitution after another creates a template, a narrative, a script, and can’t-you-see justifications. Two days after President Ouattara went back on his word and announced he was running again, Guinea’s ruling party asked his counterpart, the 82-year-old Alpha Conde, who was also on his way out, to seek a third term.

Beyond the departures of strong examples like Mandela, however, lies the ruins of what could have been strong institutions.

The Africa Peer Review Mechanism, for one, a brainchild of Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo was meant to set a bar and a platform on which the continent’s leaders could hold themselves accountable. After the departure of both leaders, however, the APRM has spluttered and faded into oblivion.

The regional blocs, Ecowas in West Africa, SADC in the south and the EAC in East Africa could also have helped create neighbourhood accountability standards but these two have failed. In the case of Ecowas, it can be blamed on weak leadership in Nigeria, the region’s behemoth, and an ill-advised attempt to seek consensus on locking in term limits, which were shot down by the Gambia’s then eccentric dictator, Yahya Jammeh.

Domestic political and economic crises in South Africa have kept Mbeki’s successors busy and allowed SADC to navel-gaze in the comfort of relative stability, breaking a potentially potent South-West Africa alliance.

The EAC, on the other hand, is a case of a bloc not being able to give what it doesn’t have; only two of its six members have witnessed the peaceful handover of power from one elected leader to another, and both remain fragile.

If your immediate neighbours include countries that haven’t had stable governments in decades, countries engulfed in civil war or countries where political rivals live under the constant shadow of assassinations, it is possible to hold and steal an election while detaining your main rivals “for their own safety”.