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Rise in military power grabs retards Africa’s democracy project

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Picture: Beekash Roopun / L’Express Maurice / AFP – Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, left, of the Militant Socialist Movement party, speaks to supporters during a rally with the allied Liberation Movement party for the general election in Vacoas, in November, 2019. Mauritius, a stable democracy in the Indian Ocean, gained independence from the UK in 1968. The 2022 Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index of sub-Saharan countries in Africa lists only Mauritius as a full democracy while six countries are deemed flawed democracies, the writer says.

By Sizo Nkala

At its tail end in the 1990s, Samuel Huntington’s third wave of democracy finally reached African shores. Its impact was instant and far-reaching.

One after the other and often simultaneously, African countries liberalised their political spaces and adopted regular and competitive multiparty elections at the local and national levels, even if some of the elections were little more than smokescreens for continued dictatorship.

Whereas before 1990 only Mauritius, Senegal and Botswana held competitive multiparty elections on a regular basis, more African countries bought into the democratic project and made provisions for competitive elections after 1990.

In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, multiparty elections became a widely accepted norm in African politics, with 184 competitive presidential elections and 207 legislative elections held in 46 African countries. Although the quality of most of the elections was questionable, they were an important first step in what promised to be a steep learning curve.

The electoral process became a mechanism for the articulation and expression of the popular will through the mobilisation and facilitation of mass participation in the political processes.

Competitive elections also served as a foundation for the development of substantive democracy, including respect for human rights, tolerance of diverse views, independent institutions, responsive governance, and public accountability.

Substantial gains in terms of substantive democracy were registered across the Continent in the aftermath of the third wave. A 2007 study by Daniel Posner and Daniel Young showed that the share of African leaders who lost power through irregular means, including coups, assassinations and civil violence, declined sharply from 70 percent in the 1960s to less than 20 percent by the year 2000.

Thus, by the 2000s most African leaders left office through regular and democratic means, including voluntary resignations (term limits), death and elections. African countries classified as democracies had increased sharply from just three in 1985 to 22 in 2015.

Perhaps the experience of Benin best captures and dramatises Africa’s spectacular transition to democracy. In the first decade of its independence in the 1960s, Benin had 12 leaders each of whom was overthrown in military coups.

However, between 1990 and 2006 it had two leaders who assumed power through elections and did not stand once they had reached their term limits. These hard-won democratic gains have come under severe threat in recent years.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2022 showed that Sub-Saharan Africa’s score increased from 4.24 out of 10 in 2006 to a high of 4.38 in 2015. However, the score steadily decreased in seven years to a low of 4.14 in 2022, which is way below the global average of 5.29. The index consists of variables such as electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political culture, civil liberties and political participation.

Only one country, Mauritius, was classified as a full democracy and six countries were deemed to be flawed democracies. However, authoritarian governments continue to dominate, with 23 countries labelled as authoritarian while 14 were classified as hybrid regimes.

This evidence was corroborated by the findings of the 2022 Freedom in the World report, which showed that 44 percent of African countries home to 48 percent of the population are classified as “unfree”, while 41 percent of the countries hosting 45 percent of the region’s population are classified as partly free.

Only 15 percent of the countries with 7 percent of the population were labelled free countries. The decline in democracy indicators comes against the backdrop of an increase in military and violent takeovers in several countries in Africa.

Since the turn of the century, the region has recorded 22 military takeovers and 26 failed attempts. There were recent coups in countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Chad, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Military takeovers are inimical to democracy as they are almost invariably followed by the suspension of the constitution and the closure of democratic space. The rise of military takeovers is a result of the low levels of institutionalisation of democratic norms.

There has also been a rise in cases of amending a country’s constitution in order to extend the incumbent’s stay in power. The constitution is amended to get rid of either term or age limits. This has been done in a number of countries, including Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Chad, Egypt, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and Togo.

In 2017, Uganda’s parliament removed age limits from the country’s constitution to allow the long-time ruler Yoweri Museveni to be eligible to contest the presidential elections past the age of 75. Museveni was going to be 77 by the next elections in 2021.

Rwanda also amended its constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term. The Covid-19 pandemic also saw some governments in Africa taking advantage of the emergency situation to limit freedom of speech, freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. This shielded governments from the scrutiny of their handling of the pandemic while strengthening their grip on the levers of power.

Moreover, there has also been an increase in digital authoritarianism. Some governments have upgraded their digital surveillance capabilities aimed at silencing dissenting voices. Others, like Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Sudan, have shut down the internet to undermine protests against the government.

It indeed seems the democratic project is about to capsize in Africa. However, this democratic backslide can be arrested through grassroots mobilisation, a proactive African Union, and the intervention of sympathetic external actors. Africa cannot afford to go back to the dark age of one-party systems, big man rule, and military dictatorship.

Dr Sizo Nkala is Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies