A call for true democracy in Africa

The struggle for proper democracy across Africa is not easy; but, says Stella Nyanzi, an outspoken Ugandan academic, it is vital


My homeland, Africa, is a complex collage of contradictions. Although our countries claim to be democratic, we also have military regimes masquerading as civilian democracies. Expansive urbanisation leads to a growing middle class living alongside increasing numbers of unemployed citizens in ever-expanding slums. Embezzlement and patronage make wealthy politicians wealthier as they siphon off public funds allocated to essential public services. Elections are often shams engineered to reinstate the incumbent. Despite Kenya’s Supreme Court ruling which nullified the presidential election in September 2017, petitioning the judiciary against electoral malpractices is generally pointless. The silence of foreigners makes them complicit in the misgovernment of Africa.

In 2018 the question of political reforms in Africa will be urgent. Several significant elections are scheduled. Amid the continuing insecurity, civil strife and violence that is a cause of forced migration, Africa’s youngest country, South Sudan, is supposed to hold its first presidential election. Organising a free and fair vote in such conditions will be a tall order. Two countries whose leaders have been in power for over 30 years, Zimbabwe and Cameroon, will also pick their presidents; both Robert Mugabe and Paul Biya expect yet another term in office. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Sierra Leone and Mali will be going to the polls, too.

Africans need to move beyond merely going through the motions of a multiparty election. Current practice too often involves an uneven contest. An ingrained ruling party that controls all the vital bits of state machinery competes for power against an incompetent opposition comprising parties that are divided, disorganised and weak. The Gambia’s presidential election in 2016 showed that strategic alliances between opposition parties are critical to displacing an ensconced demagogue such as Yahya Jammeh. Recent votes in Rwanda and Angola underscored the need to rethink electoral processes and institutions to make them immune to influence and intimidation by the ruling party.

A peaceful transition of power remains a mirage for many countries in Africa. So the election of President Nana Akufo-Addo in Ghana in 2016 was a welcome departure from the usual violence that accompanies regime change. Similarly, the relatively peaceful transfer of power in Somalia in 2012 to Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (and from him to Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed in 2017) was welcome, although it came amid tight security, a ban on flights to Mogadishu and fears of attacks by al-Shabab jihadists. 

By contrast, the re-election of controversial presidents such as Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon and Edgar Lungu of Zambia took place in a climate of coercion. Opposition leaders were arrested, voters intimidated and the press controlled. In Kenya the failure to produce a certain result despite electronic vote tallies showed that computerisation alone is not the answer.

Calling all citizens

Despite the obvious risks of reprisals, there is a need to find space for citizen action, mass uprisings and social protests against efforts to entrench autocracy further—including cunning constitutional amendments aimed at cementing dictatorships in power. In August 2017 President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was able to stand for a third seven-year stint because of a constitutional amendment in 2015 which extended the number of terms a president could serve. In Uganda, where the constitution was amended in 2005 to remove presidential term-limits, moves are afoot to scrap the presidential age-limit of 75. Although amending the constitution is lawful, legislators should prioritise reforms intended for the common good rather than those that benefit power-hungry leaders. 

Corruption must be tackled head-on if there is to be any hope of reforming politics in Africa. Kenya shows how it can be done. In the run-up to its presidential election, health-care workers, teachers, students and farmers, angry about corruption scandals, staged several mass protests. Such actions force politicians to pay attention. 

Institutionalising transparency, and penalising corruption, are ways to reduce poverty and strengthen the state’s revenues. Money can then be channelled into investments in health care, education, public transport, rural electrification and other infrastructure that is essential for development. Expanded public services would in turn open up new areas of economic opportunity for ordinary people, helping to cut unemployment and narrow the gap between rich and poor. 

Eventually, eliminating corruption from Africa’s politics would reduce the need for citizens’ strikes and protests. It would also bolster the confidence of development partners who provide foreign aid and co-operation. A big push is needed in 2018.

VIDEO>> What will be the top ten stand-out moments in 2018?
The World in 2018 brings you tomorrow's water-cooler moments, today

Credit: Lauren Crow
You are reading a small selection of content from The World in 2018.
To read all the articles in this year’s edition download The Economist app.
Download 'The World In 2018 iOS app'
Download 'The World In 2018 Android app'