Democracy in Africa and how to improve it

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In his regular blog for the Daily Nation, Co-Editor Nic Cheeseman teams up with Alexander Noyes to explore the cases of Burundi and Burkina Faso, who seem to occupy the ‘murky middle ground’ when it comes to democratisation in Africa, and ask what role constitutions have to play in improving the chances of democracy in these countries, and beyond.

The recent political instability in Burundi and Burkina Faso has led to discussion about the state of democracy in Africa. Does the fact that people rose up against a third term mean that democracy is on the rise? Or does the fact that President Pierre Nkurunziza is still in power in Burundi, and that a ‘counter-coup’ disrupted the transition in Burkina Faso, demonstrate how far the continent still has to go. And what of Nigeria — Africa’s sleeping giant — which woke up for long enough early this year to kick a poorly performing government out of power? Is this evidence of a new dawn? Kenya is another case that is tricky to interpret. Do the largely peaceful elections of 2013 and the introduction of a new constitution imply the ascendency of democracy? Or do the allegations of electoral malpractice, the draconian media Bill, and the government’s efforts to muzzle NGOs tell us that the country has not yet escaped the legacy of the one-party state?

Tomorrow, one of the writers (Dr Cheeseman) will be debating these questions with Dr Phil Clark and Professors Cathy Boone and Stephen Chan (OBE) at an event in London to launch his new book, Democracy in Africa. Two of the topics high on the agenda will be whether people power can force recalcitrant regimes to reform, and the state of the continent’s constitutions.The distinctive feature of recent events in Burundi and Burkina Faso was the central role played by ‘people power’.

In Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré triggered widespread disaffection when he attempted to amend the constitution to extend his 27 years in power. On the day that the National Assembly was due to debate an amendment to the constitution that would have enabled the president to stand again in 2015, protesters stormed the parliament building, setting fire to it.

Compaoré initially tried to hold onto power, shelving the proposed constitutional changes, but suggesting that he would play a role in the transition to a new political arrangement. However, opposition to his leadership was so strong that he ultimately resigned, fleeing to the relative safety of Cote d’Ivoire. Burkina Faso, therefore, seems to be a clear-cut case of people power unseating an unpopular, semi-authoritarian president. What could be more democratic than that?

But, of course, this was not the end of the story. Compaoré was not replaced as head of state by an opposition leader or even a civilian technocrat, but by Yacouba Isaac Zida, a military officer. Although a civilian, Michel Kafando, was later appointed as the transitional president, Zida was able to stay on in the pivotal role of Prime Minister, the power behind the throne.In a bid to extend his control, Zida proposed that the Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP) – his former allies – be disbanded and integrated into the regular military. In response, the RSP called for his resignation. The impasse was broken by an agreement that the RSP would remain independent until a commission to determine the unit’s future had reported. But when that committee reiterated the call for the RSP to be dismantled, General Diendéré, a former head of the RSP and close ally of Compaoré launched a coup in September, detaining both Kafando and Zida.

Diendéré’s time in office did not last long. Deep popular discontent and a rear-guard action by the regular army quickly demonstrated the junta’s fragile grip on power. Isolated and confused, Diendéré ordered the RSP to stand down to ‘avoid a bloodbath’, and Kafando and Zida were promptly reinstated. Where does this leave us?  The example of Burkina Faso reveals how vulnerable many of the continent’s presidents are to popular uprisings — even in some apparently stable semi-authoritarian regimes.

This is an important lesson: We must be careful not to interpret the surface appearance of stability as implying that a regime has deep roots. Many of the most significant regime changes in history — the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring — were unheralded. It is far too soon to conclude that countries such as Cameroon and Chad will not be subject to similar upheavals in the future.

But Burkina Faso also demonstrates the vulnerability of mass protests, and of nascent democratic transitions, to military intervention. Although the most recent coup was overthrown, Zida remains in power, and it is unclear whether figures close to the military will seek to contest the elections that are intended to mark the end of the transition to a new, more open political system. If so, it is doubtful whether the polls will be fully free and fair.

In this regard, the case of Burundi is instructive. Despite strong opposition in the street, and the criticism of international donors, President Nkurunziza has managed to secure an unconstitutional third term, and a flawed election victory, through a mixture of extortion and repression. Nkurunziza’s survival — for now at least — demonstrates that popular opinion counts for little when it comes face to face with military might and a refusal to compromise. This is especially the case when opposition is not effectively organised by trade unions, political parties, and civil society groups, who can channel and amplify popular discontent.

As a result, countries such as Burundi and Burkina Faso currently exist in a murky middle-ground, in which leaders are unable to fully demobilise opposition but people power is insufficient to protect democracy. The fate of democracy in these countries will, therefore, depend on whether the security forces or opposition parties and civil society groups are best able to strengthen their organisation in the coming months. One of the common themes of these recent political crises is that they have effectively been battles about constitutions. Presidents have sought to free themselves from constitutional term-limits, and a broad range of opposition groups have campaigned to try and enforce them. These tensions, which are rooted in the weakness of many African political institutions, are not confined to the continent’s crisis cases. In a recent edited book entitled Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa: Preventing Civil War Through Institutional Design, Alan J. Kuperman argues that constitutions in Africa are ‘imperfectly institutionalised from the standpoint of good governance and resilience to shocks.’ According to Kuperman what matters more than whether a particular constitution is inclusive or not is whether it is institutionalised.

The cases of Burundi and Burkina Faso bare this point out: Burkina Faso has a centralised and exclusionary constitution, while the political system in Burundi promotes power sharing and inclusion, but both countries ended up in political turmoil over the enforcement of term-limits. But this does not mean that inclusive arrangements are not valuable — Kuperman recognises that political accommodation can help to promote stability and democratic consolidation under the right conditions. The cases of Mauritius and South Africa illustrate this point well. Kuperman’s concern, however, is that such arrangements may be introduced too quickly and incompletely, generating unnecessary crises. Citing the examples of Angola (1992), Rwanda (1994), and Liberia (1997), he suggests that in these cases ‘failed attempts at partial accommodation contributed to more than a million deaths’.

There is a second reason to be wary to rushing headlong towards inclusive political systems. As has been argued before in these pages, political competition is the lifeblood of democracy and accountability. Arrangements that blunt competition by enabling all parties to remain in power — such as the power sharing deal in Kenya between 2008 and 2013 — tend to reduce government scrutiny and boost corruption. Given both the dangers and potential benefits of inclusive arrangements, the trick is to revise the continent’s constitutions to increase the degree of inclusion without sacrificing completion or moving so fast that institutional change triggers the breakdown of political order.

The Kenyan constitution of 2010 does a good job of fulfilling these criteria. On the one hand, parties can still win decisive election victories, enabling voters to hold them to account. On the other, the introduction of decentralisation has enabled power to be shared between the centre and the counties, while a stronger parliament should — in theory at least — be better placed to scrutinise the actions of the legislature. But as the recent history of Burundi and Burkina Faso demonstrates, it is also important not to put too much faith in constitutions.

In Democracy in Africa, Dr Cheeseman argues that it is important not to overestimate what can be achieved through constitutional design. Well-written constitutions only improve a country’s chances of democratic consolidation if they are respected. If not, they can become a dangerous battleground. It is, therefore, important for opposition parties, civil society groups, and ordinary citizens to demand that constitutions are enforced, on small issues as well as big. The more the norm of constitutionality is eroded, the greater the temptation becomes for political leaders to try and subvert the rules of the game.

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