Reflecting back, Looking forward: Caroline Kende-Robb

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Caroline To mark the new year, Democracy in Africa has asked key groups and individuals to reflect on developments in Africa during 2012, and look forward to 2013. We have invited them to share with us their insights and predictions, their hopes and their fears. Here, we speak to Caroline Kende-Robb. Caroline is the Executive Director of the Africa Progress Panel, a group of distinguished individuals, chaired by Kofi Annan, dedicated to encouraging progress in Africa.

1. Could you briefly describe the work that APP does?

The Africa Progress Panel , set up in 2007 and chaired by Kofi Annan, is a group of ten eminent personalities who advocate at the highest levels for equitable and sustainable economic, political and social progress in Africa. Advised by policy experts, the Panel monitors Africa’s socio-economic development and offers evidence-based recommendations for better policy. As individuals and as a group, the Panel influences policy so that Africa’s economic growth translates into more prosperity for Africans.

2. Looking back at 2012, what were the most promising developments for democracy in the region? 

At time of writing, the news out of Africa is quite focused on events in Mali. But actually 2012 was quite a good year for democratic developments. Unplanned but peaceful power transitions in countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia and progress in countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia highlight the increasing resilience of democratic institutions in these countries. Multiparty democracy continues to take root in Africa, with only one country – Eritrea – refusing to hold elections.

As we saw in 2011/2012 with the Arab Spring, social media has been a powerful tool to amplify the voice of people out there for action. In addition, Africa is now more connected with the rest of the world than ever, which provides citizens with more avenues to challenge poor governance. Did you know that more and more governments are now using social media too? Last month, to take a recent example, Egypt’s President Morsi announced a reversal on a tax decision through a Facebook post!  

3. Do you think that these developments will be sustainable in the next year and beyond?

It’s clear that multipartyism, along with elections, will continue to be the norm, as opposed to the exception, in Africa. However, there are many worrying signs. Dictators of the tiniest African countries with little or no geopolitical strategic interest have routinely stage-managed multiparty elections that have consolidated their hold on power – with little or no protest from the outside world. 

Indeed, as the renowned Kenyan political scientist Karuti Kanyinga has forcefully argued, elections are not always a force for good, and in many cases only serve to catalyze or exacerbate seething societal tensions and unresolved questions. One only has to review media accounts of elections in African countries (as well as countries elsewhere) to see that elections and violence go hand in hand, to differing degrees.

In 2012, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual democracy index ranked only one country, Mauritius, as a “full” democracy. The Mo Ibrahim Governance Index found that popular participation in African elections had declined by 5%. What is more, Freedom House found that of the 49 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of democracies had fallen from 24 in 2005 to 19 in 2012. In light of these disturbing trends, we expect that the validity and relevance of electoral democracy will be tested in a number of countries this year. 

In Egypt, despite democratic elections that brought the Muslim Brotherhood into power after years of opposition, strong divisions persist between those in favour of an Islamic state and those who want a more secular State. These divisions recently surfaced when President Morsi’s effort to bolster his powers sparked massive civic protests that forced him to climb down. Fault lines such as these may lead to more protests and civil violence. And this will threaten Egypt’s democratic processes and with it the necessary peace that will allow the progress of democracy. 

Amid the hope that Kenya’s general elections on 4 March 2013, the first under the country’s new Constitution, will not be a repeat of the flawed process that sparked bloody violence at the end of 2007, there are some concerns that the polls may do little to calm grievances among different communities that are seen by some to have been exploited by politicians in recent years.  

Meanwhile, elections are also due in Zimbabwe, where ZANU-PF has made life difficult for its main coalition partner, the MDC, and is hoping to return long-standing President Robert Mugabe to power. With rumours of the octogenarian Mugabe’s poor health intensifying, analysts fear that a power struggle within the ruling apparatus (likely involving the powerful security services) could lead to further instability in a country whose economy has been decimated by corrosive politics.  

Mali was to have held elections in mid-2013, but these will clearly not happen. The recent Malian military offensive against Islamist rebels who seized the north of the Sahelian country – launched with support from ECOWAS and France – marks the start of a new phase of the conflict that is certain to continue for many months. Mali’s disintegration represents a huge threat to stability in Sahelian West Africa. The intersection between a virtually failed state, drug trafficking and radical Islam makes it imperative that peace and constitutionality are restored to Mali in the shortest possible time. 

Mali signifies what can go wrong with the conventional notion of democracy if it produces a government that does not make appropriate changes and reforms. When military officers ended 20 years of constitutional democracy in 2012, the  response from the international community was lukewarm. ECOWAS was left to push for a return to constitutionality. Some believe that it was only when France realized that Mali was about to become a failed state and assessed the wider impact on Western interests that it decided to send in troops – an act that has internationalized what started out as simply another setback to African democracy.

There are many other African countries in which the democratic scorecard can be questioned. Having said that, things are much better than in 1990, when the wave of multipartyism began to sweep through Africa in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. At the time, Freedom House could count only 3 African countries that satisfied the basis conditions for multipartyism. Today, the picture is radically different. Most countries operate on a constitutional basis, albeit with different levels of adherence; term limits are considered more and more to be the norm; and the rights of citizens are increasingly being acknowledged by governments – even if the dominant refrain is often that democracy can never be perfect as long as poverty persists. 

4. What do you believe are the key remaining challenges to democracy across the region, and how might these be tackled?

The overarching challenge is one of ensuring that democracy is deepened into a sustainable instrument for social change.

More specifically, election organization and conduct remains a key challenge. Despite technological advances that reduce the margin for error and minimize fraud, election results continue to be contested, as was recently the case in Ghana when the opposition NPP refused to accept the result of what turned out to be the second closely contested poll in a row, in a country applauded for its culture of democracy and its political maturity. Creating a “level playing field” from start to finish is essential as is clearly highlighted in Deepening Democracy, the recent report of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security (http://www.global-commission.org/report)

Beyond the nitty-gritty of conducting free and fair elections, another challenge is the winner-takes-all mentality that still prevails in the majority of African countries. Whichever party wins an election has absolute power to appoint its supporters to top jobs, as well as to initiate and pursue policies in the party (as opposed to national) interest. Policies initiated by previous incumbents are set aside and new policies developed. Skilled technocrats and policy makers from opposing parties find themselves out in the cold. Often, this mentality breeds alienation and sows the seeds for future conflict.

Until and unless constitutional provisions can be enacted to ensure policy continuity from regime to regime, African citizens will continue to draw the short end of the stick. The provision in Ghana’s proposed new Constitution for a National Development Planning Commission that will have the power to design and ensure the implementation of development policy regardless of which government is in power, represents a bold step forward. Whether or not the final version of the Constitution will retain this proposal, remains to be seen. 

Another challenge is the gulf between promulgating and implementing constitutional democracy. In Kenya, civil society actors are concerned that the implementation of the groundbreaking 2010 Constitution is being subverted by some elements of the government and parliamentary interests. This raises the spectre of provisions that call for citizen oversight of key appointments (secretaries of state, members of the judiciary, etc.) to be watered down or side-stepped in favour of the status quo ante. A related challenge in Kenya is the rolling out of the devolved Government mandated by the new Constitution. For each of the 47 new counties created, and in addition to voting for a new President and Vice President, Kenyans will elect county Governors as well as Senators representing each county in a new chamber in Parliament. Each county will also have its own elected assembly. Given the sizeable budget allocated to each county and the myriad of functions devolved to county level, nothing less that a fully mobilized, vigilant and capacitated citizenry will be needed to hold the new power-holders to account. Devolution in Kenya thus represents a double-edged sword – on the one hand it takes power away from the centre and empowers more citizens; on the other, it introduces new challenges of transparency and accountability. 

 5. What new and potentially surprising developments do you see on the horizon that will become increasingly important to the way in which democracy functions in Africa?

Some commentators suggest that an ‘African Spring’ may be about to happen in countries where citizens, empowered by the wide availability of cheap technology, will take to the streets as well as cyberspace to force shifts in power. There’s no question that access to mobile phones and eventually to smartphones will empower citizens further, and increase citizen oversight over public institutions and public money. 

However, we should not expect the masses to rise up and overthrow their governments. The majority of African citizens are pragmatic – they focus their energies on activities that generate household and community income. Many believe that even if they complain about issues such as poor delivery of basic services, it will not make a difference. Often, people believe that by highlighting deficits in the provision of services or pointing out instances of corruption they will leave themselves vulnerable to reprisals. So they keep quiet. 

It’s important that in being enthusiastic about the opportunities afforded by social media for citizen agency and enhanced popular participation, we do not go overboard. Instead, we should follow the progress of the growing number of innovations that are being tested throughout Africa to encourage people to be more proactive in their communities. These include websites that users can visit to identify and fix problems in their localities, call centres that people can phone to register complaints about poor services, bulk SMS campaigns, and community action groups. Small-scale innovations like these, using technology in ways that recognizes the local context, are likely to be much more effective in giving power to the people than campaigns to urge people to cast their vote. Where Africans can effect change, electoral democracy will be more meaningful in their daily lives.

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