As the opposition wins in Senegal, is democracy in Africa really “backsliding”?

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The term ‘democratic backsliding’ Is much in vogue.  But it is misleading, and for Africa, wrong.

We all know to what it refers: the recent flurry of coups in Africa, the unconstitutional changes of government, the growing number of 100% predictable election results, the ‘legislative manipulation’ or legal manoeuvres to limit the number of candidates or restrict the number of voters to increase the chances of an incumbent (or their party) winning again, the constraints on journalists, media and free speech to obstruct or limit opposing views … These are real and worrying developments.

But the phrase also carries assumptions about what democracy is, how it should behave and what form it should take, that may not be either appropriate or useful.    

It is possible to see what is happening in an alternative light: that democracy in Africa is evolving, just in a different direction to that presumed by many outside observers.  The debate over the best form(s) of governance in Africa is real and live: one frontline lies between the Alliance of Sahelian States (AES) and the remaining members of ECOWAS. But it also encompasses the long-running dispute over the viability of the relatively authoritarian ‘developmental state,’ with Rwanda and (once upon a time) Ethiopia seen as the models. 

It is no coincidence the Sahel juntas have apparently been sending missions to Rwanda to learn how to do it, though they should remember that this model can all too easily slide towards civil war: the attempt to repress differences can lead simply to a more violent expression of them.

This debate matters not just for Africa, but globally. China and Russia are explicitly challenging the ideological hegemony of western-style democracy, along with its supporting infrastructure of human rights, multilateral organisations and the international rule of law, as the best model for achieving peace and prosperity.  At the least, they argue, other countries should be free to decide whether these norms are right for them. 

In 2023, Xi Jinping launched China’s ‘Global Civilisations Initiative, its ‘Global Development Initiative’ and a ‘Global Security Initiative’.  Like the old Belt and Road Initiative, these are designed to re-orient the world towards China, in this case ideologically rather than physically.  While their substance remains vague, the initiatives provide an alternative to the ‘western’ norms embodied in the UN, its multilateral institutions and the multiple charters and agreements promulgated under its auspices.

They are an integral part of efforts to re-frame the debate from one of ‘democrats vs. authoritarians’, to ‘the Global South and its reliable friends in the Global East vs. the neo-colonialist exploitative West’.  The latter narrative is gaining traction in Africa, boosted by the Gaza crisis, where western countries are seen (hypocritically) as quick to condemned Hamas but slow to criticise the huge death toll Israel has inflicted on Palestinian civilians. 

Recent polling by Afrobarometer suggests that an average of 66% of Africans want to live in a democracy, but not necessarily the one they’ve got.  Only 38% are satisfied with the way their democracies operate, while 53% are now willing to contemplate military intervention if elected leaders fail in their duties. 

This reflects the ease with which electoral democracy has been manipulated, making people feel increasingly disenfranchised.  In Senegal we have just seen popular protest, international pressure and robust judicial institutions stop one attempt to prolong a presidential term – and ultimately lead to the dramatic defeat of the government, despite the fact that the election was anything but free and fair. 

Elsewhere, however, as in Guinea or Gabon, military intervention may be the only way to change the regime. The question is not whether a country has the trappings of democracy, but whether the system works, enabling people to change a ruler when they want to.

The key criteria for a system of governance that people will trust are whether they provide adequate accountability, balance, and a mechanism for peaceful succession.  A fully functioning, robust democracy can provide all these things, but even the oldes (like the UK or US) can find it difficult.  Many other countries, not just in Africa, are still searching for their own formula to meet these criteria.

Balance, for example, requires that powerful groups, peripheral regions or minorities feel their views or interests are adequately represented in governance structures.  Elections alone rarely provide this.  Accountability and trust will be lacking where too many people feel that the formal mechanisms benefit only an elite who decide when it is ‘their turn to eat.’

In the Sahel, five countries now have de facto military governments, but Mauritania and Chad have been more successful at maintaining an adequate balance as well as a modicum of democratic forms.  They have also remained closer to ‘the West’ while the three juntas have explicitly realigned themselves with Russia.  Is it therefore their international allegiance rather than their governance structures that matter in how they are viewed?

I would argue it is more than that.  Whatever their original motivation for seizing power, and their use of anti-French rhetoric to legitimise their rule, the juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger seem determined to resist any external accountability to ECOWAS or AU norms of governance, and reject the notion that civilian rule should be re-established within a time-limit.  Hence their apparent determination to leave ECOWAS despite the economic hardship it would inflict on their people – unless of course they can change the balance of power within ECOWAS to support new, more flexible norms.   

So democracies along the coast have good reason to be wary of the juntas’ intentions.  To protect themselves, they – and their rulers – need to be more scrupulous in respecting the current norms, and reflecting their citizens views in government so that citizens have a greater sense of ownership and will resist efforts to overthrow it.  This is the best defence of democracy and in effect what we have seen in Senegal. But governments in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Togo need to take urgent note.

My conclusion is that the current crisis of governance in Africa may just as likely lead to a renewal of democracy as a further slide into authoritarianism.  It is the less accountable systems – in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Togo – that are most at risk.  Nevertheless, Africa’s own norms, embodied in the AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, are under threat as authoritarian governments can now find willing international supporters to back them up. 

The fate of democracy in Africa is in the hands of African people themselves.  But those trying to strengthen deserve it deserve all the support we can give.

Nick Westcott is Professor of Practice in Diplomacy at SOAS University of London and former Director of the Royal African Society.

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