Authoritarian regimes and democratisation in Africa: China and Russia compared

Facebook Twitter Email

When the “third wave” of democratisation swept across much of Africa in the aftermath of the Cold War, hopes were high that Africans would finally be able to enjoy the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of the former colonial powers. However, the initial progress was not remarkable: according to Freedom House, two-thirds of African states were “not free” in 1989.

Despite this, by 2009, two-thirds were classified as “free” or “partially free.” But, importantly, the recent rise of authoritarian powers such as China, Russia and several Arab countries has created debate about whether this rise goes hand in hand with ‘autocracy promotion’ and ‘democracy reduction’, especially in Africa.

Many African leaders have turned to these authoritarian regimes, and consequently, the strong institutional foundations and supportive norms of political behaviour required to sustain liberal democracy in some states have been weakened. Accordingly, this article provides important contribution to the literature on foreign authoritarian and democratisation in Africa. It elucidates on the state of democracy in Africa and how the recent entry of China and Russia into Africa have contributed to democratic reversals. This is attributed to the fact that African democrats have underestimated the potential and capacity of the foreign authoritarian regimes in stifling democratic processes in Africa.

The state of Democracy in Africa

The meaning of democracy is contested. As such, it is essential to understand its foundations before looking at the impact of Russia and China on African democracy.

Schuster (2002) posited that democracy is not a single approach, but rather a commitment to certain institutions such as the rule of law, civil society, and political accountability through free and fair elections based on universal suffrage. Since 1975, the African continent has seen extraordinary political upheaval, with many authoritarian governments ultimately giving way to such democracy (International IDEA,2020). Figure 1 shows the regime type in Africa from 1975 to 2019.

Figure 1. Regime types in Africa, 1975–2019

Regime types in Africa

Source: International IDEA, 2020.

However, in 2019, 75% of African democracies saw their scores fall, and several African electoral processes have failed to show democratic tendencies, as for the case of Gabon, Cameroon, Malawi and Ethiopia. There are several causes for this, including poor electoral administration and executive enrichment.

In its 2021 report, Freedom House ranked only eight Sub-Saharan African nations as free. Half of these eight countries are small island states, such as Cape Verde, Mauritius, Sao Tome and Principe, and the Seychelles. Meanwhile, the number of African nations classified as “not free” by Freedom House has increased from fourteen between 2006 and 2008 to twenty in 2021 (Freedom House, 2021).

Despite this, African countries do show signs that they are open to further democratisation. For example, forty-eight sub-Saharan African states are party to the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries. The agreement contains a ‘democracy clause’, stating that violation of democracy, human rights and the rule of law may entitle one party to take appropriate measures against the non-compliant party. This shows that there is at least potential for further democratisation. On top of this, both the EU and the US remain firmly committed to assisting African nations to become more democratic and to be gatekeepers of human rights. Taking all of this into account, how, therefore, is the rise of China and Russia playing into these dynamics?

The influence of China on democratisation in Africa

Despite western support for democracy in Africa, their efforts are undermined by foreign authoritarian regimes with an economic interest in African countries. Authoritarian regimes have a political structure that rejects political pluralism, encourages the use of a strong central power to maintain the political status quo, and has less of a focus on the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting.

Hodzi (2018) believes that some African countries such as Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola and Ethiopia that are weary of Western intervention in their political and economic affairs turn to China for political recognition and legitimacy, as well as assistance, investment, infrastructure development, and trade. Many African leaders like president Umaro Sissoco Embalo of Guinea-Bissau and Paul Kagame of Rwanda want China to engage with them in ways that the United States and other Western countries do not, such as by participating economically without preaching condescendingly about good governance. In Sudan, China supplied enormous funding, substantially shielding President Bashir’s dictatorship from Western criticism, and encouraging it to defy international condemnation.

Chinese economic support allows African countries to make economic strides without attaching clauses pushing for democratisation and equal human rights to development contracts. This is the idea that in investing in Africa, it often ignores governance and human rights problems, and in doing so, it strengthens autocratic regimes. As such, many who regard democracy as an obstacle to growth continue to find China’s model of developmental authoritarianism appealing. This raises the spectre that democracy is appropriate only for wealthy countries.

The influence of Russia on democratisation in Africa

Russia has also been cooperating directly with African countries to thwart democratisation through their activities on the continent. For instance, as Guinean President Alpha Conde sought an illegal third term, Russian Ambassador Alexander Bregadze stated on a national television in 2019 that rotating leaders was not always a good thing and that Constitutions are neither dogma, Bible, or Koran and that Constitutions adapt to reality, not the other way around. While Russia’s rapid drive into Africa has been likened to China’s, the Russian strategy differs significantly in many ways. For China, the military factor is secondary to economic and people-to-people relations. Russia, on the other hand, would prefer to begin with military cooperation to gain the appreciation and trust of regimes that are struggling with legitimacy, or who have limited alternatives for international collaboration.   

In the 1990s, Russia emerged as one of the key providers of armaments to the continent’s markets, and by 2010, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for some 3% of Russia’s global arms sales. Moreover, in 2017, Russia attempted to rent Chinese-held land in Djibouti to bring in its own military facilities, but the host country blocked the deal under pressure from its US and EU allies.

With the development of Russian ties, some of Moscow’s African partners increasingly adopt narratives that attack the western ideas of democracy and good governance. For instance, the 2017 meeting between Putin and Bashir was accompanied by strong anti-American statements.

Russia was a staunch supporter of long-serving ruler Omer al-Bashir. Wagner troops (Russian armed forces) were deployed to help the Sudanese military while obtaining access to gold mines in the country’s west. When Bashir faced countrywide protests in 2019, the Wagner Group reportedly urged him to repress the demonstrators severely.

Furthermore, Russia also employs a clientelistic style of coopting African leaders via opaque deals detrimental to African countries. For example, when the Security Council considered a request from opposition figures in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to conduct an investigation into the widely regarded fraudulent presidential election in 2019, Russia struck a deal with the leaders of the African countries represented on the council: Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, and South Africa, who then sided with Russia in blocking the initiative. In the process, popular participation and, more broadly, African democracy are marginalised. This is reinforced by an intellectual message from Russian officials that presidential term limits are unnecessary, that truth is meaningless, and that democracy has no benefits over authoritarianism.

The size of the problem

In summary, African democracy has increased since 1975, but has run into issues despite western support for democratic consolidation in Africa. African leaders tend look to foreign authoritarian regimes with two primaries goals in mind: to maintain their control and gain political legitimacy. China has provided safe havens for authoritarian regimes by offering the authoritarians leaders development, and this has encouraged democratic reversals in some countries while leaving democracy in place in others. Similarly, Russian rhetoric and military engagement has contributed to a decrease in democracy in Sudan. The problem is compounded further by the weak institutional foundations, limited norms of accountability and transparency, in addition to the financial challenges faced by many civil society groups and citizens, which have restricted citizens’ social action power.

Onyalo Paul Otieno is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Governance Humanities and Social Science at the Pan African University. He specialises in Governance and Regional Integration.





Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading