Five things we have learned about African democracy

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Nic Cheeseman discusses five things that we have learned about African democracy in the last twelve months, and what they mean for the next year.

There is rarely a dull year in African politics, and the last twelve months have been no exception. In Uganda and Zambia the ruling party prevailed in what proved to be extremely controversial elections, and in both cases the opposition rejected the result. In Gambia, the opposite pattern played out, with the opposition securing the largest number of votes only for the government to claim that the process had been flawed. Taken together, these episodes generated a sense that African democracy was in decline.

However, other trends suggested a different narrative. Good news came in the form of Ghana, where a peaceful transfer of power provided a much-needed shot in the arm for African democracy. And in-between headline-grabbing elections, the rise of powerful social movements in Southern Africa served as an important reminder that there is far more to African politics – and to democracy – than elections.

So what have we learned about African democracy over the last year, and what new questions does this raise?

1) The power of incumbency is waning in many countries

The last two years have witnessed notable transfers of power in Gambia, Ghana, and Nigeria. In both Gambia and Nigeria the result – and the willingness of the electoral commission to announce it – came as a surprise. Similarly, although opinion polls in Ghana suggested that support for President Mahama had declined significantly, and so his defeat was not unexpected, the fact that he became the first Ghanaian incumbent to lose an election since the reintroduction of multi-party politics mean that this election, also, set a precedent. All previous transfers of power had come after the sitting president had been forced to stand down as a result of presidential term limits.

In a new article written with Gabrielle Lynch and Justin Willis that is soon to be published in the Journal of Democracy, I argue that one of the main factors that has made it harder for incumbents to retain control is the combination of economic decline and increasingly assertive voters. In Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria, tough economic conditions undermined public confidence in the government. Along with the growing willingness of voters to punish poorly performing leaders, and the emergence of more credible electoral commissions, this undermined the ability of incumbent leaders to retain power.

2) The opposition is learning

In addition to economic decline, the one common thread linking Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria is that opposition parties learned from their mistakes. This was particularly striking in Gambia and Nigeria, where the main opposition to the ruling party demonstrated a new-found sense of urgency and unity. In both countries it was this, as much as the failures of the ruling party, which paved the way for a change of government.

More specifically, the willingness of opposition parties to put aside their differences in order to maximise their chances of success had two important consequences. First, it meant that the main opposition leaders did not divide the vote, and so incumbent presidents found it far harder to deny their rivals momentum. Second, the emergence of more coherent and effective political machine meant that opposition leaders were able to use scarce resources more effectively, and leant credibility to their claims that they would deliver meaningful political change.

3) Democracy is in decline

Not all ruling parties respond to the prospects of defeat by handing over power. For every Ghana there is a Uganda. For every Nigeria, a Zimbabwe. As a result, the mounting challenges to incumbency have played out in very different ways across the continent. In countries in which democratic institutions are stronger and leaders are more committed to democratic principles, it has led to new political openings.

However, where presidents are determined to retain power at any cost, the implications for democracy are very different. Faced with waning popularity and smarter opposition parties, authoritarian ruling parties fell back on repression and censorship to retain control. This resulted in the arrest of opposition leaders in Uganda, a ban on rallies in Ethiopia, and police brutality in Burundi.

Thus, in a considerable number of African states democracy is in decline – so many, in fact, that the average quality of civil liberties and political rights on the continent has been falling over the last ten years according to the American think tank, Freedom House. This is one of the great ironies of African politics in recent years: the emergence of stronger opposition and the waning power of incumbency has been as likely to drive a decline in democracy as a process of political reform.

4) Term-limits predict political crises

The determination of presidents to stay in power means that it is possible to predict political crises by calculating when leaders determined to stay in office will come to an end of their term limits. In 2016, it was the turn of Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Knowing that he was due to step down at the end of the year, Kabila tried a number of strategies to remain in office. When efforts to change the law failed, he derailed preparations for general elections that were due to be held in November, reasoning that he could not be expected to stand down if no one was elected to replace him. This strategy was subsequently endorsed by a pliant Constitutional Court.

Despite this, Kabila’s limited control over the political landscape ensured that he could not push through his agenda as easily as President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and President Paul Kagame in Rwanda. Instead, over the last few months a number of deals have been proposed that would see Kabila stand down before the end of 2017, in line with opposition demands. However, the president still had some cards left to play, and has yet to signal his assent. As a result, the country’s political future is uncertain and further political instability seems likely.

In this way, the experience of the DRC is instructive because it highlights the factors that undermine attempts by leaders to extend their time in power: internal divisions in the ruling alliance, limited physical control of their territory, and broad popular support for a change of leader.

5) Don’t prosecute before you are in power

Everything seemed to be going remarkably smoothly in Gambia when the electoral commission announced that the opposition had won the election and President Jammeh proceeded to concede defeat. But less than a week later, the President had changed his mind. Publicly, Jammeh cited irregularities with the process. In reality, however, what had come to light was not the fact that the polls were rigged, but a series of statements by the president-elect and his team that they intended to prosecute the outgoing leader for crimes committed while in office.

Not only did opposition leader Amada Barrow commit himself to bringing charges against his predecessor within a year, but his team explicitly rejected “softer” alternatives such as allowing Jammeh to go into exile. Unsurprisingly, this news dampened the president’s enthusiasm to hand over power, and he rapidly backtracked on his earlier announcement, triggering a full-blown political crisis.

Ultimately, it was only the intervention of regional governments, backed up by troops, which forced Jammeh to relinquish his claim on the presidency. The message for opposition leaders is clear: if you do intend to prosecute someone in the outgoing regime, don’t mention it until you are already in power.

The twelve months to come

If recent experience is any indication, the next twelve months are likely to be characterised by intense political contestation between increasingly innovative and well-organized opposition parties on the one hand, and governments determined to hold on to power at any cost on the other.

The future of democracy in Africa will depend on how these struggles play out, and on whether international and regional bodies are willing to intervene to keep authoritarian leaders in check. However, it would be unwise to extrapolate from the intervention of ECOWAS forces in Gambia that a robust new norm in favour of free and fair elections is emerging at the regional level.

Gambia is a small and economically weak state with limited military capacity that, until recently, was led by a president with few friends on the continent. Regional players therefore found that intervention was both attractive and feasible. The same is unlikely to be true of other countries likely to experience democratic crises over the next few years such as the DRC and Zimbabwe, which have stronger security forces and more friends.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggle for Political Reform.

This article was first published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation.


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