You would not know it from the news, but sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing its worst surge of political violence in more than 20 years. The recent massacre of at least 40 parishioners in a coordinated attack on the St. Francis Catholic Church in Nigeria’s Ondo State—a region where such episodes were previously rare—is yet another example of the spread of sectarian violence, and follows massacres of civilians and attacks on security forces in Burkina Faso, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, and Somalia.
Last year was the deadliest since 1999, and 2022 is on track to be as bad—or even worse—than 2021.
Why does security in the region continue to deteriorate, despite significant investments from affected governments and the international community over the past decade? Many factors play a role in this surge of insecurity, but the most central driver is the lack of responsive and legitimate governance.
Ultimately, this is a problem that only the citizens and governments affected by this scourge can solve, as it requires the painstaking work of strengthening and sustaining democratic institutions and responding to citizens’ needs. But democratic partners like the United States can give these efforts a significant boost by providing the resources and expertise needed to carry out necessary reforms and institution-building.
While the Biden administration has rhetorically supported advancing democracy on the continent, and included many African nations in the 2021 Summit for Democracy, it has continued to prioritize security funding and underinvest in programs supporting democracy, rights, and governance across Africa. This is a false tradeoff—as recent history has shown us, underwriting the development and expansion of responsive governance is in fact a precursor to and requirement for sustainable security gains.
The State of Democracy in Africa
The past decade has been a grim period for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past ten years, 25 of 44 African countries have experienced democratic backsliding, while 19 countries saw improvements in democracy. At the end of 2021, there were only 12 electoral or liberal democracies in Africa, a decline from 14 a decade ago.
History has demonstrated that democratic backsliding creates, exacerbates, or expands conflicts both within and beyond a given country’s borders. In 2021, the average number of deaths from conflict and political violence in countries considered electoral or closed autocracies was more than three times higher than for countries considered electoral or liberal democracies. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa that experienced democratic backsliding from 2001-2010 experienced, on average, a more than fourfold increase in conflict fatalities in the following decade, and a more than sixfold increase in civilian killings.
Most countries in Africa experienced an increase in conflict in the second decade of the 21st century. A range of factors likely account for this surge, including climate volatility economic shocks, and rising prices. But the most significant set of drivers relates to democracy and governance. The magnitude of conflict was significantly more severe in those countries experiencing democratic backsliding in the prior decade. Conflict also became more complex and widespread in these countries, with a seven-fold increase in the average number of locations suffering from conflict in the following decade.
This is partly because democratic backsliding is highly correlated with so many exacerbating conditions for conflict, including anocracy, social inequality and exclusion, and state repression. And while liberal democracies are not immune to climate volatility, economic shocks, or inflation, they are much better equipped to formulate good policy to deal with these challenges. They allow citizens legitimate avenues to express their dissatisfaction and change course when governments fail to deliver.
In fact, even in countries with robust foreign investment and development assistance, if they do not have legitimate and responsive governance, conditions for conflict may be aggravated rather than diminished.
Leadership and “Leaning in” on the Continent is Required to Confront this Challenge
The solution to this thorny policy dilemma starts with governments across the continent. From Mogadishu to Bamako, leaders face considerable security challenges that impact their citizens’ livelihoods and their own reelection prospects. It is therefore understandable that governments typically address security challenges with security-centered measures (e.g., counterterrorism) they feel will yield immediate benefits. As long as threats, ranging from insurgency to armed non-state militias, persist, governments will employ armed responses.
Just as problematic, we often see government cynically fail to intervene in armed conflicts that don’t directly threaten their interests (or in some cases, where such conflicts actually further the interests of the government). This selective and biased application of security further erodes trust in government and compounds societal divisions and grievances
To truly solve this problem, however, affected governments need to take a longer-term perspective and couple force with investing in governance institutions and processes that can productively channel citizens’ grievances and quell conflict. This is, of course, easier said than implemented since the more robust governance needed to suppress political violence can also check the power of those very leaders required to support and enact such measures. Getting to yes on governance reform will therefore require sustained support and pressure from civil society, regional bodies, and coalitions of reform-minded governments.
Leading civil society organizations across the continent employ a well-known playbook for pressuring governments to respect democratic norms and invest in good governance. These entities and activists provide oversight of government spending, help make sure elected officials fulfill campaign promises, and press administrations to use security forces in a responsible manner. Organizations focused on advocating for responsible use of force by national military and police should adopt the longer-term perspective referenced above and press target leaders to invest as much in shoring up governance institutions as they do on armaments. Short term security force adherence to human rights norms is imperative but will matter little if foundational causes of the violence they are suppressing go unaddressed – or if security is implemented in a biased and selective manner. These organizations can advocate directly to national governments and Western donors, and coordinate activism with the business community.
The African Union (AU) and regional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have a mixed record, at best, at strengthening democracy on the continent. They seldom fulfill the compelling mandates outlined in their lofty charters—for example by not firmly standing against extra-constitutional transfers of power—and consistently face intra-organization fragmentation. However, the AU and regional economic communities (RECs) are the extant architecture and must play some role, even if a limited one, in encouraging member states to address security challenges by strengthening governance alongside neutralizing armed actors with force. At minimum, the AU, ECOWAS, and others should consistently message to members the role that good governance plays in sustainably resolving conflicts. ECOWAS is well positioned to identify and promulgate specific policy solutions to its member states and build these recommendations into conflict mediation support during crises.
Finally, leaders can help encourage their counterparts to strengthen governance to reduce instability. The strongest democracies are the obvious candidates—from Ghana to South Africa—but so too are partly-free countries struggling with instability and attempting to devise more effective approaches. Leaders seeking increased prestige, enhanced electoral prospects, or leverage with the West—from Nigeria to Kenya—could be incentivized to work together to advocate a more democracy-focused approach to addressing instability. Even if short-term electoral benefits are debatable, the parties these leaders represent would benefit from medium- to long-term decreases in violence directly linked to reforms their candidates enacted. And the public in these countries, of course, would have the most to gain.
Updating American Policy to Underwrite Democracy Gains
The United States also has a role to play in helping turn the tide against conflict by bolstering effective governance on the continent. President Biden has frequently stated that the United States is in a competition between autocracy and democracy. In keeping with this overarching frame, the administration has said that its foreign policy is “centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights.” These words have not yet been met with action, however, as the White House continues to prioritize defense spending and related priorities—including on the African continent—over protecting democracy and winning the political systems competition.
Yet the democracy-related challenges in the region are just as pressing, if not more so, than the thorny security ones. Of the 17 sub-Saharan African countries invited to attend the 2021 Democracy Summit, for instance, 10 experienced democratic backsliding in the past five years – countries like Mauritius, Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, and Niger.
Extant external approaches for advancing democracy in Africa have had mixed results. The United States needs to explore new approaches, rooted in evidence on what works, to advance democracy. Three changes are necessary.
First, the U.S. should approach and implement the Summit for Democracy commitments and associated initiatives with the same urgency and firmness vis-à-vis allies as it does to address security considerations. African countries should be encouraged to publish their democracy summit commitments and broadly socialize these commitments with the public and civil society stakeholders to generate awareness and accountability. The United States should prioritize tracking progress against these commitments and use routine diplomatic meetings to laud advances or push leaders to do more. This is not rocket science, but it will require political will on the part of the United States and African governments to implement. African regional bodies can also encourage their members to publicize and fulfil Summit commitments.
Second, the United States can and should do more to help ensure peaceful transitions of power on the continent, starting with unequivocally denouncing coups whenever they take place and
holding perpetrators accountable. Muddled or delayed statements of condemnation deflate domestic democracy advocates and embolden other autocrats to do the same elsewhere.
The U.S. can also adjust the delivery of foreign assistance in small ways that could have an outsized impact – for example, making assistance contingent on the recipient country publishing precinct level election data within 30 days of an election. This increase in transparency can make it exceedingly difficult for contestants to interfere with ballot tabulation as final results, to the lowest administrative level, would be available for everyone to see and examine for any irregularities. Africa regional bodies can play a strong role here as well, encouraging their members to meet the same basic expectations of electoral transparency that most of the democratic world has already embraced.
Finally, the United States should hold countries accountable for UN votes that favor authoritarianism over democracy. Of the 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa invited to the Democracy Summit, only five voted to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. On the starkest vote for democracy versus autocracy of the 21st century, many African countries decided to hedge their bets. This is of course understandable – historically, U.S. foreign policy has left plenty of space for hedging on democracy. That needs to change. The Biden administration should instruct the State Department to approach such votes with the same urgency that U.S. diplomats place on security issues—with a recognition that our ability to live in a free and open world is on the line. The willingness of countries to stand with fellow democracies on the international stage could be a condition for future Democracy Summit invitations as well as receipt of U.S. development and security assistance. If we are taking the competition with China seriously, there can be no free passes.
Democracy is not just an ideal outcome – it is a necessary condition for peace in Africa. The policy solution to the rise in violent conflict on the continent is not a concomitant surge in security assistance or counter terrorism support; it is standing with democracy advocates and strengthening institutions that, together, hold leaders accountable and help make sure governance delivers for citizens. The sooner we realize this, the more effective our foreign policy will be.
Santiago Stocker is Nigeria Resident Program Director at the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to advancing democracy and governance worldwide. He is based in Abuja.
Patrick Quirk is Senior Director for Strategy, Research, and the Center for Global Impact at IRI and a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.