The recent political developments in many African countries are both a cause for celebration and worry on the future of democracy on the continent.
Just last week, the Supreme Court of Liberia halted a presidential runoff hours before it was held. In the decision, which came at the backdrop of another historical Supreme Court ruling in Kenya, the court ordered the National Elections Commission to spend more time investigating a fraud complaint from Charles Brumskine, the third-place finisher in the October 10 election.
Far in the north, in Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power in a coup that deposed a democratically elected president, sent shockwaves on the continent when he said he will stick to the constitution and not seek a third time as Egypt’s president. He promised elections in March or April next year.
“It doesn’t suit me as a president to stay one more day against the will of the Egyptians. This is not talk for TV, those are principles I embrace and [I] am keen on,” he told an American television network, CNBC.
Seen from that angle and a few other examples, it is easy for one to conclude that the continent is finally on a democratic path her citizens desperately yearn for.
While on the face of it countries such as Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, and Liberia are seemingly making democratic gains, their counterparts are seemingly sliding deeper and deeper in the abyss of authoritarianism.
Let us take Kenya as an example. The country is already a cause for worry for democracy enthusiasts and some fear that the political crisis in the country, if not resolved amicably, might degenerate to the dark days of the Daniel arap Moi dictatorship. For now though, Kenya provides a unique opportunity to engage in serious reforms and inclusive dialogue, but most importantly the crisis is an opportunity to taste the stamina of the country’s democratic institutions only recently introduced or reformed.
By the time of this writing, Grace Mugabe, was poised to become the vice president of her 93-year-old husband, Robert Mugabe, who refuses to quit power after close to 40 years.
In neighbouring Zambia, incumbent president Edgar Lungu is already fermenting a Burundi-like crisis. He has already warned the judiciary that there will be chaos if he is barred from standing in the 2021 election.
Mr Lungu’s eligibility for the poll is being challenged by critics who argue that he is serving his second and final term, and cannot stand for re-election. They say the period he served after the death of president Michael Sata in 2014 counts as his first term.
Back home, President Museveni and his close associates are working around the clock to amend the Constitution, a move seen as an attempt to extend his more than three-decade rule.
In DR Congo, president Joseph Kabila won’t just go yet. It is difficult to imagine if the long-awaited presidential vote will take place in late December 2018 as was promised recently. Critics have long accused president Kabila of postponing the vote to maintain his grip on power.
The examples of democratisation attempts gone rogue on the continent are many, and include others such as Cameroon, South Sudan, Rwanda and Togo.
History of the continent
Suffice to note then is a brief history of the continent. Political independence on the continent came with expectations and enthusiasm but this was to be short-lived as post-independence Africa degenerated into political violence. Ghanaian scholar Charles Quist-Adade has described the February 24, 1966, coup that deposed Ghana’s independence president Kwame Nkrumah as “the coup that set Ghana and Africa 50 years back”.
The coup in Ghana was first of many and those immediate post-independence conflicts were costly and causalities were estimated in millions. The dreams to engender the fortunes of the continent to greater heights died in most of the African countries until the age of liberation movements.
A study by the African Development Bank shows that from 1970 to 1989, there were 99 coup attempts in sub-Saharan Africa. The number declined to 67 between 1990 and 2010.
Some of the memorable coups include Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe’s overthrow of president William R. Tolbert Jr in Liberia (1980), Prince Johnson’s overthrow of Samuel K. Doe, Idi Amin’s overthrow of Milton Obote in Uganda (1971), Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir overthrow of Ahmed al-Mirghani in Sudan (1989) and the overthrow of Ernest Shonekan by Sani Abacha in Nigeria (1993).
By the 1980s, however, the coups although still happening, were becoming unfashionable and the focus was now on liberation movements. Most of these started to oppose the evils of oppression by the post-independence governments such as the NRA/ NRM in Uganda, RPF in Rwanda. Some were in existence already to fight for independence in countries that were still under colonialism. They included ZANU PF of Zimbabwe, ANC of South Africa, FRELIMO of Mozambique, SWAPO of Namibia, and MPLA of Angola.
The liberation movements, irrespective of which part of Africa, enjoyed broad based consensus mainly because of the evils they preached against in their quest to assume power. But as they ruled, many of the liberators committed and still commit the same evils, sometimes worse, than they once advocated against. One needs to review the above mentioned movements, what they fought against and what most, if not all, have since become.
In their quest for international recognition and acceptance by the masses, leaders of many of these movements made colourful statements and championed, in theory, democratic rights of all citizens. President Museveni eloquently summarised the problem then: “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power.”
Such ideas were turned into colourful documents such as constitutions etc. In the constitutions, such as Uganda’s 1995 one, they put term limits and for the case of Uganda even age limit. Such measures were to ensure among other things a peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another.
Belgian academic Filip Reyntjens in the “The Struggle over term limits in Africa: A new look at the evidence” argues that there is a strong correlation between effective term limits and democratic quality. On the question of whether democracy enhances term limits or the same engender democracy, his findings suggest “that existing democratic quality has a determining impact on the maintenance of term limits, in other words that democracy is the cause rather than term limits.”
Term limits that once provided hope have since been done away with by Africa’s strongmen. They remain a respected reality in a few countries such as Ghana. In Rwanda, a referendum was held to amend the constitution allowing president Paul Kagame to contest until 2034.
In October, Congo Republic’s long-serving president Denis Sassou Nguesso was allowed another seven years in the 2016 election after a 92 per cent landslide referendum vote in favour of changing the constitution.
Constitutions were amended in Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s Equatorial Guinea, in Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and in Angola where Jose Eduardo dos Santos recently left after close to 40 years in power. In Burundi after much bloodshed, president Pierre Nkurunziza holds on to power on a technicality that his first term didn’t count.
Elections as an approval stamp
Incumbents in Africa rarely lose power. It is, therefore, a cause for celebration when they handover or are forced to when they lose elections such as in Nigeria and recently in Yahya Jammeh’s Gambia.
Instead of elections helping citizens’ to be heard, they are used as a tool of continuity and legitimise the rule of one leader. In cases where holding elections with the participation of a particular leader is no longer possible, excuses are found to accommodate them such as the current debate in Uganda to amend article 102(b) to remove the age limit and allow President Museveni who will be more than 75 in 2021 to contest. The winner of the election is mostly known long before the voting.
DRC’s Kabila doesn’t have the opportunities Mr Museveni created for himself in Uganda. Mr Kabila, 46, has adopted all kinds of excuses to deny the Congolese a chance to elect a new leader. The younger Kabila became the country’s leader in 2001, after his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated.
Similar circumstances such as in DRC have necessitated a political upheaval in Togo where Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé Eyadéma controversially assumed power after the death of his long serving father in 2005. When doubts were placed on his constitutional legitimacy by among others the regional body Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) he resigned only to win a controversial poll. He is serving a third term and is ironically the Ecowas chairperson even as his military and police have killed many people calling for an end to the Gnassingbé dynasty which has been in power for more than 50 years.
The so-called international community that once took an active role in the affairs of many countries on the African continent is only bothered with stability. African dictators can stay for as long as they serve the interests of the West. Recent examples in Kenya and Liberia lend explicit credence to this argument of the West’s agenda. Observers from the West give elections a clean bill of health in the face of accusations and glaring irregularities.
In Liberia, a number of international elections observers, including representatives of the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute, said the October 10 poll was largely free and fair, despite a few irregularities at some polling stations. Court ordered for fraud investigations. In Kenya, the election was free and fair according to similar observers only for the country’s Supreme Court to annul the same. Statesmen such as John Kerry and former South African president Thabo Mbeki have had to eat a humble pie after furthering the narrative.
Regional bodies from the African Union to Ecowas, Southern African Development Community (SADC) to the East African Community operate mainly as a “club for young and old dictators”. It explains why it was easy to admit South Sudan to the EAC despite all the problems the country’s leadership has inflicted on its citizens and why some EAC countries were quick to prop up the current regime in Africa’s youngest war torn country.
The hope for most of the continent, analysts have opined is in its young, hopeful and fearless population to step up to its strongmen. This, however, is coming at a heavy cost such the detention of president Kagame’s youthful opponent, Diane Shima Rwigara, and members of her family. The killing of protestors mainly young people and children in Kenya, Togo, DRC among others calling for reforms in these countries.
In Uganda, the anti-age limit removal campaign claimed its first official victim in October. Edson Nasasira was born 10 years after President Museveni came to power. He was killed protesting against the life presidency plans of the same leader. The taxi tout was as old as the 1995 constitution whose original provisions he was protesting to protect.