Policy Brief 2: Africa Democracy Trends 2014

Can we see improvement of democracy building in Africa?

The question is often asked whether, broadly, we can start to see an overall positive trend in turning around Africa’s bad governance story. The answer is not straightforward, but there are clearly some positive signs.

The very first of these positive trends is that ordinary citizens on the continent are increasingly demanding their countries to practice democracy. Off course, many African countries claim to practice democracy, but are in effect ‘sham’ democracies. But African citizens are increasingly asserting their democratic rights to be honoured.

Very few African leaders openly say they are against democracy. Even the most brutal African dictator, pretends to stand for democracy. In the past, democracy was overwhelmingly publicly dismissed, wrongly off course, by autocratic African leaders as either some odd Western practice, supposedly ‘un-African’ or a luxury given Africa’s myriad development challenges.

More elections are taking place on the continent

A positive trend the past few years has been that there are more elections taking place on the continent. There are fewer one-party states, with many opposition parties increasingly able to dislodge dominant sitting governments.

And yes, African-style democracy is often the most minimalist, most limited and the most elementary kind of “democracy”. It is often based on the premise that democracy is only about elections: if an election takes place, the country is supposedly democratic. This cannot be more wrong however.

But, at least elections are taking place now. African autocrats are increasingly forced to secure their control through elections. Of course many African leaders often rig elections – now in more and more sophisticated ways, or the opposition and their supporters are often battered into submission, long before the election day.

Additionally, African citizens often still do not have much of a choice between the parties or leaders on offer. The choices are often either between dominant parties and leaders that in public say they care, but in practice only care about lining their own pockets; or sometimes equally incompetent, limited and self-interested opposition parties and leaders.

Peoples’ power on the rise

Increasingly, ordinary citizens have through peoples’ power dislodged autocrats that appeared entrenched in their positions of power – whether the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011 in the “Arab Spring” uprisings or the removal Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré late last year. This trend is likely to increase.This real threat of popular overthrow appeared to have forced many African leaders to in public rhetoric use the language of democratic

This real threat of popular overthrow appeared to have forced many African leaders to in public rhetoric use the language of democratic rights, and at least be seen to provide some democratic institutions and basic public services to their people, even if often very limited.

Nature of conflicts has changed

The nature of violent conflicts on the continent has also changed. Wars between African countries are fewer. Conflicts are now more confined to within the boundaries of specific countries, for example Nigeria, Kenya, CAR and Somalia – these are often non-government actors and organisations attacking fellow citizens.

Continuing poor governance, and economic growth that only benefits a small elite – in the rise in popular expectations for democracy, have to a large extent created the conditions in which extremist fundamentalist organisations like Boko Haram and al Shabaab are able, not only to gain a foothold, but to thrive.  These conditions may see a further spread of intrastate conflict.

African talent is returning to the continent

Across the continent African talent is returning in larger numbers from the West to their birth countries. In part, of course, this has nothing to do with positive changes within African countries. It has more to do with the increased fortress mentality in many Western countries struggling economically, who are increasingly turning African migrants away, or giving jobs to locals, rather than to ‘foreigners’.

The return of many such African talent to their home countries has often brought new skills and money, and also brought back Africans who have first-hand experienced with better governance abroad. They now expect their own governments to do better – which in itself re-energise African economies and faltering democracies.

Africa’s impatient youth are driving political change

Almost all African countries have a youth ‘bulge’ whereby young people are the majority of the population. New technology, such as online platforms, mobile phones and social media, has connected younger people increasingly to the wider world, where they now can see how their peers elsewhere are thriving in democratic societies.

Technology has given young people across the continent new ways to express themselves – if excluded from the traditional political platforms. Africa’s restless young people are less patient with leaders that are corrupt, incompetent and often see through the rhetoric of leaders who use sweet sounding promises, but who are in practice self-serving.

The North African ‘Arab Spring’ protests of 2011/2012 by young people against corrupt ruling parties and leaders are cases in point. During the North African ‘revolutions’ young people used social media, the internet and blogs to “gather and organise protests or support movements to make their voices heard in ways that were not possible before”.

Alternative sources of information revolutionising Africa’s politics

Africans’ increasing access to alternative information sources will change the politics of Africa, including of South Africa. Up to now, many African autocratic ruling parties and leaders have manipulated the flow of information either through propaganda, through state-owned media, or by withholding information that will give citizens the true state of their incompetence, misrule and corruption.

New sources of alternative information available to Africans across the continent, which breaks African governments and leaders’ stronghold on information flow is and will be a powerful force for better governance on the continent.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

Comments are closed.