Shadow states infest Africa’s democracies

Democracy and development in Africa are under threat from powerful networks that join forces with government politicians to capture political institutions and use them to further their own interests, according to two reports published on World Democracy Day.

The reports from Democracy in Africa and the Centre for Democracy and Development-Ghana feature case studies on nine African countries. Taken together, they document the existence of broad and well-structured, but often invisible, networks that connect judges, political leaders, businessmen, multinational companies, securocrats, ruling party leaders and their family members. Through their privileged access to the state, these individuals misappropriate government resources while using their control of the legislature and the courts to get away with it.

The extent to which democracy has been captured in this way varies across the continent, and is lower in countries that initially developed stronger democratic institutions and have a longer history of placing checks and balances on those in power. 

But where these networks become so strong they come to represent a “shadow state” that holds more power than elected officials, the impact on justice and development is profound.

Take a look at Nigeria. According to a former Supreme Court justice, Kayode Eso, the country features many “billionaire judges”, who made their wealth by accepting bribes to exonerate defendants. This allows irresponsible politicians, corrupt businessmen and criminal gangs to go free, generating a culture of impunity.

It then becomes much more difficult to prevent the theft of state resources and deter human rights abuses. In turn, this demonstrates one of the biggest challenges

generated by the rise of shadow states – their control over the security forces and judiciary enables these networks to overcome resistance to their activities.

Democracy capture is not an African phenomenon — it happens everywhere self-interested elites meet weak institutions — but its effect is particularly devastating on a continent that already suffers from high levels of poverty and inequality. 

Unless shadow states are identified, exposed and challenged, countries such as Nigeria will never fulfil their developmental and democratic potential. 

This article, first published by The Continent, was produced in collaboration with Democracy in Africa.

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Idayat Hassan
Idayat Hassan
Idayat Hassan is director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), an Abuja-based policy advocacy and research organization with focus on deepening democracy and development in West Africa. Idayat was previously principal program officer and team leader for democratic governance at the CDD. She previously coordinated the Movement Against Corruption in Nigeria (MAC). Idayat is a lawyer by profession and has held fellowships in several universities across Europe and America. Her core interest spans democracy, peace and security and transitional justice in West Africa.

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