Taking Africa’s democratic temperature as a dozen countries prepare for polls

More than a dozen national elections will be held across Africa next year. 

All 55 members of the African Union (AU) are obligated to hold regular and ostensibly democratic elections. They must also invite teams of AU election observers to publicly monitor, assess and report the results.

Is all this electoral activity helping to entrench democracy as the foundation for national and regional security, development and integration? Or have elections become the means for demagogues to grab power — or, more typically, for powerful elites and authoritarian rulers to entrench themselves?

Democratic theory prescribes credible elections as a necessary, but insufficient means, to consolidate real democracy. Real democracy typically abets peace and security. National circumstances vary. But three additional conditions are also vital. They are freedom of expression, the right of assembly, and an independent nonpartisan judiciary to resolve disputes and ensure the rule of law predominates.

Most deadly conflicts in Africa occur within — not between — sovereign states. Recognising this, the AU has made observing and assessing democratic elections an integral part of its operations. This often happens alongside observers from regional economic communities.

As observations improve, so do opportunities to gauge whether electoral violence and other severe human rights abuses threaten regional peace and security.

In mid-November, there were three important developments at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. These promise to improve Africa’s long-term prospects for collective self-reliance and democratic peace. And this will happen regionally, nationally and locally.

The first was a streamlining of the continental body’s operations. The second was a move to strengthen the monitoring and evaluation of member countries. The third was a renewed commitment to improve the depth, duration, and diligence of African election observation missions.

Three changes

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has been the chair of the AU this year. He has driven a set of administrative and financial reforms to improve its efficiency and effectiveness.

Headline reforms include:

  • Reducing the number of AU Commission portfolios,
  • Introducing merit-based hiring and promotion procedures, and
  • Reducing dependence on foreign donors. This has been achieved by revising the scale of member state contributions and penalties for nonpayment.

The key structural reform will be combining the portfolios of Political Affairs and Peace and Security. This makes sense strategically. It will ensure that the lion’s share of AU resources supports both urgent peacemaking needs and creates conditions conducive to developing politically capable states. Failures on either front could jeopardise the AU’s strategic plan for the socio-economic transformation of the continent.

Two other developments complement these shifts.

One is the Assembly’s decision to strengthen the monitoring and evaluation of key governance areas on the continent. This promises substantial improvements in the role and functioning of the African Peer Review Mechanism. The mechanism was established in 2003. It aims to encourage member states to critically and regularly assess their progress in governance and socio-economic development.

After much initial excitement, the mechanism devolved into a largely technical and widely ignored exercise. Its governing Forum of Heads of State sought to infuse it with greater political clout and relevance in 2016. It mandated its new director, Professor Eddy Maloka, to produce an Africa-wide comparative assessment of governance challenges facing AU member states.

This will be presented to the next regular AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government in February 2019.

The final change involves beefing up election monitoring. Ten years ago the AU entered into a formal partnership with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa. The parties agreed on 16 November to seek ways to extend and improve the partnership.

The institute is based in Johannesburg. It boasts an all-African staff from more than a dozen nations. It has helped AU missions on several fronts. This has included the training and application of:

  • a common set of observation principles and democratic election standards, and
  • more comprehensive, rapid and technologically advanced tools and training of AU observers.

The partnership has also helped the AU to acquire a leadership role among domestic and international election observer groups pursuing greater electoral transparency and accountability. This is true even within Africa’s most troubled states.

Is democracy dying?

These efforts would seem to run counter to the question “is democracy dying?”, which has become a preoccupation in the era of US President Donald Trump. African politics, too, are vulnerable to demagoguery, debauchery and divisiveness. More notable is the proliferation of progressive forces at all levels of African politics. They are exposing and combating corruption and other egregious abuses of power.

Progress is slow, erratic, and dangerous for democracy advocates and activists to pursue. Yet in a year when Freedom House’s latest global survey concludes democracy is in decline, Africa may well be bucking the trend.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s 2018 Index of African Governance found that

…governance on our continent, on average, is slowly improving … approximately three out of four African citizens live in a country where governance has improved over the last ten years.

Despite Africa’s many problems, it continues to sustain a wide variety of democratic experiments. Extensive surveys by Afrobarometer, the non-partisan research network, show the majority of Africa’s citizens still prefer democracy to the alternative. This is a reality the African Union increasingly recognises and is attempting to support.

John J Stremlau, Visiting Professor of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Malawi elections provide a global lesson in democracy

COMMENT: Opposition candidates and party can increase their chances of success at the polls by putting aside minor differences and presenting a united front

Masterclasses in duck-and-dive

You didn’t need to be a genius or a prophet to predict that Bushiri would run or that Zuma would stall

Bye-bye, Don. But is this the end of Trumpism?

If it hadn’t been for Covid-19, Donald Trump might have won the presidential election. Almost 48% of voting Americans believe in his brand of democracy, equality and justice.

The decline and fall of the South African auditing profession

Its reputation is not being helped at all by the crisis at its independent regulatory body

Will Biden and Harris help us breathe again?

The United States’ newly elected leaders, Joe Biden and Kamala Devi Harris, must help recalibrate a global politics of hope and empathy

The Trump era is over. But the fight for democracy is just getting started

A respected and robust United States — with all of our flaws, mistakes and missteps — can be good for the defence of democracy, not least in Africa

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

See people as individual humans, not as a race

We need to ingrain values of equality in education, businesses, society broadly and religious groups to see people

JJ Rawlings left an indelible mark on Ghana’s history

The air force pilot and former president used extreme measures, including a coup, enforced ‘discipline’ through executions, ‘disappearances’ and floggings, but reintroduced democracy

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…