Home The Washington Diplomat April 2011 Will the Year of African Elections Cement Democracy or Sow Discord?

Will the Year of African Elections Cement Democracy or Sow Discord?

Will the Year of African Elections Cement Democracy or Sow Discord?

It’s a big year for Africa at the ballot box, with more than two dozen critical votes in countries ranging from Congo to Liberia to Nigeria. And as political upheaval continues to sweep the Arab world, people are naturally wondering if the democratic fervor will nudge a few other African autocrats from power as well. But are elections the solution to Africa’s woes? Or just another source of them? If the scenes from Abidjan are any indication, Africa’s year of elections is not off to a very democratic start.

Four months after the run-off poll that was supposed to mark an end to Côte d’Ivoire’s eight-year political crisis, the country is in turmoil. Alassane Ouattara has been recognized as the election winner by Côte d’Ivoire’s Electoral Commission, as well as the African Union, the United Nations, European Union, the United States and much of the world. But as of press time, his opponent, Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent endorsed by the country’s high court, showed no signs of ceding the presidency and appeared quite willing to plunge his country back into civil war in an effort to cling to power.


Credit: UN Photo/Basile Zoma
A man dips his finger in ink at a polling station in Côte d’Ivoire during elections last year whose results produced a presidential stalemate that now has the country teetering on the brink of civil war.

By mid-March, despite international pressure and economic sanctions seeking a peaceful end to the crisis, the world’s largest cocoa producer was beginning to resemble a combat zone, with hundreds of people killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced. Security forces loyal to Gbagbo disrupted pro-Ouattara demonstrations in Abidjan, opening fire on civilians with impunity, while Ouattara-aligned rebels — fed up with the diplomatic standoff — began seizing parts of the country. Rival gangs of youth are clashing in street battles some call worse than the fighting that broke out during the 2002-03 civil war — a conflict that effectively divided the country in two as tensions simmered along ethnic, religious and regional fault lines.

According to the International Crisis Group, the most likely scenario in the coming months is “armed conflict involving massive violence against civilians, Ivorian and foreign alike.”

Even if all-out war is averted, the Côte d’Ivoire poll — intended to unify the country — has been an unmitigated disaster, one that’s set a wary tone on a continent facing one of its most critical election years in history.

In 2011, citizens in 26 African countries are scheduled to head for the ballot box, voting in 17 heads of state. To some, this is proof that democracy is finally taking root in sub-Saharan Africa, a region long plagued by coup d’états, bush wars and serial kleptocrats.

Yet in the face of failed polls like Côte d’Ivoire’s, others wonder if this election mania is really in Africa’s best interest. Though regarded as democracy’s sine qua non — the essential ingredient of government by the people — elections on the continent have long been held hostage by a host of unsavory elements: from voter intimidation and ethnic strife to rigged polls and incumbent strongmen, like Gbagbo, who refuse to go when their time is up.

Aside from Southern Sudan, where January’s independence vote unfolded with few hitches — though subsequent violence in Abyei has many worried — the first months of 2011 have not brought signs of promise. In February, Yoweri Museveni extended his 25-year rule in Uganda with a convincing win in a poll marred by extensive voter bribery and intimidation — one that reportedly cost Ugandan taxpayers $350 million (also see “From Shoo-in Election to Gay-Bashing, Uganda Finds Itself on the Defensive” in last month’s issue of The Washington Diplomat).

In March, the International Criminal Court summoned six high-level Kenyans on charges of crimes against humanity linked to the country’s 2007-08 post-election violence that killed at least 1,100 — a move some hope will help disrupt the country’s deeply ingrained culture of impunity but others worry might stir up ethnic strife ahead of Kenya’s next poll in 2012.

And now, tensions are rising in Nigeria ahead of its widely anticipated presidential election on April 9, which is shaping up to be a potentially destabilizing contest between Christian and Muslim candidates — a scenario the country has long sought to avoid.

Then there is the pall cast by Côte d’Ivoire, once West Africa’s most prosperous nation.

“There is a belief that multiparty politics and competitive elections are the solution to every political problem regardless of context,” wrote Andrew Mwenda, a prominent Ugandan journalist and commentator. “This solution was imposed on Côte d’Ivoire and the results are already beginning to show. The ‘solution’ is now threatening to lead to the dismemberment of the country.”

Wither the One-Party State

Half a century ago, when most of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries gained independence, multiparty politics and competitive elections were hardly given a thought in states forged arbitrarily by colonial powers, with little regard to competing ethnic groups or power bases. Compounded by the Cold War, in which the United States and Soviet Union competed for the loyalties of African dictators, the one-party state was the norm, whether among strongmen in the Western orbit like Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko or self-styled Marxist-Leninists like Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Though rooted in geopolitics, the West’s eschewing of African democracy was also linked to concerns that it would hinder development. In his classic 1968 work “Political Order in Changing Societies,” Samuel Huntington argued that governments of fledgling states, facing major development challenges, could not risk full accountability to their people, who would demand more than limited resources made possible. Others questioned whether democracy — a system born out of Western individualism and egalitarianism — could take root in tribally oriented, community-based African societies.

Yet by the end of the 1980s, as the Soviet Union crumbled, independence fever waned, and a quarter century of “president for life” rulers had left Africa in economic tatters, voices inside the continent and out began to turn on the one-party state and embrace a shift toward participatory democracy.

Among African scholars, the push for democracy gained traction in a series of debates between Kenyan political scientist Peter Anyang Nyong’o and Malawian economist Thandika Mkandawire. Decrying Africa’s “miserable” state of development, Nyong’o argued that the channeling of public resources into private gains by elites — a key source of the continent’s socio-economic corrosion — was the direct result of those elites not being democratically accountable to their people. Mkandawire, on the other hand, citing the Asian Tigers and other authoritarian development successes, cast doubt on Nyongo’s links between democracy and development. Yet democracy itself, he argued, should be put on Africa’s agenda because it was “the recognition of the legitimate rights of the African people to democratically map the destinies of their countries.”

Two decades later, despite a multitude of challenges, African democracy has made considerable progress. Today, the vast majority of African states hold competitive elections at regular intervals. While the bulk may not earn the international stamp of approval as “free and fair” — and might not be held at all were it not for Western pressure — elections have been embraced by a majority of Africa’s citizens. According to a 2005 Afrobarometer survey, 60 percent of Africans believe democracy is preferable to all other forms of government. And most agree that elections are a quintessential element of democracy, says John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Africans are as devoted to individual dignity and promotion of equality before the law as anybody,” Campbell told The Washington Diplomat. “It’s interesting how many African societies have traditionally focused on building consensus, on talking, talking and talking some more to reach conclusions that are broadly acceptable to everybody. What we in the West identify as ‘democratic’ forms and values really do have deep roots in Africa.”

Illiberal Democracy’s Perils

If democracy’s foundations are as deep as Campbell suggests, then why have African elections proved so problematic? The answer may lie in the perils of “illiberal democracy,” a notion popularized by American journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria.

In his landmark 1997 essay “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” published in Foreign Affairs, Zakaria distinguished between democracy and constitutional liberalism: one a procedure for selecting government; the other a set of values related to individual liberty and protection from coercive vices, be they from church, state or society. In contemporary Western society, he notes, we tend to view the two as inseparable. Yet, constitutional liberalism — a set of ideas with roots in ancient Greece and Rome that evolved during the Enlightenment — long preceded the rise of modern electoral democracy. Until the 20th century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies, or at best semi-democracies in which legislatures had little power. Only after World War II did most Western countries become full-blown democracies, with universal adult suffrage. Yet a century earlier most had adopted key tenets of constitutional liberalism — basic human rights, the rule of law, private property rights, separation of powers, and freedom of speech and assembly.

What does this mean for Africa? As Zakaria argues, Africa’s conundrum — and that of the wider developing world — is that democracy has flourished in Western countries precisely because of their deep grounding in constitutional liberalism. Yet in sub-Saharan Africa, constitutional liberalism has not had time to take root, and democracy’s introduction has proven difficult. As a result, Zakaria believes that the international community and the United States “must end their obsession with balloting and promote the gradual liberalization of societies.”

In illiberal systems, he says, leaders essentially exploit the formal trappings of democracy, namely elections, without actually ushering in any actual democratic accountability. With weak rule of law, inadequate checks and balances, and judiciaries that are subservient to executives, there is little to stop vote rigging or the ability of elites to manipulate mass swaths of the electorate. Meanwhile, a group of elites in power must increasingly dispense patronage to secure its base, which fuels the misuse of public resources, and raises the stakes of leaving office to a level where incumbents will cling on at all costs. This is particularly dangerous in ethnically divided societies, where the sowing of tribal discontent is a frequent tool of political survival.

“In an absence of a shared national vision between elites and their followers, identity becomes the unifying principle,” Mwenda writes. “As economic demands are pressed forward in ethnic terms, the state begins to split at its seams. This is the actual dilemma electoral competition is presenting us. In 2008, we saw it happen in Kenya…. We are seeing it in Côte d’Ivoire now.”

As the above cases show, African elections have not just failed to promote constitutional liberalism; in many cases, they have only further nurtured illiberal practices. Despite the prevalence of elections on the continent, Africa on the whole registered declines during the last decade in both political rights and civil liberties indicators, according to Freedom House, the Washington-based NGO tracking freedom and human rights across the globe. Of nine African states that registered declines in 2010, four — Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burundi — did so due to heightened repression surrounding national elections.

As Zakaria notes, evidence exists that democracy may also increase the risk of war when introduced into illiberal societies. In particular, he cites a 1995 study by political scientists Jack Snyder and Edward Mansfield that over the last 200 years, democratizing states went to war significantly more often than either stable autocracies or liberal democracies. It’s a grim rejoinder to a theory long championed by democracy’s proselytizers: the idea of “democratic peace,” which contends that democracies do not go to war with other democracies. Taken together, one might argue, democracy will ultimately bring peace (at least with other like-minded societies), yet the road to that democracy is fraught with violence.

In the years since, others have contested the Snyder/Mansfield findings. In their 2004 book “The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace,” Morton Halperin, Joe Siegle and Michael Weinstein argue that poverty, not premature democratization, is the key factor that influences civil conflict. After controlling for poverty based on country per-capita incomes, they found that democratizing states in sub-Saharan Africa were half as likely to experience conflict as other poor countries in the region. Additionally, they found that life expectancy, on average, is nine years longer in poor democracies than poor autocracies, secondary school enrollment is 40 percent higher, and agricultural yields 25 percent higher. This last statistic recalls the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, who famously observed that no democracy with a free press has ever experienced a major famine.

It should be noted, however, that Halperin, Siegle and Weinstein’s study was premised on a broad definition of democracy, one not limited to the traditional litmus test of elections, but encompassing criteria like protections for civil liberties and checks on the executive — in effect, elements of constitutional liberalism. So we return to Zakaria’s question: Is the focus on elections overrated?

“Implicitly, the question is whether this emphasis on elections, this taking of elections as the primary sign of progress toward democracy, might possibly be a mistake,” said Campbell. “I am increasingly interested in focusing not so much on the mechanics of elections, but rather on the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the sanctity of contracts.”

It’s no coincidence, Campbell points out, that in South Africa, arguably the continent’s most successful large democracy, these elements have long been present — though they were only applicable to whites during apartheid. “This long-term adherence to the rule of law for white people was subsequently expanded to the full population,” Campbell said. “And yes, South Africa has had free, fair and credible elections.”

Quest for a Liberal Africa

The problem for most of Africa is that the nurturing of liberalism is far more complex than going through the periodic ritual of elections (something the Arab world is encountering as well). Today’s Western liberal societies — in which governance defined by personal relations is supplanted by one of impersonal bureaucracy — took shape over a period of centuries, and a quick transition to the Western model cannot be expected in most of the developing world. While institutions like the World Bank, as it did in Côte d’Ivoire, can threaten to withhold debt relief unless elections are held, it cannot bring the Enlightenment to Africa’s doorstep. Put another way, as Ugandan journalist Mwenda writes, “the challenge Africa faces is not just to hold elections but rather to create the conditions under which elections can deliver to the ordinary person.”

If these conditions cannot be imposed from the top down, can they be nurtured from the ground up? Siyabonga Memela, manager of the political governance program at the Pretoria-based Institute for Democracy in Africa, says yes. To Memela, the key is to foster continuous civic education, so that awareness among citizens of the need for democratic practices increases. And the best way to go about this?

“It all goes back to elections,” he said. “Citizens need to be able to participate in how they are governed to ensure their constitutional liberties and human rights are protected.”

It’s not exactly a response that would sit well with Zakaria’s minions. It also brings us back to the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: Do societies need the fundamentals of constitutional liberalism before democracy — and truly free elections — take hold, or can elections themselves nurture constitutional liberalism?

On closer inspection, these two views of elections — one that they are dangerous, the other that they’re constructive — may not be so divergent. For all his concerns about illiberal democracy’s perils, Zakaria does not insist that such states revert to authoritarian rule and admits there are no longer “respectable alternatives to democracy.” Rather, he argues, we should focus on making “democracy safe for the world” by realizing elections’ limitations and focusing on broader aspects of liberalism and civic engagement. Despite their unsavory elements, African elections may be the only tools to foster such engagement in the long run, even if “free and fair” is more often than not a misnomer.

“If we waited to hold elections when the conditions were ideal, we would never get there,” Memela told The Diplomat. “Democracy is a project that is ongoing and there is not a day where we will say it is complete.”

And on the world’s poorest continent, it’s a project that cannot be viewed in isolation from the quest for economic growth and development. Citizens focused on finding their next meal will have little time for politics, and in sub-Saharan Africa — where close to half the population of 840 million lives on less than $1.25 per day — there are many of these citizens. Africans, says Memela, “will reject democracy if it does not put bread on the table.”

For years, this democracy-development relationship has been a hotly debated topic among both political scientists and economists. Though a positive correlation between high per-capita income and incidence of democracy has long been established, scholars have presented contrasting evidence that democracy leads to development, development to democracy, or that neither causal relationship holds true. To thinkers like Kenya’s Nyong’o, democracy was critical to development because it served as a check against elites’ misuse of public funds that had crippled African economies in their first 25 years of independence.

For others, democracy was successful only in societies that had already reached a minimal level of development, where elites could no longer prey on impoverished rural masses and workers had the means to mobilize. It’s a claim that brings to mind Uganda, where President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement spent millions in the run-up to February’s elections doling out bribes to hard-luck rural voters — in some cases buying allegiance for as little as a bag of salt. Only among a people in dire economic straits could this be undertaken with such effectiveness.

Ultimately, Memela argues, democracy and development are best viewed as a single dynamic, neither of which will flourish without the other. “Democracy without development is meaningless,” he said. “But development without democracy is development for the few. We must continue to engage the two in a balancing act.”

On a grander scale, as Zakaria notes, the pressures of global capitalism can push development, democratization — and liberalization — forward, as citizens become increasingly exposed to the outside world through markets and modern tools of communication. Today, across most of sub-Saharan Africa, even the poor have mobile phones and Internet use is continuously rising. Nigeria now has 44 million Internet users — more than a quarter of its population. And the world is still witnessing the power of social media tools such as Facebook in transforming repressive Arab societies.

Sub-Saharan Uprising?

Just as democracy demands more than just elections, development demands more than just impressive economic growth. Memela’s South Africa, an emerging economic giant and comparatively mature democracy, is now the most unequal society in the world — a gap that’s not merely between whites and blacks but also between a thriving, politically connected black elite and a massive black underclass. It’s the sort of disparity — defined by high unemployment and large pools of restive youths — that has African leaders warily looking north, where regimes once thought unbreakable have crumbled in Tunisia and Egypt, and teetered on the brink in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.

Despite some small-scale protests in places like Cameroon and Gabon, most experts say Arab-style uprisings are unlikely to flourish south of the Sahara, where societies are more ethnically divided, security forces are far more feared, and comparatively small middle classes have much to lose from landing on the wrong side of politics. In Egypt and Tunisia, the military refused to fire on protesters. In Zimbabwe, security forces would have no such compunction. And Egypt, as Campbell notes, has had a strong national identity for 10,000 years, while Nigeria, a potential hotspot in advance of its election, is a patchwork of more than 250 ethnic groups cobbled together in the early 20th century into a country that still lacks of unifying sense of statehood.

Still, Campbell argues, the jury is out as to what the Arab uprisings might mean for the rest of Africa. Change, after all, can happen in an instant. Just months ago, after all, no one would have predicted that leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak would be kicked out or that Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi would be confronting a civil insurrection. So how should African states react?

African governments, according to Memela, should see the Arab revolutions as a warning. “The lesson for all leaders is that unless the will of the people is expressed in democratically acceptable ways, you may say you are at peace today, but tomorrow people may rise against you. It’s a warning to say you must fix your house.”

Fixing that house is easier said than done, and elections, it can be argued, can either hinder or aid that process. For sub-Saharan Africa, the next big test will come on April 9, when as many as 70 million voters head to the polls in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Considered an emerging power because of its size, this oil-producing giant is one of the continent’s most corrupt and poverty-stricken states, and its recent polls have not been pretty.

Since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has consistently rigged its way to power — aided by an informal “zoning” agreement among elites across the country that called for the presidency to alternate between the largely Muslim north and largely Christian south. Yet President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian who took over when Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, died last year, disrupted the balance when he successfully sought the PDP nomination while it was still the Muslims rotation. With Jonathan facing off against two main Muslim candidates, violence between rival ethnic and religious groups has spiked, and analysts worry that a perceived sham election could ignite a wider conflict.

There are, however, some promising signs — including Jonathan’s appointment of Attahiru Jega, a respected academic and civil society activist, to head the Independent National Electoral Commission. According to the International Crisis Group, Jega’s appointment “offers some protection against the wholesale manipulation of results that blighted previous polls.” Still, the prospect of election-related unrest remains.

Campbell, author of “Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink” and U.S. ambassador to the country from 2004 to 2007, warned that the situation in Nigeria could easily spiral out of control.

“As the giant of Africa now turns its attention to country-wide presidential elections, the contest is shaping up to be dangerous and destabilizing, pitting a Christian candidate against a Muslim candidate — a competition Nigerians have always tried to avoid,” he recently wrote. “Perhaps for the first time, Nigerian presidential elections will matter because the leading candidates are identified with rival regions and religions, identities more important to Nigerians than their national one. If the elections are not credible, there is likely to be much greater popular protest than there has been in the past.”

Yet just as no one can predict what will happen in a country as diverse as Nigeria, no one can accurately predict the future for a continent as complex as Africa. It has its share of Côte d’Ivoires, but it also has its Ghanas. There, John Atta Mills won a 2009 runoff presidential poll by a mere 0.4 percent — the smallest margin of victory in Africa’s history — in a vote that was free, fair and peaceful.

The loser, Nana Akufo-Addo — a member of the previous president’s New Patriotic Party who had narrowly won the first round of voting — graciously accepted defeat.



About the Author

Jon Rosen is an independent journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda, and focuses on sub-Saharan Africa.