5 ways to tackle threats to democracy in Africa

A voter submits her ballot during the 2010 Sudan national elections in Zam Zam Internally Displaced Persons Camp, North Darfur. How can the governments in Africa tackle threats to democracy on the continent? Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UN Photo / CC BY-NC-ND

If democracy is such an expedient concept, why are African governments failing to uphold it?

Why is African democracy characterized and threatened by electoral abuse, ethnic divisions, corruption, poor management of natural resources and the collected effects of poverty, apathy, and economic insecurity? And how should Africans overcome such threats?

Devex asked several development luminaries to share their thoughts on these pressing issues at the recent Annual Democracy Forum 2014 in Gaborone, Botswana, co-organized by the country’s government and Stockholm-based intergovernmental organization International IDEA — the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Here are five ways these experts suggested that governments and the international development community can tackle threats to democracy on the continent.

1. Implement legal instruments and standards.

Two of the biggest threats to democracy in Africa are poor management of natural resources and electoral abuse, according to Huguette Labelle, former chair of the board at Berlin-based anti-corruption outfit Transparency International.

These twin threats, she said, can only be overcome by having strong state institutions, a well-functioning justice system and a rule of law that works for everyone.

“Responsible development of these resources is so important to bring about wealth and prosperity to citizens of our countries,” Labelle explained. “New U.N. research has indicated that there was an important correlation between natural resources exploitation and violent conflicts, estimating that 40 percent of conflicts are fuelled by natural resources.”

To manage natural resources in a sustainable way, this expert suggested mobilizing certain tools that deal with specific aspects of national resource development, mainly legal frameworks such as international and regional conventions and treaties such as the U.N. Convention Against Corruption, the OECD’s Multilateral Convention on Mutual Cooperation on Tax Matters and the African Union’s African Governance Architecture Convention.

“So many instruments are there,” agreed Salah Hammad, a senior human rights expert at the AU’s Department of Political Affairs. “The real issue here is about making the instruments part of our daily life at national level, which is a challenge. But with the establishment of the AGA we are taking this challenge to the people of Africa because we want the people of Africa to be part of the solution.”

The participation of African citizens, Hammad added, “is part and parcel of this process of overcoming threats to democracy in Africa.”

2. Condemn and reject unconstitutional changes of government.

To overcome threats to democracy, Hammad pointed out that one in way in particular the AU supports democracy and good governance on the continent by demanding that governments change only through accepted democratic ways.

“We are … in charge of mediation and facilitating dialogue between conflict partners or parties. Our other role is to condemn and reject unconstitutional changes of government and also try to facilitate the return of democracy and a constitutional government whenever there is a coup,” he said.

For democracy to prevail, Hammad noted there should be political will to implement conventions, fast ratification of instruments and constitutional change of governments — a change of constitutions to extend terms in office, for example, should not be accepted — and there should be better coordination among AU institutions.

“The task before us … is not an easy [one.] People say that Africa is a young continent … but after getting rid of colonialism we should really not relax and say that since we are only 50 years old we have a long way to go in following the steps of Europe or other continents,” he said. “I think, as Africa, we are really arriving quickly, though there are so many challenges that we are still dealing with when it comes to democracy and governance.”

3. Democracy should deliver on its promises.

After supporting global democracy efforts since 1996, International IDEA has come to realize that the success of democracy depends very much on its ability to deliver on development and other promises it makes.

“Democracy is not just about the opportunity to cast a vote every five years or every four years but rather people expect a lot out of democracy,” surmised Keboitse Machangana, acting director for global programs with the Swedish intergovernmental organization.

Machangana added that democracy draws its sustainability and strength from its capacity to meet people’s expectations.

4. Ensure inclusive and sustainable human development for all.

The rapid economic growth experiences by most African nations in recent years has only in a few cases led to inclusive and sustainable human development for all. Indeed, some development models are accused of having given more importance to rapid economic development than to making it sustainable and democratic.

The long-term effects of the that policy include environmental degradation and even social unrest, as people demand more from their democracies beyond just economic growth.

“In countries that are having high economic growth without democracy, people are demanding democracy,” Machangana explained. ”In countries where people are having democracies without development, the rise of social movements is actually the demand for development.”

5. Focus on poverty reduction and inclusive, representative politics.

One of the most long-standing threats to democracy is extreme poverty. Efforts in fighting poverty should include improving access to public services through proactive developmental strategies, gender inclusiveness and tapping into global markets.

“Democracy is political and it involves enabling those who are excluded and disadvantaged to gain a greater and more just share of power and resources through participation in political policy and decision making processes at every level,” Machangana said. “Democratic participation and representation could strengthen the ability of ordinary people to shape, influence and achieve livelihoods in the day-to-day reality. This is also true for fragile and conflict-affected states.”

However, income disparities can cause serious damage as they affect people’s capacity to hold decision-makers accountable.

The absence of the will and capacity of political actors to represent people’s interests and aspirations — while engaging with the root causes of political, economic, social and political inequalities — critically undermines the legitimacy of the democratic process.

If all these issues are rapidly addressed, the experts consulted by Devex agreed a united Africa can gain the capacity to overcome threats to democracy on the continent in the future.

#DemocracyMatters is a three-week series exploring the intersection of democracy, development and natural resources management in partnership with International IDEA, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

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About the author

  • Sharon Tshipa

    Sharon Tshipa is a media practitioner, writer and social entrepreneur based in Gaborone, Botswana. She currently works for Chinese news agency Xinhua and as a freelance video journalist for French newswire service AFP. Tshipa is also co-founder and chairperson of the Botswana Society for Human Development, a local NGO.