Is Africa an undemocratic continent ruled by autocratic old men who pay lip service to the wishes of the ones who elected them?
From the US to Uganda, most countries grapple with a democratic deficit. Yet there is a popular perception that Africa lags behind the rest of the world in this most nebulous of political terms. This is despite the fact that millions of people elsewhere in the world are living in regimes that can be described as authoritarian, oppressive and undemocratic, while millions of people within Africa enjoy the benefits of relatively good governance.
Former British leader Winston Churchill believed democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. His terms lays bare the imperfections of what we call democracy, but also hint at how difficult it is to define.
1) Democracy is not spreading across Africa
Countries that describe themselves as democratic are members of a very broad church. They range from nations that respect citizens political liberties and civil liberties to those that repress dissent and hold elections that are neither free nor fair. Just as other regions of the world showing varied systems of governance, there are discrepancies among African countries too.
The Economist Intelligence Units democracy indicator identifies four categories of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid and authoritarian. Its 2015 index shows uneven progress in sub-Saharan Africa, but notes a dramatic drop in successful coups from within since 2000, and tells holding regular elections is now largely cliche. Even so, the indicator only awarded full democracy status to Mauritius, a quiet achiever with strong rule of law.
Some countries elude the narrative of a democratic deficit in Africa, however. In its 2016 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House named Nigeria, Liberia and Ivory Coast among the countries with the biggest improvements in political rights and civil liberties. In Nigeria, 2015 was the first year an opposition party gained power through elections. Botswana, Ghana, Cape Verde and Benin have also been lauded as democratic examples.
This year, at least 16 African nations are holding presidential elections. Although elections do not automatically lead to representative governments, competitive, multi-party elections constitute a sine qua non for democracy, and regular ballots indicate progress towards ensuring citizens are able to choose their leaders.
2) Africa is dominated by Big Men
A club of authoritarian leaders have maintained an iron grip on power in parts of Africa, either by amending statutes to extend their terms of office, hosting rubber-stamp elections or repressing opponent and civil society. Of course, African countries are not alone in this Singapores founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, resulted for more than three decades; Cambodias Hun Sen has also been in power for more than three decades; and in Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev has held office since before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In Africa, nine leaders have wielded power for more than 20 years; three of them have been at the helm for more than 30 years. Equatorial Guineas President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power from his uncle in 1979, the same year that Angolas Jos Eduardo dos Santos rose to power. Yoweri Museveni won this months election in Uganda to continue his rule after a vote marred by a lack of transparency.
But Africa is about more than this club of big humen. Aside from the growing number of leaders passing power peacefully after elections, there have also been cases of public backlash against leaders who have tried to prolong their tenures, such as Zambias Frederick Chiluba and Malawis Bakili Muluzi. In 2014, Blaise Compaors bid to extend his 27 -year presidency in Burkina Faso was thwarted by a violent popular mutiny, while upheaval in Burundi was sparked by President Pierre Nkurunzizas successful bid to prolong his word.
Nor is leadership the sole conserve of men. In 2011, Liberias Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africas first democratically elected female head of state. She was followed by Joyce Banda in Malawi and Ameenah Gurib-Fakim in Mauritius.
Curiously, the Big Man moniker is generally applied only to African leaders. Some trace its roots to colonial masters and the choices they constructed when selecting rulers to succeed them after freedom. As he prepared to step down as president in 2005, Tanzanias Benjamin Mkapa called for a new, home-grown democracy. That Africa objective up with big humen at State House is not entirely unrelated to this colonial legacy. Colonialists did not prepare Africans for self-democratic rule, Mkapa said.
3) Election are the sole indicator of a thriving democracy
Often the first things people point to as evidence of democracy, elections are a precursor rather than the sole signifier of democratic rule.
When asked whether elections were devoting democracy a bad name, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan said: Democracy is not just about one day every four or five years when elections are held, but a system of government that respects the separation of powers, fundamental freedoms like the freedom of believe, religion, expres, association and assembly and the rule of law Any regime that rides roughshod on these principles loses its democratic legitimacy, regardless of whether it initially won an election.
The Ibrahim index of African governance, an annual assessment produced by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, focuses on what happens between elections. It defines good governance as safety and rule of law, participation by citizens and a respect for human rights, sustainable economic possibility, and human development.
Topping the 2015 index were Mauritius, Cape Verde and Botswana. Central African Republic, South Sudan and Somalia all nations torn by conflict were bottom.
4) High voter turnout entails corruption
A common perception is that high turnouts indicate fraud or ballot box stuffing. The reality is complex.
A reported 89% of Rwandas voting population cast ballots in the most recent election in 2013. The party of President Paul Kagame, who has held his position for 16 years, won 93% of the vote. Was this a sign of a country freely devoting a vote of approval to a popular leader, or a sign of coercion?
It is worth bearing in mind that 25 sub-Saharan African countries recorded voter turnouts of more than 50% at their last election, including in those widely viewed as democratic such as in Sierra Leone (8 8 %), and Ghana ( 82% ).
Its easy to judge turnout by western standards of voter apathy turnout in the UKs general election in 2015 was 66%; in the US, turnout is usually even lower, at 54% in 2012. Yet younger republics often have higher levels of political engagement, with citizens queueing for hours to make sure their votes count.
5) The happen of power is often violent
When voters believe there has been election fraud, the risk of violence is high. In some suits the violence is initiated by incumbent leaders who feel threatened by adversaries and incite protests, farther destabilising their countries. Recent cases of electoral violence include Kenyas 2007 election which left 1,133 people dead, 600,000 people displaced and involved a wave of sexual violence, as well in Sierra Leone in 2007 and Senegal in 2012.
Violence can also be triggered when the opponent feeling cheated at the ballot box, either because of fraud, coercion and intimidation. When citizens feel the judiciary will back the incumbent upper-clas, they may be more inclined to take their protests to the streets. Other alternatives exist elsewhere the 2000 US election ended up in the courts after allegations of a miscount.
While the elections in Africa that garner the most international attention are often those that turn violent, many more are peaceful. Voters in Central African Republic went to the polls in February hoping to end years of conflict, and the presidential run-off took place peacefully despite months of sectarian and ethnic violence, albeit with a lower turnout.
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