The Biden administration is wrapping up preparations for its Summit for Democracy, to be held virtually next month. While the list of invitees is now clear, what is not yet clear is what success for the Summit looks like – overall and for each region of the globe. Here, I outline concrete ways the Summit could help advance democracy in Africa.
To be realistic, success should be defined at the individual country level and consider the history and context of each one. However, for the purposes of this paper I will focus on sub-Saharan Africa as a whole and what common hopes we have with regards to democracy success across the continent.
The State of Democracy in Africa
It is now a cliché’ to say that democracy is in retreat in Africa. Evidence for this appears strong and includes back-sliding in Ethiopia and Sudan, two countries that held out hope for a democratic awakening. In addition, recent coups in Guinea, Chad, and Mali provided further evidence of back-sliding. Closing and closed political spaces in Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Cameroon and Zimbabwe (among others) do not provide much in the way of hope. During the past 18 months COVID-19 has provided fertile ground for autocracy and has led to economic deterioration and further restricted political space.
On the other hand, Africa is the world’s youngest continent. According to the latest “World Values Survey”, those holding “emancipative” (i.e. democratic) values are far and away higher than those holding more autocratic values. The older generation of autocratic leaders such as President Museveni in Uganda is facing a population representing values at odds with those of the political leadership. While autocratic values currently hold sway throughout the continent, one can conclude that these represent “eddies” in a river which largely represents more democratic values. Consequently, we should counsel patience and not condone pessimism over the long-term.
Making Progress through Summit Commitments
Success will not be a static end-point or destination or some far-flung and unattainable goal that is unrealistic. It will represent a series of actions or steps among a variety of actors in each society that are on a journey toward a democratic future. These actors, explained in detail below, include political parties, civil society, and legislative bodies. We must be modest in our assumptions around success given the slow vicissitudes of progress. Modest progress is still progress, particularly given the direction in which many countries are headed (at least over the short-term).
Successful political parties aggregate, communicate and advocate for the wishes and hopes of their members. Ideally, they are not based on the charisma of a leader, nor does a good party represent only the needs of a specific group, such as an ethnic group. Unfortunately, across the continent the evidence points to nearly all political parties serving as a vehicle for a particular leader’s wish to obtain high office. Political parties exist for their leaders instead of serving as a vehicle to promote a particular set of policies advocated by their constituents. As a result, traditionally marginalized groups such as women and youth are rarely given real leadership roles within political parties. Witness the situation in Sudan where women and youth were the vanguard of a revolution but were then marginalized within political parties vying for power in the new transitional government. We must be realistic and patient when addressing the question of what democracy would look like vis-à-vis the upcoming Summit for Democracy. The longer-term goal of ideologically based, inclusive, participatory, and transparent political parties is a worthy one. To realize these goals, the U.S. and its allies should commit to the following:
- Ensure that political party governing documents are revised to promote intra-party democracy and the inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups.
- Cultivate youth and female leaders within political parties because they represent upwards of 75% of each country’s population.
- Promote and support peaceful elections using widely available research that has been shown to reduce violence before, during, and after elections. This also includes honestly criticizing elections that do not meet regional or international standards.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) are key actors in all societies. We have seen that where CSOs are trained and motivated they can have a significant impact holding governments and legislative bodies accountable. For example, CSOs provided electoral observation during the Ethiopian elections to ensure that Ethiopia’s first democratic elections were conducted according to international and regional standards. In the Gambia, CSOs advocated to the government to pass legislation to provide citizens access to information and succeeded in court in suing the electoral commission (IEC) over voter registration anomalies. Despite successes, several factors will need to be addressed for their contribution to democracy to be sustained and amplified. This includes CSOs working together in coalitions that magnify their power and scope. Working alone on sensitive issues in often restricted contexts rarely produces lasting success. Learning the skills of networking with other CSOs will be critical to fulfill the promises of democracy.
To realize these goals, the U.S. and its allies should commit to the following:
- Train CSOs in strategic communications, project development and management, monitoring and evaluation, and other skills needed to flourish. Organizational development support will provide long-term sustainable assistance across a wide range of CSOs.
- Strengthen CSOs outside of capital cities. In most African capitals there is a cadre of well-resourced, well-trained, and savvy CSOs that speak the language of the donor. In the countryside, however, where enthusiasm generally runs higher, CSOs are organizationally weaker and more isolated. The US and its allies should bring these CSOs into the planning of international organizations who traditionally work with CSOs with higher profiles in capital cities. This will broaden the base of capable CSOs throughout each country and addresses the challenge of relying on just a few located in capital cities.
- Stand up for CSOs working in repressive environments. For instance, in Sudan CSOs were largely responsible for the overthrow of the al-Bashir Government but lacked the skills to move from protest to governance. This in part led to the recent military coup.
- Train CSOs to hold legislative and executive bodies accountable through things like performance “report cards” and publishing national budgets in easy-to-understand formats.
Legislative bodies throughout Africa are largely rubber-stamp institutions that do the bidding of the countries’ leadership. They rarely perform their traditional role as an independent branch of government that represents the people they were elected to serve. IRI’s own work found that many members of legislatures do not even understand their role with regards to oversight of the executive branch, outreach to constituents, legislative processes, and budgetary oversight. Consequently, we must be realistic about what can be accomplished and take small steps to train legislators about their roles.
To realize these goals, the U.S. and its allies should commit to the following:
- Train newly elected members of legislative bodies on their role as legislators.
- Link members of legislative bodies with their constituents to better craft laws that meet the needs of their communities. This is relatively inexpensive yet has demonstrable impact.
- Work with legislative bodies to improve transparency through more public hearings, making it easier for citizens to interact with them.
- Encourage legislative bodies to address corruption through a strong legal framework and use their subpoena power to address instance of corruption.
An opportunity now exists to change the narrative that democracy is in decline. Africa’s youthful population, its increasing levels of education and better access to information are all factors pointing to more democracy; not less. Recent democratic victories in Malawi and Zambia, coupled with strong opposition and protest movements in Sudan, Guinea, and Chad portend further gains. To sustain these gains, institutions that represent citizens, including political parties, legislative bodies, and civil society must be strengthened. Autocratic governments, some in power for more than 30 years, will not easily give up power. As a result, both public and private institutions must be resilient and have the skills necessary to thrive in restricted environments. The Summit for Democracy can highlight gains made, to provide support to those working in restricted environments, and to provide resources to continue building the capabilities of democracy’s institutions.