Democracy's decline in Africa

In the months leading up to Nigeria's recent presidential election, observers across Africa looked to the continent's largest country to make a statement. By peacefully transferring power, for the first time, from one elected president to another, Nigeria could show the world that the continent has, shed its era of autocratic "big men." Nigeria's president himself, Olesegun Obasanjo, touted the country's transition, vowing to retire to his farm--in sharp contrast to previous Nigerian rulers who never left the political stage, constantly returning to stage coups.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. Even by Nigeria's corrupt standards, last month's election was a travesty. It was marred by rampant violence, intimidation, and fraud, all of which may have helped secure victory for Umaru Yar'Adua, the hand-chosen candidate of Obasanjo. The Nigeria Bar Association reported "ballot snatching, ballot box stuffing, lack of secrecy in voting, absence of designated polling stations/booths and connivance by security agents with party thugs to commit electoral malpractices." Observers from Washington's National Democratic Institute concurred, announcing, "The electoral system failed the Nigerian people." Sadly, Nigerians aren't alone. In fact, across Africa, which in the 1990s boasted a "new generation" of leaders, governments (other than exceptions like South Africa) have failed to do more than deliver the rudiments of democracy. Elections, when they are held, are often the opposite of free and fair. Nigeria's poll did exemplify a trend. Unfortunately, it wasn't the trend toward African democracy.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, many average Africans are simply losing faith in democracy. In last year's comprehensive Afrobarometer survey, which measures African opinion, less than half the people polled were satisfied with democracy, a sharp decline from five years prior. In Nigeria, the number fell by more than half. In Malawi, vicious in fighting among politicians, including charges of treason and alleged assassination conspiracies, has led many Malawians to openly long for the era of former dictator Hastings Banda. Respondents to Afrobarometer in several other countries, like Benin, similarly indicated they would be willing to abandon democracy for another political system.

Part of the problem is that, in many African nations, democratic politicians have failed to build a base beyond their own ethnic or religious groups. Obasanjo relied primarily on his southern supporters in the previous election. In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi depends heavily on his Tigray ethnic group. Without a broad-based political party, these leaders simply wind up dividing their nations and sharing political spoils narrowly, often leading to post-electoral violence because the ethnic group out of power feels marginalized.

Ethnic politics also does little to combat corruption, one reason why democracy has not brought a demonstrable decrease in graft in many African states. Nigeria, for one, still ranks among the lowest 25 nations in the world in Transparency International's ranking of corruption perceptions, as do several other African states. This graft does not help boost economic development. Despite a rise in commodity prices due to demand from China, Africa still lags behind other developing regions in growth rates, and a lack of development leads some to blame democracy for failing to boost growth. Relying on commodity exports also does little for long-term economic development, the kind needed to build middle classes vital to democratization.

What's more, in this new era of African politics, few politicians have proven willing to embrace a central aspect of democratic culture: accepting defeat and serving as a loyal opposition. (Voter fraud, of course, always gives election losers an opportunity to claim they won.) Instead, they take their complaints to the streets, only creating more violence. In Zambia, for example, after last summer's presidential election, supporters of the losing candidate rampaged through Lusaka, the capital--scenes which were played out again last month following Nigeria's election.

Worse, sometimes the "new generation" simply acts like the old autocrats. After coming to power, many supposed reformers like Zenawi and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni have used the power of the state to consolidate their control and prevent truly free elections. Even Obasanjo, a highly regarded leader when he came to power in 1999, tried to change Nigeria's constitution to extend his term in office. The few true democrats on the continent, like South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, have created organizations designed to promote better governance, like the New Partnership for Africa's Development, or NEPAD. Yet even Mbeki, leader of the continent's most powerful nation, seems unwilling to apply significant pressure on his dictatorial peers, like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.


In the 1990s, the United States and other Western powers sometimes criticized African autocrats. Today any foreign criticism is much more muted. Some of the continent's most authoritarian leaders, like Zenawi, have become critical allies in the war on terrorism. Ethiopia and the United States, for example, have worked closely together to combat Islamists in Somalia, with Washington providing counterterrorism assistance to the Ethiopian government.

At the same time, with the Middle East becoming more volatile, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez making noises about reducing oil supplies to the United States, and China and India becoming potential competitors for resources, African oil, from places like Nigeria, has become critical to the United States. Oil, alas, has only entrenched corruption across Africa, and it tends to leave human rights on the back burner. So, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warmly welcomes the leader of Equatorial Guinea, a regime with one of the world's worst human rights records--but which has become one of the largest oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, with African oil becoming more valuable, it may be years before a new "new generation" of African democrats can emerge.

By Joshua Kurlantzick