Do Africa's elections strengthen democracy?


Africa's elections do not necessarily bring stronger democracies. Supporters of Congolese opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi celebrate outside his party's offices in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, on November 30, 2011, as they claim their candidate was ahead in the provisional results.


Phil Moore

NAIROBI, Kenya — Democracy can be a dangerous thing, just ask the Congolese. Eighteen of them have so far died and more than 100 been injured, according to Human Rights Watch, in elections that began earlier this week. It could still get worse as results are tallied and announced.

In Congo, as in many other African countries multiparty democracy is proving a zero-sum game. There is literally everything to fight for and some things worth dying for (or rather, some things that political leaders believe its worth their followers dying for).

In Congo the “everything” is a staggering wealth of mineral and other resources. Winning the presidency means winning the right to sell your country’s resources to the bidder who offers the biggest backhanders.

President Joseph Kabila, 40, — presumably sensing that his government’s non-existent track record in delivering anything at all to Congo’s 71 million people meant he was in for a stiff challenge at the ballot box — has changed the rules so that to win no longer requires a majority, but just more votes than anyone else.

Kabila is determined to get those votes. Equally determined is his main opponent Etienne Tshisekedi, 78, a veteran rabble-rouser who declared himself the winner before any votes were cast and urged his supporters to bust inmates out of jail.

So far, so depressing. What does Congo’s election tell us about democracy in Africa? The answer is not much.

“If you were to ask a political scientist to come up with the worst possible conditions in which to get multi-party politics off the ground they would describe a hypothetical reality that would look just like the DRC,” said Nic Cheeseman, lecturer in African politics at Oxford University and founder of the Democracy In Africa website. “It’s an absolute basket case.”

Certainly Congo’s disorganized, messy and violent polls show that a headlong charge towards democracy — or at least elections — is no panacea for a country emerging from war and dictatorship.

The last time Congolese voted was also the first, in 2006, when the election was organized and bankrolled by the international community. The result, coming after armed factions fought it out on the streets of Kinshasa, served to legitimize the rule of Kabila who inherited the presidency from his assassinated father, Laurent Kabila, five years earlier.

Since then life has actually become worse for many Congolese, as shown by Congo’s rock bottom ranking in the UN’s development index, while war has sputtered on in eastern Congo, a region now synonymous with rape and sexual violence.

“Even if there is one decent election what’s the long-term prognosis?” asked Cheeseman. “Is this a sustainable way to build a democracy?”

But Congo is not Africa, it is merely one of the continent’s largest and most shambolic countries.

Recent elections in Zambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa have shown that democracy is strengthening across the continent, although even among these successes it was sometimes touch-and-go.

A new documentary, "An African Election" shows just how close Ghana’s nascent institutions came to failing the test in 2008.

In between the extremes lie a number of countries where democracy is stagnating or where ballot box competition sparks predictable violence.

“You have to accept some of the insecurity and the danger that’s inherent in elections because it can be the motor for further reforms,” said Cheeseman.

Elections triggered widespread violence in Ivory Coast and Kenya in recent years. But even where there’s little or no overt violence there is no guarantee that elections will bring democracy.

“Countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia — the basic picture is of semi-authoritarian regimes in which elections have never been intended to allow anyone to challenge those in power,” said Cheeseman.

Leaders like Yoweri Museveni, Paul Kagame and Meles Zenawi are skilled at “manipulating the international community,” he said, meaning that the pressure for greater democratic freedoms won’t come from the outside but from within.

The question becomes “just what is the government willing to do to retain power?”

Despite these concerns there are fewer dictatorships and far more elections today in sub-Saharan Africa than in years past and that leaves some analysts finding plenty of room for optimism, even though Congo is a reminder of how things don’t work.

“If you look at where Africa was even 10 years ago it’s quite clear that elections are becoming more common, electoral democracies and constitutional regimes are no longer extraordinary. With bumps along the road you can see a trend that’s progressing very nicely,” said J. Peter Pham, Africa director at Washington’s Atlantic Council think tank.

“This is Africa, it’s not Westminster-style democracy, but there are more elections more regularly, some of them change governments, and that’s got to be a good thing,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at London’s Royal Institute for International Affairs. 

The figures, however, paint a more depressing picture. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, established by the Sudanese telecom entrepreneur, crunches data from across the continent to compile its annual Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

The Index assesses democracy within its “participation and human rights” category and the findings are discouraging. “The trend is a decline on average in Africa in 39 out of 53 countries,” said Elizabeth McGrath, director of the Index.

“We’ve seen improvements on economic and human development but a general decline in participation and human rights, and safety and rule of law. We might be seeing more elections but what is the quality of those elections? Do people really have a voice? Is the government really being held accountable?” she asked.

So the continent is getting wealthier but not necessarily freer. Pham argues that it is not the elections themselves that are the answer or the blame.

“Where there is an emphasis on institutions, constitutions and guarantees there is progress," said Pham. "Where there’s been a rush for elections, as if it were a fetish that would cure all other ills, without addressing any of the underlying issues including justice or rule of law as in Congo, then you’ve got problems.”