The return of Africa’s strongmen?

africaTwo decades of elections and economic progress in Africa haven’t erased the vast power that militaries have long wielded in many countries, large and small. In much of Africa, in fact, the armed forces have gained influence in recent years as battling Islamist terrorists has become a priority, Drew Hinshaw and Patrick McGroarty write for The Wall Street Journal:

To friends of democratic development, Africa’s 54 countries pose perhaps the world’s most important test of whether representative institutions can flourish amid low living standards and rapidly changing economies. Leaders from the U.S., Europe and Latin America have visited the continent to promote open, politically accountable government. They know that China, Africa’s biggest trading partner, is offering a rival model in the form of market-powered autocracy.

For now, the advance of democracy in Africa appears to have stalled. In 1990, just three of Africa’s 48 countries were electoral democracies, according to Freedom House, a Washington-based pro-democracy advocacy group. By 1994, that number had leapt to 18. Two decades later, only 19 qualify.

“There are signs of the predatory nature of military rule” returning to Africa, said Larry Diamond, director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. “This is a calamity for a number of these countries.”

But spreading democracy isn’t as simple as dangling aid and applauding elections, democratization experts say. Even hopeful cases like Ghana and Benin must confront long histories of military rule woven into their political evolution, Hinshaw and McGroarty add:

In 2009, during his first visit to the continent as president,Barack Obama told Ghana’s parliament that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Yet Mr. Obama’s time in office has coincided with the rise of Islamist insurgencies in Africa such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Much U.S. effort has thus gone to training soldiers, not building health ministries or electoral commissions.       


Democratic governance ‘gives Africa a face-lift’


President Obama announced billions of dollars in new public and private investment in Africa’s rapidly growing markets — on everything from construction to banking to clean energy infrastructure — at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, PBS reports. Gwen Ifill (above) talks to Chris Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute and Torek Farhadi International Trade Centre about the growing partnership.

A wave of attachment to democratic governance across Africa has given the continent a face-lift, says Fomunyoh:

Obviously, the narrative still needs to be fully written. And there are still countries that are struggling both in terms of economic development, as well as with democratization and putting in place institutions that can really guarantee that a lot of this worth that is generated through trade and investment can actually be spread to the African populations that really need it the most.

However, when you look back at what has transpired in the continent in the last 10 — in the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been a lot of — there’s a success story that can be told for most of Africa

NDI is one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Civil society key to Africa’s development, democratization


Africa needs a radical overhaul of government-civil society relations if the continent is to eradicate corruption and establish the rule of law necessary to attract the investment needed for economic growth and reducing poverty, a major conference heard yesterday.

“Across Africa, a middle class is rising, activists are building democratic institutions, and nations once torn by hatred are making progress through cooperation,” House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer told the African Civil Society Conference, organized by the National Endowment for Democracy and its partners. “From Dakar to Dar-es-Salaam, from Cairo to Cape Town, Africa is changing. Much of that change has been the result of greater cooperation among nations to maintain security and promote the rule of law.”

The forum brought together civil society activists, democracy advocates, journalists and members of the US Congress at Capitol Hill in a parallel event to the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Six panels on Human Rights, Good Governance & Accountability, Elections, Media, Conflict & Security, and Civil Society Challenges contributed the drafting of an Action Program for Democracy.’ But NED president Carl Gershman warned that some of the activists faced threats to their lives and livelihoods on their return home.

Floribert_Chebeya“Some of the activists here today return to Africa to uncertain fates; we need to stand with them and ensure they have the global spotlight,” said Carl Gershman, highlighting the case of journalist-campaigner Rafael de Morais, who faces trial in Angola. He also paid tribute to Floribert Chebeya (left), the Democratic Republic of the Congo rights advocate murdered in 2010.

Conference delegates stressed the need to build the capacity of women to exercise leadership in public space; called for greater cooperation between US and African civil society organizations to share experiences and solidarity; demanded that African governments stop the stigmatization of civil society organizations; to democratize the African Union by ending the “system of mutual back-scratching between the AU and African governments;” and called on the US government to tell African leaders to “walk the talk and stop stealing elections.”


Civil society panel delivers its recommendations

Civil society panel delivers its recommendations

Henry Maina, Director of East & Horn of Africa for Article 19, highlighted media repression in several African countries and cited the current plight of Ethiopia’s Zone 9 bloggers who he described as “just using mobile phones and websites: ” He added:

Recommendations by the media task force included encouraging international media organizations to have more comprehensive coverage of news in Africa and to “move away from the narrative of Africa as the hopeless continent.” The task force would also like African governments and leaders “to establish independent media regulation mechanisms as well as clear and transparent criteria” so that media organizations are not stifled.

“Media is a mirror where leaders can perceive themselves,” one panelist stated, without which “journalists find themselves in situations of self-censorship and leaders may be going the wrong way.”

Africa is experiencing a profound transformation, said Hoyer, delivering his closing remarks. “But much of that change has come from people power – the undeniable force of ordinary men and women who stand up and say ‘enough’ to corruption and ethnic divisions,” he said.


Africa’s ‘laboratories of democratization’

Hassan Sheikh MohamudSomalia’s Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Benin’s President Boni Yayi are expected to address tomorrow’s Africa Civil Society summit on Capitol Hill.

According to a recent profile, among the 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Somalia’s Hassan Sheikh Mohamud:

  • Throughout his leadership, he has refused to become embroiled in clan politics, instead touting national reconciliation and unity
  • He was one of the few Somali intellectuals to remain in the country throughout the 21-year civil war
  • His administration was the first to be recognized internationally for more than two decades
  • Early in his career, he made a name for himself helping resolve clan disputes
  • He faces daily assassination attempts
  • In 2013, TIME Magazine included him on its annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people, citing his efforts at “advancing national reconciliation, anti-corruption measures, and socio-economic and security sector reforms” as the reasons for making the list.

Agência Brasil - ABr - Empresa Brasil de Comunicação - EBCBenin has been described as ‘the laboratory of democratization in Africa’.

According to the latest Bertelsmann Index, Benin “became the trendsetter for radical democratization processes in the whole of Francophone Africa” and Yayi “continued to rule throughout the period under review with respect for democratic principles and with a commitment to strengthening the market economy.”

“Benin has a special place in that history [of African democratization in the 90s],” said National Endowment for Democracy board member Princeton Lyman, head of the Africa program at the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“It’s one of eight countries that experienced a pro-democracy movement succeeding in ousting the incumbent one-party government that have maintained democratic institutions and multiparty elections since the transition,” the others being Cape Verde, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Madagascar, Malawi, and Zambia, according to a recent analysis.

U.S. should embrace Africa’s democrats


AFRICAN CIV SOCA specter is haunting Africa — the specter of impunity, notes analyst Helen Epstein. Many countries the United States considers allies are in the grip of corrupt, repressive tyrants; others are mired in endless conflict, she writes for the New York Times:

As Washington prepares to host the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit next week, American policy makers must acknowledge their contributions to this dismal situation. By lavishing billions of dollars in military and development aid on African states while failing to promote justice, democracy and the rule of law, American policies have fostered a culture of abuse and rebellion. This must change before the continent is so steeped in blood that there’s no way back….

President Obama and other Western leaders should learn from this pattern of atrocities, particularly since some currently peaceful countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya are also imperiled by a culture of impunity. The West must use all means, including aid cuts, trade sanctions, travel bans and forceful public statements, to punish governments that abuse their own people — before it’s too late.

“The U.S. must develop closer ties with democratic leaders in places such as Senegal, Ghana, Tanzania, Mauritius and Botswana who came to power through democratic elections and have championed good governance and economic development at the regional level,” argue analysts Jeffrey Smith and Todd Moss.

“We must also forge carefully calibrated relationships with strategically important allies that nevertheless continue to struggle with governance issues, including Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria,” say Smith, a senior advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former senior U.S. State Department official.

China in particular has been at the forefront of a purposeful investment drive across the African continent over the past decade and a half, leading to a 20-fold increase in trade to $200bn in 2013, the FT reports:

Compared with China’s 150 or so commercial attaches, the US has just eight in sub-Saharan Africa. By their own admission, US-Africa envoys tend to devote most of their time on flashpoints and crises than to build long-term relations.

“We are focused on putting out forest fires...and we should be spending a lot more time planting trees and growing forests, building stronger relationships,says Johnnie Carson, a veteran US diplomat whose career with the Foreign Service began in Africa at the height of the cold war and ended last year when he stood down as assistant secretary of state.

In part the new direction has been forced on Washington. China’s aggressive pursuit of markets and resources, meanwhile, together with its hands off approach to debt financing and aid, has helped rewrite the ground rules over the past decade. Beijing has also courted African political leaders with several summits while its leaders have travelled extensively through the continent.

Jennifer Cooke, head of Africa at the Brookings Institution, a US-based think-tank, says the US “must increasingly compete in Africa for influence and appeal with a new set of emerging powers, influences, and ideologies”.

The reemergence of unconditional solidarity among Africa’s incumbent leaders is threatening respect for human rights and good governance throughout the continent, says Freedom House associate Alyssa Rickard.

“The phenomenon is obviously bad for the people of Africa and for the overall progress of democracy,” she writes for Freedom at Issue. ‘But the worst consequence of many African leaders’ support for even their most authoritarian colleagues is the growing regional acceptance—and in some cases promotion—of deeply repressive policies.”


Taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the White House’s African Leaders’ Summit, the National Endowment for Democracy and a range of other leading democracy and human rights organizations will convene a concurrent African civil society conference, Towards an Action Program for Democracy, on August 5th and 6th in Washington, D.C. :: MORE