Two 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.