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Democracy and the opposition in Africa

By Frank Anyasi
14 August 2020   |   2:26 am
The future of Africa depends on the ability of all the countries on the continent to make democracy work. Strengthening African democracy will improve the continent’s development prospects.

The future of Africa depends on the ability of all the countries on the continent to make democracy work. Strengthening African democracy will improve the continent’s development prospects. The alternative of authoritarian rule which seems to be on the ascendancy in parts of the continent will not achieve her long-term development goals. The continents ‘‘big men’’ simply do not get things done as well or in as sustained a fashion as democrats. Fortunately, the available records suggest that Africans want democracy, contrary to the misguided international opinion.

Democracy is defined as a system where there is universal adult suffrage, where voting is free and fair, the outcome of which reflects the people’s choice and there is a set of supporting institutions and freedoms. This is particularly important given Africa’s appalling record of increasing illiteracy, human insecurity, surging poverty and state fragility.

While democracy is much more than just elections, the contest for votes needs to be safeguarded as a critical democratic moment, a prerequisite, without which the legitimacy of the process and its outcome will suffer. If elections are simply a means for endorsing the status quo, they will be less a source of change than one of conflict. With a youthful, expectant population, it is necessary to instill faith in the electoral process; otherwise, there will be temptation to seek relief through extra-judicial means. Such disappointment will likely set the stage for violence and result in a reduced capacity for government to drive future prosperity.

Fair and free elections require money and a level playing field for persons and entities involved in the process, in particular, transparency in the funding of political parties is imperative for the promotion of democracy. Those who donate to political parties risk being accused of seeking favours, or upsetting their relationship with incumbents. Beyond elections, donors must have a clear view that polls are a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. They must base their long-term judgments regarding the democratic performance of individual countries on the actual workings of democratic institutions.

There is no substitute for strong institutions. Large amounts of money spent by donor countries in the hope that authoritarians will obey the rule of law are often a waste when the underlying institutions and leadership are missing. Elections and democracy will not work unless there is a cultural shift that ensures that opposing parties are protected. Governance in the 21st Century yearns for diverse political parties thriving towards common principles of freedom, justice and solidarity, for different causes and groupings for society. African leaders must know that there can never be benefits of democracy unless the existence of opposition is recognised and welcome. Those in power must understand that they and their followers will one day be the opposition themselves. Therefore, tolerance of dissent and accommodation of the opposition as well as continued debates on policies and practices are vital for liberal democracy to flourish.

Regrettably, in many African countries, opposition leaders are harassed and sometimes jailed to prevent them from contesting political power. Elections in Uganda have been marred by irregularities. Museveni’s influence on poll officials has helped him consolidate power for over 25 years. President Kagame has been accused by civic society group in Rwanda of stifling media and political freedom. Despite numerous opposition parties, they offer no significant challenge.    

Beyond elections, democracies foster development because they allow for greater scrutiny of government; promote good governance and allow the electorate to choose between competing ideas. Democracies have a self-regulating mechanism when poor policies are adopted. However, such abilities do not occur automatically, there must be a structure of institutions that would make them work. States must be intentional in building the necessary institutions and practices, including independent courts of law that are respected and officials who are protected from political pressure as well as special prosecutors who can bring pressure against incumbents.

During the inaugural USA-African summit in 2014, President Barack Obama reiterated the need, in any country, not for strong men but rather strong institutions. Although there is desperate need for responsive leadership, Africa needs independent and formidable institutions. Without sound institutions African countries will languish at the hands of self-imposed leaders with no respect for the rule of law or the people. In states with authoritarian politics, there will be a need for leaders to take risks, both personal and political, to move beyond the stalemate often caused by political stagnation. Democracy is essentially about elites being confident enough in the political system to risk losing power via elections. The benefits for changing political systems so that the playing field is level, building institutions and breaking stalemates are high. Once real institutions are established, democracy takes root and authoritarian reverses are less likely. 

Democracy with form but without the substance can only lead to failure and eventually, a disenchantment of the populace with democracy. Beyond running good campaigns, oppositions if they want to win must actually have a vision that differentiate them. During African elections, there is usually little debate that centres around different economic visions. Therefore, a crucial challenge is for opposition to build a credible, well-organised party with alternative ideas. If elections are to be consequential, the opposition must provide citizens with a good reason to vote for them, a choice that may be costly given the tendency of incumbents to erect barriers to voting for those out of power. Unless the opposition clearly differentiates itself by policy, even turnover prompted by incumbents losing will not change the nature of politics in a non-performing country. In Nigeria there are no remarkable differences in policy among the political parties. In fact, parties are seen as mere platforms for winning elections. That is why politicians switch from one to another just a few days to the primaries of the receiving party.

The voting public is taken for granted and left with no choice of alternative party policy. There is a need too for democrats within and outside government to establish a narrative that transcends the boundaries of identity. Such a vision is especially important in an era where young people face challenges of global competition for resources and employment, where they have other (digital) windows on the world outside of politics and where the tendency will thus be to “opt out”. The opposition must also demonstrate its own democratic capacity. The advantages of democracy are negated when the opposition’s ambition is simply to replace the incumbent and then continue the policies and practices that they nominally ran against. African governments that seek further democratisation on the continent should adhere to the fundamental documents developed by the African Union, working to maintain democratic standards in regional bodies and supporting resolutions of the United Nations, which align with these issues.

The defence of liberal democracy should become a pillar of the foreign policies of African governments. Democracy is difficult in Africa because holding free and fair elections is challenging, given that the incumbent is required to supervise a process that may lead to him or her losing power. It is therefore, necessary to create a set of institutions that will serve as a bulwark against authoritarianism. Unfortunately it is easier for the camel’s head to pass through the eye of the needle than it is to defeat an incumbent in election in Africa because they deploy the support of relevant institutions to their advantage. Africa needs democracy because no other political system will equip the countries on the continent with the ability to handle the coming wave of young population. African countries should not fear the coming demographic changes because being the youngest region of the world offers great opportunities. However, those possibilities will only be achieved if economic systems are in place to generate the needed jobs. Democracy offers the possibility of not only coping with the wave of young people arriving in African cities, but also of benefitting from it. 


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