Challenges of democratic transition in Africa

Africa’s democratic experiments are many and complex and include entrenching constitutionalism and the reconstruction of the postcolonial state. To move Africa forward, emerging democratic governments would have to confront a legacy of poverty, illiteracy, militarisation, and underdevelopment produced by incompetent or corrupt governments.

For instance, after several decades of colonialism, Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. Having regard to the progressive antecedent of the leaders of the liberation movement expectations was high that the country would witness rapid socio-economic transformation and political stability. Instead of facing the challenge of the development, former President Robert Mugabe turned the country into a one party state. Human rights were suppressed whilst some of the colonial laws were refurbished and applied with ferocity. Many opposition figures were either jailed or driven to exile.

Also recent experiences from Kenya and Zimbabwe illustrate the difficult and daunting task of consolidating democracy on the continent. Available evidence indicates that many of the new democratic regimes remain fragile and some of the euphoria of the early 1990s had evaporated. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the authoritarianism and statism of the early post-independence years was in retreat, and, where it persisted, was vigorously contested in a context in which democratic aspirations were firmly implanted in popular consciousness and the pluralisation of associational life was an integral part of the political landscape. It was indeed a mark of the changed times that, whereas previously development had been regarded as a prerequisite of democracy, now democracy is seen as indispensable for development.

In Africa, as elsewhere, democratic government and respect for human rights are closely linked. Democracy is the best means the world has produced to protect and advance human rights, based on individual freedom and dignity. In turn, respect for human rights is the only means by which a democracy can sustain the individual freedom and dignity that enables it to endure.

Despite some improvements in some parts of the continent, Africa remains the site of very serious human rights problems. For example, in the Sudan, the armed conflict in Darfur continues and the dismal human rights situation shows no signs of improvement. Both government and rebels commit horrendous abuses. In Somalia, the civil war continues unabated and the human rights situation goes on deteriorating; the civilian population has been the ultimate victim, as recently reported by Amnesty International. Only a handful of countries that hold the regular multi-party elections in Africa are rated as free, and in line with international and regional standards.

In addition, most of the countries in Africa operate ‘semi-authoritarian regimes’ because they have the facade of democracy; that is, they have political systems, they have all the institutions of democratic political systems, they have elected parliaments, and they hold regular elections. They have nominally independent judiciaries. They have constitutions that are by and large completely acceptable as democratic institutions–but there are, at the same time, very serious problems in the functioning of the democratic system.

Semi-authoritarian regimes are very good at holding multi-party elections while at the same time making sure that the core power of the government is never going to be affected. In other words, they are going to hold elections, but they are not–the regime is not going to lose those elections. Semi-authoritarian regimes intimidate voters. Semi-authoritarian regimes manipulate state institutions for self-ends—governments don’t respect the laws, and don’t work through institutions. Semi-authoritarian regimes amend constitutions anytime they want.

Semi-authoritarian regimes will not introduce fully participatory, competitive elections that may result in their loss of power, and some are even unsure of how far they really want to go toward political pluralism in their countries. African politics is generally speaking, a matter of personality, not programmes. For example, during the Obasanjo administration the prevailing idea was that the president was the father of the nation, the big man, or Kabiyesi, that is, no one dared questioned him.

A strong and effective democratic process should be able to establish a functioning administrative structure; and address the issue of how leaders are chosen; the issue of how different institutions relate to each other; the issues of how officials should act, for example, how the judiciary should act, the independence of the judiciary from other branches of government, and the problem of how the decisions that are taken by these democratic institutions can be implemented.



…With Atta Kwaku Boadi

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