Why Democracy Isn’t Working

By Jason McLure

Despite an economic renaissance, much of Africa is drifting toward a new age of authoritarianism.

A government supporter of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front at a demonstration.

To a casual observer, the tens of thousands of people who poured into the central square of Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on May 25 to peacefully celebrate the country’s elections might have been mistaken for a massive symbol of democratic progress in a poor and troubled part of the world. In fact it was quite the opposite.

The demonstrators were there to denounce Human Rights Watch for criticizing the victory of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and its allies, who claimed 545 out of 547 seats in Parliament following a massive campaign of intimidation against opposition supporters. Many of the protesters were paid the equivalent of a day’s wage for a few hours of shouting against Human Rights Watch. They were emblematic not only of Ethiopia’s return to a one-party state, 19 years after the fall of a communist regime, but also of a growing trend away from democracy in wide swaths of Africa. The trend includes not only pariah states such as Eritrea and Sudan, but key Western allies and major recipients of foreign aid such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which offers the world’s richest prize package to African leaders who both help their countries and peacefully leave office, decided not to offer an award each of the last two years.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has become a darling of the West for leading an economic renaissance in a nation traumatized by the 1990s genocide. But in upcoming August elections, Kagame looks set to duplicate his implausibly high 95 percent victory in the last vote and is pressing charges against an opposition leader for “divisionism,” namely downplaying the genocide. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, who denounced dictatorship in Africa when he took power in 1986 and was seen as another great democratic hope, has said he’ll try to extend his 24-year tenure in presidential elections next year. In Gabon and Togo, the deaths of long-serving autocrats Omar Bongo and Gnassingbé Eyadéma has meant elections in which power was smoothly transferred—to their sons. Disastrous polls in Nigeria and Kenya in 2007 were worse than those countries’ previous elections, and current trends show little hope for improvement. Mauritania, Guinea, Madagascar, and Niger have all had coups since 2008, while Guinea-Bissau has been effectively taken over by drug cartels.

Africa’s own institutions have been unable to halt the trend, which has gained speed since a period of openness following the end of the Cold War. “The democratization process on the continent is not faring very well,” says Jean Ping, the Gabonese chairman of the African Union Commission, which has overseen a host of Pan-African agreements on democracy and human rights that many member states have either ignored or failed to ratify. “The measures that we take here are taken in a bid to make sure that we move forward. The crises, they are repeating themselves.” In country after country, the recipe for the new age of authoritarianism is the same: demonization and criminal prosecution of opposition leaders, dire warnings of ethnic conflict and chaos should the ruling party be toppled, stacking of electoral commissions, and the mammoth mobilization of security forces and government resources on behalf of the party in power. “The really powerful governments learned how to do elections,” says Richard Dowden, director of the London-based Royal African Society. That’s not to say the continent doesn’t retain some bright spots. In Ghana, presidents have twice stepped down to make way for leaders from the opposition. Democracy has flourished in Botswana and Benin, while regional giant South Africa continues to have a vibrant opposition and free press despite the African National Congress’s dominance of post-apartheid politics.

But backsliders have them outnumbered, a shift that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the West. Political freedoms declined in 10 countries on the continent in 2009, while they improved in just four, according to an annual report by Washington, D.C.–based Freedom House, which dropped three African countries from its list of “electoral democracies” last year. “Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty,” President Obama told Ghana’s Parliament last year. His top diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, took office last year listing the continent’s democratization as his top priority.

Yet despite the rhetoric, the Obama administration and its European allies, which spent $27 billion on African development aid in 2009, according to the OECD, have largely acquiesced to the shift away from open politics on the continent. In some cases the rise of China means oil exporters such as Nigeria and Gabon have alternative markets for their production, thus reducing Western leverage to push for political reforms. In others, the refusal to challenge autocratic regimes has been driven by security—Ugandan, Burundian, and Ethiopian troops have functioned as de facto Western proxies in battling radical Somali Islamists in Mogadishu.

“The expectation was that this administration would give greater weight to issues of democracy and governance,” says Jennifer Cooke, an Africa analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But this tepid response to Ethiopia’s ruling party’s 99.6 percent victory and the pre-cooking of the upcoming polls in Rwanda and Uganda show the boundaries of its willingness to push key allies.

Beyond security and the scramble for resources, a third factor in the West’s acceptance of Africa’s political retrenchment is the increasing influence of aid groups like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.K.’s Department for International Development over their countries’ foreign policies. International pressure to get closer to the U.N. goal of giving 0.7 percent of their gross national income to development has led to steadily increasing aid budgets—even if there is evidence that aid is easily manipulated by authoritarian governments to suit their own ends.

“The aid departments are saying, ‘Don’t upset the politics of these countries because we’ve got all this aid to push out,’?” says Dowden of the Royal African Society. “But I would say these states need development work because the governance is so bad. You’ve got to put the politics first.”

Take Inderaw Mohammed Siraj, a 60-year-old Ethiopian opposition candidate who lost a finger after being beaten by ruling-party cadres in 2008. Last year, he says, he was kicked out of a food-aid program funded by the U.S., the World Bank, and the European Union when a local official from his village in a remote corner of northeast Ethiopia told him: “We will not feed opposition members.”

With virtually no opposition representation in Parliament, the independent press and local human-rights groups now closed or under attack, and the prospect of his children begging for food, he has realized life would be easier if he gave up politics. “I decided to stop being part of the opposition,” he says. “The party couldn’t help me. Foreigners didn’t do anything. Democracy isn’t working here.”

But cutting aid to authoritarian states like Ethiopia means not only halting some programs that help the poor but also losing influence in the region, a move that could haunt Western policymakers in future crises. “In Pakistan we cut the ties for the military in the 1990s,” says J. Peter Pham, a professor at James Madison University who was an Africa adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “As a result, today the officers coming up to flag rank weren’t trained in U.S. institutions. We don’t have their mobile-phone numbers. Our diplomats rue not having that influence.”

Similarly with the U.S. and its European allies reluctant to send their own forces to halt African crises in Darfur, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, good relations with local strongmen like Museveni, Kagame, and Meles is a must. Today’s dictators may not be as cruel as Zaire’s Mobutu or other Cold War despots, nor Western aid so overt. But the strategy of backing nasty allies to influence events in a tough part of the world remains the same. That just means Obama’s next African speech on democracy may be greeted with more skepticism on the continent than last year’s delivery in Accra. “If this is their representation of democracy and human rights, they shouldn’t talk about it anymore,” says Hailu Shawel, an Ethiopian opposition leader. “They should shut up.”