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African democracy - fact or fiction?

25 July 2016 Paul Clark, Ashburton Investments
Paul Clark, Africa Equity Specialist at Ashburton Investments.

Paul Clark, Africa Equity Specialist at Ashburton Investments.

In 2015 several key elections took place across the African continent which provided hope that African politics had matured and that future changes would come via the ballot box of democracy.

The most momentous of these was the peaceful transition of power from the People’s Democratic Party to the All Progressives Congress in Nigeria (Africa’s most populous nation), when former President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat to his opponent and current President Muhammadu Buhari. This transition came in only the fourth election since the end of military rule in Nigeria in 1999.

In East Africa, we saw a change of administration in Tanzania, when John Magufuli was selected as the surprise candidate for the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, even though he was never a party insider.

Magufuli won a hotly contested presidential race against the former Prime Minister, Edward Lowassa, who had crossed the floor to the opposition in order to run against him. Like Buhari in Nigeria, Magufuli’s campaign was strongly focussed on a commitment to reduce corruption and, to date, Magufuli has appeared to be acting on his election promise. Within one month of his inauguration he suspended the head of the Tanzanian Revenue Authority and five other tax officials, pending an investigation into claims of corruption (if you want to see the impact he has had on the national discourse take a look at #WhatWould MagufuliDo on Twitter for some humourous thoughts on saving money).

In Nigeria, Buhari made it clear in his inauguration speech that corruption would not be tolerated and, by October 2015, Nigeria’s former oil minister Diezani Alison- Madueke had been arrested in London.

She is believed to have embezzled billions of dollars from the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Buhari also ordered the arrest of the former national security adviser, accusing himof stealing about US$2 billion through phantom arms contracts.

Zambia held a presidential by-election in January 2015, after the death in office of President Michael Sata. The opposition performed strongly but their candidate, Hakainde Hichilema, lost to the ruling party’s Edgar Lungu by a mere 1.7%. Given this tight race, we could well see a change in government when Zambians go to the polls on 11 August 2016; that is if the opposition can build on the momentum they built last year.

By contrast, 2016 has seen some setbacks in smaller and less well run countries. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza used a legal loophole to stand for a third term in office after failing to rally sufficient support for a constitutional amendment. Subsequent to his re-election in July, the country has faced significant unrest, which has led to many deaths and
to extend his current 30-year incumbency. His closest rival, Kizza Besigye, who garnered 34% of the vote and claimed that the election was rigged, has been imprisoned numerous times after calling for peaceful protests. During the Ugandan poll in February 2016 a social media ‘blackout’ was imposed on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp; a move which Museveni called a “security measure to avert lies”.

The Republic of the Congo also saw internet and cellphone coverage blocked as citizens headed to the polls in March. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso was re-elected for a further five-year term after changes to the constitution removed age and term limits for the president. This was not an isolated event, even one of the most respected African presidents, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, called for a referendum to change term limits. The referendum, held in December 2015, saw more than 98% of voters approve the changes. Unsurprisingly, after this endorsement, Kagame announced he would run for office again in elections that are due to be held next year.

Depite these setbacks we have also seen some positive changes. President Macky Sall convinced Senegalese voters to approve changes to their constitution during a referendum in March. Changes included reducing his term of office from seven years to five, as well as strengthening the rights of citizens and opposition party members. We have also seen citizens reject constitutional changes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, as mentioned above, in Burundi.

There is a general sense that democracy is improving across the continent, aided by improved communication and a younger generation who hanker for better economic management. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) publishes a comprehensive Democracy Index, rating 167 countries on a scale of 0 to 10. Their score is based on the ratings for 60 indicators grouped in five categories, namely: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. In terms of this analysis, even countries that hold elections can be classified as ‘authoritarian regimes’ (yielding a score below four) if the environment is not conducive to a fair vote taking place. African examples of this type of regime include Zimbabwe and Egypt.

Based on the EIU’s 2015 calculations, Mauritius – regarded as a full democracy - is Africa’s most democratic country, ranking 18th out of 167 countries, ahead of the United States at 20th. Botswana (28th), Cape Verde (32nd), South Africa (37th) and Ghana (53rd) make up the rest of the top five African states. All are classified as ‘flawed democracies’.

It is important to note, however, that over the last five years, the improvement in democracy across the continent means that less than 50% of Africans now live in authoritarian regimes, down from 73% in 2010. The average score is also improving for Africa. Sadly more than half of the world’s 51 authoritarian regimes (27 of them) are still found on the continent, so there is still much work to be done.

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