How democracy is stifled in Africa

Bola Tinubu was recently elected the president of Nigeria. Picture: AFP

Bola Tinubu was recently elected the president of Nigeria. Picture: AFP

Published Jul 15, 2023


By Ratidzo C. Makombe

Democracy has been a widely debated topic concerning the African continent since Ghana became the first independent country on the continent in 1957. As countries exited colonial rule, many believed the continent was on an upward trajectory, but this was not the case.

Between 2019 and 2022, we saw an unprecedented resurgence of military coups with six of them occurring in a space of 18 months in the Sahel region. In addition to this, lifetime presidency is a reality for some African countries like Equatorial Guinea, with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema serving for 43 years; the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, with President Denis Sassou Nguesso serving for 38 years and Uganda, with President Yoweri Museveni serving for 36 years to mention but a few.

Contemporary debates concerning democracy on the African continent have focused on how ruling parties have fought to maintain their stranglehold on power by undermining democratic processes. One of the key definitions of democracy links to a peaceful change in government through conducting free and credible elections. Another key element of democracy is a conducive environment for opposition parties to campaign during election periods without interruptions from state agents freely.

In several African countries, opposition parties have often bemoaned the situation when it comes to the ability to campaign freely. In Zimbabwe, for example, the ruling, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has frustrated the main opposition party, Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) by refusing to grant permission for rallies to proceed and the ruling party has been accused of using state machinery to prosecute opposition leaders like Job Sikhala who has been languishing in prison for over a year now. With elections being held in the country on August 23, the ruling party is said to be using the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to its advantage by refusing to publish the voter’s roll which is essential to any election.

As seen with ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, the lines between the ruling party and the state remain blurred, hence, ruling parties are often seen as undermining democratic processes through using state machinery. In Zambia, former President, Edgar Lungu would on many occasions arrest opponents to his rule. An example of this would be how opposition leader, Saviour Chishima of the United Progressive People (UPP), was arrested in 2017 and how the current president, Hakainde Hichilema was also a victim of a system that was unforgiving to opposition leaders. Lungu’s presidency was a typical example of how ruling parties use state apparatus to maintain their hold on power.

In Senegal, the opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was charged by the courts in the country for ‘corrupting the youth’ in the first week of June 2023. According to Sonko, this ruling was motivated by derailing his campaign for the presidency of the country showing again how the ruling parties in Africa also use institutions to frustrate opposition parties.

Sonko’s arrest caused several protests in several with his supporters believing that the sitting government was driven by the desire to have a weakened opposition. Senegal also represents another power retention dynamic by ruling parties and their leaders. In addition to arresting opposition as with Sonko, ruling parties often shift goalposts to stay in power as seen with President Macky Sall who throughout his tenure often hinted towards seeking a third term.

Although President Sall, has gone on to announce that he is not seeking a third term, many African leaders have often used the power at their disposal to extend their stay in power.

One example is President Paul Biya in Cameroon, who has ruled the country since 1982. Upon winning the presidency in the country, Biya promised to liberalise the political space in the country, and this seemed to be the case in the early years of his presidency. However, a coup attempt in his country in 1984 resulted in Biya tightening his grip on power in the country. He reneged on his promises, and instead, Cameroon has now had the same president for over 40 years, pointing to the famous term ‘big man politics’ where power is centralised in one person. Under Biya, it is believed the opposition parties are present, but several of them are bankrolled by Biya himself, further undermining democratic processes in the country. By eliminating opposition parties, Cameroon is dominated by Biya’s party, which controls 63 out of 70 seats in the national assembly. This is yet another factor undermining democracy as there are no checks and balances which are essential to the system.

Another important feature affecting democracy in Africa is the lack of participation by citizens in electoral processes. The involvement of the citizenry in electoral processes is at the heart of democracy. In South Africa which has its general election in 2024, the local government elections were proof that certain sects were feeling disenfranchised. According to the IEC, nine million South Africans who are eligible to vote have not registered to vote. Most of those who fall under this category are young people, 46% of this group are aged 20 to 29 years old. These figures are ominous for the democratic processes in South Africa as the country goes to the polls next year. The youth in the country are mainly discouraged due to the lack of employment opportunities upon obtaining a degree.

Although unlike many other African countries, South Africa is believed to have strong institutions, the state of the economy is intrinsically linked to democratic processes in the country as the country conducts its elections next year.

Although it is fraught with several challenges on the African continent, democracy remains one of the few vehicles that the continent can use to fulfill its potential. Adhering to its principles such as upholding the rule of law and a peaceful change in government could go a long way in ensuring that the will of citizens is not subverted but upheld and respected.

*Ratidzo C. Makombe is a doctoral candidate in Development Studies and a researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC).