IN-DEPTH — Crackdown on democratic freedoms thwarts prospects for lasting peace in Africa

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Frustrated by an endless lack of governance by African leaders, many question whether democracy is a valid system of governance on the continent. Sarah-Leah Pimentel examines the impact of an authoritative leadership style on lasting stability.

“Democracy doesn’t work in Africa.”

This refrain seems to be gaining momentum in some parts of the continent, and is the subject of a recent book by a South African political expert Steven Friedman, Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Justice

Fractious governments, civil wars, coups, ethnic conflicts, the forging of allegiances and the preservation of personal, tribal, cultural and financial interests shape political narratives throughout Africa. 

Even stable countries are fraught with corruption and mismanagement. For the most part, Africa continues to fall short of democratic ideals.

We know this story well. It has repeated itself countless times. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Angola, Somalia, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, and Mali are some examples. 

Some countries have managed to regain a measure of stability. South Africa, Angola and Rwanda are some of the “success” stories to have emerged from more than half a century of conflict. Despite this progress, the democratic principles of a government mandated by the people — through free and fair suffrage — to serve the good of the people, rarely moves from rhetoric to practice.

… the democratic principles of a government mandated by the people — through free and fair suffrage — to serve the good of the people, rarely moves from rhetoric to practice.

Corruption and the buying of influences protects the political and economic interests of a small elite. These intricate political chessboards become so self-consuming that the real goals of democracy — the eradication of poverty, access to quality education, health care and employment opportunities, as well as initiatives to boost agricultural and economic development —are forgotten. 

The poor remain poor, uneducated and excluded from what remains of the national economy. The natural environment succumbs to the effects of irresponsible mining and agricultural practices, making rural life untenable. Populations flock to the cities in the hope of opportunities that are, for the most part, elusive. 

People want progress, not democracy

The popular response is political fatigue and a loss of trust in democracy as a legitimate system of governance. People want leaders who can put an end to corruption and political rivalries. They are even prepared to forego some civil liberties if it will mean that their country’s potential can be salvaged. 

Democracy has done nothing for them. 

DRC lobbyist Alphonse Muambi in a 2014 TedTalk speaks about how a woman once told him that she didn’t believe in democracy because “you can’t eat democracy.” 

WATCH —  Democracy without election; is it possible in Africa? // TedTalk, YouTube

A recent article by Martin Mkoba in spotlight.africa commended Tanzanian President John Magafuli’s efforts to clamp down on corruption. The author pointed out his efforts to root out corruption in the civil service, restore the nation’s airline, fast-track agricultural development and improve the national rail system, which directly improves farmers’ ability to bring their produce to market. These are laudable achievements. But are they worth the cost?

READ — Transparency International report on popular perceptions of corruption throughout Africa

Getting things done means silencing your critics

The author, suggests that the retraction of freedom of speech and political association is a worthwhile price to pay if it will get the country back on track. He goes as far as to suggest that it is not the place of the people to criticise their leader’s actions, stating that “there are ways to express your feelings about the government, but don’t insult the president and expect you will be spared”.

In Tanzania today, it seems that no one who contradicts the government-sanctioned narrative is spared. 

Magafuli has launched a campaign to silence his critics and the opposition. 

The 2019 Human Rights Watch report describes the enactment of the country’s Cybercrime Act, which among other things, charges bloggers fees of up to $900 to register their websites. 

This financial burden is the first weapon used to threaten the existence of independent media sources such as popular whistleblowing platform Jamii Forums, which regularly publishes reports of government irregularities.

This financial burden is the first weapon used to threaten the existence of independent media sources

WATCH —  Can journalists report freely in Tanzania? // Al Jazeera, YouTube

In September 2018, the Tanzanian parliament ruled that publication of statistics that have not been approved by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), or that “invalidate, distort or discredit” the NBS’ statistics, is a punishable crime. 

In May 2019, parliament passed legislation that gives the authorities “discretionary powers” to investigate and suspend NGOs on a range of unspecified non-compliance issues – a further measure to silence voices that question Magafuli’s national clean-up. 

In 2018, the authorities cracked down on rallies by opposition party CHADEMA on the grounds that they were illegal and did not receive government sanction. At least two CHADEMA officials were killed in 2018 in what appear to be politically motivated assassinations.

The impact of silencing the media, opposition, and civil society organisations could have far-reaching consequences that could be far more detrimental to Tanzania’s long-term development than a poorly implemented democracy and wide-scale corruption.

Eritrea’s media blockade hides untold human rights violations

We have to look no further than Eritrea. In 1998, Eritrea shut itself off from the world following tensions with its neighbours: Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia. 

By 2001, the private media had been banned and its journalists were jailed. Many have died in detention and others continue to languish in prison. 

In the absence of a credible media to tell the story of what is happening inside Eritrea, it’s anyone’s guess what is happening in the isolated country. What we do know is pieced together by Human Rights Watch and other organisations working in the region. 

We know that opponents to President Isaias Afwerki’s authoritarian rule are detained without trial. We know that school leavers are conscripted into national service and that some 18 years later, most are still conscripted without hope of further education and employment. There are also reports that conscripts have been tortured at military camps.

WATCH —  Looking Deeper into Effects of Eritrea’s Brutal Dictatorship // I24, YouTube

We know that freedom of religion has come under fire and only two Christian churches and two branches of Islam have received state sanction. The leader of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been under house arrest since 2007. 

But there is so much that we don’t know — and may not know until there is a change of regime, or some other kind of social convulsion breaks down the wall of silence that Eritrea has managed to preserve for the past 20 years.

One thing we do know: when those walls come tumbling down they often reveal a stench that runs far deeper than corruption. 

when those walls come tumbling down they often reveal a stench that runs far deeper than corruption. 

Ethiopia’s transition reveals political immaturity

Following Ethiopia’s 2018 political transition, their new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, admitted that the state had previously committed “terrorist acts” and used force against its own citizens, particularly the Oromo and Amhara populations, “just to stay in power”. 

Ahmed made sweeping changes to the country’s political fabric. Opposition groups were unbanned, detained journalists were released, the military relaxed its clampdown on protestors throughout the country, the minority Tigrayans lost their hold on power, and the private media returned.

Despite Ahmed’s efforts to institute change, Ethiopia remains restive amid ethnic tensions. Each group, liberated from the Tigrayan hold, wants its demands to be heard and enacted — often at the detriment of other groups with similar demands. The result is widespread protests and violence. 

The assassination of high-ranking officials in June resulted in a renewed government crackdown on the media, opposition politicians, and critics. Within a week, 250 people had been arrested for alleged connections to the killings. Violence and widespread protests continue with tens of thousands of internally displaced people. 

The dream of national unity remains elusive. 

WATCH — What would you do if you were the democratically elected leader of an African country? // Democracy 3 Africa, YouTube

Sudan: a game of wait and see if transition talks will pave the way for stability

We’re watching something similar unfold in Sudan. 

The Sudanese people finally declared that Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship had run its course. The people’s movement, supported by segments of the military, ousted al-Bashir from power in April and talks began for the creation of a transitional government.

Several unsuccessful efforts at transition talks revealed that dialogue and difference of opinion, when not practised regularly in the public space, become a source for tension and violence. The military, accustomed to taking orders from a supreme ruler, appeared unable to make concessions in a power-sharing deal.

The military, accustomed to taking orders from a supreme ruler, appeared unable to make concessions in a power-sharing deal.

At the start of the transition talks, violence broke out among the professional class sitting in protest at military headquarters. In early July 2019, the military council in Sennar State killed an opposition protestor during skirmishes between the two sides.

Finally, on 15 July, the military generals and a conglomeration of opposition groups signed a three-year transition deal, after which elections will be held. 

It’s a tenuous peace. 

Any configuration of events could derail the peace process and unleash untold violence between those who want more power, and those who are reluctant to relinquish it.

Why civil liberties are necessary for African governance

The brief examples above show that without freedom of the press and the free activities of opposition parties — no matter how inconvenient they may be — political dialogue can very quickly escalate into armed conflict. 

The war on corruption is necessary if Africa is to develop and grow. Leaders who are prepared to tackle the multi-tentacled monster of corruption should be congratulated and supported. 

Leaders who are prepared to tackle the multi-tentacled monster of corruption should be congratulated and supported.

But their efforts cannot come at the cost of civil liberties. Muting critical voices entrenches a culture of fear and bitter resentments among ethnic and political groups. Fear breeds suspicion. Suspicion breaks down the possibility for mature dialogue and negotiation of differences.

When the sacred space for dialogue has become so compromised, violence becomes the only tool to push through political demands. The outcomes rarely profit the majority, and merely protect the interests of the group with the greatest political or military might.

Can democracy work in Africa? 

It’s not a perfect system, but it is still the best one we have to prevent large-scale conflicts and human rights violations.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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IN-DEPTH — Crackdown on democratic freedoms thwarts prospects for lasting peace in Africa

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