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Gabon: Politicians must save democracy in Africa

Uniquely in the world, Africa’s political and economic situations have either stagnated or worsened since 1960, the so-called Year of Africa. Over the same period…

Uniquely in the world, Africa’s political and economic situations have either stagnated or worsened since 1960, the so-called Year of Africa.

Over the same period in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, former colonies have since achieved economic advancements that match those of their old colonial rulers. As a result, hundreds of millions of citizens in those regions have seen their economic fortunes rise appreciably, while their governments, in turn, have gained in higher levels of political stability and influence.

In contrast, Africa has stayed much the same as it was six decades ago. Just 25% of Africans had access to electricity in 1991; today, 43%–or 600 million Africans—still lack it. The current economic woes characterized by rising poverty, currency crisis, high inflation and unemployment rates amidst a growing population only mirrors the similar challenges faced almost everywhere across the continent in the 1990s. To give a single example, 600 million Africans, or 43% of the continent’s total population, still lack access to electricity, according to World Bank 2023 figures.

In the political realm, the situation is even worse. Africa’s political story of the past six decades is little more than one of failed democratic transitions interspersed with various stripes of demagogic strongman rule. The euphoric promise of self-rule in the 1960s soon gave way to the depressing nightmare of military, single-party or dynastic rule by the 1970s. Africa returned to democracy by the late 1990s. However, as the military coup in Gabon last Thursday brings to eight the total number of similar takeovers since 2020, Africa appears to be heading back into its recent past all over again.

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Democracy, in other words, has simply refused to take hold here. But it is not because Africans do not want democracy. They do, and have done so consistently and overwhelmingly. Of the over 50,000 Africans in 34 countries surveyed for their democratic attitudes by Afrobarometer in 2021, 70 percent said democracy was the best form of government. A higher figure—some 75 percent—rejected military rule as a viable alternative to democracy.

Yet, in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Gabon, where military coups have been successful in the past two years, hundreds of citizens have taken to the streets in support. Why so? Why would a citizenry which overwhelming supports elected governments in opinion polls still welcome the takeover of same governments by soldiers?

Daily Trust stands resolutely against military incursions into politics and government as in Gabon last Thursday, in Niger last July, and elsewhere in Africa in recent years. We absolutely stand against anything like a military coup here at home no matter how many African countries turn back to it. Yet, we cannot but note that African politicians have failed democracy in Africa, and are almost wholly responsible for the reversal of democratic gains that President Bola Ahmed Tinubu rightly described as a “seeming autocratic contagion” spreading on the continent in recent years.

The first, and perhaps the most obnoxious ways in which African politicians have failed democratic development on the continent is through what we describe here broadly as “self-perpetuation”. One strand of this trend is where sitting leaders seek to perpetuate themselves in power by modifying or eliminating constitutional terms limits, usually through fraudulent referendums. Some 16 African leaders successfully modified or eliminated term limits in their country’s constitution to cling on to power, from 2001 to 2020. Five more tried and failed to do so, including Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo in 2006.

Moreover, in some countries, self-perpetuation is pursued or achieved not by a single individual as in Cameroon, Rwanda, Zimbabwe or Algeria but by a dynastic political family as in Togo, Gabon and Chad, and perhaps Equatorial Guinea where the Vice President is the son of the President. In a few instances, self-perpetuation has been pursued neither by an individual nor family but by a single political party.

Fraudulent elections, outright human rights abuses, and various forms of political intimidation, particularly of the opposition parties, the press, and civil society organizations, are only some of the methods politicians have deployed to perpetuate themselves, their parties or families in power across many countries in Africa. No wonder then that in all the 21 African countries where tenure elongation succeeded or was attempted, political turmoil of some kind had ensued, further undermining democratic stability.

Pervasive attempts at tenure elongation by undemocratic means reflect just one problem with African democracy, however. Poor governance is another. The past three decades of democratization has only seen more Africans fall into poverty than previously. There are an estimated 500 million extremely poor people in Africa. That is, nearly every four in 10 Africans live in extreme poverty and deprivation. Yet, in statistics as in real life, to be poor is one thing; to be extremely poor is yet a different thing.

At the heart of this sorry narrative of democracy for most Africans is the wanton corruption and mismanagement in government. Over 60% of Africans believe that corruption is in fact increasing in their countries, according to the same 2021 Afrobarometer survey. Add to this the inability of African politicians to re-imagine a suitable model of economic growth that will help realize the massive potentials of the continent’s youthful population.

Africa’s litany of regional and continental groupings like the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS, Southern African Development Community (SADC), etc, have not provided any new answers neither, nor have they been the better in setting standards of acceptable conduct politically or economically for African countries to emulate. Hence, the growing disenchantment with them everywhere across the continent.

Finally, for all the talk about democracy in Africa, no African country or regional political grouping has succeeded in throwing off the yoke of colonial dependence, mentally or otherwise. External political influence in African affairs remains as rife as ever, including in inciting military coups, rigging elections, or arranging dynastic rule.

All of these failures by Africa’s politicians—the failure to build and sustain a genuinely liberal democratic culture and institutions; the failure to reduce corruption and develop the economy for all, and the failure to assert a pride of place for African countries in international affairs—have only heightened collective frustrations among Africans nearly everywhere and made the African soil fertile yet again for the military’s misguided return to power. In order to truly save democracy in Africa, politicians must first reverse all of these.

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