Here are five events and trends from the last year that capture the most important developments in democracy and human rights across the continent. Overall, 2022 saw both positive and negative trends (as reported in International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy report), but as the year comes to a close, longer-term global dynamics including the cost of food and energy are top of mind.
However, there were bright spots for democracy. The largely peaceful nature of Kenya’s General Elections and the diminished salience of ethnicity but rather broad based issues-based coalition politics offered cause for celebration, as did the peaceful alternation of power in Somalia, following its presidential election in May. President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s expansion of media freedoms in Tanzania and announcement of some form of political reform before the 2025 General Elections are promising indications that continuing demands for political reform may bring about further liberalisation of the country’s highly restrictive political system, albeit incrementally. The Gambia continued to make democratic strides in 2022, with legislative elections and steps toward transitional justice that have marked important milestones in the democratization process that began in 2017. The ways in which courts have asserted themselves as guardians of the rule of law in 2022 is also encouraging. Importantly, the successful rise of the opposition to the Presidency in Zambia is a positive news in the region.
Peace, conflict and democracy
In Ethiopia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and across the Sahel, conflict has undermined democratic progress. While the Sahel and DRC may still see worsening of conflict, in the closing months of 2022 it finally appears that the conflict in northern Ethiopia may be coming to an end. This could set a precedent for resolving insecurities in other parts of the country and pave the way for a successful national dialogue and political consultation to chart a new pathway for sustainable peace. Both failure and success in Ethiopia are critical considering the country's regional importance and also being the seat of the African Union
In Somalia, despite numerous delays and in the background of Al Shabab menace, the successful completion of the federal elections and government formation is a notable success. It is important to ensure continued focus on stabilization of the country while retaining focus on the constitutional reform process.
In the DRC, the deployment of an East African Stabilization Force could be a positive intervention in a country that has had peacekeeping missions since 1980s. It is imperative, however, that a political solution accompany the stabilization force for greater prosperity of the East and Great Lakes region.
Democratic declines, both slow and sudden
Democracy has faced setbacks of at least three kinds. The most obvious is the continuation of the wave of coups d’état that began in 2020, with two coups occurring in Burkina Faso and another attempted in Guinea Bissau. In addition to the worrying security situation and dangers of a return of military rule, popular support for coups needs to be better understood. While there have been some commendable interventions by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, there are some indications that resistance to such interventions is growing, which has generated debates on reforming the relevant frameworks, especially at the ECOWAS level. However, and perhaps more worryingly, there were slower and broader declines in democracy and human rights in other countries, including Benin, Mauritius, and Senegal. At the same time, authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Uganda and Zimbabwe further consolidated their power. Uganda and Zimbabwe further consolidated their power.
Attempted constitutional revisions
Leaders in both Lesotho and the Central African Republic considered constitutional changes during 2022, and in both cases were ultimately stopped by courts. In Central African Republic, the Constitutional Court determined that the process initiated by the President, and in which presidential term limits were a major consideration, was not in conformity with the constitution. The inter-branch struggle is likely to continue into 2023. In Lesotho, the strong political imperative of the constitutional reforms in question meant that the Constitutional Court was under considerable pressure to uphold their constitutionality, notwithstanding the controversial state of emergency declaration that had enabled their passage. In declining to do so, the Court showed itself to be an important guarantor of the rule of law.
The impact of geopolitics
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only increased the cost of food and energy in the region but has also exposed geopolitical weaknesses and the challenging strategic alliance between Africa and her allies in Europe and the Americas. There has been a flurry of attempts to court Africa’s stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The majority of African countries have been less willing to condemn Russia, often choosing to abstain from votes at the United Nations General Assembly. However, African democracies have been much more likely to condemn Russia than their non-democratic neighbours. The importance of Russia in the various fights against insurgent groups in the Sahel also illustrates the different relationship that African countries have with Russia compared to European ones.
Looking to 2023
In a nutshell, the year 2023 will be a defining one for the continent, that has expressed mixed stories of democratic progress and resilience as well as re-emergence of unconstitutional changes of government and other threats to good governance. It is imperative that the African citizens be extremely alert to defend and protect their democratic gains. African governments, the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities must firmly deal with the myriad threats to democracy and good governance and ensure that the continental agenda of 2063 of the Africa We Want, does not remain a mirage.
By Dr. Adem Kassie Abebe, Senior Programme Officer, International IDEA, Dr. Alexander Hudson, Democracy Assessment Specialist, International IDEA and David Towriss, Associate Programme Officer, International IDEA.
Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.