The Challenges and Future of Democracy in Africa

Published on 19th April 2011

Jonathan Goodluck casts his vote Photo courtesy
Africa’s destiny will be shaped by how much Africa constructs a sense of common identity based, not on the narrow lenses of state, race or religion, but constructed on Africa’s belief in democracy, governance and unity as the most viable policy option to mediate, reconcile and accommodate our individual and collective interests.

Events in North Africa, despite providing hope and mixed results, remind us that no matter the difference in the colour of our eyes, skin, religion, wealth and geography, we all yearn for liberty and equality, something more consequential and bigger than “big and strong men.”

What are the possibilities of the contagion effect of the situation in North Africa? What policies can the AU develop to respond to the situations? Do these events mark the end of the history of the political evolution in Africa? While not entirely neglecting these very important questions, I would like to address the broader democracy and governance challenge facing Africa and the role of the AU in addressing them.

The principal governance challenge facing Africa is how to enhance a self-nourishing relationship between authority, accountability and responsibility. This is important in reconstituting African politics from being a zero sum to a positive sum game, characterized by reciprocal behaviour and legitimate relations between the governors and the governed.

Democracy building and consolidation is contingent on strong institutions. Democracy and elections are processes, not events, and the key element in building democratic culture in Africa is anchoring the ongoing practices in unambiguous and predictable processes and strong institutions supported by popular participation. The challenges of electoral conflicts and political violence reflect the problems of transitions to democracy associated with managing elections and building institutions of competition that are widely accepted by winners and losers.

Building strong institutions and political processes, such as election, is critical in ensuring that if a politician looses today, it will be rational and cost effective for him to trust the political system to afford him another chance in the future. Institutions that get involved in elections and other political processes exhibit weaknesses, for example, election management bodies that lack capacity, public trust and legitimacy; political parties that have weak internal processes and lack internal democratic system; acrimonious inter-party relations and  weak Civil Society involvement in the electoral cycle.

Democracy is much more than electing leaders periodically through competitive elections. It is about acceptance of a culture that institutionalizes certain basic freedoms and liberties: freedom of association, assembly, expression of ideas, political organization; and property rights. Democracy is about affording the individual the possibility and hope of change, that is, change they can trust in.

In this regard, Constitution and constitutionalism in Africa need to be strengthened. Civilian control of the security apparatus of the state and peaceful constitutional transfer of power need to be promoted and encouraged. The promotion and protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights, taking into account their universality, interdependence and indivisibility is imperative. Popular participation must therefore be encouraged. There is need for legislative and administrative measures to guarantee the rights of women, ethnic minorities and others.

As much as democracy is an end in itself, it is also a means to an end. When access and control of state power becomes the only viable mode of resource accumulation and distribution, election becomes “war by other means” amongst the political elite. There is need for improved service delivery and socio-economic development to boost confidence in democratic institutions and to reverse election fatigue.

Since the establishment of the African Union, AU Member States have demonstrated a commitment towards a regional and collective approach to democracy building and consolidation. As a result, in matters of Democracy and Governance, the AU has a broad mandate to facilitate the emergence of the necessary environment to engender democracy in Member States.

In responding to this mandate, the AU has established the African Governance Architecture as the overall political and institutional framework to facilitate and promote governance. The Architecture constitutes a set of legal instruments and institutions which seek to complement, encourage and coordinate efforts by Member States towards Democracy building and consolidation.

The role of regional organizations in promoting democracy must be that of support. The role of regional organizations is not to bind themselves to watch over the preservation of the native tribes, and to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being by bequeathing them civilization. Regional organizations must not arrogate to themselves the prerogative to export or impose values and practices. Thus, even as there is an emerging consensus on the principle of the Responsibility to Protect as embodied in article 4 (h) of the Constitutive Act of the AU, the principle should not be perceived as opening the floodgate for “humanitarian intervention” which is coercive military intervention for humanitarian purposes. Responsibility to Protect is about effective preventive action based on the principle of “sovereignty as a responsibility.”

Democracy building should be a consented indigenous process driven, shaped and influenced by the principal beneficiaries. In this regard, a regional approach to democracy promotion, at least from an African perspective, is not a panacea to the governance challenges facing the continent.

The African Governance Architecture should be seen as providing an opportunity to engage and develop appropriate capacity and responses to Africa’s governance challenges. A coordinated and integrated approach is no substitution for the primary responsibility of AU Member States in democracy, governance and human rights. The Architecture is premised on complementing the primary responsibility of States and the need to engage with the global political community.

In a globalising world where policy is increasingly being made at multilateral fora, I cannot but argue that addressing Africa’s governance challenges is the primary but not the sole responsibility of the African Union and its Members States. As we engage with our external partners, we must recognise that the outcomes that we establish from our engagements are not, in essence, collective outcomes, but are reflections of the power asymmetric of the “partnerships.”

The marginalisation of Africa in important multilateral fora such as the United Nations Security Council is evidence that while there is wide recognition that we live in a time and a world where the governance values we espouse are intertwined with the values and rights of all others across the globe, enhancing Africa’s voice in multilateral institutions is important in moving forward the continent’s governance agenda. The full impact of the African Governance Agenda will never materialise in so far as Africa is at the periphery of the global governance architecture.

Allow me to restate the following issues that are of primary importance to the AU Commission: Firstly, one of the major opportunities to address Africa’s governance challenges is enhancing the capacity and effectiveness of collective response. It is important that we give the 2012 as the year of Shared Values in Africa some operational importance by individually and collectively supporting the African Governance Agenda. Secondly reforming the global governance architecture, such as the UNSC, is imperative in optimising AU response to addressing governance challenges; and thirdly what can the AUC learn from other regional organizations in the promotion of democracy building and consolidation?

We in Africa believe that when the African Charter on Democracy, Governance and Elections come into force, Africa too will change!

By Dr Jean Ping.

Chairperson, African Union Commission

Excerpted from remarks made during the XLIV OAS Lecture of the Americas: “Inter-Regional Dialogue on Democracy: Celebrating Ten Years of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”

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