Democracy, a time-consuming process

It is undeniable that real progress has been made in terms of democratization in many African countries, especially since the 1990’s, and the creation of the African Union in 2002. However, the current multiplication of  political crisis reminds us that it is still much to accomplish and much to build.

With the debt crisis on the continent, the 1990’s saw the end of most single-party regimes in Africa and the adoption of liberal constitutions. This was often done under pressure from international donors who conditioned (and still determine) their “help” to the adoption of a multiparty system and structural reforms [1]. Today, the “respect for democracy” is a real mantra, undisputed and listed among the cardinal objectives of the action of the African Union. It is clear that improvements have sometimes occurred, as demonstrated by the election of Mr Buhari in Nigeria (the first democratic transition of the country) in late March 2015. Likewise, it is worth noting the tremendous dynamism of many citizens groups and associations  across the continent. The latter, more and more organized, face and adress a blocked political life,  contribute to a rise of democratic values and sometimes obtain true success. One example is the now famous “balai citoyen” (Burkina Faso), who participated in the fall of the regime of Blaise Compaoré at the end of October 2014.

However, numerous obstacles remain that still cause serious political crises. At the time of writing these lines, the situation in Burkina Faso is hardly stabilized following a coup attempt from the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP). And while some analysts consider that military coups have become almost impossible [2], the “constitutional” manipulations for maintaining power are still common. The case of Burundi is edifying, but similar processes are underway in many other states of the continent (Rwanda, Congo – Brazzaville etc.). In other countries, the alternation is simply impossible due to the electoral system itself, as in Togo where the presidential election takes place in one round. Finally, almost everywhere, a limitation is encountered, namely a severe lack of renewal of political elites (in charge or in the opposition) related in part to a shortage of competent managers able to rule a state, and partly of powerful mechanisms of patronage at all levels (national, regional and local).

These problems have known causes, mostly well studied, whereas it interact in complex ways over time. Thus, the gaps in terms of human and financial resources combine with systems where the winner of elections sweep all the levers of power (and control of the majority of international aid funds) to create a situation where election are often risky moments . This is just a brief example of a very large number of possible negative interactions, but it is indicative of the extent of progress to be made both in terms of political openness and governance in the concerned countries , but also at the level of international partners.

It would not be honest to say that nothing is happening on the continent, anyone can see that overall, the situation regarding democracy and governance has improved significantly since the early 2000’s. On the other hand, it would be illusory to believe that the structural problems that hinder the realization of democratic ideals in many countries will be solved within a decade. If appropriate actions are taken as real progress in education, economic development and inclusive governance, it will still probably take another generation before we can speak about a democratic ‘normalization‘. Indeed, to make the system work it requires citizen ownership, which is still too incipient because of the low population’s access to a good quality education. Also due to almost non-existent economic leeway of governments, too indebted and dependent on international partners.

[1] See Anne-Cécile ROBERT, “Quand voter ne suffit pas…“, in “Manière de voir” (143, october-november 2015)

[2] See Obadias NDABA, “Military Coups see beginning of their end in Africa”, in “TheWorldPost” (10/05/2015)


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