Demoracy Watch Africa

Testing year awaits democracy in Africa

DRC president Kaila

With twenty elections planned in Africa during 2017, voters will have the opportunity to entrench democracy and good governance on the continent, but avoiding intransigence will remain a challenge, as shown by two events late in 2016.

While it is customary for some at the beginning of the year to engage in crystal ball gazing or reading the stars or tea leaves for some signs about the year ahead, nothing beats cold facts, which confirm that as usual, Africa faces a tough time on the political front.

Gleaning from developments late last year spilling over into 2017, there is little doubt that any progress in entrenching democracy in Africa will continue to face an uphill struggle. Democracy remains under threat.

Often, positive steps towards improving democracy in Africa become unstuck, in most cases when those in power try to cling to power, using all kinds of tactics.

It is obvious that the biggest threat to democracy in Africa is the continent’s leaders.

It remains a challenge, but the people of Africa should stand up, demand better quality leaders and hold those in power to account.

That is a tough ask, as most of Africa’s remaining despots felt encouraged, as shown by the defiance of Sudan’s President Bashir. While on the run from justice for crimes committed against humanity, Africa, under the baton of the South African Government (SAG), shunned the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

The ICC, with its many flaws, remains the only viable opportunity for justice to be done and to bring repressive leaders to account for their transgressions. But, owing to the SAG’s short-sightedness, many long-suffering Africans might have lost their only chance for retribution.

It will probably be in vain, but the call should nevertheless go out to the new African Union (AU) leadership to improve on the failed efforts of the Dlamini-Zuma era to stop the likes of Yahya Jammeh in Gambia and Joseph Kabila in the DRC ignoring the wishes of their electorates or riding rough-shot over their countries’ constitution.

Jammeh’s disrespect for the choice by the majority of the Gambian voters in the December 2016 election, is a serious setback for democracy in Africa. It would be a grave mistake to not call him to account.

Jamme’s initial decision to step down after 22 years in power was seen across Africa as a moment of hope and a step forward in the democratisation process. 

The announcement of President John Mahama of Ghana that he would definitely step down and peacefully hand over power after losing the election on 7 December 2016, added to the positive atmosphere.

Elation dashed

The elation was, however, dashed when Jammeh soon changed his mind and rejected the election result, demanding a fresh election.

In a positive move, regional leaders, including the presidents of Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, have been unequivocal in their condemnation of Jammeh’s antics – an important reminder of how norms around hanging on to power have shifted in recent years.

Leaders of the West African regional economic bloc, ECOWAS, have made it clear that Jammeh must heed the will of the Gambian people. They announced that they would attend the 18 January 2017 inauguration of president-elect Adam Barrow.

Democratic Republic of Congo

In the case of the DRC there is, however, no reason for any gratification with the settlement reached to keep Kabila in power for another year – while the country’s electoral commission tries to prepare for an election a year after it was due.

The real reason, many argue, for Kabila’s recalcitrance while people die and his country falls into further disrepair, is his concern about what may happen once he relinquishes power.

Kabila and his friends have looted millions of dollars in public assets and he desperately needs an exit plan. Another year in power buys him time to try and put a proper and safe exit plan in place.

It seems likely that for the 70 million people of the DRC who have never experienced real peace since independence from Belgium in 1960, the trend will continue.

Twenty elections

During 2017 people in twenty countries across Africa will go to the polls to vote for representatives on different levels of government. 

From Algeria in the north to Swaziland in the south, and the important Kenyan general election scheduled for August 2017, opportunities are available not only to put democracy to the test but also to advance democracy and good governance across the continent.

Those granted the opportunity must make full use of their right to improve their lives by voting into power those who abide by the basic principles underpinning democracy and human rights.

by Garth Cilliers

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