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The overthrow of Robert Mugabe in November 2017 marked another upheaval in the tortured history of democratic transition in Sub-Saharan Africa. The end of Mugabe’s thirty-year regime has been met with tempered optimism by democratic activists. Yet, even as people celebrate Mugabe’s overthrow, others are concerned that his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa will continue to resist the democratic transition in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s scenario has been played out across much of Sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to some of the world’s oldest and longest-serving heads of state. Even the “third wave” of democratization, which swept away many authoritarian governments across the world in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet bloc, seemed to only have a limited long-term impact in Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, since the new dawn of the new millennium, Sub-Saharan Africa seems to be sliding back towards authoritarianism. While recent events, such as Mugabe’s fall or the first peaceful transition of power in Liberia since 1944, has led to some to hope that a democratic wave sweeping across Africa remains possible, global geopolitics and internal dynamics of many African states make such a scenario unlikely.
Sub-Saharan Africa is in many ways, the region of archetypical failed states since new polities emerged from colonial rule. Today, Sub-Saharan Africa ranks the lowest in the Human Development Index of the six global regions by the United Nations Development Programme. Sub-Saharan Africa is also home to some of the oldest and longest-serving heads of states in the world. In the countries with the worst cases of mismanagement, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or Zimbabwe, human development metrics such as life expectancy and per capita income have fallen in recent decades, this is in sharp contrast to the rest of the world. Despite the failure of many of these leaders to bring about economic success or political improvement to living conditions, historically many African authoritarian leaders remain in power until they are deposed in military coups, only to implement the same policies as their predecessors by another kleptocrat, enriching themselves and their immediate associates at the expense of the rest of the population.
People will continue to debate why Africa has been the laggard of the entire developing world, but some explanations have been put forward to explain the phenomenon of colonialism including, the commodity-based economy that many African nations have tribalism and the Cold War. These factors and causes intersect and frequently feed into each other. Colonialism is often blamed for much of the violence and slow-moving progress outside of the few developed regions of the world. This is a result of the European colonizers who carved out their empires without giving consideration to pre-colonial territory and dismantled the traditional forms of authority in places carved out by the Europeans. Nor were they interested in imbuing their African subjects with either liberalism or administrative professionalism, instead relying on a few European bureaucrats to administer their extensive domains on top of loosely governed local chiefdoms. After the European empires collapsed in the aftermath of World War II, it left behind unstable states that are rife with tribal rivalries and lacking an educated professional class to build a modern state. Instead, African leaders turned to a mixture of tribalism, military repression and clan patronage; the oldest and surest of bonds, to stay in power and bankrupt their citizens in the process.
Another major reason for Africa’s lack of development, even compared to Latin America, is the different goals for which the European dominions in Africa are set up and administered. Instead of permanently settling and developing the land to be more successful, as European powers did in the Americas, most of the African European empires focused on extracting the natural wealth of the continent and shipping them as fast as possible to fuel the Industrial Revolution back home. This created an economy that focused on short-term mineral extraction or growing a few cash crops that prevented the development of a diverse economic base for most of the new African nations after they become independent. This deprived the newly emerging African nations of an economic base with which to develop. And in states that are more dependent on mineral extract, such as the Congo, warlords would fight over the natural wealth and governments would rely on mineral royalties to pay for patronage without much attention towards looking after the needs of the people.
The Cold War furthered instability and inhibited the development of liberal democracy. Both the Soviet Union and the United States propped up authoritarian leaders in exchange for diplomatic influence. Many civil wars in Africa, from the Congo to Angola, were fought by proxies of the superpowers. Conflict in any form is usually ruinous, and for Africa, the superpower competition combined with the previously mentioned tribalism and economic failure contributed to the rule of strongmen, whose regimes were solely dependent on the strength and loyalty of their armies.
While during the brief period from 1989 to 2010, where democracy seemed to be on the rise and many long-lived regimes crumbled, today many African countries are seeing a slide back towards authoritarian practices. In countries including Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Zambia, current incumbents are once again clinging onto power through whatever means necessary. A new term, “constitutional coup” is used whenever the incumbent, such as Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, successfully abolishes presidential term limits introduced in the 1990s to remain in power. Out of the 33 African countries that have term limits set into their constitution, 24 of them have at some point attempted to remove the term limit, and 12 of them succeeded. Furthermore, active suppression of opposition parties through intimidation or propagating laws that limit public gathering or fundraising activities has become common again. Through a mixture of old and new tricks, democratic transition in Africa appears to be slowing down, if not outright reversing in many African states that embraced election after the Cold War.
In addition to the domestic hurdles that the African democrats have to overcome, the external environment has also taken a turn for the worse. Globally, Africa is becoming the battlefield in a new round of geostrategic rivalries between new global players. One reason why the suppression of opposition and constitutional coups by African strongmen leaders are more tolerated now than they were, is due to the increasingly global reach of Islamic extremism and the population displacement that results from violence. Western leaders are more willing to support African strongmen to maintain stability, check the spread of militant Islamism in Africa, and prevent more migrants from reaching Europe. The emergence of China as a major global player and heavily investing in Africa presents another challenge for liberal democracy. As China offers development, aid free of political demands on the existing African leadership, the African states can use the old Cold War game to play off of the regional powers. Whether the West chooses to forego its democratic ideals and fund unsavoury regimes to check Chinese influence, or outright install pro-Western governments, the effect on democracy in Africa is still damaging to the liberal democratic cause.
The fact that in Europe liberal democracy and globalism are looking less appealing by the day must also play a large role in the decline of democracy in Africa. With the rise of populism in the heartland of liberal democracy, traditional liberal values such as the rule of law and the independence of the courts, are being cast aside in favour of simple majorities and appeal to the emotion of the people. Politicians such as Donald Trump and political parties such as the PiS, AfD, and FN in Europe explicitly or implicitly champion the belief that the “will of the majority” is bigger than any law or any other constraint. Such an understanding of democracy may be more common in Africa and is welcomed by many African politicians who harbour ambitions to accumulate more power, evidenced by the South African president Jacob Zuma’s quote that “[y]ou have more rights because you’re a majority; you have less rights because you’re a minority. That’s how democracy works.” Given the erosion of liberal democratic values at home, one can hardly expect developing countries and ambitious political leaders not to use the rise of radicalism in the West for their own purposes, whether to underscore the undesirability of democracy or to feed into populism to remain in power.
With the underlying factors and the changing international situation, one should be cautious when reading the recent political change in Africa and herald it as a revolution against tyranny. One should also expect the imminent implementation of democracy in places such as Zimbabwe. Instead, in the dawn of a new age of international competition over Africa’s natural wealth, combined with the historical baggage of Africa’s past, it makes a swift transition to liberal democracy in Africa unlikely. While many democracy activists remain hopeful that a younger, more educated, and more urbanized generation of Africans will support democracy and overthrow their authoritarian leaders, there is evidence that past a certain stage of economic and social development people will no longer put up with authoritarian leaders. They will desire freedom and respect, but that day is still likely decades into the future.