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Young Africans want more democracy

The ballot boxes are stuffed

Dictators and military coups are now rarer than they were during the cold war. But most African countries display what political scientists call “electoral authoritarianism”, where the pageantry of voting obscures a lack of genuine democracy. Elections are regular but regularly rigged.

The picture seems to have deteriorated. Freedom House classifies just seven countries as “free”—the lowest total since 1990.

Southern and west African countries are typically more free than those in the east and central regions. A few states have liberalised in the past two years. Under Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, political prisoners have been released, among other reforms. Last year Sudanese toppled Omar al-Bashir, a genocidal dictator. New governments in Angola and Mauritania have begun to loosen up. But the overall trend is disappointing.

This is especially true of countries once seen as bright spots, such as Benin and Zambia, the first two African countries (Mauritius apart) whose presidents were ejected at the ballot box, both in 1991. In Benin Mr Talon rejects what his communications minister, Alain Orounla, calls the “Nescafé democracy” of the 1990s—instant and bitter. In Zambia President Edward Lungu has, among other moves, leant on courts to allow him to run for a third time in 2021. Under John Magufuli, president since 2015, Tanzania has arrested opposition MPs and journalists, shut media outlets and passed laws to muzzle dissidents. The government urges neighbours to snitch on gay people so they can be punished. It expels pregnant girls from school.

The closing of the public space is apparent elsewhere. Polls by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research organisation, find that the share of Africans who say they are free to say what they think declined from 79% in 2008 to 70% in 2018. From 2004 to 2018 12 African countries passed laws making it harder for NGOs to operate. Another six are planning to do so. Reporters Without Borders said that 22 out of the 48 sub-Saharan African countries were “bad” or “very bad” places for journalists: they have recently been killed (in Somalia), banned (Burundi and Congo) and arrested (Cameroon, Liberia and Tanzania, among others).

Technology boosting Big Brother

Technology is boosting Big Brother. Huawei has reportedly helped Uganda and Zambia to spy on political opponents. Rwanda’s regime has allegedly hacked messages of perceived enemies. Of the 21 countries that shut down the internet last year, 12 were African.

The international environment is making it easier for authoritarian regimes, too. Africa’s democratic backsliding is not unique. Freedom House’s average global score has declined for 14 consecutive years. And anti-democratic powers are vying for the ears of African leaders.

China is the most influential. It lends more money and sells more arms to sub-Saharan Africa than any other country. The Communist Party also runs courses for ruling parties across the continent, including those from South Africa, Angola, Namibia, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Russia is much less powerful but more brazen. It focuses on fragile resource-rich countries. Since 2018 Russian military advisers have served President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the diamond-rich, horribly corrupt Central African Republic.

Chinese and Russian action goes alongside Western inaction. There was no mention of “democracy” in the speech outlining the Trump administration’s “Africa strategy” in December 2018—a change from previous presidencies. Though some members of repressive regimes, such as Zimbabwe’s, have been subject to American sanctions, Donald Trump’s priority is to woo states away from Chinese and Russian influence. So in Congo, for example, America, with reluctant European backing, welcomed the election of President Félix Tshisekedi, despite copious evidence that he lost by miles to another candidate.

International institutions have been similarly weak. The World Bank is reluctant to stop aid for odious regimes even when local activists, as in Tanzania, have asked it to do so. The Southern African Development Community, a regional group, is seemingly incapable of criticising rigged elections. West Africa’s equivalent, ECOWAS, has on occasions stuck up for democracy and against coups, but has been less critical of slides towards autocracy since the election of Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s president in 2015.

Outsiders may care little about African democracy. But there is no such apathy on the continent itself. In an Afrobarometer poll of 34 countries published in 2019, 68% of Africans said that democracy was the best form of government, a share that was broadly stable over the previous decade. The figure is higher when respondents are presented with specific alternatives; 78%, for example, said they would not give up multi-party elections for strongman rule. It is possible that more Americans than Africans are tempted by authoritarianism. According to the World Values Survey, a research project, 24% of Americans, and 32% of those without a degree, say that a “strong leader” who does not have to bother with Congress or elections is a “fairly” or “very” good idea. (These shares were higher before Mr Trump became president.)

Though Africans remain keen on the idea of democracy, frustration with the reality has risen. In the late 1990s only about a quarter of respondents in a sample of 14 African countries tracked by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge expressed “dissatisfaction” with democracy. By the 2010s that had risen to about a half.

Dissatisfaction is reflected in the rising number of protests. In 2019 there were 10,793 demonstrations in Africa, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, compared with 819 in 2009 (see chart 1). And whereas demonstrations typically lasted for days or weeks, recent cases in, say, Malawi, Sudan, Togo and Guinea have gone on for many months.

The imbalance between how much democracy young Africans want and how much they have is altering political dynamics. “The game has changed,” argues Judd Devermont of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington. Politics is becoming more competitive and less predictable. Or as a report by America’s National Intelligence Council put it in 2018: “This tug-of-war between leaders and their publics will become more intense.”

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