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A nation must think before it acts.
In 1953, Rollo May, an American psychologist, wrote the following in his book Man’s Search for Himself: “ in religion and science, let alone politics, is becoming increasingly accepted, not particularly because so many people explicitly believe in it but because they feel themselves individually powerless and anxious. So what else can one do . . . except follow the mass political leader . . . or follow the authority of customs, public opinion, and social expectations?”
May identified the reason for this trend, which has accelerated in the past few decades, not to the existence of psychologically disturbed, power-hungry politicians who want total control—which have existed since the beginning of organized government—but to the lack of courage of citizens who are unwilling to take the necessary actions to turn back the tide of repression.
Since Rollo wrote these words, the world has seen a rise in autocratic and authoritarian governments. In the countries of the Global South, such as on the African continent, this trend appears to be accelerating, with a decline in constitutional, rule-based governments who respect the rule of law and human rights.
When the European colonial powers ended their rule over Africa, they were replaced by local governments lacking effective governing institutions or true national identities. While the post-independence leaders often adopted the putative democratic constitutions of their colonizers, the challenges of state-building caused many of them to quickly turn to authoritarian rule. This was caused in part by the patterns of governing they had inherited from colonial rule; the influence of the ideological conflict of the Cold War, when many countries felt abandoned by the West and turned to the USSR and China; and the fact that in many of these new countries the military was the only institution with any leadership or organizational capacity.
In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, Africa saw a wave of democratization. This golden age of constitutional rule, rule of law, and peaceful transfer of power, however, did not last long. Many of the democratically elected leaders attempted to establish family dynasties, ethnic or clan-based rule, or, in many cases, direct rule by the military. These rulers have learned how to use the “democratic” process to subvert truly representative government—curtailing freedom of speech and association, muzzling the independent media, and violating human rights with impunity.
An example was the military’s intervention to end the decades-long autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in November 2015. Welcomed at first by the population, and adamant that they were not staging a “coup,” the military soon began running the country in the same way that Mugabe and his cabal had since independence in 1980—violently cracking down on demonstrators who were demanding elections and more freedom. The crisis was precipitated when the ninety-three-year-old Mugabe fired his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and expelled him from the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF)—apparently in favor of Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, who had been positioning herself to take over from him for some time.
Mnangagwa, a former defense minister and an intelligence officer during the independence struggle, was a favorite of the military and aligned with the main war-veterans association, while Grace Mugabe was head of a rival faction of younger veterans known as the G-40 and was popular with young ZANU–PF party activists.
Neither side sought true constitutional liberal democracy, as subsequent events have shown. What has emerged in Zimbabwe, and many other African nations, is what Fareed Zakaria, in a 1997 article in Foreign Affairs, called “illiberal” democracies. In the article, Zakaria refers to American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who in 1996 worried that those elected in the Bosnian elections would be racists, fascists, and separatists who would be opposed to peace and reintegration of all the different ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia. Holbrooke turned out to be right, and this has been the case in many countries in Africa as well.
The trend toward authoritarianism increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, when autocratic leaders used control methods for stemming the outbreak of the disease as cover to consolidate and extend their control. Governments around the world, including in Africa, used the pandemic as justification to stop demonstrations, muzzle journalists, and stifle dissent. In 2020, sixty-two journalists were killed and 274 imprisoned—many for criticizing their governments’ handling of the pandemic. The biggest offenders in this regard were China, Turkey, and Egypt, who jailed the most journalists. Many people were questioned and arrested in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Madagascar, Tunisia, Niger, and Cameroon for expressing views on the COVID situation or sharing information. The Global Expression Report 2021, which scores countries for freedom of expression and the right to information, states that two thirds of the world’s population lives in a country where freedom of expression is highly limited. In Asia and the Pacific this is true of 85 percent of the population. Not one country in Africa scored in even that distressing metric.
In 1927, at the beginning of the Chinese Civil War, which eventually led to communist control of the country, —the first leader of the People’s Republic of China and a supporter of many African liberation movements—coined the phrase, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
This would appear to be a lesson that many African militaries learned well. According to the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) there have been twenty-one attempts by military forces to overthrow incumbent governments since 2015 alone—with recent attempts in Mali, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Of these attempted overthrows, 38 percent were successful. Since 1950, ICIR has tracked 494 attempted coups worldwide, with 222 of them taking place in Africa.
Coups and attempted coups in Africa are blamed on lack of credibility of elections, lack of good governance, and pervasive corruption. Some blame is also laid at the feet of regional groupings such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) for failing to vigorously condemn these unconstitutional attempts to seize power. The Western countries, including the United States, have expressed opposition to coups, but with even the U.S. scoring lower in the Global Expression Report—especially during the period from 2016 to 2020—credibility is not high, and influence on events is minimal.
In addition to violent attempts to overthrow governments, Africa is plagued by extremist violence and interethnic conflict. Examples include the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia between the central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), fighting between Anglophone separatists and government forces in Cameroon, and the violence in South Africa following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma.
The ongoing violence has caused incredible loss of life, damage of property, and suffering on a continent that is already taking severe body blows from the negative effects of global climate change.
As is often the case, the negative news out of the continent tends to overshadow the good. There have been a few bright spots, like the rise of credible opposition movements in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. These gains, however, have not translated into true increases in liberal democracy. Indicators of political and economic governance continue to deteriorate, leading to increased political instability and lack of sustained economic growth.
What has occurred in Africa, as in much of the rest of the world, is a growth of Fareed Zakaria’s illiberal democracies. Even countries such as Uganda and Mozambique have been classified as “moderate autocracies,” as they have moved to more authoritarian rule, while countries such as Burundi and Zimbabwe are classified as “hardline autocracies.”
These trends tend to mask the diversity of Africa, though. Of the fifty-four nations on the continent, sixteen are classified as hardline autocracies and fifteen as defective, or illiberal, democracies. In those countries considered most stable, such as Ghana, Liberia, Namibia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, between 2015 and 2017 there was a decline in their anti-corruption rating.
What appears to be happening in Africa is a widening divide between democratic and autocratic countries, with some countries improving slightly and others dipping lower in the ratings. This only makes things more difficult for the already nearly ineffective regional groupings such as the AU.
If Africa is to pull itself out of this decline and develop the continent’s economies to meet the needs of a rapidly growing and increasingly young and energetic population, it will need to mobilize all its resources—both natural and human. This will require a renewed commitment to good governance, establishment and nurturing of the institutions that provide support to citizens and oversight of government, more freedom of the press and individual expression, and sustained economic development.
While international assistance can be useful in establishing the conditions for the revival of constitutional democracy in Africa, it is the people of the continent who must be the prime movers of this renaissance. Regional organizations need to step up and become a voice for change, standing firm for rule of law and respect for human rights and speaking out against deviation from this path. This won’t be easy, and it will not happen overnight—and this word of caution is for international actors as much as for Africans themselves. Setting unrealistically short timelines for change will only lead to disappointment and disillusionment and will further hinder the growth of the responsive, responsible governance that Africa needs to realize its full potential.
Change, though, is possible. When Ahmad Tejan Kabbah became the first democratically elected president of Sierra Leone in 1996—despite grinding poverty and a vicious war that was being supported by Charles Taylor, the dictator of neighboring Liberia—all the signs were initially hopeful. Kabbah was overthrown by a rogue element of the army a year later, requiring the intervention of Nigeria (representing ECOWAS) and the U.K. (Sierra Leone’s former colonizer) to reestablish the government in 1998. Unfortunately, after being reinstalled, Kabbah, like many African leaders, became more and more autocratic and intolerant of dissension. He did, though, fulfill his promise to end the civil war in 2002 and went on to win a final five-year term in office that same year, serving until 2007.
Although Sierra Leone is still one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, it has remained stable politically. In November 2012, for instance, the country held its third election since the 2002 end of the civil war, with Ernest Bai Koroma running for re-election against Julius Maada Bio, who was the deputy, and then leader, of the military junta, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), which took power in 1994 and handed over power to Kabbah in 1996. Bio lost that election but went on to win the presidency in 2018.
This demonstrates that it can be done—and with the will of the people, and the support and encouragement of the international community, it can be done in other countries. It’s a matter of having hope and being willing to do what’s necessary.
Democracy is weakening in Africa, as it is in many other parts of the world, but it’s not yet in full retreat.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.