By Arman Sidhu*
In its latest report regarding global civil and political liberties, the US-based NGO Freedom House concludes that a worldwide decline in democracy continues to persist in what the report describes as a “a leaderless struggle for democracy.” This year’s report marks the 14th year in a row in which Freedom House has noted an erosion of democratic norms. While strengthened autocracies are partially to blame, the two nations headlining the decline involve democracies, namely, the United States and India.
The emergence of illiberalism within democracies is a trend fueled by the election of populists, many of whom generate appeal through rebuke of global trade, migration, and multilateralism. The past five years have been particularly salient as recovery from the global recession has led to unfavorable and likely permanent structural economic changes for both developed and developing nations. From the displacement of labor, spurred by the outsourcing of entire industries, to austerity measures that have pared social programs, support for populist politicians and their respective ideologies do not appear to be an overnight phenomenon that will simply dissipate with time and the next election cycle.
Instead, in channeling the grievances of their supporters, leaders of autocracies and democracies alike have attributed blame to a myriad of opponents, including multilateral institutions (UN, EU, NATO, IMF), neighboring nation-states, in addition to religious and ethnic minorities. Such conditions have led to targeted policies and legislation, which in turn has fomented riotous violence, as is the case in both Hong Kong and India.
While worldwide civil and political freedoms remain in considerably better shape when compared to the end of the Cold War, the marked decline in countries deemed “Free” by the Freedom House annual report is most poignant for those nations that continue to struggle with statecraft. In particular, African states represent some of the world’s most polarizing results. Half of the 10 lowest-ranked nations in Freedom House’s annual report are African. Both the top three largest single-year declines (Burundi, Mozambique, Tanzania), as well as the largest single-year gains (Democratic Republic of Congo, Eswatini, Guinea-Bissau) all emanate from the African continent, creating a tipping point for the future democratic trajectory of Africa’s democratization.
The crux of Africa’s democratization troubles manifests through three pertinent threats: electoral mismanagement and violence, the entrenchment of incumbents, and poor institutional quality and services. In the past year, a deluge of elections across the continent were accompanied by electoral-related violence, most notably in the form of intimidation of voters and contestation of results.
Coverage of poll results in Nigeria, Mozambique, and Cameroon were accompanied by accounts of clashes amongst supporters or directly with authorities. In Cameroon, elections have amplified the government’s ongoing conflict with Anglophone separatists groups, whom often enforce boycotts of elections through violent measures. The fragility of Mozambique’s politics, which feature two major parties, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), was especially salient given RENAMO’s vacillating status as an armed insurgent group and participant in formal elections. Disputes over the country’s most recent electoral results may imperil an already unstable peace deal between the two organizations.
The abundance of participatory deterrents, particularly life-threatening ones, has depressed voter turnout rates. Last year’s Nigerian presidential election featured the lowest turnout in the country’s youthful democracy, a worrisome trend that would only weaken incentives for political change as desired by Nigeria’s relatively young population.
The staying power of Africa’s longest-serving leaders and parties exhibits another troubling trend for governments of all stripes, irrespective of their commitment to democratic norms. Of the world’s ten longest-serving incumbents, six lead African states, and combined they have served an average tenure of just over 35 years in office. The relatively recent dismissals of long-time leaders on the continent, such as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, has compelled autocrats to double-down on their efforts to demobilize opposition forces. Suppression of free media and an uptick in surveillance is already an oft-cited reality in Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Furthermore, the use of constitutional amendments and referendums as a means to lift term limits threatens to further entrench incumbents at the helm in Guinea, Rwanda, and Burundi. Given the preponderance of evidence demonstrating the efficacy of term limits on democratization, the trend of amendments only serves to limit opposition.
Even amongst the country’s more consistent democracies, single-party dominance remains an extant threat. Parties like that of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) and the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) have maintained uninterrupted rule of their respective countries, which has blurred the lines between political membership and institutional culture, in the absence of formidable opposition.
Furthermore, Africa’s gerontocratic reputation, succinctly summarized as “a continent filled with the young yet ruled by the old” has dissuaded faith in governmental institutions, pushing populations to instead rely upon traditional forms of authority via ethnic, religious, and tribal communities. In issues related to justice and security, such forms of authority fulfill alarming gaps in rural communities. In the Sahel region, which has been ravaged by the proliferation of armed criminal gangs and terrorist organizations, security services remain outnumbered, leaving civilian populations in rural areas especially vulnerable, and even forcing governments to raise local militias to make up for shortfalls. This devolvement of authority not only weakens governmental institutions, but also bolsters the threat of balkanization, incentivizing individuals to identify more closely with close-knit communities as opposed to the country.
Though the continent features a number of success stories, including headliners such as Ethiopia and Sudan, the latent threats of violence, sub-par government services, and significant unemployment all threaten to reverse Africa’s hard-fought progress. With positive trends in civil and political liberties few and far between, the mediums through which citizens can acquire more agency and make demands appear to be shrinking, which risks exacerbating civil conflicts as grievances go unaddressed. In light of such trends, African states may not fare much better in next year’s report.
*This article was published by Geopolitical Monitor.com