Decades after gaining political independence from the colonial masters, democracy has yet to take root in many African countries. Although the frequency of military coups on the continent is receding, several countries are still plagued by succession crises owing to the grip of sit-tight rulers. In Tanzania, a disputed presidential election won by the incumbent has set the country on edge, even as protests are raging in Guinea over the fresh re-election of the country’s long-time head of state. This seems like a curse and is a huge setback in Africa’s attempt to join the civilized world, where freedoms and rights are institutionalized.
In the past few weeks, Guinea has been in violent turmoil after Alpha Condé, 82, won a controversial third term in office on October 25. The opposition says a candidate is entitled to two terms constitutionally. At least 30 people have died in post-election violence since then. In nearby Ivory Coast, there has been prolonged restiveness as Alassane Ouattara, in power since 2011, contested a controversial third term with Laurent Gbagbo and Konan Bédié last weekend. Some opposition parties boycotted the polls. There is a real fear of a repeat of the 2010 election fiasco, and the bloody civil war that ensued.
The situation is equally combustible in Tanzania, where President John Magufuli has been declared the winner of the presidential polls. Magufuli gained power in 2015, but his Chama Cha Mapinduzi party has governed Tanzania for decades. His main challenger, Tundu Lissu, who survived an assassination attempt three years ago, insists that the vote was heavily rigged amidst claims of repression.
Instructively, several African countries have been under the yoke of tyrants. John Adams, the second president of the United States, described democracy as “a government of laws, and not of men.” In Africa, ethnic ties and religious affinity run deep and often militate against unity. The result is the emergence of ‘African Big Men’ in politics. Ivory Coast was ruled by Felix Houphouet-Boigny from independence in 1960. He died in office in 1993. In Guinea, Sékou Touré assumed power in 1958 at independence. He died in office in 1984. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe initially celebrated for fighting against the British colonialists, ruled for 37 years from 1980 until he was pushed aside by the military in 2017. This backward political culture keeps Africa mired in restiveness and economic despondency.
Currently, Gabon, Togo, and Equatorial Guinea are yoked under dynasties. The Bongo family has been in power in Gabon since 1967: Omar Bongo ruled for 42 years; he was succeeded by his son Ali in 2009. The Gnassingbé Eyadema dynasty has been in power since 1967 in Togo. Faure Gnassingbé, who is in his fourth term, took office in 2005 in a disputed election following the death of his father, who had ruled Togo for 38 years. The late President Pierre Nkurunziza went for three terms in Burundi, from 2005 to 2020. Paul Kagame is in his third term in office after his disputed win in 2017.
The situation is unnerving in Mali, which suffered a military coup in 2012. The military returned to power in August after months of unrest. Rights groups alleged that the security forces killed at least 14 protesters and bystanders during three days of unrest in Bamako just before the coup. In Cameroon, where Paul Biya has governed for 38 years, elections are bitterly disputed, the constitution is amended whimsically and opposition voices suppressed. This practice is not sustainable in the face of a growing army of youths around the continent, who need education, jobs, and a better life.
Although there are a few isolated bright spots, the crisis mirrors Africa’s overwhelming political underdevelopment. The impact is obvious – instability, poverty, civil wars, decrepit infrastructure, economic dependence on Russia, China, Europe, and America. This political instability is fuelling the Islamist insurgency ravaging parts of Africa.
Certainly, without stability, Africa is doomed. The Washington, DC-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies recommends transparent elections and stable political succession to bring Africa out of its dissonance. “This is why African countries with more robust institutional checks and balances-such as in Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, Senegal, and South Africa-have have seen sustained economic growth, development, and stability,” it argued in a September 2020 report.
The acrimony hinders continental growth. In a 2019 report, UNCTAD stated that intra-African trade, defined as the average of intra-African exports and imports, was around 2.0 percent during the period 2015-2017, while comparative figures for America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania were, respectively, 47, 61, 67 and 7.0 percent. Africa’s target to create a single market of one billion consumers with a GDP of $3 trillion through the 2018 African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement is thus forlorn.
Democracy on the continent is still faltering. The United Nations Development Report 2019 identifies a nexus between development and political stability. How can Africa get out of this quagmire? Civil society organizations on the continent should build networks to demand accountability from the political leadership. The African Union must start by shaming rather than glorifying leaders who seek to perpetuate themselves in power. To extricate Africa from the rut, the leaders should examine themselves, comparing their countries to their peers and other continents of the world. The AU should devise better means of holding tyrants to account. Just as ECOWAS forced Yahya Jammeh to quit in The Gambia in 2017 after overstaying in power for 21 years, the AU should ostracise sit-tight leaders; it could start by not ceding the AU presidency to these misfits. Along with the international community, the AU should encourage the trial of rulers who wreaked havoc in office, similar to how Nigeria gave up Charles Taylor of Liberia for trial at the UN tribunal.