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Africa has rea­son to cel­e­brate break­throughs, but wor­ries still linger

There is much to cel­e­brate as the world marks In­ter­na­tional Day of Democ­racy. The last year has seen im­por­tant demo­cratic break­throughs in Africa. In Gam­bia an en­trenched au­to­crat was forced from power. In Ghana, a sit­ting pres­i­dent lost an elec­tion for the first time.

In just the past few weeks, Kenya has also joined the club of prece­dentset­ting na­tions, after the Supreme Court ruled that the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta was il­le­gal and must be held again. Not only was this a first in Kenya, it was also the first time that the elec­tion of a sit­ting pres­i­dent had been over­turned by the ju­di­ciary in Africa.

Th­ese changes re­flect a broader trend in sub-sa­ha­ran Africa and much of the world. An in­creas­ing num­ber of coun­tries are hold­ing mul­ti­party elec­tions. And an in­creas­ing pro­por­tion of th­ese states have wit­nessed a trans­fer of power from one party or leader to an­other.

It’s true that more elec­tions are now be­ing held than at any time in hu­man his­tory. But re­cent high­lights in Gam­bia, Ghana and Kenya mask a prob­lem­atic re­al­ity, namely that the ex­pan­sion of multi-party pol­i­tics has of­ten gone hand-in-hand with po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic ex­clu­sion. Over the past five years, the level of po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion and eco­nomic in­equal­ity has in­creased in Africa. In turn, this has called into ques­tion the ex­tent of the con­ti­nent’s demo­cratic gains.

In re­cent times high lev­els of re­pres­sion have been wit­nessed across much of the con­ti­nent. Th­ese in­clude the ar­rest of op­po­si­tion leader Kizza Be­si­gye as he cam­paigned against his de­feat in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Uganda. Also, in Kenya there were a high num­ber of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions when se­cu­rity forces cracked down on op­po­si­tion protests dur­ing the elec­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Free­dom House, an Amer­i­can think tank that rates the level of free­dom in ev­ery coun­try in the world, the qual­ity of civil lib­er­ties in Africa has fallen ev­ery year for a decade. Seven out of the 15 coun­tries that showed the big­gest de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in the qual­ity of their po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment over the past 12 months were African. They are the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, Ethiopia, Le­sotho, Niger, South Su­dan, and Zam­bia. Next year, Tan­za­nia may well join that list.

Other forms of po­lit­i­cal ex­clu­sion are also preva­lent. Rwanda leads the world on fe­male leg­isla­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion while Sene­gal, South Africa, Tan­za­nia and Uganda also per­form well on this met­ric. But very few women are ever elected in the con­ti­nent’s largest states such as An­gola, Nige­ria and the DRC.

Mi­nor­ity groups of­ten suf­fer a sim­i­lar fate. In Botswana, a state of­ten lauded as one of those lead­ing on demo­cratic rights in Africa, the in­dige­nous San com­mu­nity have been largely ex­cluded from the po­lit­i­cal process. Sim­i­larly, les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, trans and queer cit­i­zens typ­i­cally find that their hu­man rights are un­der­mined. For­tu­nately, this is not true of coun­tries with more pro­gres­sive con­sti­tu­tions such as South Africa.

In many states, po­lit­i­cal ex­clu­sion has gone hand in hand with ris­ing eco­nomic in­equal­ity. As a re­sult the rel­a­tive poverty — the gap be­tween the rich and the poor — is grow­ing. This is de­spite the fact that the level of ab­so­lute poverty has fallen in a num­ber of coun­tries.

In other words, se­ri­ous de­vel­op­men­tal gains are oc­cur­ring at the same time that other forms of eco­nomic ex­clu­sion are in­ten­si­fy­ing.

One of the most stun­ning facts about the con­ti­nent is that the Hu­man De­vel­op­ment In­dex — a com­pos­ite statis­tic of life ex­pectancy, ed­u­ca­tion, and per capita in­come in­di­ca­tors — shows that ev­ery coun­try in Africa is today less equal than it was in 2010.

More wor­ry­ingly, there is no ev­i­dence that democ­ra­cies are per­form­ing bet­ter than au­thor­i­tar­ian sys­tems on this is­sue. If any­thing, the re­verse is true. In­deed, one of the most in­trigu­ing para­doxes of African democ­racy is that it is those coun­tries that are most demo­cratic that are most un­equal. Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, three of the con­ti­nent’s most se­cure democ­ra­cies, fea­ture the high­est lev­els of in­equal­ity in the world.

The com­bi­na­tion of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic ex­clu­sion in Africa is im­por­tant for in­trin­sic and instrumental rea­sons. In­trin­si­cally, democ­racy is fail­ing to de­liver if it is not help­ing the worst as much as the best off. In­stru­men­tally, the com­bi­na­tion

of eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal ex­clu­sion in­creases the risk that po­lit­i­cal griev­ances will de­velop into in­sta­bil­ity.

One rea­son that democrati­sa­tion has not al­ways re­duced the de­gree of ex­clu­sion is that po­lit­i­cal sys­tems in Africa, much like the rest of the world, tend not to fea­ture in­clu­sive po­lit­i­cal ar­range­ments.

The con­ti­nent only fea­tures a hand­ful of states that are fed­eral or fea­ture high lev­els of po­lit­i­cal de­vo­lu­tion. Th­ese in­clude Kenya, Ethiopia, Nige­ria, South Africa and Su­dan. More­over, even within this small sam­ple the abil­ity of op­po­si­tion par­ties to get elected at the sub-na­tional level has of­ten been lim­ited, es­pe­cially in Ethiopia and Su­dan. As a re­sult, in­di­vid­u­als and groups that lose out in the race for na­tional of­fice rarely en­joy the kind of lo­cal self-gov­ern­ment that might make them feel that they have a stake in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

In­sti­tu­tional mech­a­nisms to en­sure a form of power shar­ing are also rare. By and large African states are pres­i­den­tial and highly ma­jori­tar­ian. They also do not fea­ture con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sions that guar­an­tee mi­nori­ties and los­ing par­ties a seat at the ta­ble.

In­deed, Bu­rundi is cur­rently the only coun­try that comes close to the conso­ci­a­tional “ideal type” of in­clu­sive pol­i­tics out­lined by the fa­mous po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Arendt Liphart. But even there the au­thor­i­tar­ian bent of Pres­i­dent Pierre Nku­run­z­iza has un­der­mined both the let­ter and the spirit of the coun­try’s care­fully de­signed con­sti­tu­tion.

Ab­sent po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and with so few checks and bal­ances on the ex­er­cise of power, it is un­sur­pris­ing that mi­nori­ties and op­po­si­tion groups get such a raw deal. Of course, this is not to say that po­lit­i­cal in­clu­sion is a cure-all: There are many es­tab­lished democ­ra­cies with less exclusive po­lit­i­cal ar­range­ments that have failed to re­duce eco­nomic in­equal­ity. But un­til African po­lit­i­cal sys­tems be­come less ma­jori­tar­ian and do a bet­ter job of protecting the rights and in­ter­ests of mi­nori­ties, the true ben­e­fits of demo­cratic gov­ern­ment are un­likely to be re­alised.

In many states, po­lit­i­cal ex­clu­sion has gone hand in hand with ris­ing eco­nomic in­equal­ity. As a re­sult the rel­a­tive poverty — the gap be­tween the rich and the poor — is grow­ing.”

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Nyaga

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