Africa is losing steadily on the democratic score
ing 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 multiparty 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 Africa. These include the arrest of Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye, as he campaigned against his defeat in the 2016 presidential election. Also, in Kenya, there were a high number of human rights violations during crackdowns on opposition protests during the election.
According to Freedom House, an American think-tank that rates the level of freedom in every country, 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 – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Niger, South Sudan and Zambia. Next year, Tanzania may well join that list.
Other forms of political exclu- sion are also prevalent. Rwanda leads the world on female legislative representation, while Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda also perform well on this metric. However, 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, the San community has been largely excluded from the political process. Similarly, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer citizens find their human rights are undermined.
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 contin- ent only features a handful of states that are federal or feature high levels of political devolution – Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan. Moreover, 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 get to enjoy a stake in the political system.
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. 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. – The Conversation.
Cheeseman is a Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham.