The New Vanguard of Liberal Democracy: How African Nations Are Resisting the Authoritarian Tide

Conrad Copeland

Understanding African Democracy


Women show their new electoral cards while queuing at a accreditation center in Abuja on March 28, 2015. After weeks of delays over an Islamic insurgency, Nigerians went to the polls to elect a president for Africa’s biggest economy. AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

This month marks the anniversary of the 2016 presidential election in the Gambia.  In the twelve months since that vote we have seen many shifts and changes in terms of democracy around the world.  Where the Americas have seen the erosion of institutions both in countries where democracy had not yet been fully secured and in the world’s oldest democracy, Europe has seen the capture of mainstream parties by elements with authoritarian tendencies, the rise of the anti-democratic far-right, and most recently the brutal suppression of democracy in Spain.  Even in Asia we have seen the erosion of liberal democracy in India and the dashing of everyone’s hopes in Myanmar as An San Suu Kyi turned a blind eye to what can at best be described as state-sponsored repression and is more likely ethnic cleansing.  One continent left out of this list is Africa – the one continent that has, on balance, resisted the authoritarian wave that seems to be enveloping the world to various degrees and the one continent that has even gone further by improving democratic institutions in many countries.

One Step Backward

In order to highlight the gains, there are two glaring failures that must be addressed first:  Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  In August of this year, Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, won a previously unconstitutional third seven-year term in an election that was marred with irregularities and produced a highly implausible result of 99% of the vote for the incumbent.  This third term was made possible through a referendum held in 2015 to amend the constitution which allowed Kagame to run again in 2017 and then subsequently for another two five-year terms after 2024.  While this constitutional change itself does improve the situation in Rwanda by shortening the length of presidential terms and maintaining the two-term limit, the technicalities around its implementation that allow for Kagame to potentially remain president until 2034 are problematic to say the least.

In tandem with Rwanda’s constitutional shenanigans is the now perennially delayed presidential election in the DRC.  Still-current-President Joseph Kabila’s term of office was supposed to end in December of 2016, but in September of that year the DRC’s electoral commission announced that elections could not be held because of logistical problems and the incompleteness of voting rolls.  The resulting stand-off between the government and the opposition was resolved with a deal allowing Kabila to remain president on condition that elections would be held by the end of 2017 at the latest.  In July of this year the electoral commission has again announced that it will be unable to hold elections by the agreed time, once again citing logistical issues.  The subsequent deal, reached just last month, set the long-awaited presidential election for December 2018, despite claims by the electoral commission that it would be impossible to hold elections before April 2019.  Whether the election will in fact take place remains to be seen.

Two Steps Forward

Despite these two major setbacks, several other similar attempts have met significant resistance born out of the strength of civil society and democratic institutions in these countries.  In both Burundi and Uganda, attempts at constitutional change in favour of incumbent presidents are meeting stiff opposition; while Angola achieved some progress towards a constitutionally defined democratic transfer of power.

The presidents of Burundi and Uganda are both trying to change their constitutions to allow themselves to run again for their positions – one more actively than the other.  President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi has long been rumoured to want a fourth term, but as the 2020 election draws nearer the rumours are getting louder.  Opposition groups and civil society organisations strongly oppose any move at constitutional change and it appears that the population of the country is in agreement, with a majority of Burundians disagreeing with such a change to allow Nkurunziza to run again.  Faced with this hostility, Nkurunziza seems to be equivocating with no movement on any effort to make the necessary change forthcoming.  In Uganda, by contrast, long-time president Yoweri Museveni has been pushing to remove the constitutional age limit on presidential candidates, a limit that he will pass before the next polls in 2021.  This proposed change has been resisted by opposition parties since its inception and it has had a difficult time winding its way through Uganda’s parliament and courts.  This slow progress has allowed its opponents to gather more support with the measure becoming increasingly unpopular with the general public.  Even some members of Museveni’s own party are beginning to second-guess the plan, with several of its MPs openly disagreeing with the measure.  The opposition is using Uganda’s democratic institutions to great effect to stymie the creeping authoritarianism of Museveni and is galvanising civil society more broadly to keep up the pressure.

In Angola, long-serving President Jose Eduardo dos Santos decided to retire this year, ushering in the country’s first presidential transition that did not involve the death of the incumbent.  The elections held in August 2017, which were challenged by the opposition as unfree and unfair, resulted in the governing party winning another majority and dos Santos’ successor, Joao Lourenco, being elected as president.  While the process was clearly flawed, by breaking the previous pattern of life-presidencies this transition moves Angola further along the path towards constitutional democracy.  There is much hope in the country that President Lourenco will continue this trend by adhering to the two-term limit enshrined in the newly minted constitution.  Despite the electoral irregularities, this result can be held up as an important step away from the perpetual-presidencies of the past and towards a more regular and limited system of power.

Triumph of the Ballot Box

This resisting of authoritarian efforts is strongly complemented by the robust achievements of existing democratic institutions in many countries.  Liberia has seen a major mile-stone in its democracy with a self-run, peaceful democratic transition; while the intervention of the constitutional court in Kenya was also a major step for democratic institutions in that country.  Finally, the Gambian election and its eventual resolution were a massive success for democracy and constitutionalism, despite the trouble along the way.

Liberia held the first round of its presidential election in October of this year, with the second round scheduled for this month.  While the country has seen previous democratic elections unfold, they were all managed by the United Nations and other international organisations.  These are the first post-conflict elections in the country that are being domestically managed and run with international organisations serving merely as observers.  The previous president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, did much to guide her nation in the post-conflict years and upon reaching the limit of her term in office has stepped aside and not tried to interfere in the election.  The electoral field itself was broad and vibrant with twenty candidates that were narrowed to two in October.  Kenya similarly has seen a huge success of its constitutional order, as its supreme court annulled the most recent election in August.  The court found that the electoral commission mishandled the election, with the chief electoral officer potentially involved in malicious tampering with the results that culminated in the winner being announced before all the ballots were counted.  This ruling was accepted by both candidates and the elections were re-held later in the year.  Despite this success, it is marred by the withdrawal of the principal opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, from the second set of elections citing potential problems with the second vote.  The silver lining of this setback is the further strengthening of the legalism around Kenyan elections as the Kenyan legal community has begun to debate the legitimacy of the second set of elections under the constitution given Odinga’s withdrawal.

Pride of place in the past year for the success of electoral institutions is the case of the Gambian presidential elections.  In December 2016, the Gambia held presidential elections in which the long-serving incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh, lost.  Jammeh had come to power in a coup in 1994 and had ruled the country through repression and brutality while holding flawed elections to legitimise his rule.  A seemingly innocuous change in the way votes were tabulated in the most recent election inadvertently reduced the possibility for ballot-stuffing and caused the vote to go against him.  His opponent, Adama Barrow, received 43.3% of the vote to Jammeh’s 39.6%.  To add to the shock of this announced result, Jammeh did what no one expected and conceded defeat.  The chief electoral officer confirmed this result as final and the Gambia looked to be on track to a new post-Jammeh era.  Later the now ex-president would revert to form, rejecting the results he had previously endorsed and calling for new elections.  In response, Gambians took to the streets to protest this blatant attempt to overturn the election.  To the credit of the Gambian electoral commission, it refused to annul the result and the chief electoral officer had to flee the country for his safety.  The crisis continued into January as the constitutional court, recently stacked with pro-Jammeh appointees, stalled for time in an effort to support the ex-president.  Eventually the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, intervened with a joint military operation to enforce the election outcome.  Jammeh backed down and fled into exile in Equatorial Guinea, leaving Barrow to assume the presidency.

The Gambian case demonstrates the strength of electoral institutions when faced with entrenched opposition.  The ability of the electoral commission and Gambian civil society to resist the eleventh-hour attempts of Yahya Jammeh to cling to power was made possible through the integrity of the commission and its chief executive and the engagement of the electorate in the process.  Without the willingness of the electoral commission to stand firm, the protests could have been surmounted; without the backing of Gambian society and protestors, the electoral commission could have been disregarded.  The combination made the dispute intractable and ECOWAS had the time and the opening to step in and resolve the situation in favour of democracy.

Pillars of Sand

The capstone to all of these developments is the popular push for democracy that has taken place in several countries.  Following the example of Gambian street protests after the presidential election, Togo has seen demonstrations since August in an effort to push democratic change in the country.  Further, the toppling of Zimbabwe’s long-time president in a palace coup has opened the door to potential democratisation there.

Since August of this year, Togo has seen waves of protests sweep its cities and towns.  These protests come in the wake of efforts to finally secure long-promised reforms that would pave the way for democratisation and the possible end of the Gnassingbe family’s fifty year grip on power.  Demonstrators want a return of term limits on the presidency, first introduced in 1992, and more competitive elections.  The opposition has claimed that the previous elections under the current Gnassingbe-dynasty president, Faure, were fraudulent.  Caving to pressure, the government has proposed reforms that would address many of the demands of the people but the uncertainty around the post-reform status of Gnassingbe, currently in his third term, have sparked unrest.  The proposals introduce a two term limit on the presidency but seem to not apply retroactively to the current office holder and so would allow Gnassingbe the Younger to remain in the position until 2030.  Protests against the government have swept both towns and the country-side, extending even into areas where there is strong support for the ruling party – indicating broad-based exhaustion with the current system.  Unlike in the Gambian case, ECOWAS has been timid to react, possibly due to Gnassingbe currently holding the chair of the organisation.  To date, close to twenty people have been killed by government forces since the beginning of clashes between protestors and security services and mobile phone service and internet access within the country has been suspended.  Despite this, the pressure continues to mount on the government and elements within the leadership are seeking a negotiated solution to the crisis.

In one of the great surprises of the year, Zimbabwe has recently seen the dramatic downfall of the continent’s oldest president in a palace coup orchestrated by elements within the president’s own party.  Robert Mugabe, the country’s first and only president was recently replaced by Emerson Mnangagwa, his former vice-president.  Earlier in the year, in a party purge by Mugabe that was seen by many as an attempt to secure the succession to the presidency for his wife, Grace Mugabe, Mnangawa was removed from his position as vice-president and fled the country citing safety concerns.  The military, in response to this chaos in the ruling ZANU-PF launched a coup, seizing control of state facilities and resources.  Mugabe was forced to resign and Mnanagawa was brought back from exile to be sworn in as president.  Many outside observers and Zimbabweans see in this the potential to end the effective one-party system in Zimbabwe and the introduction of credible and open elections.  In the days between the coup and Mugabe’s resignation popular support was with the coup-plotters and Zimbabweans came out in droves in support of Mnangagwa and the end of Mugabe’s rule.  While this change in leadership is not inherently a victory for democracy, the potential power-sharing government that many suspect will be put in place before the next elections could pave the way for an opening of the democratic process.

Throughout the last year, attempts around the globe to undermine democratically accountable systems have been making significant headway.  Similar efforts have been resisted and even reversed in many African countries.  The continent, never before considered to be a bastion of democratic order, is showing itself to be at the vanguard of pro-democratic change.  Its many nations are home to some of the most determined democratisers and activists who were forged in resistance to oppressive states.  While the rest of the world is backsliding into authoritarianism with appeals to ‘security’ and ‘policy efficiency’, Africans continue to push forward with reforms, activism, and protests in favour of increased democracy and accountability.  A dark cloud may hang over the rest of the world, but the future is bright for democracy in Africa.