David Pilling Rarely can so huge a continent have displayed so much interest in so small a country. Ever since Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, an African dictator from central casting, first agreed to step down after losing elections in December, the sliver of a nation has become a symbol of Africa’s democratic aspirations.
In the days up to the expiry of Mr Jammeh’s term in office at midnight last Wednesday, the sight of a capricious autocrat digging in his heels and rebuffing attempts by neighbouring leaders to squeeze him out, transfixed much of the continent.
Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, chair of the African Union, summed up how much was riding on this nation of just 2m people when she tweeted: “If we fail the people of The Gambia, we will be failing Africa. We’ve come a long way. Democracy in Africa is thriving.” To say democracy is thriving is a bold statement about a continent that has, not without reason, been associated with dictators and one-party rule.
Seven of the world’s 10 longest-serving leaders are African, with Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang leading the roster. If democracy is thriving, then so is autocracy. But African democrats are still putting up a fight. After bubbling up in the 1990s, when country after country held multi-party elections, there have been promising developments as well as setbacks across sub-Saharan Africa’s nearly 50 countries.
To generalise about so complex a continent is impossible. For every Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president, who has clung on tenaciously for more than three decades, and for every coup attempt (now far less frequent), there is an alternative tale of progress. Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese businessman whose foundation has encouraged good government, is not starry-eyed about the state of African democracy, saying there are at least 20 countries “making a real mess of things”.
But he does sense a new activism among Africans pushing for genuine representation. “The new generation is better educated and social media is offering them better platforms,” he says. “This is a massive new force that can really change things for the better.” Defying the odds For many Africans like those in Gambia, used to decades of oppressive rule, even the prospect of democracy is enough to spark talk of rejuvenation. Two days before Mr Jammeh announced he was going, an extended family in Banjul sat down to watch last Thursday’s televised inauguration of Adama Barrow, the surprise victor in December’s election.
They predicted that many Gambians living abroad would now send money home or move back to start businesses.
Mr Barrow had been forced to hold his swearing-in ceremony in neighbouring Senegal because Mr Jammeh was refusing to stand down and threatening to fight to the last. But the fact that the country was edging towards a democratic resolution was enough to trigger excited celebrations.
“That’s what I’m talking about: a new Gambia,” shouted Matarr, a 32-year-old. Gambia is not the only country to have defied the odds. In 2015, Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, struck a blow for democracy when it pulled off its first peaceful transition between civilian governments since independence.
Old dictatorships, such as that in Burkina Faso, have crumbled, and sturdy democratic traditions — in the context of Africa’s short and turbulent postcolonial history — have held firm in countries as far apart as Ghana, Botswana and Mauritius. Gambia aside, the last year or so, admittedly, has not been great for African democracy. Leaders in Burundi and Rwanda changed constitutions to allow themselves to stay on.
Joseph Kabila failed to hold an election in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast, lawless country that — despite its name — has never had a properly democratic transfer of power. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, in office for 30 years and counting, held flawed elections. In Gabon, President Ali Bongo, whose father notched up 42 years, won in an election that was swung by what seemed to many an improbable 95.5 per cent of the vote on a 99 per cent turnout in Mr Bongo’s home district.
Still, belief in the democratic process among Africans remains strong. At a time when democracy is under pressure in the west and when people have put their faith in strongmen from India to Russia and from China to the Philippines, Africans retain a belief in both the sanctity of the electoral process and the importance of protecting institutions.
According to Afrobarometer, which polls opinion in more than 35 African countries, over two-thirds of respondents in a 2014-15 survey said democracy was “always preferable”, with just 11 per cent countenancing dictatorship or one-party rule under some circumstances. “It always amazes me whenever you have an election in Africa, you see the queues of people outside the polling stations in the sun and the heat,” says Mr Ibrahim. “It seems like our poor people in Africa believe more in western democracy than westerners do.”
Fighting ‘proxy wars’ Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, executive director of the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development, says there are still good reasons to back democracy in Africa. For a start, he says, it has had a decent record of resolving ethnic disputes. Elections, he says, may be “a proxy war for control of the state”, but that is preferable to real wars in countries criss-crossed by ethnic divisions courtesy of colonial mapmakers.
“Democracies are messy, but which African countries have imploded because they are democratic?” he asks, adding that elections helped resolve civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. “The urge for democracy — for good government — has always been there,” he adds. “It is the supply that is lacking.”
The craving is strong partly because so few people in Africa have experienced true democracy.
Idealism after independence from colonial rule gave way to despair as country after country fell into the hands of incompetent or pernicious leaders, many of them soldiers. Perhaps for that reason, the democratic sentiment goes deeper than in parts of east Asia, where people have sometimes expressed a willingness to suspend the “luxury” of multi-party politics for economic progress. Africa’s dictatorships, in contrast to states such as South Korea, Singapore and China, have a poor record of development, with the possible, though not yet proven, exceptions of Ethiopia and Rwanda.
“On the whole, democratic governments in Africa tend to produce less of a mess than dictatorships,” says Martin Meredith, an expert on the continent at Oxford university. Podcast Gambians celebrate peaceful transition of power Gambia, a tiny West African country popular with tourists, is celebrating its first democratic transition after the country’s long serving president, Yahya Jammeh, was finally persuaded to step down.
The Organisation of African Unity, disbanded in 2002, was known as a dictators’ club. Its successor, the African Union, is committed to the ballot box in spite of the fact that its 54 members include some old-fashioned autocrats.
The AU’s Democratic Charter, signed in 2007, commits its leaders to “a political culture of change of power based on the holding of regular, free, fair and transparent elections”. Of course, that commitment is often honoured in the breach. The institution in Africa that has done as much as any to entrench democratic norms is the Economic Community of West African States. Ostensibly a trade grouping of 15 countries, it has developed a strong constitutional bent.
From the day Gambia’s Mr Jammeh started disputing the result of December’s election, Ecowas leaders mounted a no-holds-barred campaign to push him out. The delegation of leaders who flew to Banjul two weeks ago to put pressure on Mr Jammeh to accept the result is an advertisement for west Africa’s improving record. It was headed by Muhammadu Buhari, president of Nigeria, a former military leader who defeated Goodluck Jonathan in the much-praised 2015 election.
Also prominent were Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose 2005 election win in Liberia drew a line under two decades of civil war; John Mahama, the recently defeated former president of Ghana, a country that has held smooth elections since 1992; and Senegal’s Macky Sall, who held a referendum to shorten term limits. ‘Our turn to eat’ Mohammed Ibn Chambas, a Ghanaian lawyer and the UN’s top representative to west Africa, says the region has reduced the space in which dictators can flourish.
Even a despot such as Mr Jammeh, who seized power in a coup 22 years ago, felt obliged to hold reasonably clean elections, he says. Vote-counting in Gambia was carried out in public, one reason Mr Jammeh was unable to hide his defeat.
Ecowas was sufficiently committed to the idea of stopping Mr Jammeh stealing the election that it mounted military action. Protesters clash with police in 2016 after elections were delayed in the Democratic Republic of Congo © AFP West Africa, once a byword for coups and dictators, is now probably the most democratic region on the continent. With so many of today’s leaders the beneficiary of elections, a domino effect has taken hold and the region as a whole has become committed to the idea.
“If you get one or two governments that exercise democratic practices, it tends to influence neighbouring countries,” says Mr Meredith. At the other end of the scale is central Africa and the Great Lakes region, where democratic transition is the exception. East Africa is not much better.
Elections will take place this August in Kenya, a country whose electoral process has often been marred by violence and ethnic rivalries. Kenya has proved typical of the “it’s our turn to eat” blight on much of African democracy, in which winners use the ballot box to seize the levers of state.
In southern Africa, politics is still dominated by liberation parties. South Africa, once a great advertisement for the transformational power of democracy, mirrors the complexity of the democratic story on the continent as a whole. In one sense, it has been a huge disappointment. Under Jacob Zuma, the African National Congress is becoming a typical liberation party, busily enriching itself and failing to improve the lives of many South Africans. Yet the country’s institutions have held up well.
The public protector has exposed corruption and the electorate has delivered its verdict, punishing the ANC at the ballot box in last year’s municipal elections. Mr Meredith says true democracy, as the case of South Africa shows, means more than holding regular elections. “It also requires the rule of law, a robust civil society, an independent judiciary and a relatively free press.”
In this regard, too, the picture across Africa is mixed. In many countries, institutions have been ransacked and the state has cracked down on dissent. That is often a reaction to the very real flourishing of civil society among a better informed and more urban populace. In several countries, including Kenya, there have been mobilisations in support of electoral commissions, whose independence and effectiveness have improved across the continent. Gambia’s case shows that the space for autocrats is shrinking.
Even the worst dictators in Africa, from Mr Mugabe to Mr Kabila, feel obliged to hold occasional elections. And, as Mr Jammeh has found to his cost, once you seek the verdict of the people, anything can happen.
Where development goals trump democratic ideals Two decidedly undemocratic states, Ethiopia and Rwanda, are routinely held up as examples of why westerners, and Africans themselves, should not get too hung up on democracy. Both countries have been called “development states”. Both have been lauded by aid agencies for bringing growth and cutting poverty. And both have been criticised by human rights groups for abuse: opponents of Paul Kagame’s regime in Rwanda regularly end up dead or in exile, and in Ethiopia, currently in a six-month state of emergency, security forces have shot dozens in the street. Supporters of both countries say their records speak for themselves. Only a few decades ago, Ethiopia was associated with famine and poverty. Today it can look back on 15 years in which annual growth has averaged 9.1 per cent, at least officially. It is one of a few African nations to make a go of manufacturing, attracting Chinese, Turkish and US investment in garment and shoe factories.
Rwanda’s case is arguably even starker. In 1994, it went through a genocide when, in just 100 days, close to 1m Tutsi and their Hutu supporters were butchered. Under Mr Kagame, a Tutsi military leader who toppled the government, the country has been transformed. It too has managed to grow year after year at near double-digit rates, according toofficial data. Paul Collier, professor of economics and public policy at Oxford university, says Mr Kagame has overseen “the fastest reduction of poverty Africa has ever seen”. Detractors say authoritarian models are inherently unstable.
No one knows who, if anyone, can replace Mr Kagame. Ethiopia’s development model has run into popular protest. Mo Ibrahim, whose foundation supports democracy, says even if you give the benefit of the doubt to Ethiopia and Rwanda, they are the exceptions. Most authoritarian governments in Africa have been disasters, he says. “You should not throw these two countries in our face when we are arguing for democracy.”
Letter in response to this article:
The Gambians need donors to step up now / From Kathryn Llewellyn, Hereford, UK