Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading news stories about the deterioration of democracy in Africa. For someone like me who has been encouraged by positive improvements on the continent over the past decade, it certainly is depressing reading.
Reporting on the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s failure — a second year running — to identify an African leader to receive its sizable good governance prize, Deutsche Welle notes that few African leaders are leaving power voluntarily (a prerequisite for the prize). Instead, they are doing what they can to hang on to political control — sometimes for decades. There are now four African leaders who have been in power for over 35 years. These men keep a tight rein on the economic and political affairs of Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Zimbabwe.
Abuse of Power by African Leaders
Some leaders are looking to change constitutional provisions to remain in power far beyond their originally designated terms; this is the case in both Rwanda and Burundi.
In Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh, in office for 22 years, first conceded defeat in a December 2016 election. He then backtracked, rejecting election results, closing private radio stations, and jailing critics. He was finally coerced out of office after military forces from the Economic Community of West African States entered the country in late January 2017.
In South Africa, facing mass protests and rising calls to step down over charges of corruption and poor handing of the economy, President Jacob Zuma is instead looking to consolidate power.
And in Uganda, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s political party is working to amend age restrictions on his office and, in effect, make him president for life.
The Canadian paper the Globe and Mail points out that while democracy may be strengthening in some parts of West Africa (for example, Ghana and Burkina Faso), in East African countries such as Zambia, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, democracy is also under siege: critics are being jailed, charged with treason, and silenced by threats and intimidation. In Uganda, the government is using an old colonial law to charge a critic of the president with being mentally ill, which would enable the government to institutionalize her if the case succeeds.
Problems with Undemocratic Governments
There are a host of reasons to be worried about these developments. First, political leaders who cling to power rarely treat opposition voices fairly: they manipulate election results, choke off a free press, jail journalists and critics, use force to stop protests, and create environments where fear and intimidation reign.
People living in these societies are not free to associate, and if they express their political opinions in the press, through social media, at rallies, or at protests, they often face retaliation. Political monopolization stifles the free exchange of ideas, blocks political participation, and frustrates change.
Second, these governments often rely on the force and power of the military and police forces to limit or silence dissent. Rather than defending citizens from external attacks or enforcing recognized and legitimate rights, the military and the police turn against citizens. Keeping the peace instead becomes an exercise in keeping those in charge in power — sometimes violently and in ways that violate rights to life and liberty.
Third, political monopolization undercuts an open and competitive economy. Authoritarian governments use laws and regulations to reward the politically well-connected by creating barriers to entry for others. Economic competition, like political competition, is constrained, which limits innovation and growth, raises prices, and restricts choices for consumers. These outcomes are not good for the poor people who struggle to make ends meet in these countries.
While the large economic literature on the relationship between democracy and economic growth is mixed, and while some authoritarian societies have experienced sustained economic growth (think Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and China), in Africa, this path has been more fraught. Authoritarian leaders may sustain economic growth in the short to medium term, especially if they can rely on revenues generated by natural resource production. But long-term, sustained economic growth requires creative destruction — something long-term leaders tend to dislike in both political and economic spheres.
A Discouraging Deterioration of African Democracy
For these reasons, this “deterioration” of democracy in Africa is discouraging. It’s also discouraging because over the past decade, real GDP growth rates across Africa have been strong, averaging about 4.4 percent a year (compared with less than 2.0 percent a year for the United States). Of course, African countries need to maintain high growth rates for many years to catch up to the Western world and to cut poverty rates and the problems that come with poverty: malnutrition, poor educational outcomes, disease, low levels of formal-sector employment, and more.
It had been looking as if Africa was finally on a good path: diversifying its economy, attracting more investment, reducing debt, and growing a middle class. But staying on this path requires governments to provide stable political and economic conditions, protect the property rights of citizens and investors, and allow the forces of creative destruction to do their work, all of which may be less likely if Africa’s leaders continue to frustrate liberty by monopolizing political and economic power.