Africa bucks worldwide anti-democratic trends

Forget the old, negative narratives about African difference – if the continent is currently diverging from the rest of the world it is for positive reasons


Forget the old, negative narratives about African difference – if the continent is currently diverging from the rest of the world it is for positive reasons, says Gyude Moore

Few places in the world have suffered as the continent of Africa does from the stickiness of a negative narrative. Mention Africa and some version of a monochromatic narrative of poverty, insecurity, and disease will dominate.

That this perspective reflects a partial reality of the continent feeds its resilience, solidifying a perception of the continent’s exoticism and otherness, especially in the West. The nuance and complexity taken for granted in the stories of other regions are stubbornly denied Africa. This narrative either ignores or gives short shrift to a continent diverging from global trends in a good way. Here is a corrective.

Nativist political movements

The continent is diverging from its perception as a bastion of autocratic regimes. The democratic instinct and aspiration, is equally, if not more, evident across the continent than in other regions.

The rise of nativist political movements is well recorded elsewhere. Politics in other democracies seem determined to use the democratic system to restrict or cancel fundamental rights around citizenship, identity, and voice. Across our continent, the trend is moving in the right direction.

The campaign to withdraw the UK from the European Union was based on an abuse of the democratic process and system. Even when the campaign’s lies were later uncovered, there was no public outrage and demand to nullify the results.

In India, the world’s largest democracy, the new Citizenship Amendment Act could impact the rights and privileges of citizenship for some 200m Muslims. The Act expedites the path to citizenship for members of six religious minority communities – Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian – if they can prove that they are from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh.

Critics claim that the move will marginalise India’s Muslim community. Despite robust opposition, India is in the process of withdrawing, not expanding or consolidating, the rights of citizenship. A plurality of the electorate seems content with perverting the democratic process for undemocratic outcomes that severely restrict the rights of their fellow citizens.

The trends continue in the world’s most powerful democracy, the US. Whether in jest or sincerely testing the waters, the president has on more than one occasion openly suggested a third term in a democracy that limits presidential term limits to two.

During his impeachment trial he was accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate his domestic political rival, Joe Biden, by threatening to withhold military aid. When the opposition attempted to hold him accountable for this, his party closed ranks behind him and rendered the process a farce, leading to his swift acquittal by the Senate. 

He has acted to limit or withdraw state resources from vulnerable groups and reinterpreted the immigration laws to redefine citizenship, limiting entry of certain ethnic and religious groups. As in India, the US is a democracy actively constraining rights, not expanding them.

Africans support democracy

Contrary to undemocratic trends elsewhere, Afrobarometer notes that a large majority of Africans support democracy and reject authoritarian alternatives. In 34 surveyed countries, the average African prefers democratic rule and more than two-thirds (68%) say democracy is the best form of government.

When the incumbent Malawian president Peter Mutharika declared victory in 2019 polls and the Malawian Electoral Commission approved his re-election, thousands took to the streets. In a 500-page ruling, the Malawian High Court nullified the results of the 2019 elections and ordered that a new presidential vote be held within 150 days.

But the court went further, ruling that the simple plurality standard that had been used since 1994 went against the majority principle in the Constitution and called on Parliament to amend the Election Act.

In Sudan, ordinary citizens braved death, beatings, and imprisonment to demand a government representative of the people. Their insistence on the expansion of rights and accountability could result in former dictator Omar al-Bashir facing genocide and war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court over his actions in Darfur following a commitment made at peace talks between Sudan’s government and rebel groups from Darfur.

In Algeria, when former President Bouteflika signalled he would make a fifth run for president, hundreds of thousands protested, leading to his ouster. And while the outcomes of the Algerian democratic experiment are uneven, the same demand for an expansion of rights remains alive and well.

Turning outwards, not inwards

While nativist politics turn states inward elsewhere, Africa is again divergent in its aspirations. The UK’s exit from the European Union follows the Trump administration’s withdrawal from negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and announced intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

In contrast, in July of this year, trading will commence in the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a markedly different direction from the rest of the world.

The AfCFTA will combine Africa’s economies into a single market of over 1.2bn people. The Brookings Institute’s Landry Signé estimates that a successful AfCFTA will give Africa combined consumer and business spending of $6.7 trillion in 2030.

Whether the objective of a single African market succeeds or fails, the continent is clearly moving in a different, more positive direction than the narrative that has come to define it. 

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