Or is nearby Mali a more troubling bellwether? A few days before Senegal’s vote, junior army officers stormed and looted the presidential palace in the Malian capital, Bamako, abruptly ending a 20-year stretch of democracy that had raised hopes for the wider region.
Sad tales like Mali’s dominate news from Africa, yet in the longer term its political norms have evolved more towards politicians in suits than mutineers in battle fatigues. Democracy south of the Sahara may be sloppy and haphazard, but electoral contests and term limits are increasingly accepted as fixed rules, to be flouted at a would-be ruler’s peril, rather than distant ideals. Today only one African state, Eritrea, holds no elections.
Even Mali’s coup-plotters have sworn to hold them soon. Tellingly, the country’s neighbours united in a storm of protest. “We cannot allow this country endowed with such precious democratic instruments, dating back at least two decades, to leave history by regressing,” said Alassane Ouattara, the president of Ivory Coast.
Yet many Africa-watchers perceive a gradual erosion of democratic standards. In last year’s Liberian election, the former warlord Prince Yormie Johnson cruised the countryside wearing a red fez. Winding down a window of his Ford Expedition, he would toss banknotes at assembled voters and then speed off to the next village. At one campaign event he lambasted the sitting president for corruption, while an aide fretted about running out of cash to pay off journalists for good coverage.
African elections do not necessarily produce representative governments. In oil-rich but poverty-ridden Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang was “elected” with 95% of the vote. His party “won” 99% of seats in parliament. Many opposition parties in Gambia planned to boycott elections on March 29, assuming they would be rigged. In Zambia, another democratic standard-bearer, the government has tried to shoo the opposition out of parliament for failing to pay a party fee.
Academic studies also paint a gloomy picture. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual democracy index ranks only one African country, Mauritius, as a “full” democracy, though it uses tough criteria that count countries like much-praised Botswana as “flawed” democracies. The Mo Ibrahim Index, a quantitative measure of good governance, shows a decline of 5% since 2007 in African political participation. Freedom House, an American think-tank, says the number of full “electoral democracies” among the 49 sub-Saharan countries has fallen from 24 in 2005 to 19 today.
Southern Africa, historically the best-performing region, is now a problem child. Nepotism and corruption increasingly mar politics in the regional giant, South Africa. The president of Madagascar, André Rajoelina, has remained in power for three years after a bloodless coup. President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi is behaving ever more despotically, provoking Western donors to suspend aid. But even here the news is not all bad. Madagascar may have elections later this year. Angola, where President José Eduardo Dos Santos has ruled since 1979, making him Africa’s longest-serving leader, will soon run parliamentary polls, and its ruling party may push Dos Santos into retirement.
Still, Africa has come a long way. In 1990 Freedom House recorded just three African countries with multiparty political systems, universal suffrage, regular fraud-free elections and secret ballots. “Progress comes in waves,” says Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank. Mali aside, the rest of West Africa has enjoyed a democratic boom. Sierra Leone and Liberia, both violent basket-cases not long ago, have set up respectable if imperfect political systems. Guinea and Ivory Coast overcame spasms of strife and returned to democratic rule. Coup-prone Guinea-Bissau held a calm election on March 18. Nigeria and Niger ran their best polls in recent memory last year. Ghanaian democracy has even been praised by US President Barack Obama.
Yet the poor, illiterate electorates of many African countries are obviously keen on handouts, and thus easy to manipulate. Election violence has also become more common. Congo, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe saw serious clashes after their most recent polls, driven by longstanding ethnic and sectarian rifts.
All these came to a more or less swift end, unlike Africa’s civil wars of previous decades. Political progress during the next decade may be slower than in the past one. The easy post-cold-war advances have been made. Reformers must now set their sights higher. Ensuring better governance by building firm institutions is harder than putting ballots in a box.
Reformers have plenty of reasons to be hopeful, among them the growing sophistication of opposition groups. These used to be a mess — divided, undemocratic and starved of resources. One observer called them “the skunks at the democratic zoo”. Many are still hopeless, but some have learnt that discipline can put them within striking distance of power. Zambia and Senegal are recent examples.
Opposition parties also benefit from the general absence of ideological fault-lines in African politics since the demise of Marxism. More than in the West, voters here are swayed by evidence of individual competence, not party affiliation. This is useful for hungry opposition members competing with complacent governments. Africa’s high birth rates produce a pool of young voters who are more likely to take a chance on political newcomers. In many countries a president or party can win office even where all the supporters are under 30, so long as polls are fair.
At the same time, impressively high economic growth rates in many African countries have fuelled a communications explosion. Political campaigns need no longer depend on government-owned media or the ability to travel to far-flung places. They can reach voters directly and remotely via the internet and, especially, the ubiquitous mobile telephone.
They can expose political skulduggery and also tabulate poll results instantaneously, making fraud easier to detect. In Nigeria’s 2011 election, tens of thousands of monitors recorded local results and fed them by text message into a central system run by volunteers. Devious governments have to invent ever more complicated and hence less effective ways of manipulating results.
The lack of voter data is a costly obstacle everywhere. Most Africans have no identity documents, so electoral rolls often need to be drafted from scratch for every poll. In Congo the government spent more than US$500 million on elections last year, making them the world’s most costly after America’s. High rates of illiteracy and a lack of capable institutions do not help. In Sierra Leone’s border regions, officials judge who should get a voting card by listening to people’s accents.
But setting aside the quality of African democracy, all but a few of the continent’s one billion people now expect to vote in regular national polls. That is something which 1,5 billion Asians, for all their impressive economic performance, cannot do. –– Economist.