progress that sub-Saharan Africa has achieved in building democracy over the past generation is coming undone. After two decades of significant gains, the continent has experienced a steady
decline in democracy over the last several years.
In 1972, when Freedom House began publishing Freedom in the World, the state of political and civil rights in sub-Saharan Africa was bleak. With the exception of a few bright spots, dictatorships of one stripe or another ruled the majority of citizens on the continent. Coups and countercoups were commonplace, as were leaders who proclaimed themselves “president for life.” Elections, if held at all, were often manipulated to validate an incumbent leader’s rule.
In the mid-1980s, a wave of democratization began to transform Africa. The continent experienced close to two decades of steady and, in a few cases, impressive democratic gains, arguably reaching the peak of its development in 2005. For that year, of the region’s 48 countries, 11 were rated Free by Freedom House, while 23 were rated Partly Free and 14 remained Not Free.
From 2005 until today, democratic setbacks in sub-Saharan Africa have significantly outpaced its once promising gains. Political and civil rights improved in only 10 countries, largely due to the stabilization of post-conflict situations, while 23 countries experienced overall, and often rapid, declines in democracy. In the most recent edition of Freedom in the World, covering calendar year 2011, only nine countries were rated Free, 21 were rated Partly Free, and a shocking 19 were designated Not Free.
Improvements in 2011 were evident in Niger, which held competitive and transparent elections, and Côte d’Ivoire, where Alassane Ouattara assumed the presidency following extensive fighting triggered by the refusal of the previous president, Laurent Gbagbo, to accept defeat in the December 2010 elections. In addition, Zambia achieved modest gains due to elections that led to a peaceful transfer of power to Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front, ending over two decades of rule by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy.
The most notable declines in democracy for sub-Saharan Africa in 2011 took place around elections. The Gambia was downgraded from Partly Free to Not Free in the aftermath of presidential elections that were judged neither free nor fair. The electoral environment was rendered toxic by President
Yahya Jammeh’s suppression of the political opposition, media, and civil society. In Uganda, the government of Yoweri Museveni brutally cracked down on independent journalists and employed
repressive tactics against peaceful protesters. Antigovernment protests were also subjected to a violent crackdown in Djibouti, which witnessed the intimidation of opposition political parties
prior to an election that resulted in a third term for President Ismail Omar Guelleh. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the flawed November elections sparked widespread violence that
continues to engulf Kinshasa and threatens to become a nationwide conflict if a timely political solution is not reached.
The causes for sub-Saharan Africa’s setbacks in the period from 2005 to 2011 vary from country to country, but upon deeper analysis, a clear pattern begins to emerge—Africa has suffered a noticeable decline in all of the fundamental components of freedom that inform Freedom in the World. The sharpest declines occurred in the categories of Freedom of Expression and Belief (22 countries), Political Pluralism and Participation (20 countries), and Rule of Law (20 countries). The score for Organizational and Associational Rights declined in 18 countries, while that for Electoral Process decreased in 14 countries.
The deterioration in these areas reflects the determination of political elites to hold on to power at any cost, and particularly to hijack elections. Excluding countries that suffered armed conflicts or coups over the last two decades (and the newly formed nation of South Sudan), all of the sub-Saharan African states rated Not Free this year have been ruled by the same parties or leaders for at least 20 years, and in some cases much longer.
There is a clear link between the length of ruling parties’ tenures and the steady decline in democracy. Even sub-Saharan Africa’s powerhouses, such as Ethiopia (21 years), Kenya (10 years), Nigeria (13 years), and South Africa (18 years) have experienced an overall stagnation or decline in freedom. The poor performance of precisely these largest and most influential countries, which had previously inspired hope for democratic progress, is perhaps the most disturbing trend in the region. Kenya, despite its previously modest democratic gains, has not fully recovered since the flawed elections of 2007, following which politically motivated ethnic violence broke out. To date, impunity has largely reigned; those responsible for directing and participating in the violence have yet to be held accountable. Similarly, Nigeria’s stagnation since the disastrous elections of 2007 has included pervasive corruption; elections in 2011 that, while somewhat improved, were still marred by numerous cases of political violence and suspected vote fraud; and increasing levels of sectarian and religious violence.
Ethiopia continued a decade-long trend of growing authoritarianism. In 2010, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi masterminded national elections that were thoroughly tainted by intimidation of opposition parties, independent media, and nongovernmental organizations. Meles has increasingly employed so-called antiterrorism laws to brazenly suppress any semblance of political opposition or independent media. South Africa, although still categorized as a Free country, has seen its democracy deteriorate as a result of political interference in the judiciary and threats from top government officials against the media.
Sub-Saharan Africa in 2012 is a political minefield where in almost any election, desperate incumbents could trigger an outburst of repression, political violence, and ethnic conflict. With 18 countries scheduled to hold some form of elections in 2012, including Angola, Cameroon, Senegal, and potentially Kenya and Zimbabwe, democracy may deteriorate further if the balloting is not free, fair, and accepted by all parties.
The continent suffers from leaders who have overstayed their welcome and would in fact be replaced if elections were fair. The international community needs to engage early in electoral processes; step up the pressure to prevent political elites from cracking down on the opposition, media, and civil society in the run-up to voting; and ensure that the electoral results are respected and a transfer of power takes place. Otherwise, sub-Saharan Africa will continue to slip back toward where it started in the early 1970s.