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Africa’s Road to Democracy

Democracy in Africa won't come from political elites. It will come from below, in the streets and through popular movements.

Protestors arrive in the main gathering point to protest against the military junta on April 27 in Khartoum, Sudan. Fredrik Lerneryd / Getty

There is much talk today of “democratic backsliding” across the globe, as liberal commentators rue the rise of “populists” of all persuasions and accuse new leaders of threatening the rule of law. Freedom House, always a good barometer of the foreign policy establishment, titled its 2019 report “Democracy in Retreat.” Africa has not been excluded from these analyses: Foreign Affairs, for instance, published an essay in January whose title announced “The Retreat of African Democracy.”

Of particular concern to commentators is so-called “Third Termism.” The Council on Foreign Relations denounces this new “contagion” spreading “from Burundi to Uganda to Cameroon” as “many African leaders [resist] term and age limits on their tenures, altering constitutions if necessary and personalizing executive power.”

Yet the handwringing over Third Termism assume that these leaders’ first and second terms were themselves legitimate. Take Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni was first elected in 1996, ten years after coming to power. In 2005, facing a constitutional limit of two terms, he easily had the restriction removed and captured his third term the following year. He won his fifth term in 2016 and is poised to run again in 2021.

In Rwanda, Paul Kagame first held an election in 2003, nine years after his party took over. He won with 95 percent of the vote that year, and triumphed again in 2010 and 2017 (after holding a popular referendum in which 98 percent of voters assented to lifting the two-term limit for him alone). Even in countries where there have been changes at the top, a single party often holds effective control: neither the African National Congress in South Africa nor the Chama Cha Mapinduzi in Tanzania has ceded power since taking it. The fixation on Third Termism, in other words, ignores the reality that electoral democracy may have been a fiction long before the most recent bout of constitutional manipulation.

It also obscures deeper questions about the nature of democracy on the continent and Western countries’ complicity in buttressing autocratic rule. For decades, the US and its allies have happily backed African leaders, no matter how undemocratic their political systems, as long as they adhered to the trappings of multiparty elections and guaranteed Western security and economic interests. Washington might issue statements of concern over the most blatant and violent exercises of state power — the better to claim the moral high ground — but such quibbles were quickly forgotten as interests in stability, however authoritarian, took precedence.

As a result, Western election observers and embassies often give their approval to African elections even when massive contestation erupts in the streets or opposition parties cry foul. The December 2018 election of Félix Tshisekedi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, surrounded by months of protest, saw European and US criticism of the contest reversed within weeks. In Kenya in 2017, the eagerness to sign off on election results led to some embarrassment: John Kerry, the head of the Carter Center’s election observer mission, gave his imprimatur to Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory, only for Kenya’s Supreme Court to annul the election due to irregularities.

Some commentators do look beyond the name of the leader and criticize these malpractices as injurious to African democracy. They raise concerns about the declining “quality” of elections on the continent and the ongoing degeneration of democracy as incumbent regimes deploy the full might of state machinery, from police to the courts to the budget, to buoy themselves and fragment, co-opt, or violently shut down opposition parties. Writing in the Boston Review, Aziz Rana notes: “The vote, so essential to popular participation and self-government, has become a critical component for a new electoral authoritarianism.” But while correct that elections are serving the interests of power, rather than keeping it accountable, even these critics remain too focused on multiparty elections as the key metric of African democracy.

African intellectuals like Claude Ake, Samir Amin, Issa Shivji, and Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba have long emphasized a different challenge to democracy: the restricted set of policy options available to African states, which find themselves strangled by a skewed international economic structure, the neoliberal economic and security demands of donors, and the pervasive presence of foreign NGOs and development agencies. Africa still struggles with what Thandika Mkandawire called in the 1990s “choiceless democracy,” in which the widespread adoption of multiparty elections ushers in little substantive change and offers few alternatives.

Elections are important — yes. But in contemporary Africa, elections are important because they have become the occasion for outpourings of political energy around which debates arise, new visions are advanced, people throng the streets — and elites make clear just how much violence they are willing to deploy to maintain their hold on power. Elections thus lay bare the dilemmas that opposition forces face in organizing and bringing about political change, as well the new openings for a democratic politics of the street.

This is where we should look to see the prospects for democracy in Africa — not to the technical aspects of elections, but to the forms of organization that people are taking, the demands they are making in Africa’s cities and towns, and the successes and failures of social movements and peoples’ organizations.

A Critical History of African Elections

To appreciate how elections in Africa became so divorced from the democratic will, it is useful to look back at the last major convulsions that shook the continent, during the tail end of the Cold War. In 1985, a series of popular protests broke out in Sudan and quickly spread across much of Africa. Between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, mass demonstrations hit numerous African countries — fourteen in 1990 alone.

These protests — a response to brutal austerity measures imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — led to a flowering of elections across the continent. While only three countries had held competitive elections prior to the wave of demonstrations, by the mid-1990s more than a third of African countries could claim to be at least partially free, at least by the standards of Freedom House and other agencies that measure democracy. Many more were at least conducting elections.

This turn of events, however, ended up benefiting elites in many countries. While the protesters’ demands were far-reaching — fundamental transformations in economic and political life — opposition parties, often founded and controlled by former members of the ruling elite, successfully steered popular energies into the demand from which they stood to gain the most: electoral competition. Across Africa, participants in this second protest wave (preceded by the first wave of the 1940s–1960s, which had won independence) found their demands for social change replaced with an exclusive focus on multipartyism.

Even where elections brought to power a new ruling party, it rarely brought the progressive political and economic measures that protesters in the early 1990s had sought. The neoliberal turn that accompanied Africa’s ostensible democratic transition rendered opposition parties largely symbolic artifacts rather than genuine opponents of existing power dynamics. Elections became just another chance to embrace the prevailing economic consensus, which preached austerity and economic liberalization. Not even the vaunted African National Congress — still an official member of the Socialist International — could escape these trends.

Today, opposition parties around the continent occasionally present a new face at the pinnacle of political power. But nowhere do they represent a genuine challenge to the dominant economic order — nor do they respect the rights of free assembly and free speech necessary for popular politics and democracy to flourish.

So perhaps it should not be a surprise that African countries rank among the most unequal in the world, whether we look at income, consumption, or wealth. Seven of the ten countries with the world’s highest Gini coefficients (the standard measure of income inequality) are African Union members. This includes both middle-income countries like Botswana and South Africa as well as some of the poorest countries on earth, such as Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic.

Considering that many of the continent’s most prominent opposition leaders were once card-carrying radicals, this is a truly remarkable turn of events.

Electoral Disillusionment and Mass Protest

In December 2018, two of Africa’s largest countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, faced profound political crises. In Congo, run by the Kabila family since 1996, Joseph Kabila finally permitted an election to pick his successor after years of delay. In Sudan, ruled by the despotic Omar al-Bashir since 1989, a popular movement exploded across the country. The two countries represent two possible trajectories for popular politics in contemporary Africa.

In Congo, opposition parties, social movements, and civil society actors patiently played the electoral game even as Kabila excluded key opposition figures. Shortly after the election — and despite the disenfranchisement of millions of voters — the Catholic Church, which had deployed forty thousand election observers around the country, leaked the result: opposition candidate Martin Fayulu had won overwhelmingly. Kabila, whose favored candidate only mustered about a fifth of the vote, surprised everyone when he announced that a third candidate, Felix Tshisekedi, had prevailed. The Constitutional Court soon confirmed Tshisekedi’s victory.

The international community, including the United States, quickly acquiesced after initially expressing misgivings. The State Department — which two weeks earlier had promised that the “the U.S. Government will hold accountable those who … impede the democratic process”  — congratulated “President Joseph Kabila’s commitment to becoming the first President in DRC history to cede power peacefully through an electoral process.” Shocked and dismayed, voters across the country were left with little recourse to challenge the blatant theft.

About 1,500 miles away in Sudan, protesters also took to the streets. Beginning in the once-industrial town of Atbara, the protests over rising bread prices quickly spread to other small towns before eventually reaching the capital Khartoum. For four months, protesters maintained their pressure on the regime, which responded with a violent crackdown, leaving at least fifty people dead and numerous others injured or jailed. Finally, last month, after failing to crush the uprising and with support in the military waning, al-Bashir was forced out.

Al-Bashir had been reelected in 2015 with an overwhelming 94 percent of the vote — an outcome that, according to the African Union Election Observation Mission, reflected “the will of the voters of Sudan.” Yet, just three years later, ordinary Sudanese risked their lives to overthrow the regime through nonelectoral means. While the situation is still evolving, Sudanese continue to challenge the military’s efforts to control the transition, and demonstrators are working to craft a new, civilian-led political vision for the post-Bashir era.

This is not to suggest that the growth of popular movements is enough to deepen democracy on the continent. The path forward for protesters is riven with challenges — most pressingly, how to engage with the electoral system as they seek to transcend its existing limits.

Uganda is a good example. The 2011 elections witnessed the most significant challenge yet to the now-thirty-three-year rule of President Yoweri Museveni, who has enjoyed the unwavering support of Western donors. The election pitted Kizza Besigye, leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), against Museveni and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) state-party. When Museveni was declared the winner with almost 70 percent of the vote, the opposition launched the “Walk to Work” demonstrations, bringing tens of thousands into the streets to protest the results as well as the skyrocketing cost of living and widespread government corruption. The unrest was only dissipated when the government deployed special forces in downtown Kampala and Besigye fled to Kenya for emergency medical treatment. The ruling party learned its lesson and proceeded to crack down further, preventing any sustained opposition organizing. The 2016 elections again saw widespread bribery, intimidation, and violence, but, despite calls for a campaign of defiance by Besigye, no major protests took place.

The next year, however, a new kind of challenge to the regime arose. Bobi Wine, a musician with deep roots in Kampala’s poor urban neighborhoods, garnered broad approval throughout the country due to his public work and his socially conscious lyrics. He triumphed in a parliamentary by-election in Kampala in 2017 running on a platform of social justice for the poor and an end to dictatorship and corruption.

Upon winning, Bobi Wine fashioned a new political strategy: instead of going after Museveni directly, or waiting until the regular election cycle, when the state machinery was out in full force, he threw his popularity behind a series of opposition candidates in other by-elections, many of them independent of Besigye’s opposition FDC. Massive crowds swarmed Bobi Wine’s every appearance, and the candidates notched a series of victories. As he gained more attention, the musician announced his “People Power” movement:

People Power is not a political party or political organisation. We’re aware that the state is so scared of the people who come together regardless of their political affiliations, regardless of tribe or religion, but people who envision an idea of having power back in their hands …. So People Power is everybody. People Power is an idea. It is unstoppable. Let us stand together or remain slaves oppressed in our own country.

The regime’s security apparatus sprang into action. Bobi Wine’s concerts and rallies were cancelled or met with tear gas and riot police. In August 2018, the musician was imprisoned and tortured for several days. The outcry was massive, with “Free Bobi Wine” plastered across walls and WhatsApp. He was soon released, but since then he has been subject to constant police harassment, arrest, and legal proceedings.

The state has also sought to build its own popular base by recruiting Wine’s longtime rival Bebe Cool, who began promoting his music (and merchandise) with the slogan “Silent Majority.” Bebe Cool received endorsements from Museveni himself: “I wish him all the best and hope he sings music that advances Africa’s development.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) the extreme state response, Bobi Wine has managed to mobilize a massive following. He has done so by bucking traditional electoral politics and party-based opposition, while also, as an MP, maintaining a foothold in the formal political process.

Still, the limitations of the strategy are becoming apparent. When the next election cycle comes around, Bobi Wine will likely be arrested, and even if he is not, he cannot be everywhere at once. Without his personal involvement, People Power will likely struggle due to its lack of organizational structure, and the NRM machine (and to a lesser extent the FDC machine) may well produce the same results as in the past five elections. What’s more, Uganda’s middle classes and elites may be sympathetic to Bobi Wine as an MP, but they would not countenance him as a serious political leader, even as many youth may be prepared to take to the streets for People Power.

Which raises again the drawbacks of centering a democratic political project around a single charismatic figure.

Africa’s Deepening Democracy

With the end of the Cold War, the Western-backed liberal order entrenched the equation of democracy with elections.

But elections are not democracy, whether in Africa or elsewhere. Central is the respect for two basic principles that define the relationship between a government and society: the right to free assembly and the right to free speech. Both are needed for any popular movement to function, and so any government that holds elections while clamping down on protest simply should not be viewed as democratic. Yet while the international community celebrated Africa’s democratic turn in the 1990s and laments its democratic backsliding today, at no point has the strength of its social movements been treated as a key indicator of democracy.

Something similar can be said for political parties. During the first wave of African protest, when people across the continent threw off the shackles of colonial domination, the decision to form political parties was understood as essential to national liberation. Even during the uprisings that shook Africa in the 1980s and 1990s and inaugurated formal democratization, parties were seen as potentially progressive forces and the natural focus of any political agitation.

Today, two decades of experience with choiceless multiparty democracy has produced widespread disillusionment with the identification of democracy as the machinations of often-indistinguishable political parties. The ongoing surge in protests across the continent makes clear Africans’ own reckoning with the limitations of political parties within neoliberal democracy rather than a loss of faith in democracy itself.

But protests and social movements have largely been unable to pose convincing democratic visions that go beyond multipartyism, and even those that have been successful often struggle to remain relevant. They face the difficult choice of allowing protests to dissipate without substantive results, or of forming a political party and facing accusations of having joined the system. The dilemma of doing democratic politics in an era of multiparty dominance is stark.

Behind this dilemma of party and movement, three deeper structural dilemmas bedevil democratic politics in the contemporary moment. First, how to reach beyond the rural-urban divide that defines African political life. Many African countries remain predominantly rural, and they feature their own political movements and electorates, far from the street politics of urban life. Second, how to define the “people” in an era when the liberatory nationalism of the anticolonial struggles is eclipsed by increasingly xenophobic and regressive forms of identitarian politics. From Libya to South Africa, crowds have turned on the most dispossessed — migrants from neighboring countries — rather than channeling their anger at national and global elites. And third, within urban areas, how to bridge the increasing class divide between the formalized civil society of political parties and NGOs (the province of Africa’s middle classes and elites) and the more informal types of political action, such as public demonstrations, that are favored by the poor.

Highlighting these dilemmas helps make sense of how contemporary political movements are choosing their strategies. For instance, South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters has successfully harnessed popular anger among the urban and rural poor to secure electoral victories. Yet it has also been plagued with claims of corruption, and its personality-centered movement has at times relied on racist appeals for support. As such, despite its growing vote share, the party’s advances have come mostly at the expense of the country’s weak opposition parties rather than the increasingly neoliberal ANC.

Another approach to these dilemmas is represented by Senegal’s Y’en A Marre, which has chosen to remain outside the electoral system. While initially formed to organize popular demonstrations against the former president’s attempt to steal a third term, it has since evolved into a larger social movement that straddles urban-rural and class divides. It has also adapted its message beyond electoral competition to champion issues like climate change and ethnic tensions in the country. By eschewing direct participation in electoral system, the movement has sought to reemphasize the role of popular movements as the drivers of broader social transformation. But it’s still unclear how long it can sustain itself without a party structure.

Regardless of which path Africa’s burgeoning social movements choose, they are redefining the meaning of African democracy as something more than vacuous multipartyism. Despite the difficulties ahead, this push should be seen as an impulse for a deepening of democracy — not a retreat.