The growth and protection of democracy is vitally important to the well-being of all people across all continents. The struggle for democracy in Africa has cost many lives and has suffered many authoritarian regimes. Yet now just as in the twentieth century democracy is being threatened across the African continent. If Africa is to continue progressing socially and economically, then it is vital that the core values of a democratic society are fiercely protected.
THE NATURE OF DEMOCRACY
Democracies across the world but especially in Africa are based on free elections. The idea that each and every individual in society, regardless of social status or wealth, can have a say in the ways things are run is the basis of democracy. Indeed the vast majority of African nations use elections to decide their political leaders.
However, whilst many African countries do hold elections, they also seek to silence dissent and strengthen their position in power undemocratically. Older authoritarian leaders in Africa such as Idi Amin of Uganda or Muammar Gaddafi of Libya often directly oppressed their peoples in order to cement their position in power. Many modern African leaders, however, seek to subtly – that is to do something in an indirect or secret manner – silence opposition and strengthen their power through a variety of different ways.
THREATS TO DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA
The use by African leaders of legislation and the constitution to weaken their opposition is becoming more common. The Public Order Management Act of 2013 in Uganda for example allowed the Ugandan police chief to break up and totally ban any public meetings, giving the Ugandan government a huge amount of power when it came to controlling the ability of their opposition to organise. Ethiopia also introduced in 2009 two pieces of legislation which allowed any individual who has made statements ‘likely to be understood as engaging terrorist acts’ to be prosecuted by the government.
These two cases demonstrate how modern African governments are less violent in their repression of opposition but that repression still exists within a legal framework. African leaders have realised that violent clashes between the police and protesters in the past received negative attention from the international sphere, and so are seeking alternative – but no less repressive – ways of silencing their opposition.
Constitutional change and the undemocratic use of the legal framework are not the only ways in which democracy across Africa is becoming increasingly ‘illiberal’. It is vital for African people to be able to identify the different ways in which democracy is being threatened across Africa, including:
- Barring African citizens from access to regional courts such as the African Court of Justice and Human Rights.
- Nepotism – when political figures give political office and rewards to family members – something particularly prevalent in countries like Angola and Uganda.
- Declining transparency around public finances. If a government does not allow easy access to citizens to information about how their money is spent and on what it is spent then such a government needs investigation in order to strengthen democracy.
HOW WE CAN STOP ILLIBERAL DEMOCRACY
The constitution – the set of ideals and values which most African states are based on – is important. It is important to fiercely protect constitutions and not allow them to be modified by political leaders as they please, otherwise repressive measures can be implemented without consequence. Maintaining the strength of independent courts is also vitally important in holding governments to account for their actions – without any kind of check or balance to the power of political leaders, they are left free to act as they please.
Democracy in Africa is relatively healthy at the present moment. However the ways in which African governments are attempting to cement their position in power are changing for the worse. It is becoming harder to detect undemocratic practices by African political leaders – subtle changes to the constitution seem relatively harmless, but it can easily become a slippery slope. African people must remain aware and reject undemocratic practices by governments before such practices become more repressive.