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The African Democracy Charter at 11: Hard work required to avert democratic deconsolidation

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The African Democracy Charter at 11: Hard work required to avert democratic deconsolidation

Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari

30 Jan 2018

11min min read
  • Democracy

Eleven years since the adoption of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and GovernanceDr Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari ponders whether democracy on the continent has been a mirage or if it is being consolidated as a permanent feature in governance.

Viktor Orbán of Hungary, the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and Jacob Zuma of South Africa all turned their countries away from liberal democracy and toward autocracy.  Worldwide, democracy is in recession.”  With these lines, in an article in the March 2017 edition of The Atlantic titled How to Build an Autocracy, David Frum inked South Africa, a pivotal state in the support for democracy in Africa, in the company of states responsible for its deconsolidation.

This is hardly surprising given the South African government’s botched push to withdraw from the Rome Statute and the broader perception challenge facing South African democracy. South Africa’s entry onto that list is worrying for a country that has been at the centre of the normative strengthening of democracy and support for a pan-African vision through the overarching collaborative framework of the African Governance Architecture (AGA). 

Among these frameworks, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG), the first legally binding regional instrument in the promotion and protection of democracy, celebrated a decade on 30 January 2017.

Its 11th anniversary this week provides a fresh opportunity to gaze beyond the accouterments of independence (flags, currencies and elections) and proliferation of institutions in Africa to assess if democratic instincts have grown sustainable roots over time through the Charter. 

While many Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have regional protocols committing state parties to higher forms of democratic governance, performance has been varied and is not in line with the Chapter 10 Mechanisms for Application of the Charter, which calls for greater integration between the regional and pan-African instruments of the African Union (AU). Moreover, the entry into force of the African Democracy Charter was delayed until 15 February 2012, underscoring African leaders’ less than enthusiastic commitment to legally binding democratic frameworks. Participation has been low, with only 24 state parties out of 39 signatories having ratified what is otherwise an ambitious Charter. It begs the question whether democracy in Africa has been a mirage or is being consolidated as a permanent feature in governance. 

It is demonstrably accurate that democracy in Africa is at risk of being trapped in an ‘electoral fallacy’. Regular elections take place, but the democratic franchise has not become sufficiently diffused and entrenched as a mode of governance across political and social institutions. The challenge (of the ‘electoral fallacy’) notwithstanding, the point should be made that not all of Africa is backsliding on democracy. 

Without question, in parts of Africa, democratic processes, reforms and mediating values are stuck in a transitional phase. For democratic consolidation in governance to take place, and for a better path for democracy in Africa to be charted, the continent should look beyond the push for more institutionalisation. Many African countries have democratic institutions in place. The challenge is to make them work optimally. What is crucial is a new lens taking into cautious account variations from within member states and appreciating differences in the evolution from Western forms of democracy. But there should be a supplementary commitment to democracy as an end in itself on the part of member states. 

Singular objectives and plural outcomes

Almost three decades after the end of the Cold War, and one decade after the Africa Democracy Charter, the state of democracy in Africa could best be described through the metaphor of a glass half full or half empty. The Charter in its objectives and principles seeks to promote a culture of democracy and peace through democratic institutions. Moreover, it lays out in Chapter 8 (Articles 23 to 26) ambitious procedures for sanctions in the event of member states’ failure to live up to the provisions of the Charter. 

Its ambitions notwithstanding, the incompatible journeys that the Charter has travelled in its 11-year existence attest to Africa’s unique democratic development trajectory. From inception, the Charter, aspirational in its norm-setting and directive in implementation, was met with apprehension and indifference, a mood still evident today. This is not unanticipated. Five arguments could serve as an explanation.

First, three out of the eight recognised Regional Economic Communities of the AU do not have separate instruments or constitutive documents on democracy, elections or governance. 

These are the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Communauté des Etats Sahélo-Saheriens (CEN-SAD) and the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). Facing transnational threats, including religious extremism and terrorism, these three RECs constitute an important corpus in the African Union. Conflict dynamics and domestic politico-religious considerations are affirming exceptions and differentiations in modes of governance in Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Sudan, and Libya to list but a few states in the Sahel and West Africa. Lowest-common-denominator democracy and differing expectations, if not indifference, in these peripheral zones partly explain why democracy is in a state of flux, alternating between recession and consolidation. 

Second, the signs of erosion are manifested through elections as sites of violence and death, the closing down of civil society space, and the rise of populism. 

At high points during elections, protests and manifestations, social media and internet blackouts as anti-democratic impulses are part of the state apparatus response. These point to the malaise of democracy in Africa. 

Election-related violence, often a consequence of elections deemed not to be free and fair by the losing parties, has been on the increase. Election rigging and ballot-stuffing is a recurrent feature of the democratic landscape. Institutions are in place, but manipulation – as the delayed electoral processes in the Democratic Republic of Congo attest to – is more subtle and sophisticated. 

Election-related violence and other forms of democratic erosion are accentuated by standard explanations such as slowing economic growth, rising inequalities and political gridlock, of which Kenya is the most recent manifestation. As a consequence, a potentially dangerous surge in semi-authoritarian leadership, disaffection with liberal democracy and a desire for the ‘strongman’ is finding an echo chamber as a guarantor of stability and buffer against the perceived rise of corruption and unaccountable leadership. Tanzania under the leadership of a democratically elected John Magufuli, popular but with bold populist rhetoric oftentimes going against the rule of law, the values of political diversity and press freedom, is a case in point. 

Third, democracy – a soft prevention mechanism – has been de-prioritised in the context of conflict and the rise of religious extremism and terrorism. 

Western actors prioritising the fight against terrorism as their top concerns in light of its direct consequences on their own domestic contexts are without doubt contributing to the democratic recession in some parts of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia, Mauritania and Chad have struggling democratic credentials. But the fight against terrorism as a hard-conflict issue with state survival at its core has made less democratic states pivotal actors in the development and counter-terrorism strategies of the West. This form of security co-operation has occurred at the expense of the stalled agenda on the input-side of democracy. As a consequence, a security-first doctrine is reinforcing a status quo where democracy is not consolidating. Moreover, the diffusion of power from the state to non-state actors that has been in motion is now under threat. 

Fourth, the immense economic muscle of China, its own anti-democratic economic miracle, and other rising powers (Russia and Turkey) that are unenthusiastic about democracy have intervened in Africa’s path towards liberal democracy. 

These powers do not call for respect of human rights, free elections, democratic institutions and inclusive participation as preconditions for engagement. Cynically, the nature of the regime is not important to them, provided their interests can be secured. In light of their own state of democracy, these powers pursue case-by-case transactional diplomacies at the bilateral level, offering attractive outlets and enhancing the legitimacy of less accountable governments. They have emboldened the stance of errant democracies such as Zimbabwe. 

Fifth, the health of democracy in Africa is intimately tied to the state of democracy, if not the rhetoric of democracy, worldwide. 

Traditional and rising powers, including South Africa – once an eminent normative voice in the sub-region –  are under-investing in democracy promotion with disturbing impacts on the state and quality of democracy in Africa. 

Former US president Barack Obama’s strategy of retrenchment based on the belief that if the US stepped back, “its allies would step up and take more responsibilities for the upkeep of the liberal order” appears to be faulty. The election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the accompanying rhetoric of ‘America first’ signalled under-commitment to the norms of democracy, human rights and justice. The decline of democracy in Turkey, an influential Muslim state and developmental actor in North Africa and the Horn of Africa, is eroding the ‘demonstration effect’ it was to have, had it continued on the trajectory of democratic consolidation in its domestic order. If not addressed, the cumulative effects of these negative trends on the state of democracy could become obvious in the months and years to come. 

Long-term rulers

Due to internal and external forces, democracy in Africa is troubled. The normative conviction about democracy’s intrinsic merits and superiority against other forms of government seems to be under severe stress. Conflicting signals in the domestic politics of African countries, including divergent views about presidential term limits and the role of civil society as firewalls in democratic governance, seem to attest to the challenges on the road ahead. 

With distressing consequences for internal democratic development, 19 African leaders have ruled their countries beyond two decades. The departure of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe in late November 2017 led to a marginal decrease. However, an extended stay in power by one leader hardly opens up the space for democratic norms diffusion and values convergence within the African Union. 

Democracy seems to be stuck in the electoral fallacy, with a worrying lack of appetite among the political class for norm diffusion and implementation beyond elections. Democracy’s incoherent path and hybrid practices under hesitant democrats suggest that the distribution of democratic reforms in Africa are invariably at odds with what had been anticipated in the Africa Democracy Charter

Crafting a new path for democratic governance 

It is premature to conclude about the de-prioritisation of democracy as a dominant and preferred form of governance in Africa. Without doubt, the liberal democratic model is demonstrably under stress in certain quarters of the continent for its inability to deliver inclusive development and prosperity for most Africans. It is vulnerable. But it is not at ground zero. At this juncture of uncertainty, the road ahead for democracy points to a unique opportunity for consolidation. 

With the Africa Democracy Charter entering its second decade,  the uptake in signatories and membership of 38 countries could serve as an important landmark for the future of democracy in Africa. In addition, this positive signal should be emphasised alongside the re-invigoration of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), whose remit on democratic governance is wider and potentially more impactful. With 36 members and 17 reviews by the Forum of the Heads of States and Government, the APRM has the potential to illustrate the challenges and opportunities ahead in Africa’s path to democratic consolidation. 

The majority of African states have committed to some minimal form of democratic institutions and procedures.  Moreover, not all regional integration mechanisms have fared badly on democracy support and promotion. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has demonstrated capacities and capabilities in impacting on the domestic order of member states through the imposition or restoration of democracy. 

Following the disputed December 2016 presidential elections in The Gambia in which the incumbent Yahya Jammeh lost to Adama Barrow, ECOWAS managed to restore democracy by threatening the use of force. Even though it deployed troops to enforce the electoral outcome, a democratic transition succeeded without resorting to military force. Moreover, ECOWAS also succeeded with French support in forcing respect for the electoral outcome in the December 2010 presidential elections, where the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo had lost to Alassane Ouattara. At its May 2015 summit in Accra, Ghana, ECOWAS attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to put presidential term limits on the regional integration agenda in the wake of the upheavals in Burundi a month earlier. This suggests that there are regional frameworks that are progressing in democracy promotion and enforcement.  

In addition to regional framework-induced successes, internal developments within countries could serve as an explanation for the spread and pace of democratisation. Grassroots social movements have facilitated the consolidation of democracy in parts of Africa. In Burkina Faso for example, popular uprisings against one term in office too many led to the displacement of the political oligarchy of Blaise Compaoré in 2013, opening space for dissent, competitive elections and the emergence of a pluralistic civil society. Similar uprisings and protests from the ground up were evident in Burundi (2015), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal (2012) and Ethiopia (2017). Without doubt, outcomes have been divergent, in some instances leading to repression in Ethiopia and Burundi, and difficult compromises in the DRC. But in the case of Senegal, the social movement Y’en a Marre (We have had enough) mobilised youth against the presidential candidacy of then incumbent Abdoulaye Wade, who was seeking a third term, and lost. 

The interaction between internal demands for democracy and the external facilitation role of AU protection mechanisms and instruments in these domestic processes should not be underestimated. Several articles and protocols of the AU express noble principles on democratic governance, human rights and elections in Africa. 

Pursuing a policy of zero tolerance, Article 30 of the AU Act in relation to unconstitutional changes of government, has been widely applied to Mali (2012), Egypt (2013) and Burkina Faso (2013).  Following a coup d’état and undemocratic forms of acceding to power in these member states, the AU suspended them from participation in its activities subject to a return to a civilian government. It suggests that the AU’s transition from norm-setting to rule-implementation constrains the actions and behaviours of member states. 

Within the AU and several regional economic communities, a technocracy is emerging, socialising through seminars, workshops and advisories to member states about paths to democratic consolidation in line with the Constitutive Act and the African Democracy Charter. These developments do not mask the challenges that remain, including the military inspired changes that transpired in Zimbabwe in November 2017, leading to Mugabe losing power.     

The rise of counter-democratic models of governance as attractive, inspired by the success of China and its presence in Africa, is generally exaggerated. As a result of democratic gridlock, poor service delivery and corruption, there is a perception, albeit in the minority, that authoritarian models, including China's, are better placed to deliver public goods. 

It is true that democratic consolidation requires patience and structural changes are central to its success. The African experience, in which it takes shape under difficult conditions, with plural external and internal demands (religious and political), suggests that democratic development would equally be daunting. The heavy lifting would occur, as it is, due to the domestic demand-side for democracy in many African countries. The multilateralisation of the democratic enterprise through several instruments, including the African Democracy Charter, could then validate and legitimise domestic demand by providing opportunities for better democratic governance and normative convergence at the continental level. But this is still insufficient. The courtesies of institutions and the inherent limits in Africa’s multilateral approaches for democracy demonstrate that there is a need to look beyond the elemental, if not minimalist, considerations for democratic governance. The potential lies in concerted support for domestic processes.


  • The institutional frameworks for regulating and managing democratic outcomes are still weak. Election-related violence and post-election political gridlock attest to the need for an increased focus on election management to be preceded by the mediating values of democracy. Elections are not an end in themselves if they are not preceded by increased accountability, transparency, participation and representation. Limiting the concentration of power, enforcing strong checks and balances and including term limits for presidents could reinforce domestic accountability and transparency frameworks. 

  • Their internal challenges notwithstanding, pivotal states such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire should promote democracy as an end in itself through which other ends such as inclusive economic development and poverty reduction are realised. Leadership from these regional powers and the diffusion of norms, capacities and practices into the national processes of member states provide greater scope for convergence and urgent peer-learning beyond the overarching collaborative frameworks of the AU. As members of the APRM , those reviewed could share their experiences in their bilateral and multilateral diplomacies in Africa. For the latter to occur, a more ambitious approach with the APRM is necessary.  

  • Development co-operation and the role of international actors in creating and strengthening space for democracy have been instrumental in the domestication of the demand-side of democracy. The international community should not accept or support versions of weaker supply-side of democracy that do not necessarily speak to the normative commitments the continent had crafted in its instruments. Provided they don’t undermine the elemental conditions for democratic governance, variations are acceptable. The AU Constitutive Act and the Charter lay down a solid foundation for the right to democratic governance for Africans. The right to democracy in Africa should be supported through more investments buttressing domestic democratic processes, including broader civil society, as opposed to over-investments in regional frameworks.

(Main image:  Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.