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What 2017 taught us about African politics

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What 2017 taught us about African politics

Nic Cheeseman

13 Dec 2017

5min min read
  • Political stability
  • Elections
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he last 12 months have been a confusing time for African democracy. We have seen coups that didn’t look like coups and elections that didn’t look like elections. In this sense, it was a year of illusions.

As in 2016, the broad trend is clear – with a number of notable exceptions, the gains made in the early 1990s are under threat from governments with little commitment to plural politics. But while 2017 provided further evidence of the danger of democratic backsliding, it also saw powerful presidents suffer embarrassing setbacks in a number of countries.

So what lessons does 2017 have to teach us, and what is going to grab the headlines next year?

1. Don’t mess with the military

In November 2016, the Zimbabwean Defence Forces placed president Robert Mugabe under house arrest and subsequently orchestrated his removal from power. The intervention was cleverly framed as a corrective action to remove “criminal” elements around the president. In reality, it represented an effort by the military to protect its own political and economic interests. 

Once the head of the army, General Constantino Chiwenga, had spoken out against “purges” within the ruling party, he faced being replaced, arrested and charged with treason – and at that point, had little to lose and everything to gain from military intervention.

The ousting of Mugabe therefore serves as an important reminder that despite 30 years of multiparty elections in Africa, messing with the military can still be fatal. Coups are usually justified on the grounds that they are in the national interest, but are actually triggered by threats to the security, pay and conditions of the security forces themselves.

2. If you are polite you can get away with murder

The military intervention in Zimbabwe was also remarkable for being the politest coup in history. Worried that they would be accused of stabbing a nationalist leader in the back – and concerned to avoid regional or international criticism – the coup plotters went to remarkable lengths to make their usurpation of power look constitutional. Instead of being executed or sent into exile, Mugabe was allowed to remain in his house and had his picture taken with his captors. 

All of this was designed to create a cover for private negotiations in which the president was pressed to “voluntarily resign” in order to sustain the image of a legitimate transfer of power.

Amazingly, it worked. Delighted to see the back of Mugabe, the “transition” was broadly welcomed around the world. The willingness of so many people to play along with the idea of a bloodless coup is deeply problematic, first because it may encourage security forces in other countries to try and repeat the trick, and second because it is false. There are growing reports that a number of human rights abuses occurred as the military moved to exert political control. When the testimonies of the victims are finally heard, it will cast a very different light on the coup, and the government that it has put in place.

3. Judges can’t save democracy

The Kenyan Supreme Court made history when it became the first judicial body on the continent to nullify the election of a sitting president – Uhuru Kenyatta – on 1 September. This remarkable assertion of judicial independence was celebrated throughout Africa and beyond, as democrats dared to dream of a new phase of judicial activism. 

However, any hope that the need to repeat the election would lead to widespread reforms and a better quality process turned out to be overly optimistic. Instead, evidence that political interference in the electoral commission was undermining efforts to strengthen the system led to an opposition boycott. As a result, President Kenyatta won the second poll by a landslide, but without the legitimacy and mandate that such a majority would normally give rise to.

Kenya’s experience in 2017 demonstrates that more independent judiciaries can have a major impact on democracy, but also that this impact is constrained by weaknesses elsewhere in the political system. Because Supreme Courts lack both legislative and enforcement powers, they are dependent on others for their decisions to be implemented. In turn, this means that the same problems that have been identified in electoral commissions, legislatures, and political parties ultimately hamper the ability of judges to enforce the rule of law. 

4. Political exclusion breeds secessionism

One of the main stories of the last 12 months is an upsurge of secessionist sentiment in Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria. Significantly, while the demand for the creation of a separate state has complex roots, in each case it was triggered by perceptions of political exclusion. 

Although these movements have very different dynamics, they have all led to protests and met with a hostile state response. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, they are also movements that don’t really want to secede: in each case, opposition leaders are using the threat of separation as a way to highlight – and contest – their political exclusion. Nonetheless, unless some of their demands are met, secessionist sentiment is likely to harden, undermining national identities and paving the way for future political crises.  

5. Western companies remain part of the problem

The negative social, environmental and political impact of some multinational companies operating in Africa is well known, especially when it comes to the extraction of natural resources and bribing governments to secure lucrative contracts. What 2017 revealed was the extent to which this is also true of the public relations firms that parties and leaders hire to make them look better. 

The most high profile example of this was Bell Pottinger, a British “reputational management agency” that stands accused of designing a campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa as a way of deflecting attention away from the poor performance of the African National Congress government. Although the company was paid extremely well for the work - £100 000 a month – this proved to be little compensation when the scandal broke and it was forced into administration.

However, while Bell Pottinger has gone, many of the multinational companies who do this kind of work continue to operate. Along with the lucrative nature of these contacts, this suggests that Western companies will continue to play a questionable role in African elections in the future.

2018 and after

The next 12 months are not likely to be kind to African democracy. Very rarely has the continent seen so many elections scheduled in such unpromising contexts. Early elections in Sierra Leone have the best prospects of going well, but after that there is a serious risk of flawed processes and controversial outcomes in a series of legislative elections that will be held in highly authoritarian countries: Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Rwanda, Swaziland and Togo. 

Of course, parliamentary polls are not as high profile as presidential elections, but these are unlikely to offer too much cheer to the continent’s democrats. General elections are currently scheduled in Cameroon, Mali, South Sudan and Zimbabwe. The great challenge facing Mali and South Sudan is organising a credible contest against a backdrop of political instability and weak institutions. The situation is markedly different in Cameroon and Zimbabwe, where entrenched regimes that tightly control the political landscape will hold elections that they have no intention of losing.  

It is important not to be defeatist though – in the last few years the most significant democratic breakthroughs have been unanticipated. Few predicted the defeat of Yahya Jammeh, the victory of the opposition in Nigeria, or the decision of the Supreme Court in Kenya. The next great democratic moment could be just around the corner…

A version of this article was originally published on The Conversation. Read it here

(Main image: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)