Is there an African democracy

Democracy in Africa: leadership changes are not policy changes

Since 2017, there have been significant, if not transformative, developments in a number of African countries. In almost all cases there were positive trends in countries where a change in leadership raised hopes of political renewal and economic reform. In very few of these cases, however, there was a change in the fundamental character of the political system. Political power is still highly personalized.

Download the BTI 2020 Africa report

In recent years, the African political landscape has been dominated by high-profile changes in leaders and governments. In Angola (2017), Ethiopia (2018), South Africa (2018), Sudan (2019) and Zimbabwe (2018), the change in leadership promised not only a new man at the top, but also a new political and economic direction.

But do changes in leadership and government create more democratic and more responsive governments? The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2020 Africa Report, Changing of the Guard or System Change ?, suggests that we should be cautious about the prospects for rapid political improvements.

The report, which examines developments in 44 countries from 2017 to early 2019, concludes that leadership changes led to a first wave of optimism. Yet the ongoing political challenges and pressures mean that it is often like this: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Political change is taking place gradually in the vast majority of African countries.

More continuity than change

From 2015 to 2019, the more authoritarian states of the continent - such as Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti, Eritrea and Rwanda - made little progress on the way to democracy according to the general pattern. In some cases, the countries have gradually become more and more repressive.

At the same time, many of the continent's more democratic countries - including Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Senegal and South Africa - have remained “consolidating” or “defective” democracies. Very few of them have fallen out of these categories and become authoritarian regimes.

There have been more significant changes in a number of countries. But in most cases this has not fundamentally changed the character of the political system. Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania and Chad, for example, have moved further away from permanent political and economic transformation. Meanwhile, Angola, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe made initial progress along the way, but that progress was limited - and lasted only for a short time in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

As can be seen from this brief summary, at the continental level the paths of the various states have by and large canceled each other out. In some cases positive trends have been canceled out by negative trends in other cases.

All in all, the general level of democracy, economic policy and governance in sub-Saharan Africa has not changed significantly. For example, the index shows that between 2018 and 2020 the overall level of democracy fell by only 0.04 points, a small shift on a scale of 1-10. This indicates continuity rather than change.

Changes in leadership often cause disappointment

In almost all cases there were positive trends in countries where a change in leadership raised hopes for political renewal and economic reform. These include Angola after President José Eduardo dos Santos resigned in 2017 and Ethiopia after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power. This includes Zimbabwe, where the transfer of power from Robert Mugabe to Emmerson Mnangagwa was accompanied by promises that the Zanu-PF government would show greater respect for democratic norms and values ​​in the future.

Sierra Leone also saw significant political improvement following opposition candidate Julius Maada Bio's victory in the 2018 presidential election. Nigeria has continued to make modest but significant advances in economic governance since Muhammadu Buhari replaced Goodluck Jonathan as president in 2015.

The importance of leadership change in all of these processes is an important reminder of the extent of the personalization of power. It is important to note, however, that events since the end of the reporting period in 2019 cast doubt on the significance of these transitions.

In particular, the ongoing and in some cases increasing human rights violations in countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe suggest that we have seen a “changing of the guard” but no change in political systems.

Nowhere is this more true than in Zimbabwe, where the government has cracked down on critics in recent weeks. Not only have journalists been arrested on flimsy charges, but the rule of law has been twisted to keep them in prison. After this sustained attack on democracy, it is now clear that the Mnangagwa government is no longer committed to human rights and civil liberties than its predecessor.

There is no such thing as "Africa"

So what does the future look like? I am often asked in which direction Africa is developing. My answer is always the same: when it comes to democracy, there is no single answer for "Africa". The report on the Bertelsmann Transformation Index shows how true that is.

In addition to the familiar differences between leading countries like Botswana and deadlocked latecomers like Rwanda, there are also profound regional differences that are less well recognized and understood.

Starting from a relatively similar starting point in the early 1990s, there was a strong divergence between western and southern Africa - which remained comparatively more open and democratic - and central and east Africa, which remained more closed and authoritarian. There is also some evidence that the average quality of democracy in East and Central Africa has continued to decline in recent years. As it continues to grow in West Africa, we have seen greater divergence between the two sets of regions.

Figure 1. Average democracy ratings for African regions, BTI 2006-2020 *

These differences reflect the historical process by which governments came to power, the types of states over which they rule, and the disposition and influence of regional organizations. In East Africa in particular there are a number of countries ruled by former rebel armies (Ethiopia, Burundi, Eritrea, Rwanda, Uganda). Here, political control is underpinned by coercion and long-standing suspicions by the opposition.

This is also a challenge in some Central African countries. Here, the added complication of long-running conflict and political instability (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Central African Republic) has undermined government performance in many ways.

A number of former military leaders have also ruled West African states, including Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. The proportion was lower, however, and some countries, such as Senegal, have long traditions of pluralistic politics and civil leadership. The situation is similar in southern Africa, where there are a number of liberation movements. In a number of cases, however, these emerged from broad-based movements that emphasized political participation and civil liberties. Partly as a result, former military or rebel leaders have been less damaging to the prospects for democracy in southern and western Africa.

It is important not to exaggerate these regional differences. There are big differences both within and between these regions. But despite this reservation, we should not expect any convergence in terms of a common African experience of democracy in the next few years. If anything, the gap between the continent's most democratic and authoritarian regions is likely to widen.

This article first appeared on The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.