What’s Happening to Democracy in Africa?


Last week Yoweri Museveni was sworn in as the President of Uganda for the fifth term in a row. Notable absences from the ceremony were Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, who sparked a national crisis by securing a third term in power, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who recently announced plans to run for a third term himself.

Much has been said of the growing “third-termism” across Africa. However, it’s not only the length of regimes causing concern but the nature in which they’re consolidated.


Rwanda joins third term list

In January, Rwanda president Paul Kagame announced what everyone already knew: that he would run for a third term in the 2017 elections. It was hardly a secret after a lengthy campaign by his government to change the constitution and accomodate the move.

The Rwandan government insists this is what the people want. A constitutional referendum in December seemed to back this up too, with 98% of the public voting in favour of Kagame running again.

The support is overwhelming, but critics say Kagame’s grip on power has silenced both the media and the general public. Most of his opponents are believed to be either dead, in prison or in exile. The lack of opposition is a concern and the silence coming out of Rwanda says more than Kagame might like.


Burundi turns to chaos

Rwanda’s southern neighbour is perhaps the most extreme case of Africa’s stuttering democracies. The country descended into chaos last April after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term. The conflict only worsened after he won the election in a contested victory.

In stark contrast to Rwanda, Nkurunziza is quite publicly an unwanted president for prominent opposition groups in Burundi. However, failed coup attempts and rebel attacks have only fuelled the cases of human rights violations in the country – to such an extent the international community fears a repeat of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.


Ethiopia silences the press

Proof that elections and new presidents don’t guarantee the kind of human rights associated with democracy, we have Ethiopia. President Mulatu Teshome only assumed office on October 7, 2013, making him one of the freshest faces among African leaders. However, the presidency in Ethiopia is more ceremonial than practical, with the share of power lying almost entirely within the government.

Despite the unique political setup, Ethiopia comes with similar human rights concerns to its neighbours. This is especially true for media officials in the country, who are promptly detained and charged under anti-terror laws for covering the wrong topics, or not covering them the correct way.


What’s happening to democracy in Africa?

Countries like Museveni’s Uganda and Paul Kagame’s Rwanda were once seen as example democracies for other African nations to follow. That seal of approval largely came from Western powers such as Britain and the US – and perhaps that’s part of the problem.


Whose democracy?

The truth is African democracy has never been truly African. It was never designed for the African people, their needs or the unique political landscape in their countries.

Instead, the Western model of democracy was dangled in front of African leaders with huge financial incentives – the kind that helped turn Ethiopia into the world’s fastest growing economy.

Those incentives are hard to resist but they don’t guarantee a democratic life for civilians. Election campaigns marred by violence and endless presidencies suggest those financial incentives haven’t been put to best use.


Is the Western influence weakening?

The Western influence on Africa looks more fragile than ever as more leaders start to speak out. Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza shrugged off threats from the EU to cut its funds to the country earlier this year. Before that, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame hit out at the US for criticising his plans to run for a third term.

And just this week, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni publically insulted the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the swearing-in ceremony for his fifth term as president, prompting US, Canadian and European diplomats to walk out.

Perhaps the economic rise of China has brought a non-democratic alternative to the West. Maybe African leaders know Western powers fear another wave of refugees or terrorism spreading further across Africa. Whatever it is, the behaviour of some African leaders suggests they don’t feel they need the West like they once did. And perhaps that means they no longer feel they need the West’s democracy either.


Featured image: 
By HelenOnlineOwn work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32641249

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.