Why democracy appears tall order in most African countries
Sierra Leone's fourth president says democracy without civil society is like a person with a weak immune system
SATURDAY 23, 2022
By The Tranquility News Reporter, Tanzania
The fourth president of Sierra Leone Ernest Bai Koroma has listed key reasons preventing democracy to flourish in Africa over six decades after independence.
In his keynote address at the Drive for Democracy Conference at the MS Training Centre for Development in Arusha, Tanzania, president Koroma says chief among them are pursuit of one-party system, lack of good governance and leaders clinging onto power.
The post-independence leaders embraced the one-party system because they believed colonialism had destroyed African values, traditions, customs and its unitary system that kept nations together.
Had the one-party system been a basis for uniting diverse ethno-regional, linguistic, political and religious groups; public opposition to authoritarian regimes would not have arisen, the former president argues.
The system ended up marginalising and denying Africans, particularly youth and women, of their voices, identities, recognitions and places they deserved in their societies.
Frustrations bred grievances between states and their citizens, creating effective pressure for political change which culminated into the introduction of multiparty elections in most African countries in the 1990s.
Thanks to the global movement for protecting and promoting human rights which saw the emergence of independent civil society organisations (CSOs).
The CSOs were effective in apprising the citizenry of their fundamental rights and responsibilities, in explaining the role of the government and state institutions, as well as the responsibilities of state functionaries.
The international community chipped in by tagging financial supports to good governance in order to further strengthen the demands for transparency and accountability.
“Since then, democracy, understood as institutionalised, time-bound and competitive elections, along with respect for civil and political liberties, became integral to the agenda of many countries,” says the fourth Sierra Leone president, citing his country which since 1996, held five peaceful, free and credible elections which saw opposition parties winning twice.
President Koroma, however, says democracy should go beyond elections to embrace good governance, safeguard human rights and the rule of law and give hope to the citizens through tangible deliverables in access to social infrastructure, services or in peace consolidation.
“And if you are in it to serve, you must be strong enough to stay focused, and to resist the cheerleaders who would want to declare you as the only one capable of leading the nation,” he cautions.
The former Sierra Leone president says leaders are elected for a limited time and that their responsibility is to do their best within that timeframe.
“Democratic good governance mostly thrives in settings where there is a collective approach to leadership, with those leaderships willing to leave their footprints on the sands of time where there is an inter-generational approach to building a better and brighter future,” he stresses.
Clinging onto power
President Koroma says changing a constitution to run for a third term is simply undemocratic and should be discouraged across the continent.
“There’s very good life after the presidency too. I do sleep better; spend more quality time with my family, my grandchild, and hangout with my childhood friends,” he says.
He observes that democracy is being hijacked, re-engineered and re-presented in ways that the public could no longer recognise it.
“The anticipated democratic dividend of a good life – through the effective management of national resources – of equal access to such resources; of access to justice, to social services, to participate inclusively in the governance of the state; that democratic dividend which should guarantee freedom of speech, of association, of assembly and even of peaceful protest – irrespective of the individual’s political, social, religious, ethnic or regional affiliations – is increasingly being reneged upon by the political class,” he observes.
Africa is experiencing a resurgence of the monster of state capture of not only national institutions of governance; but sadly also, of civil society and the media.
Rather than building and nurturing strong democratic institutions as president Barrack Obama once implored, Africa is getting democratic strongmen who married to the ignominy of the third term.
Democracy is being overthrown not necessarily through the barrel of the gun, rather through the ballot box, aided and abated by the very institutions which ought to protect it.
State security apparatus are increasingly being used to harass, intimidate, and detain opposition leaders and their supporters; persecute predecessors and officials of the past governments.
Parliaments are working in cohort with the executive in some countries, to manipulate the constitution and pass laws that are designed to entrench the powers of the executive.
The judiciary, which is supposed to hold the balance between the opposition, the public and the government, has been instrumentalised to the advantage of the political elites, against opposition parties, and those with critical views.
Elections management bodies whose responsibility is to impartially and fairly conduct free, credible and widely acceptable elections, are instead doing the bidding of the ruling parties.
The fight against corruption is only as potent against the opposition, as it is protective of the status quo.
“These factors have not only discouraged young people on the continent, but they are contributing to the rise in activities of violent extremist groups, and violent eruptions between the state and its citizens,” he notes, Adding:
“In some states, we see the emergence of gangs and cliques, also a demonstration of young people socialising with violence, as a means of social expression, and their search for recognition.”
Owing to the way they have entrenched themselves; massive civil unrests or military tend to be the recurring means by which democratic strongmen could be removed from power.
As democrats, the ideal situation is that political change should always happen through constitutional means because violent change of governments often results in loss of innocent lives.
West Africa alone has recorded three military takeovers this year in Mali, Burkina Faso, and in Guinea. There have also been two attempted coups in Niger and Guinea–Bissau.
Coups and insurrections have occurred in other parts of Africa such as in Sudan and Algeria. Even the stubborn violent insurgents in the Sahel and Maghreb regions have their roots in factors including the resurgence of bad governance.
Freedom House recently reported that out of 54 countries in Africa, only 12 could be considered as ‘free’ over the last 15 years while only 7 per cent of the continent’s population live in such societies.
The democratic reversal is indeed serious that it has alerted ever many organisations and groups to the threats it portends for the economic growth, peace, security and stability of the beleaguered continent.
“The new thinking is that monitoring and observation should go beyond elections to include governance, so that where violations are occurring, early warnings could be signaled,” he says, stressing.
“We must pile this pressure with undiminishing intensity until it becomes extremely untenable for anyone to derail the democratization process that Africa embarked on in the 1990s.”
A survey conducted by Afrobarometer in 30 countries shows that majority of Africans prefer democracy as a political system over and above autocratic ones.
The former Sierra Leon president says the aspiration calls for the intervention of SCOs because democracy without a vibrant, independent and public–centred civil society is like a person with a weak immune system.
SCOs hold the balance between the government and the citizenry by drawing the attention of the government to lapses; issues of corruption and other governance inefficienciesΩ
IN BRIEF: Koroma Administration
The former Sierra Leon president Ernest Bai Koroma was elected in 2007; few years after his predecessor had ended the country’s brutal 11-year civil war. He witnessed the firsthand horrors, pains and the devastation brought about by the war. Roads, water, and electricity infrastructure were completely destroyed. Schools, hospitals, and government institutions were similarly comprehensively wrecked. The Koroma Administration set the tone for the building and consolidation of peace and democracy, knowing that it did not have the luxury of time, financial resources, nor the human resource to resolve all the problems in five years or even ten. The administration developed ‘Agenda for Change’ with five key priorities, deliverables and timelines. It first sent the message for a smooth transition and peace consolidation, including the visiting the outgoing president and vice president to assure them of their safety. The administration earned the confidence of the international partners and investors. Its rankings improved dramatically in Doing Business. In 2010, the World Bank ranked Sierra Leon among 10 most reformed countries in the world. The country also recorded more improvements on the International Monetary Fund, the Mo Ibrahim, Transparency International, and Freedom House indices. It attracted considerable financial supports and foreign direct investments it invested in building roads, hospitals, schools, markets, in supporting farmers with machineries, fertilizers and access to finance. It restored pipe-borne water and electricity. The Koroma Administration’s hard work won the hearts of Sierra Leoneans who elected it for a second term. The achievement though was reversed by the outbreak of the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in 2014, there were calls for the former president to run for a third term but he turned them downΩ