Prospects and challenges of democratization in Africa #Forum2000online

November 4, 2021

In this week’s #Forum2000online Chat, Dr. Fonteh Akum, the Executive Director of the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies, joined us to discuss the prospects and challenges of democratization in Africa, the role the continent can play on the international stage, as well as the recent developments in Ethiopia and Sudan.  

In Africa, some of the indispensable components of democracy have not yet fully emerged

Despite the wave of democratization in the 1990s, many African countries nowadays slip into authoritarian forms of government. Malawi, Zambia, Tunisia, Sudan — where a military coup has just taken place — and Ethiopia are the latest examples of what some take for an increasing trend. What are the prospects of democracy in Africa?  

According to Dr. Akum, in order to understand the nature of the democratization processes on the continent, it is necessary to realize that some of their most crucial components are still in the process of formation. “The first are the democratic parties, the second is the nature of the state and constitutions which create the playing field on which the political parties operate, and the third is understanding the role of civil society organizations on the continent” he underlined.  

Dr. Akum also recommended looking at the successful examples of democratization in Africa. Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the most recent cases of positive changes and should also be taken into consideration when assessing the state of democracy on the continent.   

African democracies need political parties ready to put the state’s interest over their own, strong civil society, and civic education to sustain democracy

For democracy to thrive, African countries must overcome evident difficulties. “The biggest challenge is to ensure that the transitions from authoritarianism to democracy are sustainable. And for those to be sustainable we need to develop a culture within which political parties are not personalized, but are ruled by norms and platforms that actually respond to the needs of citizens” Dr. Akum emphasized.  

Political parties in African, multi-ethnic countries should stop putting the interest of the ethnic or other identity groups they represent over the interests of their states. In Dr. Akum’s view, “this can be achieved by centralizing the exact political problems that the African states face […] and finding ways where the approach to these problems breaks out from the ethnic and identity silos”. 

Dr. Akum also underlined that civil society actors also have a crucial role to play by holding politicians accountable. Emphasizing the role of education, he added that “the service to the nation should come before the service to the party, and this comes through the civil and civic education that takes the party out of the state and puts the state in the center”. 

Africa is a playground/battleground in the global rivalry of powers. For the continent to become a player, African leaders need strong democratic mandates.  

African continent became a chessboard for the authoritarian powers. In the last decades, China and other countries have tried to pursue their interests on the continent by influencing African politics and the economy. Foreign powers aim to achieve specific economic goals at the expense of the African democrats as the support provided to African leaders is not conditioned upon democratic values and human rights. Dr. Akum underlined that the situation in Africa should be regarded as a part of a broader phenomenon: the global competition for natural resources, for control over supply chains, and the political comparative advantage on the global political arena. 

Dr. Akum invites us to look at this problem from the African perspective by posing the following question: ”what Africa can bring to the international scene so that Africa can set its own agenda and not become an object of others’ instrumentalization”? This would be only possible — as Dr. Akum points out — if African leaders have a strong democratic mandate to represent the interests of their citizens. “It’s about working on the governance architecture within the African states that allow lines of legitimacy, accountability, and representation to be completely clear so that leaders take decisions in the service of the people, rather than in the service of protecting their power base” he added.  

Ethiopia needs to work out a consensus. Anything can happen in Sudan

Commenting on the Tigray crisis in Ethiopia, Dr. Akum underlined that the best solution to defuse the conflict should be through negotiations in which all sides would have to work out suitable solutions. Only finding a consensus on the thorniest issues could prevent the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia from deteriorating: “It would be useful for all the parties involved […] to agree to disagree on some issues, to get to a consensus on the nature of the state of Ethiopia, about distributions of powers between the federal governments and the states, and get to a consensus about the governance arrangement that would get this arrangement to work”

Asked about the possible developments regarding the recent military coup in Sudan, he pointed out the unpredictability of the situation that makes it hard to assess it at this stage. But the country is unlikely to come back to the state from before the events of 2019. According to Dr. Akum, “there are many ways in which this can play out”. He also added: “Sudan under Bashir basically found a way to exist as an insular space. Would Sudan like to go down this path again? I’m not sure”.

In this interview, you will learn that: 

  • Democratization in Africa still faces many challenges, but if certain conditions are met democracy will have a chance to sustain and thrive.  
  • African political parties should put the state’s interest over their own, and civil society should hold politicians accountable.  
  • African leaders should find a way to make the continent a subject and not an object of the global competition over resources and political influence.  
  • Well-functioning democracy for everyone is more important than a well-functioning economy that produces wealth only for the elites and their cronies.  
  • Only finding a consensus could put an end to the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia.  

Dr. Fonteh Akum is the Executive Director of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS). He is the former Head of the Lake Chad Basin program in the Dakar office of the ISS. He joined the ISS in 2017 as a senior researcher in the Peace and Security Research Programme in Pretoria, after which he moved to ISS Dakar as a senior researcher. Before joining the ISS, he worked for the United States Department of Defense, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, and the Africa Program of the United Nations University for Peace. 

The interview was recorded on October 27, 2021, and moderated by Ladislav Garassy, a political geographer based in Prague.