Democracy is losing ground in Africa
Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
July 13, 2008

NAIROBI, Kenya - Election-related meltdowns in Zimbabwe and Kenya are stark reminders of democracy's fragile foothold in Africa, experts say, despite years of financial and diplomatic investment by the United States and other Western nations.

A combination of challenges unique to the continent, including worsening poverty and inconsistent international engagement, is blamed for fueling a string of setbacks. After some progress in the early 1990s, once-promising governments have regressed, particularly around election time.

"Overall, the continent has had a deflation of strong democratic leadership in recent years," said J. Stephen Morrison, Africa director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "In some places we are seeing that autocratic pseudo-democracies have formed."

In addition to disputed presidential elections in Zimbabwe and Kenya, where longtime incumbents refused to cede power after their opponents declared victory at the polls, last year's ruling party victory in Nigeria was widely condemned as flawed. Uganda's president changed the country's constitution to stay in power. Ethiopian government forces killed about 200 opposition supporters after a 2005 vote.

Though there have been democratic success stories, such as Ghana and Sierra Leone, some see the coming years as a crucial period in determining whether much of Africa will move forward in embracing democracy.

"The continent right now seems caught in the middle between the good cases and bad cases," said Chris Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute, which promotes democratic reform around the world.

Western interest wanes

The Bush administration has been praised for sharply stepping up spending to combat diseases in Africa, including about $19 billion on HIV/AIDs and $1.2 billion on malaria. But it has been less vigilant when it comes to bolstering democratic institutions, analysts say.

Efforts to promote democracy in Africa largely have been confined to Sudan, which was torn by a north-south war and is racked by conflict in the Darfur region, in which more than 200,000 people have died.

Indeed, after a flurry of support in the early 1990s, which helped usher in multiparty systems and stronger institutions, the U.S. and other Western powers have largely focused on the Middle East and Asia.

Zimbabwe's crisis is a prime example, critics say. President Robert Mugabe long ago began leading his southern African nation toward economic ruin and violent autocracy.

"We should have stopped Mugabe in his tracks years ago," said Johann Kriegler, who oversaw South Africa's first democratic election in 1994 and is leading a commission to investigate Kenya's electoral breakdown.

African leaders have long been reluctant to criticize one another lest their own records be judged. However, the presidents of Senegal and Zambia, along with former South African President Nelson Mandela, recently have roundly criticized Zimbabwe's leadership.

Yet South Africa's Thabo Mbeki has continued to refuse to condemn Mugabe. And at an African Union summit in Egypt early this month, Mugabe was met with only muted protest.

Limited international outcry after disputed polls in places like Nigeria may have emboldened other African leaders, such as Mugabe and Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki, experts said.

"There's been a certain amount of serial learning that has gone on," Morrison said. "Incumbents realize that some pretense to a democratic process is all you need, combined with heavy-handed intimidation of the opposition."

After the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon, U.S. priorities around the globe changed, with a greater emphasis on cultivating partners in the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Such shifts in priorities may explain why the United States took a softer approach in dealing with Ethiopia's crackdown in 2005, according to Fomunyoh. A year later, Ethiopia, with U.S. support, entered neighboring Somalia to crush a fledgling Islamic regime that U.S. officials said was linked to Al Qaeda.

"The U.S. should not get blinded by the global war on terror to the point of overlooking other shortcomings," Fomunyoh said.

Friends with no strings

China's growing influence through investment in Africa has created another roadblock to democracy, analysts say, providing an alternative to governments not interested in political reform. In addition to buying billions of dollars in oil and other natural resources, China is building roads, bridges and other infrastructure in nearly every major African nation without attaching Western-style conditions.

The Chinese have openly sold weapons to some of Africa's most controversial governments, including Sudan. Early this year, a pro-government Chinese newspaper said the violence in Kenya, in which nearly 1,000 were killed, was proof that Western-style democracy "isn't suited to African conditions, but rather carries with it the root of disaster."

"China's role is giving a certain confidence to those who want to pursue a model of a strong central, nondemocratic state," Morrison said.

Chinese officials recently beefed up calls for change in Sudan amid a threat to boycott the Beijing Olympics in August. But China joined Russia on Friday in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution sponsored by the U.S. to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe.

Progress cited

Some African leaders contend that despite the setbacks, democracy is far stronger on the continent than it was in the 1970s and '80s, when dictators ruled with an iron fist, often bolstered by Cold War enticements from the United States or the Soviet Union.

"Although we have seen some disappointing developments, we should not lose sight of the fact that progress has been made," said Kenya's Wangari Maathai, the first African woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004. "These are problems arising because we have raised the bar."

In Kenya, she said, free speech and an open media were unthinkable a decade ago.

The continent and its people are still struggling to overcome the effects of European colonialism, she said, which exacerbated tribal conflicts by drawing arbitrary national borders and setting an example of a supreme ruler in the form of a colonial governor.

"Most of the leaders today are part of the independence generation," said Peter Oloo Aringo, a former Kenyan lawmaker who works as a consultant to strengthen democratic institutions. "They are trying to imitate the people they succeeded during the colonial period and those people held all the power to themselves."

Maathai said it might take another generation for Africa to produce true democratic reformers.

"So far, what Kibaki and others in the ruling elite have done is, as the democratic winds changed, they changed with the wind," she said. "But they didn't change in their hearts."

Mandela remains the continent's most celebrated democratic leader, relinquishing power after just one term and working to strengthen institutions that would check presidential powers.

"He has iconic status, but so far not many have followed him," said Babafemi Badejo, an author and United Nations political advisor in Liberia. "Definitely there is a leadership deficit in Africa. It's a common denominator that has made democracy harder."

Kriegler said Africa's growing poverty was another hindrance. More than two-thirds of the continent's people live on less than $2 a day.

"Poverty is the biggest single handicap," he said. "Democracy only functions where there is a viable society, where people have hope and personal dignity.

"How can you have democracy in a place where people are happy to sell their vote for [a couple of dollars]? Here, if the winners take all, the losers starve."