Opinion: How to stop Africa's democratic backsliding

WASHINGTON — Nigerians have a highly developed skill at sniffing out political chicanery, and they have identified a substantial threat to democracy as “third termism.”

In 2006, Nigeria's then-president Olusegun Obasanjo proposed a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to run for an unprecedented third term of office. But citizen groups mobilized and resoundingly defeated the initiative.

Elsewhere in Africa, however, the insidious phenomenon of third terms — through which leaders extend their terms in office, sometimes indefinitely — continues little noticed and largely unchecked.

For example, last November, Algerian lawmakers approved the lifting of presidential term limits. Neighboring Niger followed suit this August, abolishing the two-term limit and allowing President Mamadou Tandja an extra three years without facing an election.

Now the respected news source “Africa Confidential” reports that the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, has created a secret commission to look into altering the constitution so as to lengthen presidential terms and lift the two-term cap.

Even Zimbabwe’s venerable former opposition leader and current prime minister, Morgan Tsvagirai, is reported to have removed a clause in his political party’s constitution restricting the party’s president from serving more than two terms.

Most of Africa has come a long way since the coup-ridden 1970s and '80s, when political change usually wore green camouflage and carried an AK-47. While there are notable exceptions, like Guinea where troops loyal to coup leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara recently killed more than 150 anti-government protesters, overall today’s foes of democracy are decidedly more subtle than their predecessors.

In addition to constitutional amendments pushed through by tame parliaments, some African rulers are betting on good old-fashioned nepotism to sustain their dubious legacies. Recently, for example, the son of Gabon’s long-time strongman Omar Bongo, succeeded his father as president after winning an election marred by fraud and violence.

Other sons who appear to be waiting in the wings include Egypt’s Gamal Mubarak, Senegal’s Karim Wade and Libya’s Seif Al Islam, all of whom occupy important positions within their fathers' regimes.

Whereas in the past, elections in Africa were often blatantly stage-managed by the incumbent’s office, most countries now have constitutionally mandated electoral commissions, often including the word “independent” in their names. Unfortunately, as the Kenyan debacle underscored last year, these bodies still suffer from too much partisanship and too little professionalism. Weak and divided, they remain easy prey for unscrupulous rulers unafraid to use the stick of violence and the carrot of bribery.

Africa is of course not entirely devoid of examples of functioning democracy; South Africa, Ghana, Benin and Botswana can all be proud of their political and social progress, particularly the first three which had, until relatively recently, an appalling track record of undemocratic behavior. Unfortunately the list of such countries is short, and if one were to look at the 10 most populous nations on the continent, where two-thirds of all Africans live, only two — South Africa and Tanzania — could truly be considered democracies.

Let’s be clear that no one is expecting Africa to morph into some Platonic ideal of New England town hall democracy, replete with civility and the common good. In most places, especially in the developing world, politics is, as the great American cynic Ambrose Bierce put it: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.” Nonetheless, the recent appearance of many supposed harbingers of incipient democracy, such as vibrant media outlets and energetic civil society groups, have not been accompanied by a concomitant growth of responsible government.

Fifty years after the first wave of African colonies becoming independent and 20 years after the end of the Cold War, most Africans have yet to benefit from a democracy dividend. Recently, though, there have been brief flashes of hope. Intergovernmental groupings like the African Union, the Economic Community of West Africa States and the Southern African Development Community have taken principled stands and even applied sanctions against some of the region’s most incorrigible autocrats. Much as we in the West like to believe that the world dances to our tune, in Africa at least, our best return will come from supporting these sorts of courageous homegrown initiatives.

Christian Hennemeyer is the vice president for external relations at Bridging the Divide, a new non-profit focusing on supporting local groups in Africa and the Middle East. For the past 25 years, Hennemeyer has managed major relief and development operations in sub-Saharan Africa. He is now based in Washington, D.C.