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Opinion

Opinion: Africa's fragile democracies

Africa's Super Sunday, polling day in five countries, almost passed unnoticed on a weekend dominated by Cuba, terrorism and refugees. Yet the polls reveal the vulnerability of African democracy, says Claus Stäcker.

Transparent multiparty democracy hasn't really taken root in Africa. This was demonstrated by elections in Benin, Niger, Congo-Brazzaville, Zanzibar and Cape Verde on Sunday. Cape Verde is one of the continent's few promising democracies and is constantly among the top five in any of the recognized democracy indices. It came as no surprise that prime minister voluntarily stepped aside in the former Portuguese colony, even at the risk of his own party, the PAICV, being voted out of office.

The PAICV's campaign was spearheaded by 37-year-old Janira Hopffer Almanda. It was quite remarkable of the party to field a relatively young woman candidate, especially on a continent ruled more or less exclusively by men.

But her youth apparently failed to impress the electorate. They voted the ruling party, which had been in power for 15 years, out of office. Conservative candidate Correia e Silva won the election with voters evidently believing he can cure the country's economic ills. He has promised 45,000 new jobs.

Benin

In the West African state of Benin, President Boni Yayi stepped down after two terms in office without a murmur of complaint. As in Cape Verde, the ruling party's candidate failed to get elected. Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou was defeated by opposition candidate Patrice Talon, who made his fortune in the wool trade and harbor management. Voters clearly wanted a change even though the low turnout suggests that Talon enjoys only modest popularity. Nonetheless, this poll was still a respectful nod in the direction of democratic governance.

Deutsche Welle Claus Stäcker

Claus Stäcker is the head of DW's Africa service

This could not be said of the elections in Congo-Brazzaville where President Denis Sassou Nguesso has no intention of stepping down even though he has been in power for 32 years. At a referendum in October 2015, which the opposition denounced as a "constitutional coup," the two term restriction on presidents and the maximum age limit of 70 were lifted. Nguesso is 72. On polling day, he shut down the Internet and mobile phone links for "security reasons" so the electorate had no opportunity to gauge the transparency of the elections. Nguesso is a nervous political dinosaur who has every reason to fear the younger generation. They now make up the majority of the population and their vision of their country's future is very different to Nguesso's.

In semi-autonomous Zanzibar, the ruling CCM party is still clinging to power. Opposition and media representatives, including DW's Salma Said, were subject to intimidation in the weeks leading up to the re-run of the October elections. The re-run was boycotted by the main opposition party, the CUF. The CCM, which is also in power on the Tanzanian mainland, will continue in office in Zanzibar where it polled 91 percent. The electorate was intimidated by a huge military presence during the elections but civil society was able to monitor events as they unfolded. DW correspondent Salma Said was ominously abducted for two and a half days, triggering a wave of solidarity with her across the country. Tanzanian President John Muguli, who has become something of an anti-corruption role model in Africa, now faces a real challenge: how to rein in the unruly branch of his own party, the CCM, on Zanzibar.

Autocratic government

In Niger, a declaration of victory for the incumbent Mahamdou Issoufou will be a formality because the run-off in the country was boycotted by the opposition. His challenger Hama Amadou was flown out of the country, allegedly for medical treatment in France. Niger is a fragile state exposed to the terror of al Qaeda and Boko Haram. It has made significant progress towards democratic governance and freedom of expression over the last few years. However, this is dependent on the engagement of a small elite. Analysts warn that Niger is very vulnerable. The green shoots of democracy are tender almost everywhere in Africa. A successful election doesn't guarantee a smooth transformation to a multiparty democracy. Hybrid forms of government - mixtures of autocratic and semi-democratic processes - will continue to persist in Africa for some time to come.

The African nations that top the democracy indices - such as Cape Verde and Benin - will need to demonstrate that democracy can spell progress in the shape of better social and welfare provisions. Tedros Adhonom, foreign minister of Ethiopia - a country which still has a long journey ahead of it in terms of democratic governance - recently made a very poignant remark. "Bread without democracy tastes bitter," he said. "But democracy without bread is fragile."

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