Dealing with autocratic regimes in Africa | Africa | DW | 03.10.2016
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Dealing with autocratic regimes in Africa

Democracy in Africa has often been criticized as being a facade put up to receive funding from foreign governments. But for experts, democracy exists even at grassroots levels.

Autocratic or authoritarian regimes, dictatorships, have been a dominant form of governance in Africa for many years. In the second decade of the 21st century, one concern is that they may hinder the attainment of one of the UN's crucial Sustainable Development Goals.

The growth in the number of migrants from Africa poses a challenge outside the continent. Africa must help resolve this challenge by implementing universally acceptable standards of democratic governance. But Robtel Neajai Pailey, a senior researcher from Liberian at Oxford University, rejects the notion of  universal standards of democracy. "There are different strands of democracy so it depends on how you define democracy and who is defining it,” she told DW.

Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik Dr. Robtel Neajai Pailey

Dr. Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian senior researcher at Oxford University stresses the importance of policy implementation in Africa

Democracy and Africa

There have been concerns that democratization is not happening fast enough in the continent. But Julia Leininger, an expert on African Politics from the German Development Institute (Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik)  says there is plenty of evidence of democracy in action at the grassroots level in Africa. "You find a lot of practices in the sense that people discuss things a lot in order to get to conclusions and joint decisions. There is a lot of what we call vertical accountabilities," she said. But she agrees there is still a long way to go

Poor governance and leadership is big hindrance to development in Africa. The 16th of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals seeks to address problem by striving for "access to justice for all and moves to build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels of government."

Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik Dr. Julia Leininger (DW/W. Mwaura)

Dr. Leininger thinks many countries have a long way to go to achieve true democracy

One hurdle to "effective,a ccountable and inclusive institutions" is the tendency of some African presidents to try and  extend their number of terms in office by sidestepping or tempering with their country's constitution. Congo-Brazzaville, DR Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Burkina Faso have all experienced this .

Professor Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, the executive director at Ghana Center for Democratic Development, told DW that Africans do not support extended presidential terms. These are the findings of Afro-barometer, a pan-African, research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions.

"Africans do prefer democracy to any other form of government. We asked them about elections. Sometimes elections bring too many problems so may be we shouldn't have elections, They said no. As many as 8 in 10 Africans consistently say they want to have multiparty elections,” he said.

The presence of democratic spaces in some African countries has helped civil rights groups to push for institutional change and policy development. But Pailey said this is only half the battle. "I think there are really fantastic policies on the continent of Africa. The problem is their implementation,” she said.

The problem is not exclusive to her home country of Liberia, it is also rife on other parts of the continent. "Unless there is a political will and a demand for that political will to be met in terms of the implementation of really fantastic laws and regulation then we will still be talking about SDG 16 maybe a 100 years from now,” she said.


So what can be done to achieve these goals by their set date of 2030 ? The international reaction to autocratic governments is normally to impose sanctions, one example being Zimbabwe. But such sanctions do not do enough to ensure that governments become more accountable to their citizens. 

Pailey says  a lot of development cooperation institutions fund government bodies that they know are not accountable to their citizens. "That is actually really damning for European development cooperation institutions,” she said.

Supporters of autocratic regimes point to the case of  President Kagame's Rwanda, which they say has made big strides in economic, social and environmental development. Is autocratic government not a viable model after all? 

Gyimah-Boadi vehemently challenges this assertion. One should not forget, he said, that  autocratic rule was the norm in Africa from 1960 until at least 1990. "Now why is it that 30 years of authoritarian and autocratic rule in Africa did not produce the kind of developments we are seeing in Rwanda?" The experience of one country cannot be allowed to override that gleaned by 52 countries, he said   

Gyimah-Boadi believes the European Union is losing the knack of dealing with autocratic regimes. This is because they preside over valuable commodities which are highly sought after by other non-European trading partners such China, India or Brazil.