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Democracy in Africa – Freedom is worth Fighting for

Given the pattern of autocracy-through-democracy found in Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Cameroon, among others, governments who share democratic values need to keep their eye on the ball.

15 November 2022 ·   8 min read

Democracy in Africa – Freedom is worth Fighting for

'Freedom is worth fighting for’ was the key message of the World Liberty Congress convened this past week in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Bringing together activists from Belarus to Zimbabwe, and North Korea to Nicaragua, the event focused on building common cause among democracy activists just as authoritarians look after each other in their quest to stay in power.

The overriding imperative is clear. “United we can get world leaders not to sacrifice and separate their interests from the cause of freedom,” says Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, now more famous as a champion of democracy.

Divided they will fall. This is compounded where democratic states have strategic (military, political or commercial) interests ensuring they turn a blind eye to democratic causes elsewhere. Think the US in Uganda, for example, or South Africa in Africa.

This partly explains why democracy is in recession.

Today, according to Freedom House, the world has experienced 16 consecutive years of “decline in global freedom. The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006,” it notes in its 2021 report, “Democracy under siege”.

“The long democratic recession is deepening… Nearly 75% of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deterioration last year.”

If the 20th century was the story of the slow march of victory of democracy over communism, fascism and nationalism, the 21st century has been the story of the recession of democracy in the face of nationalism, populism, theocrats and autocrats.

Autocrats unified

Ukraine is the most obvious example of how Western democracies took their eye off the ball after the Cold War. As Russia and other authoritarians regrouped, Western weakness became more apparent. But this is not just being fought between superpowers. It has led to regional authoritarian alliances, such as that centred on Cuba in Latin America, but now involving Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia and El Salvador.

Such networks not only provide material (and materiel) support, but are there to promote their interests, which include enrichment, dissing democracy and the West in equal measure through disinformation, undermining elections and kleptocratic deals.

These networks, remind Anne Applebaum, behave like conglomerates rather than countries, in being “cemented by deals, not ideals”, being bounded not by borders but by the desire to control and maintain power and wealth. This means that activists are not simply fighting a single regime, but multiple autocrats in multiple countries.

Read in Daily Maverick: “The looming spectre of authoritarianism haunts South Africa

Leopoldo López, the Venezuelan opposition activist who spent nearly 10 years in prison, and one of the main instigators of the event, reminded the congress that just as autocrats are working together, democrats have to get organised. “Most of the world today is living under autocratic regimes,” he notes. “Many of us today are in exile. We have created many obstacles to work together. Many countries don’t want us to work together because of their own geopolitical interests.”

More positively, the congress offered evidence that democracy activists are willing to stand up and be counted, and this does not rely on state actions.

It is no coincidence that the first congress was held in Lithuania. The Baltic country was in the forefront of the fight against the Soviet Union, which occupied the Baltic states for nearly half a century before they reacquired independence in 1991. All have been in the forefront of political and military support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russia.


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Mantas Adomėnas, the deputy foreign minister of Lithuania, spoke of a physical frontline in the war in Ukraine, with Belarus just 30km away, what he referred to as the “forces of darkness” in Minsk, Moscow and their supporters in Beijing attempting to “quash the desire of Ukrainians to live in freedom and liberty”. Sometimes, speaking from Lithuania’s experience in bringing down a nuclear-armed occupier, he said it is important “not to lose hope” in the face of what seemed to be an “unshakeable” regime. Judging from the pace of transition in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, change happens “much sooner than you think” but “we need to support and learn from each other”.

The authoritarian playbook includes disputing and dismissing international criticism, including multilateral actions, in creating an atmosphere of impunity. A standard response to human rights concerns and accusations is that these are Western concepts, or imperialistic urges. Western institutions themselves are undermined by authoritarian money, influence and their own weakness. This explains how the likes of McKinsey could get caught up in State Capture in South Africa, or in running a corporate retreat in Kashgar just 6km from where the Chinese government is imprisoning thousands of ethnic Uighurs; or how a former German chancellor could get ensnared by Russian gas. Supposedly value-driven businesses and Western democracies alike are apparently easily trumped by money, no matter how filthy, and fervent ambition.

Elections are unashamedly sham events, with no compunction to resort to violence. As Applebaum notes, one defining feature of this generation of autocracies is their willingness to allow countries to fail in order to stay in power, from Venezuela to Syria, Belarus and Afghanistan.

Half the 180 delegates to the congress had been detained by their own regimes. Many others invited could not travel. But the nature of their governments fell into two broad categories, where the techniques were different. Those that have remained totalitarian from the outset (North Korea, China, Russia, Cuba), and the majority where autocrats have used democratic means to seize power and then hang onto it.

Pattern of autocracy

Berta Valle is the wife of Félix Maradiaga, one of more than 200 political prisoners in Nicaragua. A pre-candidate for president in the 2021 Nicaraguan general election, Maradiaga was arrested by the government of Daniel Ortega in June 2021. Ortega’s Sandinista regime came back into power in elections in 2007. Previously he was leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, initially in the Junta of National Reconstruction until 1985, and then as president until 1990.

Fifteen years after the 2007 Sandinista victory, Ortega is still in office. But although he used democracy to get back into power, he is using autocracy to stay there. By 2022, more than 100 journalists have been forced into exile. In 2018 alone, 350 activists were killed by the regime. Today access to funding of civil society and even access to prisoners is denied by the government. “Since his arbitrary determination on June 8, 2021, we have not been able to have a phone call, a letter or even a drawing from our nine-year-old daughter,” says Valle. She cannot visit Nicaragua either.

This pattern of autocracy through democracy has been followed elsewhere, not least in Africa, led by the likes of Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe, in South Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Cameroon, all of which were represented at the congress.

Despite the belief in some quarters of the value of a “benign dictator” to get things done, there is unsurprisingly a clear economic correlation between democracy and development.

Although Venezuela has larger reserves of oil than Saudi Arabia, poverty is today at 88%. Now more than six million Venezuelans, one-quarter of the population, live as refugees.

The reason for this lies in the cocktail of 23 years of kleptocracy and autocracy created by Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution and perpetuated by the subsequent misrule of Nicolás Maduro.

GDP growth in those African countries classified as democratic is substantially higher than more authoritarian states. Specifically, median annual per capita growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa between 2005 and 2017, for example, are calculated at 1.63% for autocracies, 2.13% for “mixed” (“partly free”) regimes and 2.82% for democracies. The performance of the “not free” group is considerably worse if the majority oil-producing states (Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Gabon and Republic of Congo) are omitted. Yet, although in the short term commodity endowments can push up growth rates, over the medium- to long-term, the quality of governance becomes more important because commodity prices are cyclical and good governance is necessary to garner investment in diversified areas of economic growth.

How can democrats be supported?

Aside from sharing stories, and building awareness, the key congress agenda item was to explore the means for democracy to prosper.

Externally, there are the tools of support for democrats on one hand, and more punitive measures on the other, including sanctions. The Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 authorises the US government to sanction those foreign government officials worldwide who are listed as human rights offenders, originally designed to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009.

Strict enforcement of banking compliance is another. And a more extreme version is classification of states – or individuals – as sponsors of terrorism. But all these measures are subject to political considerations – which influence the extent of political will. Democratic principles, it seems, matter more to the West when it suits.

This blinkered view on principles has not been helped by the simultaneous rise of three global fronts in a nascent, new Cold War: that with China over trade and access to strategic commodities, especially those in the EV chain, where Beijing has stolen a significant march over the West, threatening a systematic change to Western ways and lifestyle expectations; over the environment; and now with Russia in Ukraine, but also in the role of its quasi-state paramilitaries in some of the areas of the world where EV minerals abound.

This new arms race, or more exactly, commodity competition, would explain a more cynical Western view on the promotion of democratic principle versus the search for strategic partnership.


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Yet, it is also not for the US and others in the Western world to always lead these fights. This makes it too easy for Africans, and others, to declare that this is imperialistic, which dampens, too, Western enthusiasm to be seen as too aggressive. These initiatives against money laundering and illegal flows need to be led locally, by local activists, in pointing out where illegal money flows are moving. If it’s to Dubai, for example, then the naming and shaming needs to unequivocally point this out.

This is not only about going after the politicians, of course, but also the enablers, the bankers, public relations agencies and other launderers of finance.

For the West and other democrats, this needs to extend beyond sanctions against individuals, to sanctioning countries by limiting the flow of aid especially to military institutions. The usual cry is that this will destabilise the country or the region; which overlooks the reality that these countries are usually at the centre of destabilisation.

Equally, while standing up to autocrats by organising the democrats is a big part of the answer, there is a need to unpick autocratic alliances, partly by building bridges with those more moderate and isolating those more extreme within these networks.

Internally, oppositions have to win the domestic argument, and win elections. This demands best practice in election methods, along with training and funding, and having a broad-based campaign which cannot be divided and thereby ruled.

This agenda should be high on the list of African democrats, and not only because the continent is experiencing a democratic recession. Even though more than two-thirds of Africans regularly polled prefer democracy to other forms of government, 93% of Africans live in undemocratic societies, and just seven African countries (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Mauritius, Cabo Verde and São Tomé) of 54 are classified as “free”.

Elections are on the horizon in Zimbabwe, a country that falls squarely into the autocracy-through-democracy pattern. The lesson from Zambia in 2021, an election won by Hakainde Hichilema, is clear: democrats have to win the vote, win big (above 55% is one guide), and protect it largely themselves.

This is never going to be easy. Freedom House reports at least 10 African countries faced internet shutdowns or social media blocks in 2021, including Uganda ahead of its general elections, in Ethiopia, and also in Eswatini and Sudan, where there were large pro-democracy protests. But this means naming and shaming cellphone companies who are essentially meddling in elections.

International links can help share these experiences and techniques.

Where does South Africa, once what Kasparov says was a “lighthouse” in democracy and human rights, fit in the promotion of such values and best practices?

Now, Kasparov says he won’t travel to South Africa given its close ties with Russia and given, especially, its stance on the war in Ukraine. Berta Valle warns that South African democrats, like others, should be careful to support rights elsewhere lest they find themselves in the same situation in time.

Applebaum adds: “I am really disappointed in both South Africa and India, both for things that have happened in both of those countries internally, and for their external stance. Neither one of them argues for democracy and makes the case for democracy on the world stage. They both essentially supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the destruction of another society, mass violations of human rights, genocide, mass rape, the theft of millions of children, the kinds of things which a society with decent values should be against.”

The World Liberty Congress imparted a crucial message. “Don’t have a victim attitude,” says Lopez. “Rather be the attitude of those who have the eye of the tiger for freedom.” But equally, governments who share democratic values will need to keep their eye on the ball.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick

Photo: Open Democracy


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