Africa: Liberal Democracy Is in Crisis, Does It Need Rethinking?

Authoritarianism is on the rise, coups back in fashion, and elections reduced to a perfunctory ritual. How do we reverse the slide?

Liberal democracy is losing steam. With the recent coup in Gabon, Africa celebrated the ignoble milestone of 109 successful coups on the continent. A third of Europeans are voting for populist, anti-establishment parties and political parties are failing across Latin America from the weight of populists winning elections.

The axis of authoritarianism is expanding and solidarity amongst authoritarian states is flourishing as they develop a shared lexicon around decolonization, anti-elitism, security, prosperity, patriotism, and sovereignty. Democracy, on the other hand, is losing its noble tool of global solidarity. International politics and economic interests are trumping shared values; support for civil society is on the decline; and global consensus-building is paralyzed. Even the principles of democracy are increasingly inconsistently applied. The international community’s response to the coup in Chad signalled support while Niger’s putschists have been universally condemned.

Democracy in many countries is little more than a procedural notion, often tied by the unseen hands of state capture. Elections are often equated to democracy even when institutions and processes that produce selected officials are undemocratic. Without clear language of what promotes substantive democracy, authoritarians are able successfully to manipulate democratic procedure to give the appearance of democracy; international and regional communities will duly comply by avoiding the difficult questions.

Three troubling theses can be implied from the narrative of authoritarian states. One is that democracy is for every country whatever they define it to be and by implication, there is no place for universal values that underpin democracy. The second thesis is that interactions with countries need not be value-based and that respect for national sovereignty necessarily implies endorsing or not calling out their anti-democratic practices. The final thesis is the argument that delivering development and security is the primary purpose of the state and achieving this in the ‘best interest’ of citizens signifies that government is working for the people and therefore is a government for the people. Invariably, the end justifies the means, and the concept of individual freedom does not necessarily feature in conversations about democracy.

We disagree!

While local realities colour the manifestation of democracy, there are certain indisputable values under which democratic governments are premised. Democracy is built on a value system of citizens sovereignty, respect for individual rights, equality, and space for dissent. It is not exclusively about governance but about the quality of political representation and the ability of people to enjoy and amend the social contract with the state. Democracy subjects leaders to periodic inquest by citizens through credible elections, independent judiciaries and competition between opposing views and candidates. It presupposes governance processes that are responsive, restrained by peoples’ voices and informed by people’s interest. These values make the difference and provide the overarching framework within which nations function. Governance is based on rules and institutions which restrain arbitrariness. It is important that the fa├žade of democracy which is increasingly being utilized by authoritarian regimes to validate their actions be consistently exposed. Democracy cannot be reduced to a tick-the-box process; neither can authoritarianism be robed as democracy because people are fed and secure.

Responding to the global trend in the decline of democratic values requires that we review and renew universally accepted concepts of democracy and agree baselines for assessing adherence to these democratic values.

Authoritarian regimes cannot claim democratic credentials. These countries criminalize dissent, place their leaders above the law, carefully manipulate information within and outside their borders. It is fashionable to claim to be a democracy, but democracy is more than just a point of view. It is a system of government built on certain universal values.

While citizens hold the power to ensure governments are accountable, global solidarity is necessary to amplify voices, support capacity to organize and hold in check those who undermine national institutions. International relationships cannot be value-neutral. The principle of Responsibility to Protect within the framework of the UN system recognizes the failures of internal countries’ systems to protect citizens. It qualifies sovereignty and recognizes the need for global solidarity for citizens who are endangered by their state, other states, and non-state actors. While designed for extreme cases of abuse, the principles logically extend to a global duty of countries to speak up when internal and external practices undermine the freedom of citizens. Solidarity however must be built on mutual respect, appreciation for cultural diversity and avoidance of ideological imperialism. History is riddled with carcasses of countries where democratic remake was an imposition of a hegemon or powerful nations and not the organic adoption by citizens or where democratic processes and citizens demands were thwarted by countries intent on keeping control and access.

Questioning democracy and its ability to deliver on development and good governance is now a popular pastime as inequality and populism rises and (neo)colonialism is increasingly challenged. As much as we accept that the concept and practice of democracy needs renewal, we must be wary of smug assertions that development is king. While democracy should respond to economic reality, its shortcomings in providing economic development are not enough to dismiss its relevance. However, The World Bank estimates that 9.2 percent of the world – about 689 million people – live in abject poverty. These numbers should worry everyone, and we have an obligation to significantly reverse this trend.

The polarization spreading across countries that practice democracy undermines the argument for a value-based resurgence of democracy. Sincerity in addressing this problem will be evidenced by the humility with which countries like the United States and other G7 countries accept that in their practice of democracy they have systematized inequality, exclusion, and injustice. The fact that China and Russia find enough room to appropriate democracy, and despots in Niger, Mali and Guinea find grounds to justify their actions with ample examples to disparage the West’s practice of democracy, calls for introspection.

We need to design more inclusive language and ideologies for democracy. The growing toxicity of politics and elections; the personal benefits of state capture; a world order built on exploitation; and the demonization of the other all cripple the practice of democracy and undermines global stability. We need definitional clarity, reinforcement of the benefits of democracy, and a renewal of universalism centered around individual freedom and collective aspirations. Youth between age 15 and 24 constitute 18 percent of world population, and people 24 years and below account for nearly 40 percent. What democracy means for this demography is shaped by how they feel about inequality, privilege, and traditional notions of superiority. These are not values that they countenance as evidenced by ongoing debates on a fairer world order and climate justice.

We need to restart and connect conversations about strengthening and invigorating our multilateral institutions. For instance, we need to review the United Nations operating model – designed 76 years ago for a world that is remarkably different from the one it was designed for, but one still dominated by the same human foibles. The current global order is due for fundamental reform with implications on how the Security Council is constituted and operates and how a value-based world order is sustained. In the context of wars in Sudan, Ukraine, DRC, and Israel/Occupied Palestine Territories, more is expected of countries that hold themselves up as democracies especially when it comes to protecting civilians and human dignity.

Democracy is imperfect and always will be, but it is an enduring concept adaptable to centuries of humans governing themselves. It is our best chance yet to create a more inclusive and prosperous society built on citizens voices and is worth protecting and promoting. If eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, consistency in values, constant renewal and adaptation to our realities is the cost of democracy.

Ayisha is the Director, Ideas and Fellowship Collaborative at the Open Society Foundation (OSF). Udo is the Interim Executive Director at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Ayisha is the Director, Ideas and Fellowship Collaborative at the Open Society Foundation (OSF). Udo is the Interim Executive Director at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

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