Last week President Barack Obama praised Presidents Yayi of Benin, Condé of Guinea, Issoufou of Niger and Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire as models of Africa’s democratic progress. Since gaining their independence, many African countries have suffered poor governance and widespread instability due, in part, to the unwillingness of African leaders to leave office or support free and fair elections. President Obama’s remarks imply that African leadership has turned a new leaf and that democracy is enjoying wider support among the region’s leaders. This optimism is premature.
As measured by Freedom House, there are only nine “free” countries in sub-Saharan Africa and none in North Africa. According to Freedom in the World 2011:
The year 2010 featured a continued pattern of volatility and decline for sub-Saharan Africa. There was more backsliding than improvement, though gains were noted in several of the region’s more important countries.
During the 1990s, the state of African democracy improved dramatically.… Over the past decade, however, conditions have stagnated…and the region as a whole registered declines in both political rights and civil liberties indicators.
Over the years, many African leaders have pledged to abide by the will of the people and uphold the rule of law only to later run roughshod over democracy and the law to retain power. African strongmen such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni also made grand promises of freedom and democracy. But, when faced with the prospect of leaving power, they violated the law, intimidated their opponents, and manipulated elections to remain in power. African history is replete with other examples.
This is not the first time a U.S. President has mistaken short-term trends for permanent change. In his 1998 trip to Africa, President Bill Clinton referred to the 1990s as “the beginning of a new African renaissance.” He then lauded heads of state such as Museveni as a “new breed” of African leaders who would bring democracy to countries so desperate for reform. Two years later, Museveni pursued his own interpretation of democracy by preventing political parties from forming.
While some African governments appear to be headed in the right direction, it is too early to judge whether the foundations of democracy are sound in those countries or their leaders are committed to abiding by the results of democratic elections. This is the case with Presidents Condé, Ouattara, and Issoufou, who have held office for less than a year. Issoufou was Niger’s opposition leader and was elected to office last March after a coup removed the former government in 2010. President Condé was elected last November in what is described as Guinea’s first free and fair election. And last month, Condé survived an assassination attempt by his own presidential guards as they tried to stage a coup. Though President Ouattara was deemed the winner of Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential elections last November by the international community, former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to relinquish office, sparking a four-month power struggle that killed approximately 3,000 people. Supporters of both Gbagbo and Ouattara are accused by human rights watchdogs of committing abuses against innocent civilians.
In his remarks, President Obama lauded the leaders for their “extraordinary persistence in wanting to promote democracy despite significant risks…and despite enormous challenges.” However, when praising African leaders as democratic models, Obama should consider the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize is awarded to “a democratically elected former African Executive Head of State or Government who has served their term in office within the limits set by the country’s constitution, has left office in the last three years, and has demonstrated excellence in office.”
Two critical details of the prize are that (1) the African leader is presented with the award after he has left office, and (2) the award is presented only when there is a credible candidate. The Ibrahim Prize was awarded in 2007 and 2008, and former South African President Nelson Mandela was made an honorary laureate. Sadly, the Ibrahim Prize was not awarded in 2009 or 2010 due to a lack of qualified candidates.
An African himself, Ibrahim knows the past failings of Africa’s leaders well. It is easy for politicians to pledge their adherence to democracy at the beginning of their terms. The test of their conviction comes later when confronted with the prospect of leaving office. Because many African countries lack an extensive record of independent governance, only after a leader willingly relinquishes power can his leadership and commitment to democracy be effectively determined.