Senator Coons and experts discuss the health of democracy across Africa

Supporters of Kenya's opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) cheer during a rally to mark Kenya's Madaraka Day, the 53rd anniversary of the country's self rule, at Uhuru Park grounds in Nairobi, Kenya, June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - S1BETHKLCSAA

Since the era of decolonization, Africa has made impressive strides towards democracy. However, its progress has often been uneven and irregular, with Freedom House documenting a recent uptick in African nations it designates “not free.” On September 20, the Africa Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution hosted an event to discuss the state of African democracy and its relationship to the continent’s security and economic development. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a leading voice on African affairs in Congress, kicked off the event with a keynote address.

Sen. Coons

Coons, who sits on the Senate Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy, began his remarks by arguing that “development, democratization, and security [in Africa] are fundamentally linked.” Describing recent developments in African democracy as both “challenging and hopeful,” he contrasted a handful of troubling events—flawed elections in Zimbabwe, the low likelihood that upcoming elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be free and fair, and government assaults on Ugandan parliamentarians—with more encouraging ones, such as Liberia’s first democratic power transition in more than 70 years. Coons warned that U.S. diplomatic engagement in Africa has been sorely lacking, and that after long promoting a model of development and aid assistance based on the link between economic growth and democratic values, the United States must now contend with an alternate model offered by China and other strategic competitors that downplays this link.

Senator Coons outlined three points for consideration:

  • First, he said that the United States should pay more attention to Africa. In particular, the United States should “find mechanisms to make real the promise that democratization, development, and security can march forward hand in hand.”
  • Second, he warned that the rest of the world is rapidly expanding its ties to Africa “at a moment the United States is standing still or slipping in its engagement.” He noted that while U.S. trade with Africa has dropped from $50 billion in 2010 to $40 billion today, Chinese trade has more than doubled to $165 billion, making it a major geopolitical player on the continent. Senator Coons expressed hope that the U.S. government and business community will capitalize on the vast potential of Africa’s human and natural resources and invest there.
  • Finally, Senator Coons said there promising signs that Congress will continue playing its historically bipartisan role in sustaining the United States’ relationship with Africa, pointing to legislation aimed at promoting trade links and democratization now making its way through Congress.

During a conversation immediately following these remarks, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon asked Senator Coons to discuss the state of U.S.-Africa security cooperation, particularly U.S. efforts to help sub-Saharan militaries provide for their own internal stability. Senator Coons noted that continuing problems with piracy, illegal fishing, and illegal wildlife trafficking have given the U.S. government an opportunity to help African nations improve their security capacity. He also lauded U.S. efforts to build relations between U.S. National Guard units and partner security forces in Africa as an underappreciated avenue of cooperation. Panelist Matthew Carotenuto of St. Lawrence University asked Senator Coons how the United States should approach its active security partnerships with African nations that don’t fully respect democratic values. Senator Coons responded by saying that “this is a sustained challenge for the United States globally,” and that Washington must be willing to express disagreement with its security partners in Africa over poor treatment of journalists and opposition figures whenever possible, even as they provide essential security cooperation.

Expert panel

Following Senator Coons’ remarks, O’Hanlon led a panel discussion with Lauren Ploch Blanchard of the Congressional Research Service, as well as Professors Matthew Carotenuto and Kristin McKie, both of St. Lawrence University.

Prompted by O’Hanlon to offer top-line views on democratic trends in Africa, McKie began by expressing concern over the “growing use of democratic institutions that are used for non-democratic ends.” She pointed in particular to some countries’ overly aggressive anti-corruption efforts that frequently implicate ruling figures’ political enemies and electoral commissions that excessively disqualify opposition candidates. She noted that as more African countries restrict NGO activity or ban political parties and candidates, there is evidence of a “growing gap between democratic values that citizens hold and their perception of the quality of democracy they are getting from their governments.” However, McKie also observed that in countries with weak democratic institutions, citizens have increasingly been carving out democratic spaces of their own through protests and unified opposition coalitions that can effectively challenge the stranglehold of ruling parties.

O’Hanlon then turned to Blanchard, who cautioned there has long been overreliance by Western observers on the occurrence of elections as a gauge of democratic health. She noted that “with the exception of Eritrea and more recently South Sudan, everybody has elections and is going through the motions” of electoral democracy. But she also highlighted several promising democratic trends on the continent—such in Gambia, Ghana, and Nigeria—where incumbents have lost power, and Sierra Leone and Liberia, where leaders have respected term limits, and she noted Kenya, where the independent Supreme Court overturned compromised election results. However, Blanchard also warned of worrisome trends, such as the abolition of term limits in several countries, internet and social media blackouts, Zimbabwe’s non-democratic power transition, and Uganda’s repressive responses to the opposition, journalists, and NGOs. She highlighted Ethiopia as an emerging “bright spot” on the continent, with its new prime minister hailing democracy as an “existential requirement” for Ethiopia, acknowledging and apologizing for acts of torture committed by security forces, welcoming opposition groups back to the country, and moving to amend repressive laws.

Finally, Carotenuto attributed Africa’s difficulty in building up democratic institutions to the fact that its long post-colonial period has essentially been a post-conflict period where efforts at national reconciliation were subordinated to the goal of national unity. Echoing remarks made earlier by Senator Coons, Carotenuto said that African nations urgently need sustained focus on building up democratic institutions—especially courts—to serve as a check on political actors, while Western observers should stop essentializing ethnicity in explaining political allegiances. He pointed out that new data suggest voter behavior in Africa can often be better explained by socioeconomic markers rather than purely ethnic loyalties, which is often assumed by Western observers to be the most important driver of political loyalty in Africa.