Recently, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila, said the threat to democracy, which was one of the major developmental challenges confronting Africa, needed to be tackled urgently. Speaking at the opening of the first Conference of Speakers and Heads of African Parliament in Abuja, last week, Gbajabiamila noted that Africa had huge potential to attain greater developmental heights. He however expressed regrets that “when citizens lose confidence that a democratic government can meet their expectations, democracy loses credibility and support and begins a death spiral.”
We agree with the Speaker. In many African countries, democracy has really come under threats. For instance, there were coups in countries like Guinea (September 2021), Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Burkina Faso (January 2022), etc. In February this year, there was an attempt by some disgruntled soldiers to overthrow the government of President Umaro Sissoco Embalo of Guinea Bissau. At least, six people were reportedly killed in that incident. However, loyal soldiers later quelled the insurrection.
Besides, some African leaders have mastered the art of staging constitutional coups to remain in power. Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea and Dennis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, among others, manipulated their countries’ constitution on term limits to extend their stay in office. This is despite the fact that they have each stayed over 30 years in power. The late Lansana Conte of Guinea, the late Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, Allasane Outtara of Cote d’Ivoire, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti also manipulated their countries’ constitution to elongate their tenure in office. Former President Idriss Deby of Chad assumed office in 1990 after a coup but engineered a referendum allowing him to stand for a third term in 2005. He was running his fifth term in office when he was killed while fighting against rebels in the battlefield in April last year.
Some other major threats to democracy in Africa are hunger, poverty, insecurity, and corruption, among others. When the Guinean army overthrew the country’s first democratically elected President, Alpha Conde, in September 2021, part of the reasons they gave was that poverty and endemic corruption had ravaged the country. The overthrown government had further angered the people when it announced hikes in taxes and petroleum prices in August last year.
No doubt, hunger and poverty can cause people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do under normal circumstances. Some collect money to do things that undermine democratic ideals like thuggery and ballot snatching. Some form criminal gangs which end up terrorising, kidnapping and even killing people at will. The inability of politicians to govern well and the inability of lawmakers to make good laws are also part of the problem. The earlier mentioned coups in Mali and Burkina Faso occurred because of the failure of the leadership of those countries to contain the incursion of terrorists linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State group into their territories.
In democracy, there is no room for impunity. But in many African democracies, impunity reigns. Sometimes, it looks like some of these countries practise monarchy. Leaders are not accountable to the people. Critics are hounded and the rule of law is often discarded. There is also abuse of transition process which sometimes leads to military intervention. These are partly why people often troop out to jubilate whenever a sitting government is ousted.
It is good that politicians are the ones talking about these threats to democracy. Incidentally, the legislature is the heart of democracy. The onus lies on it to make sure that Africans fully embrace constitutional democracy. Hence, Gbajabiamila and other lawmakers should make laws that will engender prudence in governance. They should put in place credible legislative framework to guide democracy in Africa. Leaders at every other level must keep to their oath of office and lead by example. They must tackle hunger, poverty, unemployment and high inflation. They must not only provide democratic dividends for the people, they must also imbibe the virtues of transparency, equity, good governance and respect for the rule of law. Apart from ensuring political inclusion, term limit must be respected.
Also, leaders should endeavour to build strong democratic institutions that will help to nurture democracy in Africa. The electoral umpire, for instance, must be truly independent so that people’s votes can count. Freedom of speech and freedom to have access to information must be guaranteed.
Citizens, on their part, must cultivate the habit of asking their leaders pertinent questions. They must resist nudging leaders to elongate their tenures. At the continental level, African Union (AU) should activate the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance which it ratified in 2012. The charter calls on member states to identify illegal means of taking over power or staying in office and apply appropriate punishment to the offenders. A strong democracy in Africa is not only desirable; it is a must if the continent is serious about recording uncommon transformation.