Today: February 22, 2024

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Flawed elections and poor governance: Why Africa is sliding backwards

The African Union allowed the repackaging of Zimbabwe’s 2017 coup to avoid suspending President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime from the AU.

How do we explain the developmental and governance reversals now haunting Africa? Reasons for the apparent collapse of security are complex, but the thread running through insurgencies, coups and instability is slow development, bad governance and the nature of Africa’s demographic transitions.

Geopolitics marked by increasing competition makes for an unfavourable international environment. And although the global context influences Africa’s conflicts, a history of instability is the top indicator of future dissension in a country.

Conflict on the continent peaked at the height of the Cold War. Today, global power is shifting eastward, and the African Union’s (AU) traditional partners – the European Union and United States (US) – are distracted and losing ground. China hasn’t stepped in to fill the gap despite Beijing’s Global Security Initiative. With various Gulf countries active in the Horn of Africa, the overall result is a proliferation of bilateral, regional and international initiatives that allow for forum shopping by belligerents.

All this comes when the AU is floundering. It stepped back from the 2000 Lomé Convention and its commitment to condemn coups by, for example, allowing the repackaging of Zimbabwe’s 2017 coup to avoid suspending President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime from the AU. That mistake was repeated after Chad’s 2021 takeover. In 2019 in Sudan, the AU agreed the coup plotters could participate in the subsequent process to re-establish civilian control.

These cases have incentivised militaries elsewhere, who now believe they can take part in transitional arrangements without respecting timelines or removing themselves from the political scene. Flawed elections and constitutional manipulation to allow regime survival occur regularly.

The AU has effectively stepped back from the comprehensive African Peace and Security Architecture established under its Peace and Security Council (PSC) Protocol meant to ‘Silence the Guns’. Even its early warning unit has been disbanded.

Apart from several training institutions, little has come of the five regional standby forces constituting the African Standby Force, including the necessary logistical capacity. And the AU’s conceptualisation of peacekeeping is out of sync with current security challenges. The Panel of the Wise, supposedly the AU’s most crucial conflict mediation tool, isn’t called in to mediate, even though mediation is needed more than ever.

Nor are the underfunded Special Envoys offices put to good use. The Peace Fund is now better funded with around US$400 million. Still, disbursement is complex, and the monies are inadequate to cover even the most modest peacekeeping operation. Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) dithers about assuming financial responsibility for AU peacekeeping operations, which now outnumber its own.

Instead of strengthening the AU, the reforms led by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and various consulting companies have seen it regress by merging its Department of Political Affairs with the Department of Peace and Security, reverting to the architecture of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity. The African Peer Review Mechanism’s potential to provide peer review on good governance practices has also come to nought.

The AU struggles with divisions and inefficiencies in its Bureau and Permanent Representative Committee, which undertake political oversight and implement decisions of the Executive Committee and the Assembly of Heads of State and Government.

At the apex of the AU’s Peace and Security Architecture, the PSC averts its eyes from instability in larger countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan. It doesn’t effectively monitor elections or pronounce on unconstitutional changes of government and rigged elections.

The PSC seems overwhelmed – deferring decisions, such as on the July 2023 Niger coup, to the regions, in this case the Economic Community of West African States. The AU and its security and governance architecture react rather than lead. Africa is now a G20 member, which will require proactive interventions and heavy lifting on various complex issues.

In summary, national, regional and international governance in Africa is weakening, not strengthening.

At first blush, democracy has failed Africa. In reality, Africans still believe in the promise of democracy – but want elections to be free and fair. The AU and regional economic communities (RECs) should agree.

If Africans insist that foreigners not criticise abuses happening on the continent, they should call them out themselves. Instead, the AU and many of its RECs look the other way when incumbents extend their stay in power by manipulating the constitution and stealing elections.

African leaders appear to want the right to abuse their citizens without sanction by others – a situation in which national sovereignty is absolute. The result is that elections and subsequent governments lack legitimacy. In response, citizens rebel or simply do their own thing.

Turning these trends around will take time. Inclusive economic growth and good governance are vital, as the Institute for Security Studies’ analysis on its African Futures website highlights.

Among other reforms, the AU and RECs should clarify and revisit the subsidiarity model governing relations between them. Some RECs respond to conflicts without real engagement by the AU, and the mantra of ‘African solutions’ isn’t always helpful, as it appears to allow interference by neighbouring countries.

Most importantly, the AU must refocus on the tenets of good governance, including regular free and fair elections.

It should also review the challenges it now faces to enable a coherent response. That was done with the 1990 Declaration on the Political and Socio-Economic Situation in Africa and the Fundamental Changes Taking Place in the World, which led to the 1993 Cairo Declaration on establishing a mechanism for conflict prevention, management and resolution.

The Cairo Declaration eventually led to the AU’s comprehensive Peace and Security Architecture in 2002, when the associated PSC protocol was adopted. It’s time to reinvigorate and recommit to that protocol and thoroughly revise and implement the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

Jakkie Cilliers is Head, African Futures and Innovation at ISS Pretoria