At risk: Credibility of US democracy promotion in Africa

Last December, I urged the U.S. government to stand with the people and civil society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in demanding that there be a transparent vote count in the country’s parliamentarian and presidential elections, an historic milestone which undertook to bring about the DRC’s first peaceful transfer of power in 60 years.

I wrote in solidarity with the many citizen organizations, along with the Catholic Church, that had mobilized to protect their right to democracy, seizing a window of enfranchisement in a flawed and chaotic electoral process after decades of authoritarian rule.

The U.S. government, along with its European allies, funded these groups, including the fielding of 40,000 observers, which empowered them with the statistical certainty to challenge the government-controlled National Electoral Commission (NEC), which withheld the final tally for weeks, while enforcing a shutdown of the internet to disorient civic mobilization.

Then, when it really mattered, after the country’s supreme court denied an electoral petition backed up by the NEC’s owned leaked data — an inflection point in the post-election process, what diplo-thriller author Todd Moss calls “Minute Zero,” when events can turn on a dime and when democracies can live or die — the U.S. government looked the other way.

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The U.S. endorsed a back-door deal negotiated by the departing president Joseph Kabila — with the tacit support of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) — in which the presidency was ceded to the second-place finisher, Felix Tshisekedi. The U.S. opted for a peaceful (albeit manipulated) transfer of power over electoral justice for the people of the Congo.

As reported by the BBC, U.S. Ambassador to Kinshasa Mike Hammer hailed the event as a first-ever peaceful, democratic transfer of power, a statement which managed to look past the State Department's own publicly expressed concerns over the electoral process.

One African expert I spoke with on my recent travels to the continent sought to defend the decision of the U.S. (and other Western powers) to endorse a flawed process. He spoke in terms of “transitional justice,” the belief that Tshisekedi can lead the country to a “less imperfect” democracy, especially given the Congo’s long history of conflict and that Kabila, its president for 18 years, was finally gone.

But after hearing himself say these words out loud, he retraced his steps, and said, “history has shown that when injustice is swept under the rug, it can return with great ferocity.”

Beyond the implications for the Congo, of concern is what this diplomatic conciliation in the DRC means to the integrity of U.S. policy across the African continent.

In an analysis by Foreign Policy which deconstructs “How the US got on board with the rigged election in the DRC,” a former Foreign Service Officer suggested  that “the implications go well beyond the Congo, and will have bearing on the credibility of the U.S. government’s democracy promotion in Africa.”

Another State Department official was more blunt: “If we said we’ll hold the government accountable, and five days later, we congratulate a bunch of thieves, what good are our threats?”

And that’s what I am asking myself as I head to Nigeria for the 16 Feb. presidential and legislative elections as a political party observer.

The stakes are high for Africa’s most populous democracy, its largest economy, and a strategic U.S. ally on the front-line of the battle against extremism. It’s also a nation oil-rich, plagued by corruption and endemic poverty. 

While Nigeria, unlike the DRC, has had successful democratic elections, including an historical transfer of power in 2015 which saw the defeat of the incumbent, the institutions are only as strong as their weakest link.

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The presidential contest will pit the 76-year old incumbent Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressive Congress (APC), whose poor health has sparked rumors that a body double is doing his campaigning, against 72-year-old Atiku Abubakar of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), a former vice-president and businessman, on his third try for Nigeria’s highest office.

The run-up to the election has been tense, with allegations of the politicization of the country’s police force, vote rigging and the unconstitutional suspension the country’s chief justice Walter Onnoghen, who would have served as the ultimate arbiter of electoral disputes.

Onnogehn’s dismissal brought civil society to the streets in protest, prompted a boycott by the Nigeria Bar Association of the Nigerian courts, and a denial of visas by the UK and U.S. to those undermining the elections.

The BBC’s Africa editor, Fergal Keane, questions if the West has pushed the “mute” button on democracy promotion in Africa. He asks, “after the example of DR Congo is there an appetite for anything more than words should the election (in Nigeria) go awry – from the US, EU and UK.”

Such fears were echoed by a senior Congressional staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who told me, “I would be concerned about the State Department’s statement with regard to the fraudulent DRC election and what its ramifications are for Nigeria.”

Notwithstanding the reasons to be wary going into Nigeria’s 2019 general elections, my cup remains half-full, and here’s why.

Of Nigeria’s 190 million citizens, 60 percent are under the age of 25. Of its 84 million registered voters, the majority identify as “students.”

It is this demographic who launched the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign, driving through a constitutional amendment which reduced the age limits of running for elected positions, an accomplishment unprecedented in Africa, showing the tenacity and force of a tech-savvy youth, empowered through education.

Keane suggests that there is nothing more important in politics in the last two decades than the rise of this “activist” generation, creating a growing sense of democracy as something more expansive and inclusive than a ballot box that can be stuffed with fake votes or stolen by a power elite.

The US and other international stakeholders must follow the lead of Nigerian civil society organizations before and after the election. They will be protecting their vote, conducting an independent Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT), and will be armed with streaming technologies, deployed across the country to independently report on multiple social media platforms.

As Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation reminds us, “the cost of illegitimate elections, as ever, will not fall on external actors, but with local citizens.”

What happened in the DRC, with the betrayal of their youth counterparts, is not lost on Nigeria’s young activists. They are anticipating the obstacles in their way, and are unlikely to let the contagion of low expectations constrain their struggle to assure electoral justice.

And neither should we.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct who specifically was funded by the U.S. Government.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson