Africa's dissatisfied democrats — the future of democracy is in their hands

Africa's dissatisfied democrats — the future of democracy is in their hands
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It’s 11:30 AM GMT+1 on Feb. 24, the day after Nigeria’s presidential and legislative elections. Local and international media, domestic and foreign elections observers, and others are crammed into an airless, windowless conference room on the second floor of the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), waiting for Yiaga Africa’s first post-election assessment.

Yiaga, along with the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room are the lead civil society organizations serving as the watchdogs over the electoral process. Together they represent more than 70 institutions. Yiaga’s slogan is “Driven by Data! Beholden to NONE! For All Nigerians!

By design, the Nigerian organizations are the first to render judgement on the electoral exercise, their United States and United Kingdom funders staying in the background after earlier government charges of foreign interference, with myself shouted out for the same infraction.

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While dozens of presidential candidates contested for Nigeria’s top job, the race boiled down to whether the sitting president, Muhammad Buhari of the All Progressive Congress (APC), weakened by a stagnant economy, could be defeated by the leading opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar (whose People’s Democratic Party (PDP) I consulted for) — both septuagenarians, and indefatigable dynastic politicians. 

Like all elections in this impoverished but oil-rich nation, the competition was intense. It was violent and deadly. And while no one expected a flawless process, and there were warnings of sanctions from the U.S. and UK to those who interfered in the polls, it was hoped that gradual improvement could be scored from the 2015 contest which saw an historic transition of power from an incumbent government to the opposition party.

This faith was particularly steadfast amongst the youth movement charged with #watchingthevote and with the younger candidates entering the legislative field for the first time after a constitutional amendment was passed to lower the age requirement for holding elected offices.     

The six-member panel opened the press conference at 12:22 PM, delayed by a pre-briefing with the international observers including the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU), Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), the U.S.-sponsored International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

By that time, most everyone in the room was wiping away pearls of sweat while trying not to splash them on a neighbor. 

Dr. Hussaini Abdu the Chairman of Yiaga assessed the previous day’s elections, postponed by one week because of the failure the Independent National Elections Commission (INEC) to manage the logistics, by saying, “these were not the elections Nigerians wanted; they were not the elections Nigerians expected; and, most importantly, they were not the elections Nigerians deserved.”

Dr. Abdu listed breaches to election integrity including late openings, the failure of card readers to register voters, orchestrated violence, intimidation of poll watchers, and an unexplained increase in cancelled votes.

He lamented, “our election commission must improve its capacity to deliver credible elections and our political parties must play according to the rules. Failure to do so could fundamentally threaten our democracy.”

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The Situation Room likewise expressed its disappointment, demanding an independent inquiry into the poor performance of INEC and calling on security agencies to ensure accountability for acts inimical to the integrity and credibility of the polls, especially individuals complicit in the burning of INEC offices, election materials, snatching of ballot boxes and other electoral offenses.

Those opening salvos, the firsts of dozens of press briefings held at the Hilton during the next two weeks, including Yiaga’s validation of the re-election of president Buhari through its Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT), and the monitoring of the subsequent gubernatorial elections which saw the unprecedented militarization of the polls.

The convener of the Sit Room, Mr. Clement Nwankwo, concluded, “the election has been a step back from the 2015 general elections.” And that about sums of the march of democracy across the continent, one step forward, then two paces back.

Africa’s uneven progress is evidenced by comparing the successful transition of presidential power in post-conflict Liberia and Sierra Leone, the triumph of democracy in the Gambia, and Senegal’s peaceful presidential elections, with the pretense of an election in Cameroon which maintained the power of one of Africa’s longest-serving authoritarians, the failure of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe to deliver an open society, the crackdown in Tanzania, and other legacy leaders who refuse to leave in Uganda, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Togo and the Congo.

Afrobarometer, Africa’s leading polling institution, recently measured the phenomena through 45,000 face-to face interviews in 34 countries from 2016 to 2018, asking about democracy, political freedoms and elections. They hoped to help answer the question: What is happening with democracy in Africa?

The data conclude that Africans believe in democracy and that it is preferable to all other forms of government, but that demand far outstrips supply, something we have known for some time. What’s new here, is that the report highlights the importance of citizens who are not only deeply committed to democracy, but who adopt a critical perspective toward their country’s current leaders and institutions — in other words, those citizens who demand democracy but do not think they are getting it. Afrobarometer describes this sub-category as “dissatisfied democrats.”  

Afrobarometer argues that that citizens’ commitment to democracy matters for the survival and quality of democracy and suggests that it is these dissatisfied democrats who matter most.

Afrobarometer scores Nigeria in the upper half of those countries with respondents who support democracy, reject authoritarian alternatives, and are dissatisfied with their country’s performance.

No surprise then that these forces played out in real-time during the 2019 elections, an energized youth-driven civil society empowered through education and technology demanding that their voices be heard, confronting weak institutions, captive to political interests, and patriarchic politicians unprepared to let political outsiders and disrupters enter their captive space.

In hindsight, Nigeria's presidential elections concluded as many predicted. The one-week delay, coupled with other voter disenfranchisement tactics including the deployment of the security forces, diminishing voter turnout in opposition strongholds, giving the margin to the incumbent, a lead then validated by civil society’s PVT.

But it is important to note that a PVT largely measures those who vote, it does not quantify the citizens prevented from exercising their franchise, a case that the opposition PDP plans to bring to the courts.

Before I flew out, I asked an exhausted Samson Itodo, the Executive Director of Yiaga, now residing on an empty floor after the departure of the foreign observer missions, what the future held for the organization as the proclaimed guardians of Nigeria’s democratic process.  Can they change the inherent institutional weaknesses in the system, or will they be forever be relegated to reporting on a flawed process?

Samson did not hesitate, he said: “We will do both. Yiaga Africa is committed to doing both. The people of Nigeria deserve nothing less.”

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, including Nigeria, and 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