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The quiet symptoms of democratic backsliding in Africa

The quiet symptoms of democratic backsliding in Africa
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On May 23, Patrice Talon was sworn in for a second term as president of the western African nation of Benin. As an election observer on the ground, I watched as Talon easily claimed 86 percent of the vote in April’s deeply flawed election. This is just the latest example of a worrying continental trend away from democracy after several decades of exceptional democratic progress. 

Africa’s “democratic backslide” is characterized less by the over-the-top cheating of years gone by and more by small, steady chips at democratic norms and institutions. Fortunately, while democracy can be eroded in this subtle way, it can be nourished with a similar strategy. The United States is perfectly positioned to play a supportive strengthening role here, and it must — Africa’s backslide threatens not only regional and global stability but carries grave implications for U.S. economic, security and human rights interests, too.

In Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom in the World report, freedom scores decreased in 22 African countries. Last year, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Index of African Governance reported the first ever decline in average governance since its inception. This is no wonder, given events such as Uganda’s recent presidential election, where security forces arrested the main opposition candidate and killed at least 16 protestors and injured 45. More often, however, the warning signs of Africa’s democratic backslide are far less obvious.

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Constitutional coups of the past have given way to shrewder forms of legal manipulation. In particular, many presidents have begun ignoring term limits by claiming that constitutional changes during their time in office reset the counter for allowed mandates. Most recently, Guinean President Alpha Condé and Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara used this justification ahead of successful runs for third terms in 2020. The growing popularity of the technique is raising fears about the intentions of other presidents who have led constitutional amendment processes during their time in office, such as President Macky Sall of Senegal and Benin’s Talon.

Benin is a worrying inclusion on the list of backsliding democracies because the west African nation was once considered a beacon of democracy. Unfortunately, a series of opaque legal and governance changes have begun to erode its democratic foundations. In advance of the 2019 legislative elections, Talon’s parliamentary supporters pushed through changes that prevented most political parties from running. He then used full control over the legislature to amend the constitution and impose a controversial sponsorship law that effectively required presidential aspirants to obtain permission from his political allies first. This enabled Talon to hand pick his opponents in the election I observed. With the ostensible approval of voters for his first term, many worry how far he is now prepared to go.

Regional precedent is an important factor in African governance trends. Unless efforts are made to bolster countries such as Benin, Africa’s wave of democratic backsliding threatens to quietly expand its reach to other model democracies — such as Senegal. This presents many serious problems. A glance around the continent renders evident that countries without term limits or where these limits have been shirked are more likely to experience armed conflict or stability challenges. Leaders are also more likely to engage in corruption and rig elections the longer they remain in power, bringing about further consequences for governance.

All of this is clearly problematic — for Africa and for our own interests. Fortunately, the U.S. can play an important role in reversing this trend. This means using diplomatic, foreign aid and national security tools to respond to the urgent threat of authoritarianism while also supporting fragile democracies such as Benin, where small but steady efforts can play a significant role in rebuilding democratic institutions.

U.S. stakeholders can bolster these efforts in a variety of ways: supporting civil society to act as an independent check on governments; encouraging governance processes to be more inclusive and citizen-responsive; and using diplomatic pressure to call out worrying signs of democratic backsliding. These efforts will be more effective if done early and regularly, rather than only when preceding elections or after the symptoms of authoritarianism are already present.

Despite what I witnessed in Benin, Africa’s democratic progress in recent decades remains a remarkable success story. Recent backsliding is disheartening but doesn’t have to be Africa’s future. There are concrete steps that U.S. policymakers and partners can and should take today to bolster democracy, promote stability and protect our interests across the continent and around the world. The benefits would be felt for generations to come.

Miriam Frost is a program officer at the International Republican Institute (IRI), where she supports democracy and governance programming in coastal West Africa. She has worked with the Brookings Institution, Search for Common Ground, the Armed Conflict Location and Events Data Project, and spent five years in the West Africa region where she was most recently a security analyst with Save the Children. The opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of IRI.