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Experts discuss power transitions in Africa

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By Adam Twardowski

The year 2018 has seen encouraging instances of peaceful power transition in Africa, but problem spots on the continent remain, as experts discussed recently at Brookings. On November 27, Michael O’Hanlon—senior fellow and director of the Africa Security Initiative at Brookings—hosted a panel discussion to assess democratic trends on the African continent.

The big picture

O’Hanlon asked Reuben Brigety—former U.S. ambassador to the African Union and current dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University—to provide a high-level view of the overall state of democracy in Africa today. Brigety cautioned: “Africa is big and diverse enough that you can find almost any fact pattern to support almost any view you want about trends.” He noted that the strength of democracy comes not only from elections, but also cultural habits, social norms, and governmental processes.

He contrasted Zimbabwe—which has held elections but otherwise is not a full democracy—with Ethiopia, which has yet to hold full free elections but has made dramatic moves toward opening up political space. Brigety observed that there is political commitment to democracy at the level of both the African Union and the regional economic communities, and so to the extent there is any kind of democratic backsliding on the continent, it is through subverting democratic practices rather than arguing outright for alternative authoritarian models.

Finally, Brigety cautioned that “there’s not an intrinsic democratic attractive force in Africa to be able to force or encourage many of those African states to achieve democratic practice,” in part because there is a lack of an active democracy agenda by the United States in Africa now. Without such a force, there won’t be a “substantial endogenous movement to resist the Chinese approach to economic development and political reform on the continent for the long term.”

O’Hanlon then turned to Georgetown Assistant Professor and Brookings Nonresident Fellow Ken Opalo to discuss overall trend lines for democracy in Africa. Opalo noted that for a long time, the West spent a lot of time, energy, and money on governance, and not enough on government—by which he meant being able to deliver goods and services to citizens.

Opalo referenced Chinese investment in Africa, which he observed has often made it possible for governments across the continent to provide services better. Governments with stronger capacity, coupled with electoral competition, “will likely push them in the right direction” as a means of keeping elected leaders accountable and giving them incentives to provide goods. Opalo also observed that countries like Rwanda, Angola, and others will use Chinese financing to build infrastructure, but will stay autocratic. “To the extent that China has been able to make governments [do things], it is pushing them either to be more accountable if they’re already democratic or less accountable, but still under the pressure to provide public goods and services.”

Finally, Opalo emphasized youth and urbanization in Africa. He said “it’s something that we don’t talk about much, but within our lifetime more than half of Africans will be living in towns and cities. They’ll need jobs—that will create incentive for populist politics in ways haven’t seen yet on the continent.” Opalo said that as Africans continue to urbanize, the importance of ethnic identities will wane, and more voters could be prone to populist appeals, which “will reshape electoral politics in Africa in ways that we’re not thinking about yet.”

Countries to watch

Which bellwether countries can help us gauge high-level democratic trends?

Brigety argued that there is no bellwether country in Africa that tends to affect other countries as they relate to governance. He said: “To the extent that there are trends, they tend to be regional, both because the economies are more closely linked and also…because those heads of state tend to know each other really quite well.” That said, Brigety observed that one can’t talk about the Democratic Republic of the Congo without also talking about Rwanda, or Nigeria for all of West Africa, or Kenya and Ethiopia as they relate to East Africa. Brigety explained that to him, the most interesting story in all of Africa right now is Ethiopia, where there are “extraordinary” political changes occurring in a country of great economic, political, strategic, and military importance.

Opalo agreed that Ethiopia is a bellwether for the Horn of Africa, with internal implications for Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. “But in East Africa, Tanzania is a big one, because what happens in Tanzania…will have implications for Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda.” Referencing West Africa, Opalo said that “whatever happens in Togo will send a strong signal to the Sahelian states about what’s acceptance as a means of governance.” Finally, Opalo cited Côte d’Ivoire as an important bellwether state. As the biggest francophone country, what happens there will have implications for other francophone states outside of Senegal.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo

Then O’Hanlon raised the looming elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brigety said he is not optimistic about the Congo, because “there is nothing in the historical record to suggest there will be a free and fair election.” While observing that the Congo has all the makings for a prosperous country, it is so enormous that “it has yet to demonstrate the ability to govern itself coherently as a country.”

Opalo agreed that there is little hope for a genuine power transition, and said there must be efforts to show entrenched leaders that they can relinquish power and go into retirement without fear for their physical and financial security, or that of their families. Discussing political reform in Rwanda, Opalo noted that to promote democratic transition in a country, it is important to focus less on the head of state—in this case Paul Kagame—and more on the elites around him. Convincing the people around a leader that it is possible to maintain “the architecture of rule but rotate leadership at the top” is a challenge.

Later, during the Q&A session, O’Hanlon called on Sasha Lezhnev from the Enough Project in the audience to offer his thoughts on the upcoming presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lezhnev said that he is fairly pessimistic that the election will be free, fair, and transparent, but there is still a window for the United States and Europe to help influence and impact that process. Lezhnev explained that it appears, based on irregularities in the entire electoral process, that President Kabila and his inner circle of family and business are set up to rule through Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. The United States should not adopt a “wait-and-see” approach, but rather influence the process to ensure it is fairer and more democratic.

Security concerns

O’Hanlon expressed concern about reductions in resources for U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM. U.S. defense strategy is prioritizing great power competition again, and a significant part of that competition is happening in Africa. Given that the role of AFRICOM is fairly modest, O’Hanlon argued that building up security capacity in places like the Central African Republic, Cameroon, or Gabon would send a message that the United States is not pulling back, but is rather fully engaged.

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