The coup d’etat is pushing democracy to a critical reckoning
The putschists perpetuate instrumental, albeit flawed narratives portraying themselves as the ultimate repairmen of Africa’s chronic governance problems.
Governance in Africa is undergoing an upheaval – the kind that is people-driven, and, unfortunately in more recent times, army driven. The coup in Gabon is only the latest in what has become a continental trend. But democracy, which is under immense pressure globally, remains the most popular means of governance among Africans. Protection of democracy calls for us all to reject coups unequivocally, and counter harmful narratives that democracy could be traded off for mere good governance. Funders, civil society organizations, media and others can do more to support democracy in Africa.
I’m a permanent optimist for democracy in Africa. I witnessed how Kenyans, through a people-driven democratic process, saw off an autocratic regime with the 2002 election. I lived through the transition to civilian rule after decades of military rule in Nigeria. This year, young Nigerians inspired me through their passionate political mobilisation and invigorating voter registration campaigns. Yet, in the past three years, there have been 13 coups on the continent. The putschists perpetuate instrumental, albeit flawed narratives portraying themselves as the ultimate repairmen of Africa’s chronic governance problems – with some opinion leaders likening them, absurdly, to the heroic generation of Africans who liberated the continent from colonialism.
It’s sobering to observe the sentiments among some young Africans who prefer a ‘strong leader’ who delivers, to ‘non-performing governments’ put in place by democratic processes. 30 years after its popularisation in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, it is crucial to mention what the democratic dividend has delivered to Africa. These sentiments bubbled to the surface as hundreds took to the streets of Libreville to celebrate the takeover. In a country with rich natural resources, young Gabonese feel that things should be better, and that the coup offered hope for new representation. The putschists in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger also saw similar public enthusiasm.
If unchallenged, these narratives pose a great threat to democracy, especially among the youthful majority on the continent. Armed takeovers of government usually create newer, bigger monsters, like dictatorships, which are antithetical to the freedoms so deeply desired. So, how are we ensuring democratic institutions are strong enough to return legitimate leaders who are accountable to the electorate?
Democracy, at its most basic, advance the principle of one voice and one vote as the most accessible level of active citizenry. Yet this guiding principle matters only if each vote counts. Everyone should be included, and allowed to contribute, equally. Rigging elections, therefore, is a mockery of that principle, and a mockery of the people who believe in it.
Exclusion in both electoral (input) and open government processes (output), creates a chasm between the democratic construction and its praxis, leading to a crisis of democracy. Various interest groups, not least women and the youth, are often excluded at the input and output sides of the governance loop – effectively deprived of full engagement. This frustrates their interest in participation.
Civic courage demands that we resolve entrenched barriers that influence people’s political effacement: financial, ageist policies, narratives about politics, lack of protection for women in politics, and more. In Kenya, for example, there is a national training curriculum to broaden capacity and understanding for women to prepare them to be successful political candidates. The Political Party Leadership Program (PPLI) trains youth across Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia to ‘build youth participation in party processes and leadership’.
But more investment could advance and multiply these developments. Resourcing youthful participation in politics is instrumental in avoiding the violence of coups and election discrepancies through political training academies like the School of Politics, Policy, and Government (SPPG) and Futurelect. At Luminate, we continue to support those who are working to remove barriers to inclusive participation, to amplify diverse voices, who invest in capacity building, research, and other initiatives.
We and other development partners and funding organisations need to invest more in training for young leaders, and support those in the information and behaviour-influencing space, to build the messaging that encourages inclusive participation. African media’s role in shaping new narratives of change is also invaluable to deter the entrenched stories such as the trope about politics in Africa being only for old, rich men looking to get richer. Ongoing discussions platformed by the media are important in spotlighting gaps in communication among relevant constituencies that shape public sentiments.
In my unwavering optimism, I believe that Africa is soon coming to a place where coups are widely condemned, while democratic institutions are strengthened to include diverse voices – especially young people. It is building on work done by inspirational individuals and movements that took on the difficult task of building democratic republics during the post-independence era, like Thomas Sankara, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.