Africa had much to celebrate on the International Day of Democracy on 15 September. The last year has seen important democratic breakthroughs in Gambia, where an entrenched autocrat was forced from power, and Ghana, where a sitting president lost an election for the first time.
Of course, in just the last few weeks, Kenya has also joined the club of precedent setting nations, after the Supreme Court ruled that the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta was illegal and must be held again. Not only did this represent a new development in Kenya, but it was also the first time that the election of a sitting president had been overturned by the judiciary in Africa.
These changes reflect a broader trend in sub-Saharan Africa and much of the world: an increasing number of countries are holding multiparty elections, and an increasing proportion of these states have witnessed a transfer of power from one party or leader to another.
Once dominant authoritarian regimes in countries like Burkina Faso and Nigeria have been removed, opening up new democratic possibilities.
But although more elections are now being held than at any time in human history, these recent highlights in mask a problematic reality.
As Kenyan readers will know all too well, the expansion of multi-party politics has often gone hand-in-hand with political and economic exclusion.
Over the past five years, the level of political repression and economic inequality has increased in Africa, calling into question the extent of the continent’s – and Kenya’s – democratic gains.
In recent times high levels of repression have been witnessed across much of the continent, from the arrest of opposition leader Kizza Besigye as he campaigned against his defeat in the 2016 presidential election in Uganda, to the systematic violation of human rights recorded around the heavily controlled polls that returned President Paul Kagame to power in Rwanda.
According to Freedom House – an American think tank that rates the level of freedom in every country in the world– the quality of civil liberties in Africa has fallen every year for a decade.
Moreover, 7 out of the 15 countries that showed the biggest deterioration in the quality of their political environment over the last twelve months were African: Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Lesotho, Niger, Mozambique, South Sudan, and Zambia.
Next year, there is a risk that other East African countries will join this list. In Tanzania, President John Magufuli has come under heavy criticism for the way in which he has repressed journalists and opposition parties.
In Kenya, the 2017 elections were preceded by the shocking torture and assassination of the Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission’s acting ICT director, Chris Msando, and were followed by widespread human rights violations as security forces cracked down on opposition protests.
If similar strategies are deployed around the “fresh” election currently scheduled for 17 October, this could be a bad twelve months for civil liberties in Kenya, the Supreme Court’s remarkable verdict notwithstanding.
Other forms of political exclusion have also been prevalent on the continent. Although Rwanda leads the world when it comes to female legislative representation, and Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda also perform well on this metric, very few women are ever elected in the continent’s largest states such as Angola, Nigeria and the DRC. In Kenya, the August 8 poll saw some positive developments, with the election of three female governors. However, 3 out of 47 is just 6%, which demonstrates just how far there is to go.
Minority groups often suffer a similar fate. In Botswana, a state often lauded as one of the continent’s leading democratic rights, the San community – the indigenous population – have been largely excluded from the political process.
Similarly, lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer citizens typically find that their human rights are undermined and that there are no avenues through which they can secure political representation – although this is not true of countries with more progressive constitutions such as South Africa.
In many states, political exclusion has also gone hand in hand with rising economic inequality. As a result, although the level of absolute poverty has fallen in a number of countries, relative poverty – the gap between the rich and the poor – is growing.
In other words, serious developmental gains are occurring at the same time that other forms of economic exclusion are intensifying.
One of the most stunning and under discussed facts about the continent is that according to the Human Development Index – a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators – “every country in Africa is today less equal than it was in 2010”.
More worrying still, there is no evidence that democracies are performing better than authoritarian systems on this issue – if anything, the reverse is true.
Indeed, one of the most intriguing paradoxes of African democracy is that it is those countries that are most democratic that are most unequal. Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, three of the continent’s most secure democracies feature – along with Haiti – the highest levels of inequality in the world.
A similar story has played out in Kenya. Although poverty continues to be reduced at a slow rate, inequality has remained stubbornly high. Neither the introduction of multiparty politics, nor the defeat of KANU in 2002 did much to change this. Instead, the country’s score on the Gini Index of inequality, in which 0 represents perfect equality and 100 perfect inequality, increased from 43.86 in 1994 to 48.51 in 2005. Today, it is estimated that just 10,000 people control 62% of the country’s wealth.
The combination of political and economic exclusion is worrying for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons. Intrinsically, democracy is failing to deliver if it is not helping the worst as much as the best off. Instrumentally, the combination of economic and political exclusion increases the risk that political grievances will develop into unrest and instability.
Given this, it is important to both celebrate the continent’s achievements and to think hard about what can be done to build more stable political systems going forwards. One reason that democratization has not always reduced the degree of exclusion is that political systems in Africa, much like the rest of the world, tend not to feature inclusive political arrangements. The continent only features a handful of states that are federal: Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and possibly Sudan.
Moreover, even within this small sample the ability of opposition parties to get elected at the sub-national level has often been limited, especially in Ethiopia and Sudan. As a result, individuals and groups that lose out in the race for national office rarely enjoy the kind of local self-government that might make them feel that they have a stake in the political system.
Institutional mechanisms to ensure a form of power sharing are also rare. By and large, African states are presidential and highly majoritarian, and do not feature constitutional provisions that guarantee minorities and losing parties a seat at the table. Absent political representation, and with so few checks and balances on the exercise of power, it is unsurprising that minorities and opposition groups get such a raw deal.
In this regard, Kenya fares much better than most. Although the 2010 constitution did not institutionalise power sharing within the executive, it did introduce a system of devolution that represents a federal framework in all but name. At the same time, the country now boasts one of the continent’s most progressive bill of rights and a Supreme Court that – as we have seen – is capable of acting independently of the executive.
These are positive developments that highlight the potential for democratic consolidation. However, they will count for little if they are undermined by corruption, political attacks, and electoral manipulation, and so become distrusted by minorities and opposition groups.
This is why President Kenyatta’s threat to “fix” the Supreme Court if re-elected was so damaging: inclusive political arrangements can have exclusive effects if they are not respected and nurtured. To become a stable and successful democracy, Kenya requires more responsible leadership.
Of course, this is not to say that political inclusion is a cure-all: there are many established democracies with less exclusive political arrangements that have failed to reduce economic inequality.
But until African political systems become less majoritarian and do a better job of protecting the rights and interests of minorities, the true benefits of democratic government are unlikely to be realised.
Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the founder of www.democracyinafrica.org