Leaders from 17 African nations will this week join a ‘Summit for Democracy’ organized by an American administration clearly aware that the United States is itself under scrutiny over its own commitment to the democratic process.
The two-day summit, with a participant list the includes 110 countries, will be hosted by President Joe Biden, who emphasized soon after taking office last January, that “democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”
The summit is the first in a year-long campaign during which participating nations will take initiatives, in the words of the Biden administration, “to make democracies more responsive and resilient, and to build a broader community of partners committed to global democratic renewal.”
Who is not invited
Notable are some of the African nations whose leaders will not be taking part in the virtual gathering.
The administration offers no country-by-country explanation, but among those excluded are countries where presidential term limits have been overturned (Côte d’Ivoire), where elections have been marred by repression (Tanzania and Uganda) or whose governments have been installed by military coups (Egypt, Mali, Guinea Bissau and Sudan).
Also uninvited are the governments of Mozambique, where allegations of corruption have strained ties with the U.S., and Ethiopia, where President Biden has revoked the country’s trade privileges and signed an executive order enabling the U.S. to impose sanctions on those most responsible for the conflict of the last year.
(Those African countries invited are listed at the end of this report.)
Also notable is the administration’s tacit recognition that the United States cannot afford to take a holier-than-thou stance on democracy in its dealings with the world.
Support for democracy strong across the continent
“Demand for democracy is strong and resilient,” the pan-African, independent, non-partisan research network, Afrobarometer found in a recent survey across 34 African countries. “The same can’t be said for Africans’ confidence that they actually live in well-functioning democracies, leaving a ‘democratic disappointment’ gap, the Accra-based organization reported earlier this month.
The decline in confidence is happening in Africa’s “up-to-now leading democracies” – Botswana, Cabo Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa, and Tunisia. “The trends are most striking in the three countries that have anchored democracy in southern Africa for three decades” – Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
“All three have encountered democratic challenges,” Afrobarometer reports. “Most notably, despite regular and free elections, each has been ruled by a single dominant political party throughout the democratic period. The lack of a viable opposition is a fundamental weakness in their political systems, although South Africa’s recent election – in which the ruling African National Congress (ANC) won only 46% of the vote nationwide — suggests that ANC dominance may be waning.”
The 2020 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) reports growing dissatisfaction with governance among citizens on the continent and the first year-on-year governance performance decline since 2010. “While progress has been made in overall governance performance on the continent over the last decade – as of 2019, over 6 in 10 of Africa’s citizens live in a country where governance is better than in 2010 – this progress has slowed down in the latter half of the decade, the Foundation’s executive director, Nathalie Delapalme, wrote in the 2021 Foresight Africa Report published by Brookings.
Backsliding not just an African problem
During a visit to Nigeria in November, Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stressed “that democratic backsliding is not just an African problem. It’s a global problem. My own country is struggling with threats to our democracy.”
The State Department’s background documentation sends a similar signal: “All democracies, including the United States, face challenges,” it says. “The U.S. government views the summit as an opportunity to listen, learn, and speak about the challenges facing democracy within the United States and abroad. Participating governments — including the United States — will pledge to support domestic and international commitments in our shared push to bolster democracy from local to global levels.”
The Biden administration’s acknowledgement of the country’s backsliding is highlighted by an April 2021 report of Freedom House, a non-partisan but partly government-funded American NGO which aims to promote democracy.
Under the headline, “United States in Decline”, the report says the U.S. is among the 25 countries in the world which have seen the worst erosions in freedoms in the past decade.
Freedom House researchers Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz wrote that “the final weeks of the [Donald] Trump presidency featured unprecedented attacks on one of the world’s most visible and influential democracies.
“After four years of condoning and indeed pardoning official malfeasance, ducking accountability for his own transgressions, and encouraging racist and right-wing extremists, the outgoing president openly strove to illegally overturn his loss at the polls, culminating in his incitement of an armed mob to disrupt Congress’s certification of the results…”
They added: “Rulers and propagandists in authoritarian states have always pointed to America’s domestic flaws to deflect attention from their own abuses, but the events of the past year will give them ample new fodder for this tactic, and the evidence they cite will remain in the world’s collective memory for a long time to come.”
Defending against authoritarianism
The Biden administration says this week’s “Summit for Democracy” will focus on three objectives: “strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights.”
In a commentary on the summit, Zainab Usman, director of the Africa Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., said these objectives “must address the pressing socio-economic needs of [the] 17 African participants.”
She highlighted the Sahel region, “where existential governance challenges confronting countries like Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali are compounded by violent extremism, the flow of weapons from an unstable Libya, and the absence of public services in remote villages.”
“Or,” she added, “take South Africa, one of Africa’s most-industrialized countries, which is undergoing persistent political and economic decline and risks becoming a lower-middle-income economy by 2028, according to forecasts.
“Will the summit be contextualized to these everyday realities of African countries?”
Focus on economic implications
Underlining her emphasis on economic issues, she said that “at a domestic level… democracy is sustained by the material prosperity of citizens in terms of good jobs, rising incomes, and overall well-being.
“Well-paid bureaucrats… are less likely to siphon public funds. Young people with good job prospects living in secure communities with decent roads, hospitals, and health services are less likely to heed the siren songs of violent insurgencies and criminal gangs. A prosperous and informed citizenry is better placed to hold local and national governments accountable.”
She concluded her commentary with an appeal for President Biden:
- to mobilize his country’s “financial and technological muscle to vaccinate the world” against the coronavirus, and
- to “rally global action to combat illicit financial flows”, which she noted “drain close to $90 billion from Africa annually—money that could otherwise be used to invest in needed public services on the continent.”
Several Africans are featured participants taking part in a day-long series of pre-Summit discussions. Mwila Chriseddy Bwanga, founder of the Zambian youth organization BeRelevant Africa is on the Young Democratic Leaders panel moderated by Blinken. Lola Adekanye from the Center for International Private Enterprise Ethics is taking part in the Private Sector Forum. Peter Biar Ajak, a South Sudanese peace activist, scholar, and former detainee is one of the Voices of Political Prisoners. Speaking on the Democracy-Affirming Technology panel is ‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working on digital inclusion and digital rights with offices in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia and Zimbabwe. And former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is delivering closing remarks for the panel on Advancing the Status of Women to Advance the State of Democracy.
The 17 African nations invited to the summit are:
3. Cabo Verde
4. Democratic Republic of Congo
13. Sao Tome and Principe
16. South Africa
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