Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version challenges confronting Africa's democratic experiments are many and complex and include entrenching constitutionalism and the reconstruction of the postcolonial state, writes Femi Falana. To move Africa forward, emerging democratic governments would have to confront a legacy of poverty, illiteracy, militarization, and underdevelopment produced by incompetent or corrupt governments.

After several decades of colonialism, Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. Having regard to the progressive antecedent of the leaders of the liberation movement expectations were high that the country would witness rapid socio-economic transformation and political stability. Instead of facing the challenge of the development, President Robert Mugabe turned the country into a one party state. Human rights were suppressed whilst some of the colonial laws were refurbished and applied with ferocity. Many opposition figures were either jailed or driven to exile.

Farmlands, which had been illegally acquired under colonial rule, were violently seized by war veterans at the instance of the government when the national parliament controlled by the ZANU-PF could have promoted land redistribution through legislation. The mismanagement of the economy has led to the unemployment, poverty, deprivations and general dislocation, which has virtually brought the country to her, kneels. The silence of African leaders and connivance of the South African regime led the opposition to turn to the West. Ironically, Mugabe’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, in the circumstances, won him sympathy in many African countries. This development has divided government and even civil society groups with respect to taking a united stand against the misrule of President Mugabe.

Recent experiences from Kenya and Zimbabwe illustrate the difficult and daunting task of consolidating democracy on the continent. Available evidence indicates that many of the new democratic regimes remain fragile and some of the euphoria of the early 1990s had evaporated. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the authoritarianism and statism of the early post-independence years was in retreat, and, where it persisted, was vigorously contested in a context in which democratic aspirations were firmly implanted in popular consciousness and the pluralization of associational life was an integral part of the political landscape. It was indeed a mark of the changed times that, whereas previously development had been regarded as a prerequisite of democracy, now democracy is seen as indispensable for development.

The challenges confronting Africa's democratic experiments are many and complex and include entrenching constitutionalism and the reconstruction of the postcolonial state; ensuring that the armed forces are permanently kept out of politics, instituting structures for the effective management of natural resources; promoting sustainable development and political stability; nurturing effective leadership, and safeguarding human rights and the rule of law.

In Africa, as elsewhere, democratic government and respect for human rights are closely linked. Democracy is the best means the world has produced to protect and advance human rights, based on individual freedom and dignity. In turn, respect for human rights is the only means by which a democracy can sustain the individual freedom and dignity that enables it to endure.

Despite some improvements in some parts of the continent, Africa remains the site of very serious human rights problems. For example, in the Sudan, the armed conflict in Darfur continues and the dismal human rights situation shows no signs of improvement. Both government and rebels commit horrendous abuses. In Somalia, the civil war continues unabated and the human rights situation goes on deteriorating; the civilian population has been the ultimate victim, as recently reported by Amnesty International. Only a handful of countries that hold the regular multi-party elections in Africa are rated as free, and in line with international and regional standards.

In addition, most of the countries in Africa operate ‘semi-authoritarian regimes’ because they have the facade of democracy; that is, they have political systems, they have all the institutions of democratic political systems, they have elected parliaments, and they hold regular elections. They have nominally independent judiciaries. They have constitutions that are by and large completely acceptable as democratic institutions--but there are, at the same time, very serious problems in the functioning of the democratic system.

Semi-authoritarian regimes are very good at holding multi-party elections while at the same time making sure that the core power of the government is never going to be affected. In other words, they are going to hold elections, but they are not--the regime is not going to lose those elections. Semi-authoritarian regimes intimidate voters, as it happened in the recent elections in Zimbabwe. Semi-authoritarian regimes manipulate state institutions for self-ends—governments don’t respect the laws, and don’t work through institutions. Semi-authoritarian regimes amend constitutions anytime they want.

Semi-authoritarian regimes will not introduce fully participatory, competitive elections that may result in their loss of power, and some are even unsure of how far they really want to go toward political pluralism in their countries. African politics is generally speaking, a matter of personality, not programs. For example, during the Obasanjo administration the prevailing idea was that the president was the father of the nation, the big man, or Kabiyesi, that is, no one dared question him.

A strong and effective democratic process should be able to establish a functioning administrative structure; and address the issue of how leaders are chosen; the issue of how different institutions relate to each other; the issues of how officials should act, for example, how the judiciary should act, the independence of the judiciary from other branches of government, and the problem of how the decisions that are taken by these democratic institutions can be implemented.

To move Africa forward, emerging democratic governments would have to confront a legacy of poverty, illiteracy, militarization, and underdevelopment produced by incompetent or corrupt governments. The syndrome of personal dictatorships and the winner-take-all practice as we have in Zimbabwe for example would need to be addressed, and there must be full respect for human rights; constitutional government and the rule of law; transparency in the wielding of power, and accountability of those who exercise power.

The basic rule of the democracy game is that the winners do not forever dislodge the losers. It is important for the consolidation of democracy that losers believe in the system and think that they can get back into the game. African governments must create an enabling environment in which traditions and values of the constitution will be able to take root and where rights and duties are set out. In this process, the separation of powers must be facilitated. Government must allow institutions to work and must allow citizens to exercise their rights, to live in accordance with their religious beliefs and cultural values, without interference. The legal order must be based on human rights, societal awareness of the instrumental and intrinsic values of democracy, a competent state, and a culture of tolerance.

Democracy requires that those who have authority use it for the public good; a democratic system of government begins by recognizing that all members of society are equal. People should have equal say and equal participation in the affairs of government and decision making in society, because, in the final analysis, government exists to serve the people; the people do not exist to serve government. In other words, governments must enhance individual rights and not stifle their existence. Repressive laws on many African countries’ statute books against personal liberty and habeas corpus must be removed from the statute books.

In most African countries, a tremendous amount of information does not circulate beyond a small portion of the urban population, owing to illiteracy, language barriers, and costs. Because the individual ignorance of personal rights and understanding of what democracy means has encouraged authoritarianism in Africa, political education at the grass roots is necessary. If a genuine democracy is to become a reality in Africa, the participation of the masses has to be sought by politicians, and not bought by manipulators.

Politicians should try to understand what the masses know, because they sometimes lack the ability to articulate their interests and grievances. However, politicians also should be educated about human rights and respect for the constitution. Education is crucial to the development of a culture of tolerance, which, it is hoped, would contribute immensely to the creation of an enabling environment for democracy.

We must encourage citizens to learn the habits of civil disobedience on a massive scale. We must encourage people to go out and demonstrate, to show their opinion regarding issues, because we must eliminate the culture of fear.

Role of civil society

It is unrealistic to expect that African countries will suddenly reverse course without internal pressure from civil society groups and institutionalize stable democratic government. The significance of a strong and energetic civil society in the transition to democracy cannot be over-emphasised. Perhaps one reason that Africa has not crumbled into total absolutism is because civil society has managed to survive, providing a mode of expression against authoritarianism, despite systematic efforts by the state to destroy it.

It is incumbent upon civil society to promote socialization by moving people away from thinking about the state and encouraging them to think what they want without fear. The public must fully participate in the affairs of state, with the state protecting their rights to be recognized. In this context, the value of the role of citizens and civil society is to organize and articulate the interests of local communities and the grass roots to the highest levels—even bringing about the change of laws—by serving as effective pressure groups.
Many governments are not willing to create an enabling environment. But by standing up, civil society organizations can insist and force governments to create a space. We must keep the culture of resistance alive and continue to question authoritarian rule especially on the important issues of human rights, constitutionalism and rule of law.

Political parties, human rights organizations and other civil society groups should mobilize the people to reject economic policies dictated to African governments by the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which have exacerbated poverty in Africa. The demand for participatory democracy should not be limited to conduct of free and fair elections only. It must also include the management of the economy in the interest of the people, otherwise, the fragile democratic process in bound to collapse.

With the pending elections in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Guinea, civil society organizations in West Africa gathered in this forum should unite in sending a clear message to the ECOWAS and AU that the subversion of democracy under whatever guise. Following this meeting, our engagement should be to immediately commence sensitization and mobilization of the population against the manipulation of constitutions and electoral laws, as well as the electoral process.

* Femi Falana is President West African Bar Association

* This article is based on a presentation at the West African Bar Association held in Abuja, Nigeria, 13 May 2008. The final communique from thetwo-day regional dialogue on the political situation in Zimbabwe can be found at the link shown below

* Please send comments to or comment online at

We, the representatives of civil society organizations from 13 member states of the ECOWAS region, in addition to Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, meeting under the auspices of the West African Bar Association (WABA), West African Human Rights Forum (WAHRF) and the West African Civil Society Forum (WACSOF) working with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) at a two-day dialogue on the political situation in Zimbabwe under the theme “institutionalizing peaceful political transitions in Africa”;

Having considered and deliberated on the dire political situation in Zimbabwe exacerbated by the late release of the results of the Presidential elections of March 29th, 2008;

Concerned about the lingering and deteriorating socio-economic conditions in Zimbabwe;

Worried about the spate of attacks on opposition party supporters, professionals, trade unionists, civil society activists, and particularly, women and children;

Conscious of Zimbabwe’s commitments to a number of international and regional instruments which affirm the rights of people to democratically elect their leaders, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Bills of Rights;

Recognizing and welcoming the important role played by certain countries and people in attempting to resolve the political imbroglio in Zimbabwe;

Encouraged by the efforts and support of particular African Heads of State who recognized that the will and aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe is paramount and far above that of any individual;

And observing that:

- West Africans are desirous to call attention to the deplorable political situation in Zimbabwe;
- the elections of Saturday, 29th March 2008 represented a watershed in the annals of elections in Zimbabwe;
- the political parties have agreed to participate in the run-off elections;
- the ruling government has variously, and continues to, interfere in the statutory functions of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and thereby compromising its independence and credibility;
- the silence of some African countries exacerbates the Zimbabwean crises.

Wish to call on the Zimbabwean government to take urgent steps to

- create a conducive political environment that allows for unhindered exercise of fundamental human rights, particularly the right to vote and association .
- allow external observers not only to observe the Presidential runoff but also monitor the processes leading to the elections;
- allow unimpeded media access to all polling units before, during and after the runoff.

We also call on the ECOWAS, SADC, African Union and the United Nations to prevail on the government of Zimbabwe to ensure:
- that the run-off election is conducted in accordance with international standards
- an immediate end to violence and human rights violations.

Finally, we call on the governments and peoples of Africa to stand in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe in defence of their democratic rights.

Abuja, Tuesday, 13th May 2008.