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Democracy Day 2017: what matters for African governance?

Democracy: a world-wide work in progress for millennia

Some 2,500 years ago the Athenian democracy originated; the first known model of democracy. Many years and many leaders later, democracy is still a work in progress globally. Today’s world looks far more complex than the Greek polis – and so does modern democracy. However, those initial concepts still underpin various multilateral and African-owned efforts to achieve more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous societies, where no one is left behind.

Democracy is not just about one day every four or five years when elections are held, but a system of government that respects the separation of powers, fundamental freedoms like the freedom of thought, religion, expression, association and assembly and the rule of law… Any regime that rides roughshod on these principles loses its democratic legitimacy, regardless of whether it initially won an election.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, among other sub-goals, puts the accent on developing effective, accountable and transparent democratic institutions (16.6) and on ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels (16.7).

Likewise, Aspiration Three of the African Union Agenda 2063 voices for an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law.

Where does Africa stand?

On 30 January 2007, the African Union adopted the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, establishing democracy and people’s participation as individual fundamental rights.

On the 10 year anniversary of the adoption of the charter, the good news is that more than half of the continent is bound by these commitments, with four countries having acceded in 2017 – Algeria, Comoros, Liberia and Madagascar. However, 25 countries are still not party to this framework instrument, with 18 countries having signed but not ratified, and seven countries neither having signed nor ratified the charter.

The 2016 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) shows mixed results. Even if Overall Governance improved over the past decade at continental level, for democracy-related measures the picture is more diverse. While 58% of African citizens feel ‘completely free’ to join any political organisation, a decline in internet freedom has been registered with a deterioration of -3.4 in the Online Censorship score at the continental level.

According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation 2017 Forum Report, while ownership of electoral processes has improved over the past decade across the continent, and the African Union and regional bodies increased their election monitoring activities, election-related violence on election day has increased from 13.9% to 45.3% (from 2006-2010 to 2011-2016) on average. What’s more, African citizens are becoming more sceptical about their democratic representatives, and three quarters of them feel that members of Parliament (78.6%) and local councillors (72.7%) only sometimes or never listen to their constituents.

A look at the future: coping with change

The current challenge for Africa’s leadership is not only to sustain progress and redress shortfalls, but also to do it in a changing landscape. That requires new strategies, tools and investments. Population, technology and urbanisation trends cannot be overlooked, and here are four main areas to focus on, drawn from the 2017 Forum Report:

Youth is the next majority, how to engage it?

On average, 46.2% of African citizens are currently still below the legal voting age (18, or 20 in Cameroon). These will become the bulk of voters in the next ten years. In 16 countries, accounting for 47.3% of Africa’s population, more than half of the population is still below the legal voting age: Niger, Uganda, Chad, Angola, Mali, Cameroon, Gambia, Zambia, DRC, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Burundi, Nigeria and Senegal.

Counting citizens to make each vote count

Electoral and civil registration are strictly interconnected, and need to capture population trends.

Tunisia, with 1% of the continent’s population, is the only country using the national citizen register as a registration method for national elections.

Registered voters account for less than two thirds of the voting population in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan and Tunisia, with these countries making up 18.2% of Africa’s population. Data on civil registration needs urgent attention in Africa, as 87% of deaths occur in countries without a complete death registration system.

And what about the diaspora? 11 out of 50 countries, accounting for 14.5% of African diaspora in 2015, do not allow citizens to vote outside their countries.

Democratic access to e-democracy?

Over the last decade, the number of individuals using the Internet in Africa has increased by 784% from 2006 to 2015. While it is estimated that over 120 million African citizens might be using Facebook every month, Africa is the region in the world with lowest e-participation levels. E-democracy presents technological and social challenges, amongst which is the ‘digital divide’. E-democracy initiatives may alienate those who lack physical access to ICT or the skills to use them.

More decentralisation for more urbanisation

In 1972, Tanzania abolished local government for a centralised state model. At the end of his mandate in 1985 President Nyerere said: “There are certain things I would not do if I were to start again. One of them is the abolition of local governments.”

More than half of Africa’s population will live in urban areas by 2037. Projections estimate that in 2025, Cairo’s population will be larger than each of the 33 least populous countries in Africa. While the 20 most populous cities in Africa already manage urban populations equivalent to those of entire countries, four countries – Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan – do not hold elections at local level.