The Obama Administration has set the bar high for democracy promotion in Africa, writes Richard Joseph (left). The first of the four pillars of the new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa is a commitment to “Strengthen Democratic Institutions”. While the commitment is laudable, follow-through is essential given that the latest research confirms that “sustained external action in support of political liberty and democracy in Africa matters, and matters a great deal.”
On May 18, 2012, a Symposium of the G-8 Summit was convened in Washington, DC to launch a major initiative on global agriculture and food security. In addition to President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and several leaders of international organizations, the featured speakers included four African presidents: Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, John Atta Mills of Ghana, Boni Yayi of Benin, and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. Mills and Zenawi have since died.
Kikwete, Mills, and Yayi headed governments that are among the most democratic in Africa. The Ethiopian insurgents, who were waved on by American diplomats to take Addis Ababa in 1991 after many years of armed struggle, have never kept their promise to permit the construction of an open and fair democratic system. The struggle continues, therefore, to match words with deeds in democracy building in Africa.
Just weeks after this Symposium, the White House announced on June 14 a new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa. Of the four pillars of U.S. policies, the one mentioned first is “Strengthen Democratic Institutions”. …. What is unusual about the democracy pillar are the bold commitments made. They are anchored to President Obama’s declaration in Accra, Ghana, in July 2009: “Africa does not need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” The Strategy “commits the United States” to “challenging leaders whose actions threaten the credibility of democratic processes.”
One month after the issuance of the U.S. Strategy, a remarkable article by Caryn Peiffer and Pierre Engelbert was published in the journal African Affairs. It is entitled, “Extraversion, Vulnerability to Donors, and Political Liberalization in Africa.” “Extraversion” is a concept earlier applied to Africa by British scholar, Christopher Clapham, to refer to the susceptibility of African countries, and especially governments, to external influence. Drawing on a wealth of empirical data, Peiffer and Englebert examine the impact of “extraversion” on political liberalization and democratization. They confirm what other researchers, included me, have written, namely, that “rapid improvements in democracy from 1989 to 1995” were “followed by overall stagnation”. Further, they contend that both initial transitions and subsequent democratic consolidation reflect the differing degrees of regime extraversion.
An important implication of this study is that sustained external action in support of political liberty and democracy in Africa matters, and matters a great deal. It does not imply that such efforts will always produce desired outcomes, since regimes differ in their “extraversion portfolios”. From this perspective, what can be said about the record of the Obama Administration’s first term?
In several notable cases, the U.S. government has walked the talk of democracy. It did not “stand idly by” when the “fairness and integrity of democratic processes” were threatened in Côte d’Ivoire. …..The U.S. was also an active participant in the coalition of African and non-African countries and organizations that brought democracy to Guinea after decades of rapacious and repressive governments. The same was true of the restoration of constitutional government in Niger; the transfer of power from a dying President Umaru Yar’Adua in Nigeria; inducing President Abdoulaye Wade to respect the electorate’s verdict in Senegal…..So there are many entries on the positive side of the ledger. However, in a continent of great security challenges – widespread poverty, failed states, Islamic militancy, armed insurgencies, piracy and other woes – a “perfect” record of support for democracy is not achievable.
Despite all this, the Obama Administration has set the bar higher for democracy promotion in Africa: “The United States will take a strong and consistent stand against actions that undermine democratic institutions or the legitimacy of democratic processes. We will evaluate elections against the highest possible standards of fairness and impartiality.” Of course, neither the U.S. government, nor even the smaller European democracies, has ever maintained “a strong and consistent stand” in support of democracy in Africa. Other interests, and especially security concerns, have often forced changes in such positions. If elections in Africa are evaluated “against the highest possible standards of fairness and impartiality”, many will not pass muster. The forthcoming American presidential election could therefore determine whether the gap between U.S. ideals and interests narrows or widens further.
If Barack Obama is elected to a second term, his foreign policy team will have its “New Strategy” ready for implementation. If he is defeated, this document can provide an array of ideas for its successor.
Caryn Peiffer and Pierre Engelbert conclude their timely treatise as follows: “With African economies undergoing apparently dramatic changes and donors perceiving increased anti-Western threats on the continent, African regimes might be entering a more turbulent era than the last two decades.”
Whether democracy advances, stagnates, or regresses in Africa during this era will greatly depend, their study shows, on certain factors: the interplay of internal forces in particular countries; the stratagems employed by African leaders and regimes; and what is done by major external actors and forces.
The successors of Meles Zenawi, and all African autocrats, are put on notice that, eventually, a democratic pillar will be erected in their own Tahrir Square. It is also the one that will remain standing when their autocracies have ended.
Richard Joseph is John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University and a former fellow of The Carter Center. He focuses on African governance, political economy, and democratization.