Is France about to start promoting democracy in sub-Saharan Africa?
“President Francois Hollande looks set to make African leaders sweat at a gathering of French-speaking nations in Democratic Republic of Congo this week, when he attempts to cut murky ties with France’s former colonies,” Reuters reports:
More than 70 French-speaking countries, many of them African, will arrive in Kinshasa for the 14th annual Francophonie summit October 12-14, with Congo’s eastern rebellion and the Islamist takeover of Mali’s north to top the agenda.
Hollande has vowed to promote democracy in a continent known for flawed elections and ‘sit-tight’ leaders, and, unlike his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, he will travel to Africa without any company executives, something that would “muddy the waters”, one adviser said.
In a sign he means business, he put pressure on the summit’s host by saying democracy in Congo, a former Belgian colony, and its rights record is “totally unacceptable”, an apparent swipe at 2011 polls that won President Joseph Kabila a second term.
“I will address those within French-speaking countries to tell them that this is their language, but there is also the language of values and principles,” Hollande said in Paris this week. “Among those values and these principles is democracy, good governance and the fight against corruption.”
France is attempting to reverse a decline in its influence and leverage, analysts suggest, and to counter Beijing’s growing presence on the continent.
“France is definitely losing its position to new emerging economies such as Brazil and China,” Congo expert and academic Trefon Théodore told the Africa Review.
“The emergence of other cultural powers [read China] is without doubt changing the cultural landscape in Africa.”
The appeal of the “China model” is due to its economic performance, says Frances Fukuyama, and it’s a form of developmental authoritarianism that has attracted admirers in Rwanda, Ethiopia and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Rwanda’s evident economic success, whatever problems it may have with equity and sustainability, is in stark contrast to neighboring Burundi’s continuing poverty,” said Dave Peterson, senior Africa program director at the National Endowment for Democracy.
In terms of socio-economic and human development indicators, Rwanda’s performance has drawn plaudits from Western politicians and development agencies, notes one observer.
“But in recent years, there has been a slow, sickening realization that the west’s favorite African leader comes with a sinister edge,” David Smith writes from Kigali. “Kagame’s Rwanda, say critics, is an authoritarian state where democracy and human rights are trampled upon and dissenters are hunted down.”
When Kagame won the 2010 election with 93% of the vote, for example, three major opposition parties were excluded from the ballot. Two of their leaders were jailed and still languish there today.
The third, Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green party, was also arrested briefly then went into exile after his deputy, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was found dead, nearly decapitated.
Habineza, who received death threats after breaking away from Kagame’s ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), feels frustrated at international donors’ failure to push for genuine democracy. “I requested Britain and others to take action regarding political space in Rwanda, but what they are doing, I don’t understand. If the international community took a stand on political space and democracy, that would be the most helpful to us.”
Habineza welcomed the work of [Tony] Blair’s African Governance Initiative in Rwanda, but added: “I ask him to always request President Kagame to look at these issues: democracy and economic development go hand in hand. We are saying Rwanda is ready for democracy. Tony Blair should tell him this. There cannot be democracy in a country where there is no opposition party and no freedom of expression.”
A new report from Amnesty International details the widespread use of unlawful detentions and torture, notes Smith.
Rwanda and Ethiopia are two sub-Saharan African states looking to emulate China and Singapore, says the Center for Global Development’s Nancy Birdsall, even though authoritarian development success stories are the exception rather than the rule (as economists have demonstrated).
Nevertheless, she notes: “For now China, Singapore, and Rwanda …. seem to developing countries the political guides to economic policy—if for the wrong reasons.”
But African democrats may perhaps take heart from what Fukuyama calls “the moral element” that can outweigh the statistical indicators and move ordinary citizens to subvert and overturn the ostensibly stable and successful status quo:
The hardest thing for any political observer to predict is the moral element. All social revolutions are driven by intense anger over injured dignity, an anger that is sometimes crystallized by a single incident or image that mobilizes previously disorganized individuals and binds them into a community. We can quote statistics on education or job growth, or dig into our knowledge of a society’s history and culture, and yet completely miss the way that social consciousness is swiftly evolving through a myriad of text messages, shared videos or simple conversations.
Frances Fukuyama is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO.