The State Of Democracy in Africa: half in Earnest, half in Jest

In 2017, what can be said about the democratic situation in African States? Whereas some countries are strengthened year after year, the democratic benefits often obtained come with difficulty and lots of sacrifices. Others don’t succeed in breaking free from the long-lasting and important lingering odour of authoritarianism. Whereas we witness pacific transfers of power and democratic alternations in some countries, we still deal with political leaders who use clever processes to unduly prolong their position as heads of the state. This is the demonstration that the obsession of power remains a perennial issue in the head of lots of political authorities in Africa. It shall be first specified that the democratic health condition of African countries cannot be determined only with regard to free and transparent elections in those countries. This would be  a really minimalist and subjective conception of democracy.

The Good Performers of Democracy in Africa

Ghana and Benin experienced last year, pacific elections and a democratic alternation at the head of the state. In these two countries, the political pluralism is seen as strength and is not stifled. Trade unions are well organized and constitute pressure means against the government. Benin is also the first country which organized the first national conference on the continent in 1990. Benin is moreover the pioneer in the establishment of an independent electoral commission. Benin is worthy  of note due the fact that this country didn’t stay paralyzed in a kind of excitement following this historical role of democratic precursor, but as the analyst Constantin Somé rightly underlines in his master’s thesis: « Benin distinguishes itself by its innovation ability in all fairness and transparency, which shows progress. Refusing the usurpation of political power by any group or faction that wouldn’t originate from the electoral body choice. This is why  an independent and autonomous « a mediator »  charged with elections has been established. Benin cultivates pacifism by an increasingly healthy management of electoral competitions and a progressive institutionalization of organs charged with regulating elections and above all their independence towards the government, the parliament and public authorities ». [1]

Ghana takes second place in Africa behind Namibia and the 26th at the global level of 2016 Reporters without Borders (RSB) ranking about press freedom. [2] This prominent place in this international ranking conveys the steady challenge of guaranteeing press independence and freedom of speech and opinion prerogatives. On the political level, the popular vote is respected and the losers accept their defeat. During the presidential election of 2012, Dramani Mahama was declared the winner by the Constitutional Court against Akuffo Addo after recourse of the latter before the said court. Following this sentence, he admitted his defeat and called Mahama to congratulate him. In 2016, the outgoing president Mahama was defeated by Akuffo-Addo during the elections and admitted instantly his defeat. This gives every reason to believe that the Ghanaian democracy is constantly growing.

Still in West Africa, Senegal is also an avant-garde in terms of democracy in our continent. Even if this country has known intermittent episodes of « crisis », it always knew how to recover. The longstanding and strong tradition of activism in the political, community and trade union spheres (Ex : Collectif Y’EN A MARRE, Raddho, Forum Civil as well as other organizations of the civil society and lively and committed political parties) forms a significant safeguard against authoritarian and anti-democratic vague desires. President Wade’s defeat against his opponent Macky Sall in 2012, the constitutional referendum organized in 2016, illustrate the healthy democratic condition of this country and the desire of citizens and political leaders to preserve the Senegalese democratic ethos. The insular States that are Cape Verde and Mauritius deserve as well to be mentioned as model democracies in the continent. These countries experience a political stability which is in particular the result of an institutionalization and of the respect of democratic rules and practices that govern the public action as well as the private sphere.

In respect to South Africa, it is a democracy which works well generally. Unlike a lot of countries in our tropics, we can add to the credit of this nation that the judicial power is still independent from the executive one. As proof of this, we can quote the legal problems of president Zuma entangled in corruption and abuse of power scandals. We all recall the reports of the Republic ex mediator Thuli Madonsela who revealed in all independence –even if she suffered political pressures- the « Nkandlagate » which refers to the renovation of a private residence with public funds and also the case concerning the narrow collusion between Zuma and the wealthy Gupta family. Even if the targeted murders are plentiful in this country, we can still notice that on the institutional field, freedom of speech is guaranteed and respected, as shown by EEF (Economic freedom fighters),deputies’ severe grumblings of Julius Malema during parliamentary sessions in the presence of president Zuma.

Sao Tomé and Principe is a democratic role model in Africa. Even if this little country, not much strategic in a geographical and economical perspective arouses little interest for the international observers and analysts, the essentials of democracy are established there and have value. The same analysis can be made for Tanzania.

According to a 2014 Reporters Without Borders (RSB) rank about press freedom, Namibia is the only country in Africa to get a score more or less similar to Scandinavian countries’, performing better (19th at global level) than France (37th) and many more countries of the Old Continent. Namibia is also the first African country to organize presidential and legislative elections by electronic vote in November 2014.Botswana is also quite reputable for its democracy. This country organizes regularly free and transparent elections, has good results in respect of good governance and fight against corruption even if we cannot ignore the coercive and repressive measures taken against the San minority, also called Bushmen. In North Africa, Tunisia tries to stand out from his neighbours. Tunisia adopted a progressive constitution and organized in 2014, free and transparent elections. Trade union or civil society activism such as the UGTT (Tunisian general union of work) and the Human rights league in Tunisia (LTDH) has without a doubt been an essential contribution in this democratic burst.

The political systems resistant to the long-term establishment of democratic principles

Alongside these countries that show notable democratic profiles, there are countries that counteract the good effects and are  still hostages to authoritarian systems or insufficiently democratic. In Africa, many regimes establish “cosmetic” or facade democracies. Many regimes claim that they become infatuated with democracy fundamentals such as multi-party system, free and transparent elections, Rule of law and basic law, even though the running of their countries reflects clearly an arbitrary power, autocratic or/and corrupt…the choice is yours. The Great Lakes region of Africa (Uganda, DRC, Rwanda and Burundi) and countries such as Eritrea, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Egypt, to name but a few, are among many that are far from having achieved the advisable or desired standards of a democracy. It is clear that the democratic situation of these countries is not utterly uniform. Some of these countries are led by tyrannical and last-ditch regimes, frontally resistant to populations’ democratic ambitions. Whereas in other countries, despite serious democratic gaps, some basic democratic principles are relatively, sometimes according to the desires of the regime, well promoted and applied.

African populations and especially the youth are very thirsty for democracy to freely express their potentials. They don’t want be stifled anymore by authoritarian obsolete drifts. Lately, we saw how Yahya Jammeh’s regime in Gambia attempted to carry out an illegitimate takeover in order to stay in power despite his defeat. This megalomania got fortunately what it deserved: a failure. The African Union as well as the sub regional organizations must assume an active role to stop the authoritarian momentums. It will be good when African democracy rises from the ashes and moves forward to progress!


[1] Somé, Constantin (2009, pp.31-32): “Pluralisme socio-ethnique et démocratie : cas du Bénin », a dissertation made to achieve a Master in political science at Quebec University in Montreal.


[2] RSF rank:

Translated by

Corinne Espartero


How citizens’ activism brings hope to Africa

On October 13, 2015, after 28 years of omerta imposed by the government of Blaise Compaoré, the remains of former President of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara (1983-1987), one of the emblematic figures of African citizens' movements, was exhumed for autopsy. The conclusion is clear: the body of the revolutionary riddled with bullets confirms that it was an assassination, a fate reserved to democrats by authoritarian regimes.

“Y’en a marre” (Fed up), “le balai citoyen”(The Citizen’s Broom) or “Filimbi”, these movements identifying with Sankara, Patrice Lumumba or Mandela, emerged in the 2010s.

From 2012, they yielded strong democratic victories:  fall of the "old" Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal, Compaoré’s expulsion of Burkina throne and (provisional) sanctuarization of the Congolese Constitution against Joseph Kabila’s will to extend his stay in power.

What are these innovative initiatives? What are their influences and how are they organized?


A diplomatic strategy that embraces the international codes…

Although quite unusual, these citizens’ movements are different from existing social movements because they have managed to seize all conventional political legitimacy levers while focusing on African values ​​and advocating cultural references.

First of all, the rhetoric used is very much appreciated by international organizations. The terms "democracy", "non-violence", the rejection of radicalism and even "good governance” feature prominently in the African Citizens Movements Declaration written and co-signed in Ouagadougou during summer 2015 by more than 30 movements of the continent.

These organizations are “legitimists”. They do not advocate revolutionary uprisings, as social movements created under colonization, nor the denunciation of structural adjustments plans imposed by the IMF, like those of the 1980s, but they advocate respect for constitutions in place. This is the case for  “Filimbi”, "Ras-le-bol"(Fed up), and "Touche pas à mon 220"(Don’t touch my -article- 220) movements started in Congo – Brazzaville, that fight for the respect of the limitation of presidential terms imposed by the laws.

In addition to speaking the language of western investors, these movements rely on their negotiation boards and seek to bring their demands to the UN and the African Union (AU), while their representatives do not hesitate to meet with influential politicians of the international scene  (the "yenamaristes" have been received by Laurent Fabius and Barack Obama, among others).


… And that advocates the continent’s own values

However, while using western communication vehicles, they emancipate themselves with ideological references specific to Africa. Charismatic leaders of these groups openly criticize the models and methods used by developed countries. "In Senegal, as in France, we are fighting the same form of social injustice, the same pangs of uncontrolled and wild liberalism" said Fadel Barro at the French NGO Survie.

This is the concept of liberalism, as a whole, that is rejected:  one of the main objectives of these movements is to propose "an alternative political project to the dominant neoliberal system. The vocabulary used, as well, is close to Marxist philosophy: "the labor" must fight against "land grabbing", while the terms "capital" and "struggle" are hammered. We find similarities with references to Marxism-Leninism of the social movements of the 1970s, which had caused agitation mainly in Portuguese-speaking countries.


But, the work of Senegalese, Burkinabe, and Congolese movements are not limited to a strict rejection of a discredited model. Their ambition is to create an "Africa-centered" academic reflection promoting their cause: the Ouagadougou Declaration therefore "encourages the production of academic research (…) to promote the existence of African experts on the citizens movements in Africa” The emancipation however has its limits, particularly when it comes to the issue of funding. Accusations that have been made ​​against them, to be supported by Washington and Ottawa, even if they haven’t been proven, however, raise the issue of the actual independence of these movements.


The ideal of panafricanism, for the expansion of a movement that is still an exception

Another interesting aspect of the philosophy of citizen initiatives is panafricanism. Promoted in 1949 by the Central African Barthélémy BOGANDA and by Kwame Nkrumah, panafricanism represents the hope that one day the “United States of Africa” will emerge. From the first clashes in Burundi, the “Balai Citoyen” (Citizen’s Broom) sent messages of support to the Burundian people, while the 30 movements gathered in Ouagadougou last summer asked for the release of political prisoners held in Kinshasa. There are exchanges between their structures, they advise each other on action and training of their members: for example, members of the Congolese organizations “Filimbi” and “Lucha” met their counterparts from the “Balai Citoyen” and “Y’en a marre” in march 2015 in Kinshasa.

This dynamic and variable proven successes should remind us that such organized and influential movements are still missing in too many countries of the continent, in opposition to authoritarian regimes from Pierre Nkurunziza or Robert Mugabe, just to name a few.

Where the civil war is still too fresh or repression too harsh, it is difficult to consider any organized and claimed opposition before a long time.

But the statement is full of hope: in just five years, concrete civic organizations rose up and brought down political figures that once seemed unshakeable. These movements are rooted locally, branched with their counterparts in neighboring countries and work to establish a philosophy of their own, and the more capable of mobilizing energies. Many obstacles still await citizen movements of the continent, the fifteen elections scheduled for 2016 will be an uncompromising test, but there are reasons for hope.

Translated by Anne-Sophie Cadet

Nigerian politics : a small arrangement between friends

IBB-OBJ-and-GMB-150x150On the 28th of March, Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, will be having its presidential elections. This will have an determining impact on the uncertain future of a country also dealing with the issues of violence with Boko Haram. The election, the most inclusive in the history of the country, could lead to a new wave of violence. has dedicated a series of articles to the elections and this first article by Tity Agbahey, is focused on the ambiguous relationships in the country’s political class. 

On the 28th of March, Nigerian voters will go to the polls to elect their new president. In a country with a population of about 178 million (also the largest economy in Africa), this time is usually troubling because it is almost always accompanied by election violence. However this year, the stakes are even higher as it may lead to the first party change since 1999. That was the year of return to civilian rule. Since then, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) holds the power. The PDP candidate, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan is facing Muhammadu Buhari, the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate. APC is a coalition of opposition parties which was created in July 2013. If Buhari wins the elections, Nigeria will be led by a different party. This represents a small revolution, very small. As a matter of fact, in Nigeria, there are no coincidences. Politics is an arrangement between friends. The fate of more than 100 million lives rests in the hands of small portion of the society, who are always the same people.

Ironically, even if President Jonathan’s critics claim he is “the worst president Nigeria has ever known”, his election in 2011 raised the hopes of many. It represented a change in a country where the political class always remained the same. Four years ago, Jonathan was presented as a man of the people, without ties to the upper reaches of power, since he is a native of a minority ethnic group that had been under represented in politics.

In an immensely rich country with a mostly poor population, the people identified with this man who told the story of his modest upbringing ‘‘with no shoes nor school bag’’. He is not a soldier and has never led the country. He was a clean slate. In fact, his political ascension looks much like an accident. In 2005, during his term as the deputy governor of his home state, Bayelsa, he was appointed as governor and replaced Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who was impeached. Two years later, he moved on to Abuja, where he became the vice-president to Umaru Yar’Adua, who died in 2010. He, thus, became the president of the immense country. With no attachments, he said. Not even to the highest reaches of power, his mandate was doomed for failure right from the beginning. This is because in Nigeria, politics has been a game of soldiers (who are still involved today) for a long time, before civilians got involved. Some of them actually. And the same ones. In Nigeria, there are no coincidences. Why should the decision be left to the citizens when you can always agree among friends?
In 2006, as President Obasanjo’s mandate was ending, he tried to modify the constitution, so as to run a third time in the elections. Unfortunately, this motion was rejected by the Nigerian senate. So, Obasanjo was left with no other choice than to leave at the end of his second mandate in 2007. He decided to play the role of an elder statesman, who by all means must express his opinion about the political leaders of the country.

Nevertheless, there are other ways to govern. According to the zoning rule in Nigeria, political power is meant to alternate between the north and the south. After Obasanjo (south-west), the power was to go to someone from the north. Therefore, the outgoing president decided to support, infact impose Umaru Yar’Adua’s candidacy in the elections. Umaru Yar’Adua was the former governor of Katsina state and the brother of Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, vice-president to…Olusegun Obasanjo, while he was president under the military regime from 1976 to 1979. Nigerian politics is like a bad movie, always with the same characters that only change position and title. In that manner, Obasanjo was president from 1976 to 1979 under military rule and was president again under civilian rule from 1999 to 2007. At the end of his mandate, he was replaced by Umaru Yar’Adua, the brother of his vice president from 1976 to 1979.

On the other hand, Goodluck Jonathan’s supporters say that it is his lack of political bonds with the upper class of the political and military circles that is destroying the efforts of this Bayelsan native. They say that, some ill-intentioned politicians first sponsored Boko Haram. They did that to discredit Jonathan’s rule. Now, Boko Haram has become the monster that it is today. At one time, Boko Haram was sponsored by the Northern governors; however, the monster has grown wings of its own and is no more under their control. It is terrorizing both the north and south and makes no distinction between religion nor ethnic group. Nigeria has lost some of its territory to the terrorist group. The situation is alarming especially from a humanitarian perspective.

In 2011, we all thought that Jonathan would bring change. He, who had not yet known corruption, criminal indecency or ridicule. However, the American dream is not the Nigerian dream. In 2015, bruised, terrorised and desperate, Nigeria is trying to stop this enchanted interlude. Zoning can wait, truth can wait. For the time being, we want a saviour and as often as this happens, we do not have to search afar off. Muhammadu Buhari is an attractive choice for those who are looking for a radical response to the troubles of Nigeria.
In the soap opera of Nigerian politics since, Buhari has played quite a number of roles since 1960: Major General, Minister of Petroleum and natural resources under Obasanjo (from 1976 to 1979), and President from 1983 to 1985. Since then, he has been trying to return to power.
He lost three times (2003, 2007, 2011). Now, he runs for the fourth time and might just win. Nigeria needs fresh blood. Fresh blood at 72 years! Well no one cares, it is experience that matters and old friends like: Babangida, Yar’Adua and the undeterred Obasanjo.
Nigeria dey oh !

Translated by Onyinyechi Ananaba

Why is media freedom questionnable in Congo-Brazzaville ?

Congo – Brazzaville is known to have a very fragile media in Central Africa. Since the country transitionned to political pluralism after its Sovereign National Conference in the 1990s, the media was also diversified. However it became more and more difficult for the journalists to be independent given the structural difficulties and the concentration of power in the hands of a few people.

A single newspaper for the whole country

The difficulties encountered in the difficult pressare absurd. Dépêches de Brazzaville is the only newspaper in Congo. It is completely commited to President Denis Sassou Nguesso. Created in 1998 by Jean-Paul Bigasse (the President's communication advisor), the newspaper was published every month in four color printing. It then turned into a weekly newspaper in 2004 and then a daily in 2007. It is one of the few newspapers to have computerised editing, a printing press and is subsidised by the State. It is the only affordablenewspaper (200 FCFA) whereas other newspapers cost at least double the price and do not receive any financial help from the state.

Other newspapers in Africa are as fragile economically. The costs are quite high in the written press, especially paper, purchased in the neighboring countries the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the printing. Except two well established newspapers, Dépêches de Brazzaville and the bi-weekly La Semaine Africaine, other newspapers such as La Rue dies and Tam-Tam Africa are published very irregularly depending on the vagaries of the troubled economy. Their journalists earn a low income and sometimes no income at all. Although there is officially a collective agreement that sets a minimum wage of 90,000 CFA francs (137 euros), it is very rarely followed.

This economic vulnerability has a direct influence on the content of the articles. It partly explains the confusion in many newspapers between articles and advertisements appearing in many media that are not presented as such. Unsufficient advertising and low sales weaken these newspapers even more. Thus the "comorra" (originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo) is widely practiced by many underpaid journalists who are paid to publish a specific press release or article.

Dangerous liaisons between politics and media

From this economic vulnerability stems other issues, one of which is the dangerous liaisons between journalism and politics. According to researcher Marie-Soleil Frère, "in Congo, the majority of the media is the instrument of individual strategies of conquest or conservation of power". Public media is in the hands of the political officials who play a direct role in the country's political game. As a matter of fact, DRTV television channel is owned by the general Nobert Dabira who is a senior Congolese official close to the government. MN TV is owned by Maurice Nguesso, elder brother of the president. Top Tv is owned by his daughter Claudia. Independent newspapers are often directly or indirectly linked to political parties or officials. "As the sector becomes more dynamic, the amount of the pro-government propaganda also increases in the columns of the newspapers and on the radio. The media contributes to the cult of personality, losing all credibility and respect in the eyes of the public". This statement could be read a few months ago in the Congolese barometer media, created by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in collaboration with professionals of the country.

This context of over-politicization and media individualisation has several negative effects. It led some independent newspapers to become a platform for the settlement of scores in the political cenacle by relaying rumors about ministers and favouring anathema to a deep analysis. It also hinders the structuring of the profession and the establishment of professional solidarity that is essential in the most challenging times such as elections. According to "senior" professionals, this solidarity is all the more important because the profession is suffering from a deep lack of training, in a country where civil wars have greatly damaged the education system.

Another major obstacle to the independence of the press is the intimidation, especially when the political situation gets tougher. This is the case in recent weeks with the ongoing debate on the constitutional amendment that would allow the President Sassou to run for a third office. Two journalists were recently expelled: Sadio Kante Morel (freelance journalist) on September 22, and Cameroonian Elijah Smith (from MN TV) on September 26. He was physically assaulted two days after covering a meeting of the opposition.

In addition to this direct violence, many journalists state that media independence is primarily limited by self-censorship. In a context of extreme fragility, taking the risk of opposing potential funders or threathening the existence of the newspapers seems somewhat questionable. According to a report by the Panos Institute, even historical newspapers and reliable references as La Semaine Africaine, bi-weekly created in 1954, backed by the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Conference, negotiate "a relative neutrality" by supporting occasionally the system to avoid trouble and ensure its existence. But in an ultra-pyramidal political system, how can they escape this temptation?

Any solutions?

Solutions to these issues are not easy to find. However, there are interesting initiatives that attempt to solve these problems.

Firstly, the lack of means can be solved by international donations. It requires that the people suggest useful projects with a long-term training program and that international donors such as the United States or the European Union, would be solicited especially during the elections. In neighboring DRC, and in a different context, Radio Okapi has proved that with a substantial budget (millions of dollars) funded by the UN, a channel can provide independent information of quality. But this kind of financial help has its limits: what happens when the donor withdraws? Congo-Brazzaville is a stable and potentially rich country. In this situation, how to access such funds generally directed in priority to countries which are in crisis?

Digital technology is a major opportunity in a country where an entrepreneur, Verona Mankou, claims to have created the first African touch pad. If digital technology is probably too often presented as a totem that would solve all problems, it has at least the advantage of reducing costs and broadcasting to a much larger audience. In Congo, a small community of people living in Brazzaville has started a network in a social media platform that rapidly relays informations, especially to the connected diaspora. This network could have a major role in controlling the information although it is difficult to assess its actual impact in a country where the access to internet is limited to a minority of the population.


Another challenge is to be independent from politics. In a pyramidal system, it is difficult to be independent as the political debate in Congo is very limited and has lost all credibility. It is thus easier to focus instead on economic and social issues. There are very interesting projects such as the work of the Association Syfia (, supported by the European Union. The association is composed of a team of journalists who work on human rights issues in Congo. Syfia plays the role of a small news agency and offers reports on the daily struggles of citizens. The main issues concern the relationship between Bantu and indigenous people (pygmies) and the place of women in the economy and the society or environmental protection. Recently, a website offered a comedic platform to decrypt the clichés or quirks of the Congolese society, and present some cultural operators in the country. Even media close to the President's entourage can diversify their programs and show stories and social issues that meet the actual concerns and expectations of the public, such as the new bimonthly Terrafrica and the private channel TV service Equator Service Television.


Some might say that media avoids the political debate and concentrates on society and culture. However, in recent years, it is largely thanks to the artists and the vitality of the Congolese cultural scene (the playwright Dieudonné Niangouna, the dancer DeLaVallet Bidiefono, the visual artists Bill Kouélany and Gastineau Massamba …) that the dramas of the recent history of Congo could be analysed.

Translated by Aymeric LOUSSALA