Democracy in Africa’s Post-Conflict States
Kwesi W. Obeng (African Agenda)–From Angola to Sierra Leone, Rwanda to Guinea Bissau and Congo DR to Mozambique, two defining elements unite all peace agreements brokered after the Cold War to end civil wars in Africa. The trend runs round the world, from Bosnia to El Salvador and Afghanistan to East Timor. Liberal democracy and free market systems are two elements fastened to the heart of states recovering from violent conflicts, ostensibly to assist these countries make the transition to peace from a state of anarchy and bloodbath.
Indeed, fundamental values of the global agenda in the last two decades have hinged on multi-party democracy and laissez faire capitalism. Weaving democracy and free market economy into peace agreements are based on a number of assumptions. Democracy, unlike other forms of governance, has inherent checks and balances to mitigate the inclination to resort to violence to resolve political differences. Central to the assumption underlining free market economy is that markets (and not states) are better guarantors of development (defined as material prosperity) for all because, adherents argue, the benefits will trickle down even to the weakest and most disadvantaged in society. But it is also the case that multi-party democracy and free market are the dominant political and economic models of development in the new world order, in which there’s substantively still only one global policeman.
Historically, there have been many forms of legitimacy but surely in the 21st century, the only serious form of legitimacy is democracy. Thus, multi-party elections are today about the only internationally acceptable route to power. However, elections have turned out to be one of the ways to appease top echelons of feuding factions to a conflict in states rebuilding after long periods of civil war. In effect, elections may produce outcomes that may be described as ‘democratic’ but may not necessarily lead to peace or development.
Many studies around the world have established links between development and democracy. However, the causal relationship, if any, between Africa’s marginally improved economic performance and the democratisation wave that swept across Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century remain a hugely contested issue. Nevertheless, the value and significance of open, free and fair elections in countries transitioning from conflict to peace or consolidation of peace can hardly be underestimated. Successful political and governance transition is central to any post-conflict nation-building project. Rebuilding public institutions such as roads, hospitals, schools, law courts, prisons and regulatory agencies is fundamental to sustainability of the state.
True, the constitution-making process after violent conflict offers a distinct opportunity to create a sense of common vision of the future of the state and even a ‘road map’ on how to get there. Accordingly, the constitution of these troubled African countries, of which a good number are slowly recovering, were partly peace agreements and partly a framework setting out the rules by which the new form of governance, democracy, will hinge.
Elections lend sought-after credibility to the leadership and institutions that emerge to replace structures imposed on the country and its population during the conflict and in the case of Africa, many of these wars span across decades and run deep. Angola’s war, fought over 27 years, ended in 2002, Mozambique’s 17-year-old war come to an end in 1992 with the Rome General Peace Accords and Liberia and Sierra Leone’s hot wars ended in 2001 and 2002 respectively. All were followed by multi-party elections.
Elections serve more than one purpose especially in the post-conflict context. Aside providing legitimacy and international credibility to post-conflict administrations, they also encourage democratic values such as tolerance and inclusiveness. Elections also help mark formal end of conflicts and promote state-building after bitter conflicts. But in Liberia, as in Congo DR and Sierra Leone, an earlier general election in 1997 failed to end the conflict. The chief architect of the Liberian war, Charles Taylor, emerged president of the war-battered country after the 1997 elections. However, the ex-rebel leader’s presidency was short-lived as a new rebel faction, the Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), militarily challenged President Taylor’s democratic dictatorship. Amos Sawyerr, the former President of Liberia’s Interim Government puts the 1997 election shenanigans and Taylor’s reign most succinctly when he said: ‘The state we produced turned out to be a criminal state, legitimized by elections’.
In 2007, Sierra Leone held its second post-conflict elections in which the opposition party candidate, Ernest Bai Koroma won in a tight run-off. The immediate past president, Ahmed Tijan Kabbah of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) handed over the reins of power to the All Peoples Congress (APC) led by President Bai Koroma. Koroma beat Kabbah’s vice president and flagbearer of the SLPP, Solomon Berewa. The smooth transition marked the first time ever of a peaceful and democratic handover of power from one political party to another in the country’s history.
Koroma’s job is cut out. The reconstruction of the country has focused on organization of elections and re-training of the security agencies. Yet, the economic disempowerment and political exclusion of the youth, graft and unfettered influence of traditional authorities constitute three of the key factors that triggered the violent outburst that engulfed the country. Three-fourths of Sierra Leone’s 5.2 million people, most them being the youth, are jobless.
One of the greatest failures of democratisation and state-building in Sierra Leone, but also in Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Angola, Mozambique and Congo DR, has been on the economic front. Mismanagement of public resources is widespread, while majority of the people live in squalor. With the exception of Guinea Bissau and Mozambique, the rest of these post-war countries are well-endowed with natural resources including oil, diamond, iron ore, platinum and cobalt. Prices of these commodities were at phenomenal levels until they started slipping from the middle of 2008.
The UNDP Human Development Index (2007/2008) ranks Sierra Leone 176 out of 177 countries. At 40.5 years, life expectancy in Sierra Leone is even below the African average, seven years after the war ended there.
Angola, Africa’s fastest growing economy ranks 162, yet the country’s economy has been expanding at a phenomenal pace – an annual average of about 19 per cent since 2000. As Africa’s leading oil exporter, Angola raked in billions of dollars during the spike in oil prices but the dos Santos MPLA-government is corrupt, incompetent and wasteful.
Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, rates Angola as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. There is next to no investment in the larger rural population and basic infrastructure beyond Luanda, the national capital any wonder Angolans feel terribly disillusioned.
Other development indicators for Sierra Leone are equally stark. Sierra Leone’s agricultural sector provides about three-fourths of jobs however, the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme trained ex-combatants as plumbers, carpenters and mechanics. In spite of its centrality to Sierra Leone’s recovery, only a handful opted for life in agriculture as the incentives for resettlement were comparatively far worse than for those settled as plumbers, carpenters or mechanics. At its peak, the reconstruction was costing the United Nations some US$16.4 billion and the British government US$150 million a year.
The democracy dividend promised at the end of the war in 2002 remains a mirage for the bulk of the population. Bretton Woods institutions and other donors’ insistence on liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation of public goods with next to no social safety net for even the most vulnerable, has also complicated the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure which were all damaged or destroyed during the conflict.
It was thought that spearheading reconstruction agenda with democratisation alongside liberalised markets would address the fundamental causes of the war, which includes institutional weakness, endemic corruption, youth alienation and abysmal human rights records as well as promote productivity and innovation.
This has yet to happen in many of these post-conflict states. Cote d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic and Congo-Brazaville and Niger remain extremely volatile. Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Liberia are sitting on knife-edge as a surging trade in narcotics from Latin America takes hold along the West African coast. Congo DR has fractured with dissident rebels fighting the Kinshasa government of President Joseph Kabila. In spite of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and elections in the south of the country, Sudan is at war as the genocide continues in the Darfur region of the country. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is set to indict the Sudanese president on war crime charges.
It is not completely bleak. Although the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) leader, Paul Kagame, remains in charge as president of the country after he was returned through an election, the country has remarkably remade itself after the 1994 genocide.
Indeed, in some specific aspect of liberal democracy, economic freedom and popular participation in politics, the tiny East African country is a world leader. Women in Rwanda now lead the world rankings of women in national parliaments, with 49 per cent of representation compared to a world average of just about 15 per cent.
As part of the country’s new constitution drafted after 1994, 24 of the 80 seats in the lower house of parliament are reserved for women. Also reserved for women are six out of the 20 in the upper house.
The breakthrough in Rwanda is partly the result of intense lobby by women, the civil war and women’s involvement in drafting the new constitution and voting guidelines that guaranteed seats for women candidates. In sync with international targets, Mozambique and South Africa, two countries transitioning from a long history of civil strife, women hold at least 30 per cent of the seats in parliament.
In 2005, Africa got its first female president. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf rose to power in a keenly contested election in Liberia after former president Charles Taylor was forced out of office. Taylor is now facing trial at the ICC in The Hague for his government’s material support to the murderous Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who reduced Sierra Leone to a failed state in the brutal decade-long war.
The symbolism of these strides by (women in) African countries recovering from war is significant but it’s far from generating sufficient momentum to shape the mix of economic and social policies to address the structural imbalance and reform institutional practices that consign majority of women to the periphery and penury.
The more plausible question, perhaps, is what impacts are (or would) these developments have on the quality of life of ordinary citizens, especially women and evolution of democratic norms in these countries.
It is noteworthy that African countries which have recorded a significant improvement in women’s participation in governance have done so through adoption of quota systems. This has not necessarily translated into better living conditions for women and their dependants. More specifically, it is not guaranteed that these women would necessarily pursue policies that benefit the majority of women. Suffice to state, however, that it may level the playing field on which women battle for equality.
But quite a number of studies in Africa and elsewhere show that where women are actively involved in the crafting and implementation of development strategies, they are more likely to succeed and the benefits are also more direct – families are better fed, healthier, and their income, savings and investments go up, than if they were forced to the periphery.
Economic policies foisted on these same fragile nations by the international community undermine marginal progress made on the political front in these countries. The implementation of unmitigated neo-liberal threesome policy dictum of liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation have further perpetuated the injustices of the past including pricing basic services such as healthcare, education and sanitation above the reach of the most disadvantaged.
Democratisation has led to an explosion of media. But it is still dangerous for journalists to work in host of these countries. In February 2009, four Sierra Leonean female journalists were subjected to an extraordinary attack – abducted, stripped naked and forced to march through the streets of the eastern city of Kenema – for reporting on an anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) campaign on the international day of zero tolerance for female circumcision. Kenema saw some of the worst atrocities during the Sierra Leone civil war. According to the United Nations, up to 94 per cent of women aged 15–49 in Sierra Leone suffer FGM.
Such impunity undermines the tenets of democracy of which freedom of speech and other basic human rights are intrinsic. Blatant violation of the rights of others is not uncommon. This is complicated by widespread corruption, joblessness and insecurity. These can only serve as fodder for instability in fragile democracies as Sierra Leone and many other transitioning countries on the continent.
Rwanda’s steady progress at democratic governance since the 1994 massacre, the Kagame administration is turning out to be one of the most repressive democratic regimes in East Africa. Critical media are ruthlessly closed down, journalists arbitrarily arrested and thrown in jail or forced to flee the country. New media law in the offing limits freedom of speech and criminalises the media for criticising the President or the army.
The legislation is ‘not a law but a death sentence for journalism in this country’, president of the Association of Rwandan Journalists, Gaspard Safari, has described it. Safari is the editor of the Umuvugizi, a leading private Kinyarwanda-language newspaper.
Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia have instituted reconciliation commissions as a way to heal wounds opened by their wars. Charles Taylor is facing trial at the International Court of Justice in Hague for his involvement in the conflict in Sierra Leone. Some other high profile war criminals died (Sam Hinga Norman, General Mosquito and Foday Sankoh) before courts set up to try them passed judgment.
The challenge facing these post-conflict transition countries is indeed how to balance the competing demands to translate the peace into concrete development that benefits ordinary people on the streets.
Africa states generally lack the necessary capacity or the will to effectively perform core functions of statehood. For post-war recovery African states the crisis is dire and urgent: many are unwilling or simply unable to provide basic public services such as governing legitimately, ensuring physical security, fostering sustainable and equitable economic growth as well as other essential public goods such as clean water, affordable health care, schools, roads and decent jobs. The high level of youth unemployment is a major challenge to the security and development of these fragile countries.
For Sierra Leone, the reinstatement of the chieftaincy institution complicates the situation as it feeds into growing resentment and discontent against government and para-state institutions. Paramount chiefs are accused of injustices, non-transparency and unaccountability especially in the countryside. They were heavily implicated in the war itself.
But in the face of the unending global economic crisis, the task of rebuilding and consolidating the minimal political and socio-economic progress appear most daunting indeed. These post-conflict countries depend on Western countries for more than half of their capital expenditure budgets. Worse still, prices of commodities exported by these weak states have plummeted sharply in the last half-year impacting heavily on their revenue reserves. It is now feared that some all of these countries could actually slip into the abyss.
In the last 12 months alone there have been democratic reversals in African countries including Guinea and Mauritania. High food prices triggered violent street protests across the continent, from Liberia to Cameroon. Dozens died in these riots and attempts to quell the protests narrowed rather than expanded the frontiers of freedom and democracy. The creeping narcotic shipment in transit to Europe through some of these post-conflict states poses perhaps the severest danger to the expansion of the frontiers of democracy and development in Africa.
In spite of the challenges above, it is still fair to conclude that democracy is steadily taking root in many of these traumatised countries. It is inevitable, however, that in the pursuit of the ideal governance system, these countries do not overlook the socio-economic component of the post-war recovery agenda.