In the past few years, Africa has witnessed tremendous strides toward democratic dispensations and good governance. We have seen incumbent presidents lose free and fair elections and concede defeat. In Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent conceded to Mohamed Buhari, the winner, and was proud to “have kept my word” that the elections there would be free and fair. In Namibia, Mozambique and Tanzania there have been successive free and fair elections, with term limited incumbents boasting that they were following their constitutions by adhering to the rule of law. In Zambia, Presidents have died in office but the processes of choosing their replacements have stuck to the democratic constitutional process that the political class itself established.

In Malawi, the President who was losing the election as the votes were being counted, tried to annul the results but was foiled by an outcry from pretty much everyone involved in the country, most significantly the country’s electoral commission, which pointed out that the president – especially a competing candidate – does not have the constitutional power to summarily annul an election. The courts upheld this decision and in the end the incumbent conceded defeat.

In Cote d’Ivoire’s 2015 election, there was a generally peaceful presidential election in direct contrast to the one in 2010 where more than 3000 people died as a result of an incumbent president refusing to concede election defeat. Apparently, a combined effort by citizen election observers and civil society organizations helped lend credibility to the 2015 elections. Even in Burkina Faso there was a successful free election after civil society groups and opposition political parties became the driving force behind the popular protests to oust the previous president who planned to continue in office despite being term limited.

All of this is good news for democratic prospects on the continent. And as Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif), Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Africa, said at an Africa Policy Forum, most of the countries in Africa are functioning democracies, adding, “It’s incumbent upon all of us who care about Africa to celebrate the good news of Africa.”

But, let’s be realistic here. There are countries in Africa bucking this trend and they pose a danger to everything that has been achieved so far. What is even more troubling is that some of these countries are recent examples of the violence and carnage that resulted from political instability. Burundi is on the brink of civil war. The President there who was termed out forced through an election in which he was also a candidate. By doing so he violated an agreement brokered earlier that patched this violence prone nation together following a destructive civil conflict that ended in 2005. Since his move, the country has been marred by increasing levels of violence and a mass exodus of terrified civilians. Burundi has been embroiled in some form of violent conflict almost since it first gained independence in 1962. And the last conflict from 1993 to 2005 pitted the country along ethnic lines and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Burundi shares a border with Rwanda, another country whose violent history is well known. We all have painful memories of the sickening videos and pictures of the genocide in that unfortunate country. When that dark period ended, this tiny country was applauded for picking itself up from the ashes and becoming a model of rapid economic progress and political stability. Now the President there, Paul Kagame, has changed the constitution and is running for another term, a flagrant violation of a stable and forward looking constitution that he was central in developing and implementing. The controversial vote to change the constitution means that Kagame, 58, can run again in 2017 after his second mandate ends. In effect it authorizes him to stand for another term of seven years and two more after that of five each, meaning that Kagame could be in power until 2034.

There has been international condemnation of Kagame’s moves by the European Union, the US State Department, the United Nations and other bodies. But there are other African countries contemplating similar moves like Kagame’s: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Benin, Congo-Brazzaville. Others like Angola, Algeria, Chad and Uganda have already passed measures benefiting incumbents. Yet, international voices of objections of these backward steps have been rather muted.

And if you look at the countries where this is happening, all of them have had violent (yes, barbaric) pasts, where lives have been lost by the millions and where dictators like Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko left untold suffering. And all of them have also experienced a period (however brief) of an environment where peace actually seemed to take hold and their citizens began to thrive. The wrong lessons seem to have been learned here.

After what happened in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as recently as the 1990s, can the African Union and the international community let that horrid past start to germinate, once more? By remaining silent or engaging in tepid responses, are we saying that we have not learned anything? And wasn’t it President Bill Clinton who said that he profoundly regretted not intervening sooner in the last Rwandan conflict? Why is international disapproval of such clear setbacks to African governance so muffled?

One Response to “Taking Africa Backward”

  1. Sondlo L. Mhlaba says:

    I really appreciated your recent essay on Africa’s progress towards democracy. Given the many negative reports about Africa carried by the dominant world press, it is easy to miss this good news. You also pointed out the remaining work to be done in such places as Burundi.

    My hope is that the new African Union leadership, following the recent end of Mugabe’s tenure, will put the AU in a stronger position to push for further progress in Africa on many fronts.

    I look forward to more of your “take” on Africa in months ahead.

    Sondlo L. Mhlaba, PhD

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