In recent years I and some others have argued that Sub-Sahara Africa is preparing for a major economic take-off, referring to some African states in East Africa as potential tiger economies. Particularly Eastern and Southern Africa are witnessing unprecedented growth rates, leading to the formation of a small but yet significant middle class in countries like Tanzania, Kenya, and Botswana. Some have dismissed that as wishful thinking or statistical irregularities, arguing that it is driven mainly by a demand for natural resources. An economic development, therefore, that would falter if not crater once the world economy takes another dive. But following ten years of steadfast economic growth, it might be time to stop talking economic irregularities or going off on how globalisation fuels injustice and a new economic imperialism. However, the question we all felt uneasy about is whether this latest addition to the positive effects of globalisation is duly accompanied by a consolidation in democratic structures and governments on the continent. One way or the other, 2011 will give us some answers. Those of my dear readers, who follow international relations closely know that this weekend will witness the referendum for independence in Southern Sudan. Less known but perhaps equally important are some presidential and parliamentary elections that are due in the coming months:
In January 2011 Niger is going to the polls to elect a new president. The poll is significant since Niger had experienced a coup d'etat last year to oust one of Africa's most corrupt dictators, Mamadou Tandja (picture), who has had a particular reputation for embezzling state funds. The coup was one of those only half-heartedly condemned by the international community, realising that it was perhaps the only way to get rid of a dictator who was bound to destroy the state's remaining few and weak institutions. Elections will be crucial in the transition to democracy.
The very same month Mauritania will elect a new national assembly, again a crucial vote. Mauritania has been plagued with occasional coups and is at the same time a front-line in the war against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (the former Algerian GSPC). Nonetheless, the development in Mauritania in recent months gives reason to be slightly optimistic. The Central African Republic is going to vote for a new president and a new national assembly in two rounds between January and March 2011, marking another test for the consolidation of democracy on the continent. From February to May Chad will vote on basically everything, a new parliament and president included. Assessing the prospect of democratic elections in Chad and CAR is difficult, elections could mark a significant departure from the past, but much will depend on whether France is willing to press for the implementation of democratic standards.
The fate of democracy in Sub-Sahara Africa, however, will not be decided by these elections. Three polls are going to be far more important in that regard:
First: Uganda is facing presidential elections in February. Following the end of the Cold War, Sub-Sahara Africa witnessed a number of former rebel leaders assuming presidential office, Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, Issaias Afewerki in Eritrea and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, all of them hailed as Africa's “New Leaders”. The problem being that Meles and Issaias were turning toward authoritarian rule over the past two decades. The notable exception was Uganda, where Museveni has upheld democratic principles. However, the Ugandan constitution stipulated that the president would be term-limited. Approaching the end of his second term, Museveni moved toward standing for a third term, even though the constitution clearly ruled that out. He did not dump the constitution, but changed the provisions through a vote in parliament. Most observers were puzzled and the question remains whether his move showed respect for the rule of law and democratic principles or was in fact a Machiavellian manoeuvre to cling on to power disguised in a pseudo-democratic process. This year's election will provide some clues on that question.
Nigeria will vote in April this year, with current president Jonathan Goodluck standing for his first official term. The big question is, whether these elections will be a catalyst for North-South divisions and ethnic and religious upheaval or whether they will help to consolidate the state in Nigeria. Truth is, we simply don't know how elections in Africa's most populous country are going to spell out. This way or the other, these elections might well be the most decisive in Nigeria's recent history.
Third, Zimbabwe will be back on the agenda. Following the turmoil of the last election the conflicting parties agreed on a government of national unity. But the government of national unity was never to be a government with shared power, instead, Robert Mugabe continued to dominate the government's institutions, unwilling to share control over the security forces. Even though Morgan Tsvangirai undoubtedly won the elections. In the agreement reached following the de facto coup by Mugabe, both sides agreed upon writing a new constitution before the next elections were to be held. But it increasingly looks like Mugabe is pressing ahead with elections before the new constitution will be submitted to the public. The government is increasingly fragile and Mugabe's party Zanu-PF is reportedly preparing for the same sort of blackmail and intimidation, rape and torture it has used in the last elections. In all likelihood, 2011 will experience a second round in Zimbabwe's power struggle, with Mugabe unwilling to surrender his office. Zimbabwe won't give us any clue as to whether democracy on the continent is consolidating or not, but it will be interesting to watch how the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) are going to deal with the somewhat inevitable crisis. Current patterns of behaviour suggest that SADC will be hesitant to exert any pressure, whereas the African Union will be acting more aggressively in bringing the parties together. The only upside here is that the African Union has made progress in actually adhering to its charter.
2011 will likely be a mixed bag for democracy in Sub-Sahara Africa. But don't be misled by some of the early elections, the crucial test for democracy in Sub-Sahara Africa will come in Uganda and Nigeria and here we might well witness some modest consolidation of democracy.