U.S. lawmakers convened a hearing Wednesday in Washington on what they said was an erosion of democratic institutions in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and its impact on the region’s economic growth as well as access to health and education resources.
Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa are retreating from core democratic principles, said Representative Karen Bass, chair of the House subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations.
“Democratic backsliding includes but is not limited to the degradation of free and fair elections, infringement of freedom of speech, impairment of political opposition to challenge the government or hold it accountable [and] the weakening of the rule of law.”
Bass said flawed elections remained an issue in most of Africa, with leaders manipulating laws, freedoms and elections to retain power.
“Most concerning is the situation in Tanzania, which I recently addressed in House Resolution 1120, where current leadership is repressing the opposition in basic freedoms of expression and assembly in a blatant attempt to retain power," she said. "We see similar patterns in Cote D’Ivoire as the executive branch legalizes the deviation in democratic institutions to codify nondemocratic actions.”
Violence in Côte d'Ivoire has left at least a dozen people dead since last month, when President Alassane Ouattara, 78, broke a promise made this year not to seek reelection. Ouattara reversed his stance and accepted the nomination of his ruling party after his handpicked successor died suddenly of a heart attack in July.
Experts testifying on Capitol Hill noted a backward trend.
Christopher Fomunyoh from the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs told lawmakers that Africa went from having only two countries classified as free in 1989 to two-thirds of the countries classified as either free or partially free 20 years later.
But now, he said, those democratic gains have been reversed.
“Notably, west Africa, previously commended as a trailblazer region, has seen serious backsliding," he said. "Mali has experienced a major coup, and serious controversies have risen about candidacies of incumbent presidents in Guinea Conakry and Cote D’Ivoire. The central African region remains stuck with the highest concentration of autocratic regimes, with the three longest-serving presidents in the world.”
Fomunyoh listed some of the longest-serving leaders: in Equatorial Guinea (41 years), Cameroon (58 years) and Congo-Brazzaville (nearly 40 years).
Freedom and democratic governance is enjoyed by far too few Africans, with only 9% of people in sub-Saharan Africa living in countries that Freedom House categorizes as free, said Jon Temin, the Africa Program director at Freedom House.
'Citizens bear the brunt'
The organization’s most recent report on freedom in the world noted that of the 12 countries with the largest declines, seven were in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Citizens bear the brunt of backsliding," Temin said. "They are attacked when they peacefully protest in opposition of the government, as in Guinea and Cameroon. They are unable to use the internet when the government restricts access, as in Ethiopia and Chad. Civil society groups face excessive limitations on their activity, as in Tanzania and Burundi, and journalists are threatened and detained, as in Nigeria and Zimbabwe.”
As for elections, there have been some encouraging signs, said another witness, Dorina Bekoe of the Institute for Defense Analyses.
“Kenyan civil society has pioneered platforms where citizens can record incidents of fraud and harassment, and that’s been replicated in many places around the continent," Bekoe said. "There are election situation rooms where information is conveyed to a central location and steps are taken to mitigate tension. Parallel vote tabulation is also widely practiced as a check on official results.”
She also noted positive trends taking place in Ghana, Senegal, Mauritius, Botswana and South Africa.