Africa: those willing to sacrifice democracy for stability will have neither

A man shakes hands with a soldier in Akanda, Gabon, 30 August 2023. Members of the Gabonese army on 30 August announced on national television that they were canceling the election results and putting an end to President Ali Bongo’s regime, who had been declared the winner. /Keystone/EPA/Stringer)

Earlier this week when the military ended 56 years of the Bongo family dynasty in the African state of Gabon, it was just the latest coup d’état to take place since 2020. Just like with other recent precedents in Niger, Sudan, Mali and Burkina Faso and Guinea, the overthrow in Gabon must be condemned in the strongest terms, writes Corinne Momal-Vanian, executive director of the Geneva-based Kofi Annan Foundation.

“Africa has had plenty of experience of military rule in the past, none positive. There is no reason to think it will be any better this time around,”  Arnauld Akodjenou, the special advisor on Africa at the Kofi Annan Foundation, which I head, said earlier this week following the military coup in Gabon. On Wednesday the country’s military ousted President Ali Bongo after he was declared the winner of a contested election.

The latest military takeover, just weeks after Niger suffered a similar fate, further shattered the period of relative peace and prosperity in the region which had been ushered in by a wave of democratisation in the 1990s, after decades of unsuccessful authoritarian and military regimes.

Compared to their civilian predecessors, the region’s military juntas that have assumed power since 2020 have failed to deliver better security or development results.. On the contrary, in recent months, there has been a wave of Jihadist attacks, undermining one of the main claims of the juntas: they have also not followed through on commitments to transition back to civilian rule. In Sudan, the military takeover in October 2021 has led to a murderous conflict among rival army factions and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

Surveys by Afrobarometer, a regional research network, show that two thirds of Africans prefer democracy to any other system of government, and nearly seven out of ten people surveyed reject military rule. Yet the data has also found that support for democracy has been declining over the past decade, with growing numbers of younger citizens, in particular, increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of democratic systems.

Professor Emmanuel Gymah-Boadi, the author of a 2021 Kofi Annan Foundation’s study on democratisation in the region, said at the time: “There is plenty of demand for democracy in Africa: the problem is the supply side”.

The report had noted that the integrity of elections, good governance, rule of law and fundamental freedoms have been backsliding over the past decade. It also said that  “gaps between popular aspirations for material welfare and inadequate fulfilment have been key drivers of political discontent and instability”, as citizens consider their governments’ ability to create jobs, improve the living standards of the poor and provide public services as being very poor.

That’s why not everyone in the region agreed with the forceful reaction of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to the recent coups. ECOWAS suspended membership of countries where elected governments have been toppled and imposed sanctions as well as threatened military intervention in Niger. Some worry that ordinary citizens may be hardest hit by sanctions and surely become the first victims of any military intervention.

This confirms a hard truth: elections can afford their winners the mantle of legitimacy only if they are free and fair, are held on a level playing field, and the institutions that organise them are regarded as independent and credible. In other words, you cannot enjoy the benefits of democracy without the ingredients of democracy.

Unfortunately, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, only five of 44 African countries surveyed still fully qualify as democracies. The rest are either “hybrid” or authoritarian regimes that periodically organise flawed elections. This makes them vulnerable to coups: in time, those who make change via the ballot box impossible make change via the streets or the barracks inevitable.

It is no coincidence that the military’s power grab in Gabon occurred just after a tainted election delivered a controversial third term to President Bongo, heir to the decades-long regime of his father. Ahead of the vote, Afrobarometer had warned that most Gabonese citizens believed that elections remain the best way to choose their leaders, but that they cannot guarantee that voters are able to remove leaders who fail to meet their expectations. The Kofi Annan Peace and Security Forum which we organised in Ghana’s capital, Accra, in December 2021, called for term limits as a key crisis prevention measure.

Following the latest events, El Hadj As Sy, our foundation’s chair, renewed a call for strengthening democracy in the region. “Many in Africa complain that democracy has failed, but in reality, it has rarely been genuinely tried,” he said. “The international community must bear in mind that the best way to shore up the stability of any region is to strengthen its democratic institutions and processes, not just its armed forces, and to provide opportunities for all.”

Corinne Momal-Vanian is the executive director of the Kofi Annan Foundation, which she joined after a long career at the United Nations. She holds degrees from HEC Graduate School of Management, Sciences Po Paris, and MIT Sloan School of Management, and is committed to promoting positive change globally.