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Opinion: Ukraine isn’t the only front in the battle to save democracy

This year, Afrobarometer, Africa’s pollster of opinions, reports a marginal, yet significant decline in support for democracy in Africa

The August overthrow of Ali Bongo, President of the central African nation of Gabon, after 42 years of dynastic rule, was just the latest nondemocratic transition of power in Africa; it follows a July coup in Niger, another in Burkina Faso in 2022, Guinea in 2021two in Mali in 2020 and 2021, and Sudan in 2021.

These military insurrections unfolded under differing circumstances — anti-government malice in the streets, growing Islamic insurgencies, power battles within the armed forces — but whatever their drivers, the coup plotters made reasoned calculations: They weighed the risk and determined they could get away with it.

It is my view that we find ourselves in a perfect storm of cross-cutting currents that are bolstering anti-democratic forces, conditions that have long concerned those measuring trend lines on the continent. This year, for the first time, Afrobarometer, Africa’s foremost pollster of opinions, reported a marginal, yet significant decline in support for democracy throughout the continent.

Similarly, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s 2022 scorecard, which measures governance, showed a flatline over the past several years and described a “continent less safe, secure and democratic than it was in 2012.”

If we want to stop the “coup contagion,” we need to understand the forces that are giving comfort to and even encouraging coup plotters and that now are casting a long shadow over the ambitions of the Biden administration as it seeks to implement the ambitious commitments made last year at the Africa Leaders’ Summit. I see four main drivers that are undermining democracy and encouraging coups.

The atrophy of Africa’s governing class

Over the past decade, as the continent’s entrepreneurs and businesses transformed and innovated, its political elite atrophied. This was particularly evident during COVID-19 when politicians found new ways to self-enrich and clamp down on opposition during a health emergency.

It used to be that African politicians cared enough about their global images to pretend to dance the dance, to attest that they had popular legitimacy. Lately, they don’t even try.

These leaders, some in power for decades, have stayed in power by weakening democratic institutions, erecting barriers to political entry, and parceling out state resources to buy loyalty. Joseph Sany of the USIP asserts that these degradations of democracy undermine the legitimacy of the state, and as a result, invite violent eruptions, whether extremism, insurgencies or coups d’état.

 Compromised regional/continental institutions

Unpopular leaders cannot hold onto power on their own. They need their enablers, and in Africa these include regional and pan-African institutions. These organizations have made so many compromises that their democratic edicts are taken as lip service, at the very best.

As such, warnings like those issued by the Economic Community of West African States to send a regional military force to Niger to restore its constitutional democracy ring hallow, as did the protests from the Southern African Development Council (SADC) against the reportedly rigged elections that delivered President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s second term in August.

Russia unchecked in Africa

The Russian mercenary force, the Wagner Group, has never been a rogue operation conjured up by the now assassinated commander Yevgeny Prigozhin. It was always a Putin play — to pay back Western democracies for their isolation of Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, starting in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.

In Africa, Putin reasoned, he could destabilize the Western alliance on the cheap. In the case of Niger, the outcome — the unseating of a democratically elected leader who was delivering for the people, on the heels of headlining the U.S. Africa Business Summit in Botswana — was beyond the Kremlin’s expectation.

Whether direct, or indirect, the Russian state had a hand in Niger, including stoking to a frenzy anti-French sentiment.

 Benign neglect from Western democracies

The Biden administration and its G-7 allies have taken laudable initiatives to address the needs of African states. This includes the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) an innovation of the G-7, which seeks to address the world’s infrastructure gap and balance the predatory lending practices of China’s Belt and Road initiative.

However helpful, this aid is nowhere near the scale needed to stabilize Africa’s post-COVID19 economies and to counterbalance the inflationary pressures driven by unprecedented federal relief programs and further aggravated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

African economies have been largely left with tools built for a global economy decades ago and creditor agencies that with a single report can cut off a nation’s ability to borrow in the private capital markets. Meanwhile, the dividends of democracy slip away.

Following the pandemic, African nations, called for a rebalancing of the global economic order, given the disproportionate impact they suffered. They got a consolation prize: a seat at the G-20.

And then there is Ukraine, which is singular — but also a signal to America’s enemies and the coup plotters. Last month President Biden proposed an emergency supplemental appropriation for Fiscal Year 2023 of $40 billion. Of that amount, $24 billion goes to Ukraine; this is in addition to the $113 billion provided in 2022.

Meanwhile — despite the unprecedented challenge to democracy in Africa, with back-to-back military coups, fueled, at least in part, by Russia — only $200 million was requested for security assistance to Africa.

If we want to stop the backsliding of democracy on the continent, it’s going to take more than performative behavior by Africa’s political elites, its continental bodies, and by its donor nations. It’s going to take a recognition that there is a fundamental democratic struggle, a fight between those who want to build democracy up, and those whose interests are served by tearing it down.

It’s going to take changes in behavior that fundamentally alter the correlation of forces. It’s going to take political courage and, more likely than not, a new generation of leaders.

This opinion piece was first published on The Messenger on

The writer is Riva Levinson, president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President.” 

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