For years analysts have held that democratic elections are key to spurring economic development in Africa and therefore ought to receive greater U.S. support. But the African democracy consensus is beginning to crack, and even Kofi Annan is skeptical. A new report by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), with Annan as chairman, tells us that elections often provide “a false veneer of legitimacy” for autocratic incumbents.
The report finds that elections often exacerbate underlying tribal, ethnic and religious tensions rather than guide polities into a bright, secular future. The fixation on elections as “the root of democracy” is doing little to help the downtrodden and keep the peace. The Council on Foreign Relations has more:
The report is world-wide in scope, but it is particularly appropriate to Africa. Africa Union Commissioner for Political Affairs, Aisha Abdulahi in welcoming the report said that “elections can undermine democracy, worsen divisions, trigger conflicts and fail to deliver improvements in the lives of people.” She went on to say that “our governments don’t respect the rule of law; and the judiciary is not always independent or neutral, leading to further conflict.”
Elections lacking credibility have led to violence in a host of African countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria. In other places–Senegal and Zambia–credible elections do advance democracy. The danger for outside observers is to see elections as always a step forward when too often they increase divisions.
The war in Libya, the subsequent coup and civil war in Mali (which was once considered an exemplar of African democracy), and the spread of radical Islam throughout West Africa appear to be eroding optimism about the progress of secular democracy in Africa.
NGOs would do well to question that optimism and instead look closely at the ethnic, tribal and religious divides that continue to shape African politics. At the very least, we can hope to contain the damage done by well-intentioned outsiders.