Efi Chalikopoulou illustration of David Pilling column  ‘Democracy in Africa is in retreat’
© Efi Chalikopoulou

It is election time in Uganda, and the main opposition candidate has pulled on his bulletproof vest. In recent months, Bobi Wine, the rap singer turned presidential aspirant, has survived arrests, beatings and what he alleges were two assassination attempts as bullets strafed his vehicle.

Mr Wine has good reason to be afraid in the run-up to January’s presidential contest. Two years ago, his driver was shot dead in what he alleges was a botched attempt on his own life. And last month, as his supporters came out to cheer him, scores were gunned down by security forces.

Mr Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was four years old when President Yoweri Museveni came to power after overthrowing another dictator. Thirty-four years later, Mr Wine and Mr Museveni represent two opposing sides — the street and the palace — in a continent where democracy has taken a battering but where the thirst for democratic representation remains strong.

At 38, Mr Wine — who styles himself the “ghetto president” after his tough upbringing in a Kampala slum — symbolises the street: a frustrated, underemployed youth in a continent where the median age is below 20. At 76, Mr Museveni represents an entrenched and ageing political royalty, skilled in the art of economic extraction and the brutal mechanics of clinging on to power.

If leaders like Mr Museveni are the immovable object, then challengers like Mr Wine are the unstoppable force. The result is likely to be more and more confrontations across the continent in which ordinary people, frustrated with crooked elections, demand change. The contents of Mr Wine’s political platform are vague. More than specific policies, he represents the smouldering rage of an urban youth that has retained a faith in democracy as the best way out of poverty. “Young Ugandans feel like they are first-world brains trapped in a third-world country,” Mr Wine told CNN this month. “They want to live their full potential.”

Surveys by Afrobarometer, a pan-African polling organisation, show that Africans express consistent support for multi-party democracy, direct elections of their leaders and, above all, presidential term limits. In a 2019 survey of more than 30 African countries, three-quarters of respondents said they wanted open and fair elections.

More than in Asia, where some autocracies have delivered economic success, most Africans persist in the belief that democracy is the surest path to development, says Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, Afrobarometer’s co-founder.

After years of gaining ground after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy in Africa is in retreat. Leaders like Mr Museveni have grown adept at manipulating democratic norms to deliver the appearance of democracy without its content. In Burundi, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Rwanda and many other countries, leaders have engaged in constitutional chicanery to extend term limits.

Former soldiers have donned democratic robes. Chidi Odinkalu, senior manager for Africa at the Open Society Foundations, reckons there are 21 former military men in power in Africa — including Angola, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.

In Mali this year, soldiers moved straight into the presidential palace, without bothering to pass the ballot box. International condemnation of even naked power grabs has been muted. “Donald Trump has made dictatorship hip again,” says Mr Gyimah-Boadi. He hopes the needle may shift back under the US president-elect Joe Biden.

Still, African governments are less reliant on western donors, who at least made some pretence of linking aid with respect for democratic norms. Instead, until Covid at least, they have borrowed from eurobond markets for whom prompt repayment is more important than credible elections.

Money has flowed, too, from the Gulf and the Middle East. For 20 years, one-party China has been the biggest lender of all. “The model of authoritarian developmentalism has come from China,” says Mr Odinkalu. “And it comes with a spigot of Chinese money.”

If external pressure to democratise has waned, pressure from the street has intensified. Mr Wine represents a civic pushback in a continent where ordinary people continue to make the case for liberal values.

In Sudan, the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir ended in 2019 after millions took to the streets to demand his exit. This February, Malawi’s constitutional court annulled the results of the 2019 “Tipp-Ex election” after months of mass protests in which tens of thousands poured on to the streets to denounce a fraudulent poll. The election was rerun and the incumbent ejected.

The streets of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, have also been in flames as mass protests erupted against police brutality. The echoes of their “EndSars movement” — named for a brutal unit of the Nigerian police force — has hash-tagged around the continent.

For a constitutional democracy to “survive and flourish”, says John Mukum Mbaku, senior non-resident fellow at Brookings, it must have both a “robust and politically active public” and “political elites dedicated to maintaining the country’s constitutional institutions”.

The clamour from the street is loud and clear. But few in the palaces appear to be listening.

david.pilling@ft.com

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