Lessons from Africa's Democratic Upheavals

Danielle Resnick / April 2012

During the last month, three democracies in Africa witnessed incumbent presidents exit office in very different ways. The most dramatic was in Mali where a coup by the military resulted in the ousting of President Amadou Toumani Touré only one month before that country was due to hold elections. In neighboring Senegal, a potentially violent election resulted in the incumbent Abdoulaye Wade peacefully leaving office after 12 years and handing over power to his former prime minister and erstwhile protégé, Macky Sall. At the other end of the continent, President Bingu wa Mutharika's controversial tenure in office suddenly ended in early April with his death from cardiac arrest.

Dust from the departing helicopter. The United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) airlifted voting materials to the Central Equatoria State payam of Tali because the area is inaccessible by road, just a week before balloting begins in Southern Sudan's long-awaited referendum on self-determination. © Tim McKulka

The fates and legacies of these three presidents illustrate varying aspects of Africa's democratic trajectory since the 1990s when many of countries in the region underwent transitions to multi-party regimes. Ever since Touré militarily deposed the autocratic Moussa Traoré and helped pave the way for a democratic transition in 1992 when Alpha Oumar Konaré was elected president, Mali has been viewed as a democratic success story. The presence of a vibrant press and civil society, along with a peaceful electoral turnover from Konaré to Touré in 2002, reaffirmed this perception. The military takeover in March 2012 was therefore unexpected, and contradicted the claims of some scholars of democratic consolidation that coups become less likely once countries have had at least two decades of multi-party rule.

The immediate catalyst for the coup was the lack of resources for the military as they combat two main types of rebellion in the northern region of the country. The first has been the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) led by Tuaregs who believe that they have been discriminated against politically and economically and who want to establish their own nation-state. Indeed, inequalities between the north and south on a wide variety of socioeconomic indicators are woefully large. At the same time, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb has taken advantage of vast, uncontrolled areas of the north to engage in a wide array of criminal activities. Setbacks to the Malian military against these rebels had prompted widespread discontent among the public, highlighted by marches in the capital of Bamako prior to the takeover by Captain Amadou Sanogo. Nevertheless, while many did not approve of the Touré government's handling of the rebels and were becoming increasingly discontent with a perceived increase in government corruption, the coup was not broadly supported by Malians. Like Mali, Senegal has had a long-running, albeit now low-level, secessionist conflict in its southern Casamance region, which is linguistically and religiously distinct from the rest of the country. But, Senegal remains noted for being the only country in West Africa never to have experienced a military coup.  The army has always retained its neutrality, regardless of the degree of political crisis facing the country.  This remained true even in the run-up to Senegal's 2012 elections when a number of large-scale protests erupted in the capital of Dakar over electricity cuts and rising food prices as well as Wade's questionable political maneuvers.

For instance, in June 2011, Dakarois protested against Wade's attempts to reduce the winning threshold for presidential elections from 50 to 25 percent and to introduce the office of vice-presidency, largely believed to have been created for his son, Karim. In January 2012, more violence erupted when the constitutional council approved Wade's bid to run for a third term in office, despite his 86 years of age, stoking fears that the elections might destabilize the country entirely. Wade's actions reflected an underlying trend of his 12 years in office, which was characterized by an expansion of presidential powers and the launching of populist but not necessarily effective initiatives, such as Plan Jaxaay for victims of flooding, Plan Takkal to reinvigorate the electricity sector, and the Grand Agricultural Offensive for Food Security (GOANA) to combat high food prices.

Yet, Senegal's opposition parties have remained relatively feeble at representing a distinct alternative. In fact, a social movement called Y'en a marre (‘Fed Up'), which led a series of protest meetings, was widely viewed as more effective at mobilizing disgruntled Senegalese than the opposition. While clearly anti-Wade, opposition parties have not proved very good at highlighting their own policy orientations or how they are different from each other. The decision of many members of the Benno Siggil Senegal coalition to run their own campaigns in the first round of the elections rather than support Moustapha Niasse, who had been elected as the coalition's candidate, illustrated that many were more motived by personal gain than by presenting a united front.  Notably, despite widespread discontent with Wade, the turnout for the second round of the 2012 elections was only 55 percent, which is the lowest in over a decade. Macky Sall, who led Wade's 2007 presidential campaign, nevertheless obtained a resounding victory with almost 66 percent of the votes.  Yet, he will need to institutionalize his four year-old Alliance for the Republic (APR) party and allow a wider range of leadership within it in order to avoid repeating Wade's mistakes.

As highlighted by my recent UNU-WIDER working paper 'Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The Limits of Foreign Aid on Malawi's Democratic Consolidation', lack of party institutionalization has also proved a key feature of Malawi's politics. President Mutharika entered first entered office in 2004 as the candidate for the United Democratic Front (UDF). Yet the following year, after a dispute with the UDF's leader, Bakili Muluzi, Mutharika defected and formed his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). By launching the Fertilizer Input Subsidy Program (FISP), which aimed to help predominantly maize-producing smallholders, Mutharika was able to increase support for his new party and subsequently won the 2009 presidential elections with two-thirds of the national vote and a majority of seats in the national legislature.
This enlarged mandate, however, emboldened Mutharika to adopt an increasingly personalistic form of leadership. In the wake of the 2009 elections, Malawi witnessed suppression of the opposition and academic freedoms, intolerance for dissent within the DPP, and a series of legislation that aimed to reduce the independence of the media and marginalize the rights of minority groups.  At the same time, the country began experiencing a severe shortage of fuel and foreign exchange due to dwindling earnings from tobacco exports coupled with the global financial crisis. Despite the pleas of donors to devalue the currency, Mutharika resisted since this would increase the cost of imported fertilizers for the FISP.

Disputes with the donors along with disgruntlement over Mutharika's increasingly autocratic leanings culminated in urban protests in July 2011 organized by a wide array of civil society organizations and opposition parties. The death of approximately 19 protesters at the hands of the police and army only further fuelled popular discontent and convinced donors to withhold budget support. In the wake of Mutharika's death, there is scope to help Malawi recover from its recent political and economic crises. Yet, the DPP has witnessed large-scale defections and a number of former cadres joining the recently established People's Party of the new president, Joyce Banda. The lack of commitment to the late president's party only highlights how poorly it was institutionalized and how strongly it depended on his leadership.

Collectively, these recent events reveal the uneven road to democratic consolidation in Africa. Key challenges include the persistence of socioeconomic inequalities within countries, high levels of centralization around presidents, relatively weak opposition parties, and low levels of party institutionalization. Nevertheless, the lack of a power vacuum in Malawi after Mutharika's death, Wade's concession to Sall in Senegal, and the quick restoration of civilian rule in Mali inspire optimism about the growing commitment to political institutions and democratic values within the region. Most significantly, popular protests against democratic infringements in all three countries highlight that this commitment is most vigorously upheld by African citizens themselves.

Danielle Resnick is a Research Fellow at UNU-WIDER. For more information on this project please see the research page: Foreign Aid and Democracy in Africa.

This article was originally published in the WIDERAngle newsletter April 2012.