After almost four decades of sustained attention to and massive investment in democracy promotion globally, the conversation today is gradually shifting toward what more should be done by Washington and major Western democracies to stem the tide of democratic reversals in Africa. Such a concern is legitimate, not just because several of the countries once held up as democratic “success stories are more or less gasping for air in the proverbial intensive care unit, or have descended into the worst genre of authoritarianism.
The cumulative effect of this dispiriting development is that pent-up citizens’ frustration and anger against their governments for failing to deliver the basic dividends of democracy is growing across the continent; in many instances exacerbated by intractable social, economic, political, and environmental challenges. Also, the meaning and vibrancy that were once distinguishing features of the public space have virtually dissipated as citizens express their displeasure by disengaging from electoral processes, including voting during major elections.
Youth, Democracy, and Elections
Evidence since the mid-1990s shows how voter apathy is on a steady rise, a major marker of not just a lack of faith in governments and political institutions but also a reaction to poor health and the diminishing vitality of democracy. According to Noelle-Nwokolo, citing the Brenthurst Foundation,1Mari Noelle-Nwokolo, “Voter Apathy — Especially Among the Young — Threatens Democracy in Africa,” 2022, https://www.thebrenthurstfoundation.org/news/voter-apathy–especially-among-the-young–threatens-democracy-in-africa-1/ the number of African democracies has fallen to just eight in 2022; with 41 percent and 44 percent, respectively, of the continent’s 54 countries classified as either “partly free” or “not free.”
In one way or the other, different demographic categories have contributed to the negative trends above. The most visible are the “youth”—young people between the ages of 18-35 years. In a continent where they account for as much as 60 percent of the total population in most countries, whatever young people do quickly impact the quality and integrity of democracy, apart from causing disruptions to public order. In explaining why youth political apathy is becoming common, a Kenyan youth activist blamed it on the current economic hardships and the palpable loss of faith and trust in politicians and in the electoral process.
What Needs to be Done?
Given the dangerous crossroads at which several African countries have now found themselves, the challenging question is what should western democracies do to reverse the trend towards democratic regression, including strengthening youth participation in political and electoral processes? It might be a disappointment if the 2nd edition of the US-Africa Summit held in December 2022 turns out to be another missed golden opportunity to place the specific issue of reversing democratic reversal at the front burner of its agenda and engagements. Setting four major priorities at the intersection of youth, democracy, and elections should have won the Summit some applause in Africa:
- Expanding the scope of intervention and other strategic engagements involving the US and other Western governments in supporting democracy through a commitment to continue funding youth-led initiatives such as the Not-too-young-to-run bill that was signed into law in May 2018, less than one year to the 2019 Nigerian General Elections. Under the scheme, a lot of young parliamentarians that received support from YIAGA Africa contested for and won seats in State Houses of Assembly across the federation, as well as the National Assembly.
- Addressing challenges linked to providing the right quantum of investment and support toward elections-related advocacy, public enlightenment, and voter sensitization targeted at young people. Here, there is a considerably large scope to leverage this kind of support in view of the large number of potential first-time voters turning 18 years (estimated at 4.5-5 million during each 4-year electoral cycle in Nigeria). It is estimated that youth voters in the forthcoming 2023 Nigerian election would increase from 33.5 percent to 60 percent, which is about 29 million young voters out of the total 93.4 registered voters nationwide, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
- Drawing up a comprehensive plan to help stem the tide of dwindling access to subsidized socioeconomic opportunities that is making democracy and elections meaningless for a growing number of African citizens and youth. Today, the signs or risks of failure are all-pervasive with the steady erosion of the material base required for democracy to thrive. Many African citizens are groaning under the weight of asphyxiating and devastating social and economic conditions, making them vulnerable to financial inducements by wealthy politicians which in turn influences electoral outcomes. Ignoring negative influences, while paying lip service to the symbolisms and rituals of democracy, may not advance democratic consolidation in Africa in the long term.
- Strong indications of renewed pressures (moral, institutional, economic, political, and institutional) from the US and other advanced Western democracies to ensure that African governments undertaking difficult political transitions remain faithful to democratic principles and processes rather than work to undermine them. It is clear that as several African countries approach general elections and other major electoral milestones, the political stakes will continue to grow and could easily spin out of control. If and when this happens, African governments not only become paranoid, but also very quickly become ruthless toward their citizens. Without sufficient pressure and effective checks exercised from outside, some of the excesses of incumbent governments, as well as in some cases of opposition parties, could lead to deepening tensions and instability.
Moving Forward without Any Concrete Ambition?
If democracy continues to falter in more African countries, it will be hard for the US, and key Western powers, to completely avoid the potential collateral damages and broader ramifications. If this happens, it could reinforce the growing skepticism that Washington is not fully following through with her policy towards Africa, beyond the pageantry of high-level summitry.
Unfortunately, all of this will be happening while the emerging alliances and relations between “new” and emerging powers such as China, Russia, India, and even Turkey, and Africa, through bilateral engagements, and similar summits, are becoming the new normal. Like the US-Africa summit, the summits involving new or emerging powers also pay little or no attention to the fate of democracy in Africa. They are largely quiet on this subject or even indirectly encourage pervasive impunity by supporting “friendly” incumbent governments and shielding them from public accountability. Undoubtedly, the growing influence of these “other” powers will have geopolitical implications for the US’ ability to exercise any definitive leverage in pursuing strategic interests, or promoting democracy and elections in Africa, including empowering youth to advance their political rights. The multiplier effect of not investing sufficiently enough in reversing the trend toward democratic regression may just be the biggest threat to development and stability in Africa in the near future.
- 1Mari Noelle-Nwokolo, “Voter Apathy — Especially Among the Young — Threatens Democracy in Africa,” 2022, https://www.thebrenthurstfoundation.org/news/voter-apathy–especially-among-the-young–threatens-democracy-in-africa-1/