Posted on Thursday, 28 February 2013 15:15

Cold winds for democrats

Patrick Smith

The news from the bourse is good. Or so says a New York banker friend currently entertaining fund managers seeking to invest tens of billions of dollars in Africa.


Almost a billion dollars a month was flowing into African equities by the end of last year, but the news on the African street is less sanguine.

Puffed up with dollar inflows, spiralling commodity prices and bullish balance sheets, fewer governments seem inclined to indulge their people's democratic aspirations.

Ruling parties in Ghana and Senegal get the message. But many other governments want – in some cases literally – to shoot the messenger

From Cape to Cairo, many of the concessions won by democrats are at risk as ruling elites try to roll back constitutional reform and clamp down on dissent in the media.

It may be that they have read those political textbooks telling them that rising national income, a growing middle class and accelerating urbanisation make up a formidable challenge to incumbent presidents.

On that score they are right. A new cycle of change in politics is under way.

Generational change and instant communications are encouraging it, as is an overwhelming frustration that stronger economies have not translated into better schools and clinics.

Ruling parties in Ghana and Senegal get the message. But many other governments want – in some cases literally – to shoot the messenger.

Being on the wrong side of history will not deter a host of anti-democrats from using their still-formidable armouries to cling to power. In other states, new rulers are quickly assuming the habits of their autocratic forebears.

Just two years after North African revolutionaries swept away three autocrats and demanded sweeping social change, the democratic momentum has stalled.

In Tunisia, the cradle of the revolution, leftwing activist Chokri Belaïd was shot dead in early February.

The ruling Islamist Ennahda party energetically protests its innocence in this post-revolutionary assassination, but national politics is undeniably polarising.

This is not the modernising and tolerant government promised by Ennahda's veteran theoretician, Rachid Ghannouchi.

None of the big arguments between Islamists and secularists over social and political freedoms under the new constitution have been settled.

Similar faultlines divide Egypt's post-revolutionary polity after President Mohamed Morsi tried to rule by decree late last year to push through a heavily contested constitution.

Morsi claimed his government was being blocked by supporters of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, but the ensuing protests showed many of the activists had been in the forefront of the campaign to topple the old order.

Since then, opposition to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood has intensified, culminating in a massive demonstration in Tahrir Square on 11 February.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of many Western and Soviet-backed tyrannies unleashed Africa's spring in the early 1990s.

African activists convened national conferences to rewrite constitutions and enshrine basic rights. Now those advances are under pressure.

In Bamako, figures such as Tiébilé Dramé speak of redesigning Mali's political system.

Similar demands are heard in Kinshasa and the Kivus, where the Democratic Republic of Congo's social fabric has ripped wide open.

'Developmental authoritarianism' produces impressive economic growth in Ethiopia and Rwanda, but oppositionists are stepping up pressure for a political opening.

In boisterous and sometimes lethal multiparty systems such as those of Kenya and Nigeria, activists reject most of the political choices on offer and want to build new coalitions for change.

Kenya, which holds elections on 4 March, is testing the hope that constitutional reform will usher in a new political era.

Nigeria's activists will be watching closely.

In South Africa, despite its hard-won liberal constitution, there is a fight for political space after the ruling African National Congress (ANC) closed ranks at December 2012's national conference.

A few critics may jump from the ANC ship, but the biggest flags of dissent will be waved by the Congress for South African Trade Unions, activists such as Lindiwe Mazibuko, leader of the Democratic Alliance in parliament, and long-time anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele.

Governments and their dissenters face a turbulent season●

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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