Threats to democratic rule in Africa are growing, but time and demography are against the autocrats
MUSIC blasts from speakers mounted on the back of a truck in a rubbish dump in a corner of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. Young men with bandannas over their faces form a security cordon. Children climb on top of a dumpster to get a better view. A woman swigs from a bottle of local rum as she dances provocatively on the makeshift stage. A man in a suit steps up and the music stops. “Zambia!” he shouts. “Zambia!” roars back the crowd.
This is not a music festival. It is a political rally. Yet for all the jovial colour of the occasion, democracy in Zambia is not well. The rally was held on a stinking rubbish dump because the government refused to let Hakainde Hichilema, the main opposition candidate for the presidency, use any other public space in the area. Mr Hichilema was repeatedly refused permission to fly his helicopter to campaign elsewhere. The country’s leading independent newspaper, the Post, was shut down, ostensibly over a tax bill, after it reported on what it said were plans to rig the election. Several rallies turned violent, leaving at least one person dead.
After the election, held on August 11th, the counting of the votes lasted four days instead of the usual two. On the third day, Mr Hichilema’s party withdrew from the verification process, complaining that the electoral commission was colluding with the party of the incumbent, Edgar Lungu, to boost his vote. In the end Mr Lungu was narrowly re-elected, despite a collapsing economy and an inflation rate of 20%.
Zambia’s marred election is a particular disappointment. In 1991 it was the second country on the continent to expel an incumbent ruler at the ballot box, following Benin by a few months. It again booted out the ruling party in 2011, establishing a healthy pattern of alternation that now seems threatened.
Zambia is an unnerving example of how democracy, which had seemed finally to be about to bloom on the world’s poorest continent, is still struggling to take root in many parts of it. Looked at through a wide lens of history, Africa’s standard of governance is almost unimaginably better than it was at the end of the cold war. Then a dart thrown at the map would almost certainly have landed on a one-party state, military junta or outright dictatorship.
Economic liberty was much scarcer then, too: various forms of socialism abounded, from Tanzania to Ghana, Ethiopia to Angola. Freedom House, an American think-tank, reckons that in 1988, just before the cold war ended, only 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa could be classified as “free” or “partly free”. Since then, the organisation reckons that 29 of the 48 countries in the region can be considered “free” or “partly free”.
Yet zoom in the historical lens to view the past few years and it seems that the picture is mixed. Some places are seeing progress. In South Africa, the African National Congress, which has ruled since the end of apartheid, lost its majority in several major cities in local elections this month. Despite efforts by its president, Jacob Zuma, to hollow out institutions such as the prosecutors’ office, national broadcaster and anti-corruption agency, a critical press, independent judiciary and vocal opposition are keeping the government on its toes. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, a corrupt and incompetent ruling party was voted out for the first time since the end of military rule in 1999.
Yet elsewhere democracy appears to be withering. The most recent tally of free countries has fallen from a peak of 34 a decade ago (see chart). A number of countries which, like Zambia, had been becoming more open and free, have seemed to slide backwards.