24 July 2014

Africa: U.S.-Africa Summit Must Listen to Voices of the People

Photo: The White House
Barack Obama (file photo).

guest column

In a guest column for AllAfrica, E. Gyimah Boadi of Ghana's Center for Democratic Development says the vast majority of Africans who prefer democracy over authoritarian regimes deserve to be heard at the forthcoming U.S.-Africa Summit convened by President Barack Obama.

The child kidnappings by Boko Haram have done a great deal for Africa's critics and its strongmen. Legitimate concerns about security in some areas - Nigeria's northern villages, South Sudan and the Central African Republic - can lead to the assertion that Africa is not ready for democracy.

The notion that strong authoritarian governments create the best protection against perceived African instability, both political and economic, will likely be expressed once again at the United States-Africa Summit, to be convened on August 5 and 6.

But that is not what African people say. Majorities endorse freedom, not authoritarian governments - and those majorities deserve to be heard as their leaders and the President Obama shape America's evolving African engagement.

Seven out of ten Africans prefer democracy to other political regimes, and the proportion of deeply committed democrats - those who also reject authoritarian alternatives - has risen steadily over the past decade, according to Afrobarometer, a network of researchers who have surveyed African opinion since 1999.

Of course, the state of democracy shows great variety across Africa. Fewer than half of all adults profess to prefer democracy in Madagascar (38 percent) and Swaziland (46 percent), where open elections have been repeatedly disputed, postponed, or never held at all. By contrast, almost everyone expresses support for democracy in Senegal (88 percent) and Zambia (90 percent), where recent elections have led to peaceful turnovers of national leaders.

In countries like Ghana, Senegal, Zambia and Mauritius, citizens' endorsements of democracy as the best kind of government are matched by high levels of satisfaction with their own governments' performances. These consolidated democracies deserve high levels of American aid, trade and investment.

The United States should also encourage such countries to continue improving the accountability of leaders to their people, in order to sustain people's beliefs that they can influence their own development by voting in fair elections and campaigning for the services and rights they need.

Several other countries, including Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Togo, and Cameroon show severe "democratic deficits". People in these countries share democratic aspirations with their more liberal neighbors, but their judgment of the state of governance is far lower: they demand more democracy than they are getting.

This makes it likely that ruling elites in these countries will continue to face popular pressures for improved democratic governance. Failure to meet these popular demands can produce social discontent that more radical forces can exploit, as we have seen most recently in Mali and Nigeria.

The implications for Western policies towards Africa are clear. Helping to strengthen democratic institutions is consistent with popular aspirations, and d emocracy is an essential part of African aspirations and the continent's future development.

Capitulating to the continent's dictators and strongmen - whether justified as a needed concession to security, or a pragmatic emphasis on "development first" - may create the deep dissatisfaction with governments experienced in Mali and in North African countries such as Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

The accountability of leaders in such countries would be further undermined if strategic U.S. interventions are too narrowly focused on short-term geo-political and economic considerations, and ultimately supportive of autocratic regimes. Such moves would be contrary to the popular desire for democratic governance.

The forthcoming summit offers a unique opportunity for dialogue, engagement, and consensus on Africa's development and relations with the U.S. While economic and strategic issues are certainly important, this is not a moment when democratic change should be relegated to a lesser status. The opinions of average Africans sharply emphasize the importance of governments accountable to the people on the continent.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said: "This is a moment of great opportunity for Africans. It is also a moment of decision." Let U.S. policy support governments and aid spending that increase citizens' participation in the most important decisions of their future.

E. Gyimah-Boadi is the executive director of Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), in Accra, Ghana, and of Afrobarometer, a survey project tracking public opinion on democratic and economic reforms in 34 African countries. He is also a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Ghana, Legon. He received his PhD from the University of California, Davis.

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