Testimony

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Democracy in Africa

Author: Princeton N. Lyman
July 17, 2007

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Democracy in Africa

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, thank you for asking me to testify on this most important subject, the development of democracy in Africa.

This hearing is timely, because there is a growing debate in the United States about how and to what extent the United States should make the support of democracy a principal element of our foreign policy. Disappointment with the developments in the Middle East and elsewhere has raised doubts about this objective. I want to say at the outset that the support of democracy in Africa is not only important but justified by the desire and support for democracy by Africans themselves. Africans, in Benin, Mali, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other countries have advocated, demonstrated, sometimes risked indeed often lost their lives, and stood in long voting lines to establish democratic systems of government. These systems are not perfect, and there has been some serious backsliding in Africa. But the trend has been more consistent and impressive than in any other region. From 1960 to 1990, there were hardly any peaceful changes of leaders in Africa. Since 1990, there have been more than 80 leadership elections in more than 40 African countries, several instances of power passing to opposition parties, and only a handful of military coups, almost all of them quickly reversed. The Africa Union, the predecessor organization of which was once a clique of military or otherwise autocratic rulers, today will not seat a government that comes to power by non-constitutional means and has intervened on several occasions to reverse coups and restore elected government.

This demand for democracy has been sustained because after a generation after independence of failed political and economic policies, most Africans came to the conclusion that only an open political system, and a free market economic system, can generate the growth necessary to overcome Africa’s deep problems of poverty. Thus support for democracy goes hand in hand with programs to address Africa’s poverty. That should be an important element in United States policy.

I stress the importance of Africans’ own commitment to democracy. In South Africa, the negotiations to end apartheid, and to establish one of the strongest and most democratic constitutions anywhere in the world, was led throughout by South Africans. In that environment, the United States was able to play an important supportive role, and a most active one. Because the process was fragile, and subject to continuing violence, it was important to take every possible opportunity to strengthen it. Thus the United States spent tens of millions of dollars in the period of 1990-1994 to strengthen civil society, to provide expertise to the negotiators on every aspect of constitutional debate -- e.g. federalism, fiscal management, affirmative action -- to support conflict resolution programs being run by South Africans throughout the country, and to train the new leadership. In support of the 1994 election alone, the United States spent $25 million on voter education and related support. It was a worthwhile investment. South Africa remains a vibrant and strong democracy. Unfortunately, we have not made a similar commitment elsewhere.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and with South Africa a bell weather of Africa’s movement to democracy and good governance. Nigeria has been under military rule for most of its independence. Twice civilian government was snuffed out by military coups. But in 1999, military rule ended with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo, and a process of true civilianization of leadership has since been under way. Nigeria’s transition to democracy is especially important.  Together with South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, President Obasanjo helped fashion the commitment to democracy by the African Union and the principles of good governance and human rights embodied in the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) that the AU has adopted. Obasanjo personally intervened in Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Mauritania, and Sao Tome and Principe to reverse coups or threats to elected government. It was thus a crushing disappointment when his government failed to assure a credible or even reasonably fair election in 2007 to select his successor. There were plenty of warning signs. The so-called Independent Election Commission was neither independent nor competent. Preparations were woefully inadequate. A fierce dispute between Obasanjo and his Vice President roiled the political process and upset the election preparations. What perhaps most discouraged Nigerian and international observers was the brazenness with which rigging, intimidation, ballot stuffing, and outright fraud took place during the election itself. Nigeria went from being a paragon of the democratization process to being an uncertain political entity.

It is not certain that external activity could have changed this outcome. Nigeria was flush with oil money and not in need of foreign aid. Obasanjo was absolutely determined, at virtually any cost, to be sure that his political rivals would not take power and therefore relatively immune to pleas about the election disaster that was looming. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the Bush Administration, heavily engaged in the crisis in Somalia and the ongoing humanitarian situation in Dafur, took a relatively benign position with regard to the impending election in Nigeria. There was a feeling that Nigeria, with all the problems ahead, would “muddle through,” that Nigerians would grumble, demand better elections next time, but that there would be no major crisis afterward. By contrast to the $25 million the United States spent in support of the 1994 election in South Africa, the Administration provided only $15 million over three years for democratization programs in Nigeria. Despite the growing electoral crisis that was developing in 2006-2007, the Administration did not increase this level. Civil society and other democracy advocates in Nigeria could have used much more support.

Nigeria is not falling apart. And the newly elected President, Umaru Yar’Adua, has made some good moves, in reaching out to the opposition and addressing the insurgencies in the oil-producing delta region. But Nigeria as a force for democracy has been weakened. Nor is it yet clear that this new leadership will have the legitimacy and support necessary to carry out badly needed reforms in Nigeria nor the ability to cut through entrenched interests and bureaucracies to make the desperately needed investments in power and other infrastructure that would keep Nigeria from slipping further into unemployment and poverty. The United States can now ask for some signs of good governance, electoral reform, and sound economic management as benchmarks for future cooperation. But the United States missed an opportunity to speak out strongly and with conviction on democracy when it was being bruised so badly in such an important country.

The United State faces an even more difficult situation in Ethiopia. This country, with such a sad history of brutal dictatorship, war, and poverty, had a brief window of opportunity for democratization in the elections of 2005. The opposition did very well, adding substantially to seats in the Assembly. But the results were hotly contested by the opposition which insisted that it had in fact won the election. Demonstrations grew violent and many demonstrators were killed. The Ethiopian government arrested 38 opposition leaders and is now threatening to execute them. In the context of the Somalia situation, and Ethiopia’s central role in United States counter-terrorism policy in the Horn, U.S. influence on the domestic political situation in Ethiopia is very small. What seemed like a democratic opening in one of Africa’s most important countries, the home of the Africa Union, seems thus to be rapidly closing.

These disappointments, and others in Zimbabwe and Uganda, should nevertheless not deter us from support for democratization across the continent. The trend is basically in favor of democracy. Civil society is vibrant, and growing stronger each year. But much support is needed to move beyond elections to true democratic transformation. Parties are weak, the press is in need of training and legal protection, judiciaries need to be strengthened, and electoral systems improved. In sum, there is much to do. But there are allies in Africa for doing so.

The connection to our other major objective in Africa, overcoming poverty, is also clear. Without question autocratic governments in Africa have almost all failed economically. When the donor community acts in concert with African democratic movements and economic reform, the results can be dramatic. Benin, which sent the first shock waves of democratic revolt through Africa in 1990, benefited from a conjunction of political reform and strong donor economic support to establish a solid democracy. Ghana is doing the same, as can Mali, Mozambique and other African countries..

For this reason, I would stress that in addition to programs directed specifically to democracy,  the United States maintain a strong economic support program for democratizing and reforming countries. In this regard, I urge the Congress to rethink its negative attitude toward the Millennium Challenge Account (MCC), threatening to cut the President’s FY 2008 request in half. It may be that in oil rich countries like Nigeria and Angola, or in countries embroiled in counter terrorism programs, this instrument is not relevant. But in democratizing countries like Ghana, Benin, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, and potentially many others, the availability of truly substantial economic support can enable democratic administrations to demonstrate real economic progress and thereby solidify public support. The MCC is an exceptional instrument, more potent in many ways than the sums for democratization alone, and far beyond normal aid levels. Not encumbered with security considerations, and linked to political and economic reform, it represents the best of American intentions and principles. We should capitalize on it as one of the strongest instruments in support of democracy.

In countries not appropriate for the MCC, we need different instruments. I would call your attention to a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations on Angola. Angola, a major oil producer, has emerged from decades of civil war with the potential to become both economically strong and a force for stability in the region. But the prospects for steadily more open and democratic governance are uncertain, yet critical to Angola’s long term stability. The report calls for a mix of public and private efforts by the United States to help steer that country through the post-war period and toward a more democratic governing system. The DRC represents another special challenge, being at the very center of Africa and drawing the interests and involvement of all its neighbors. Years of civil war have taken a devastating toll, causing over 4 million deaths. Yet, against all the odds, the DRC has just come through a peaceful and credible election, thanks to strong UN leadership and the determination of the Congolese people. This most fragile movement toward democracy, in a country of vast economic and political importance, and extraordinarily complex internal challenges, deserves special attention. Investing in the stability and steadily improved governance of the DRC should be among the US’s highest priority. I am pleased that the Secretary of state has put the DRC on her itinerary for her upcoming Africa visit. Up to now the DRC has not commanded nearly the attention in the United States that it deserves

In summary, Mr. Chairman, Africa is perhaps the best region for the United States to pursue its freedom agenda, its commitment to democracy. Public support in Africa is strong, the trends are positive, the opportunities great. So too are the challenges. While the Administration has put democracy as one of its priorities in Africa, and dedicated certain amounts to that cause, the vast bulk of United States funding for democracy goes elsewhere. In FY 2005 USAID democratization programs in Africa did reach $138 million, with another $66 million for democratization within five MCC grants. Nevertheless, given the number of countries in Africa, and the opportunities, the United States could well dedicate much more to this cause in Africa. It would reap results. There also needs to be more response capacity, i.e. to increase resources  when critical situations arise. We should also be prepared to provide substantial economic support when the conditions are right. And wherever in Africa, we should not let another situation like that in Nigeria in 2007 develop without a stronger reaction and a more vigorous preventive effort.

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