Re-thinking the State, Rule of Law and Democratic Transitions in Africa

January 24th, 2023

Ebrima Sall, Executive Director, TrustAfrica

The specter of unconstitutional takeover of power seems to be haunting Africa again. In the past 18 months or so, there have been four military coups (one in Sudan, two in Mali and one in Guinea), the killing of a sitting head of state in a battle against armed rebels (in Chad), and an attempt to overthrow the transition government in Sudan. The military takeovers in Sudan and Mali followed long periods of mass protests, a little bit like what happened in Egypt ten years ago. But military takeovers are just that: the military being in control of the state, invariably translating into restrictions of basic freedoms and possibilities of democratic expression.

The political crises in Libya and Central African Republic are far from being resolved. In several other countries, the heads of state have amended the constitutions so as to be able to run for a third or fourth term of office, a practice that has also been called a form of coup d’Etat.

The closing of civic space and consequent restriction of civil liberties has been another worrisome trend. Governments have banning peaceful assemblies and protest marches, harassing activists and opposition politicians, and shutting down the Internet to prevent or drastically reduce access and use of social media platforms, which have become important sites of democratic struggles. This has been happening even in countries with established democratic traditions. In addition to these “pathologies of democracy”, as the pan African NGO AfrikaJom Center rightly calls them in a fairly recent report, jihadist movements and other kinds of armed groups are wreaking havoc in many countries of the Sahel, Central African Republic, in Libya, parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the Horn of Africa. Corruption has also become endemic.

There are still a couple of countries where constitutional processes are respected, peaceful changes of governments through more or less ‘free’ and ‘fair’ elections, and the rule of law enforced. African women, youth and other social movements are demonstrating their determination to advance democracy and see to it that governance serves all Africans, not just a few people or groups in power. African communities and young African women and men are becoming more creative and much bolder in the ways they assert their citizenship, not only through protest, but also through expressions of civility and solidarity with the more underprivileged within our societies. The intense use of social media and

the frequent recourse to the national and regional courts of justice and human rights are clear indications of this.

Still, the general impression that one gets looking at what is going on in our continent is that of fragile states and shaky democracies, whose economic foundations are often precarious. The growing intolerance to criticism and dissent, no matter how peacefully expressed, seems to betray the deep anxiety on the part of those in power who seem to be finding it difficult to figure out how to respond to the demands of the energetic, resourceful and increasingly assertive youth of the continent.

What must we do to build the Africa we want? How can we make democratic and transformative governance founded on social and economic justice and equity the rule, rather than the rare exception in Africa? What would it take to make our economies serve Africa first, and provide everything that we need to live well and in freedom and dignity? What must we do to reclaim our future and the future of planet?

These, and many other questions related to the state crisis, the crisis of democracy, and huge human security challenges in Africa were the subject of a meeting held in Saly, about 70 kilometers to the east of Dakar, in September. Participants in the two-day meeting, are members of a scientific committee, chaired by Professor Abdoulaye Bathily of Senegal, of what was initially conceptualized as a major international conference on the crisis of the state, stalled democratic transitions and security challenges in Africa to be held in 2022. In the course of the discussions, it became clear that is needed is not a one-off event, but a movement and a process that should get us to engage in deep and audacious reflections on ways of overcoming the multidimensional crises that Africa is going through and contribute to the shaping of more desirable futures for the continent.

The Saly meeting was organized by AfricaJom Center, a pan African think tank founded by Professor Alioune Tine, a leader in the global human rights movement. By the end of the meeting, the Scientific Committee had reached a consensus on some key issues to prioritise, and on the need for us to work together on a series of initiatives aimed at re-thinking politics and entrenching democratic, accountable, and anticipatory governance in Africa.

This is in line with TrustAfrica’s strategy for the coming years: advancing responsible citizenship and accountable leadership towards the shaping of the future we want for Africa.

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