Why does Africa have so much trouble with democracy?

On 3 August, at the Kasumbalesa border crossing between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, former Zaire), an incident occurred. It was non-violent and therefore scarcely noticed. But it is worrying about the future of the largest country in French-speaking Africa, and emblematic of the way politics is being conducted today in the Dark Continent.

On that day, the entrepreneur Moïse Katumbi, governor of the rich mining province of Katanga from 2007 to 2015, was denied the right to return to his native country. It is true that the very popular opponent of the chaotic government of Joseph Kabila, refugee for two years in Belgium to flee his persecution by the regime, wanted to be an official candidate for the presidential election.

This should normally take place on December 23, and candidates have until August 8 to register their candidatures with the Electoral Commission in Kinshasa, capital of the DRC.

On August 4, Katumbi made another attempt and was once more denied.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, another famous opponent who has received permission from the regime to return to the DRC, has denounced the injustice inflicted on his compatriot and political rival Katumbi. He publicly acknowledged that a poll without Katumbi’s participation would be a biased election, so popular is the former governor of Katanga in the Swahili-speaking provinces of eastern DRC.

In a statement of August 6, the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO) declared the Katumbi situation “unacceptable”.

Why does President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power in Kinshasa since the murder of his father Laurent in January 2001, behave in this way? Is he angry with Moïse Katumbi?

It is a mystery because the current president of the DRC – whose mandate ended constitutionally at the end of 2016 and who has no right to run for a third term – has never expressed himself directly on the subject. It was Kabila who once went to look for the entrepreneur Katumbi – who had been successful in mining logistics – to ask him to become governor of Katanga.

When, in 2015, he reminded the former of the constitutional deadlines, did the president feel betrayed by a friend? Has Kabila always intended not to respect the Constitution that he himself had promulgated?

Mo Ibrahim has created a “good governance” award, to crown African leaders who know how to step down once their term is completed. This is a great idea, but this Anglo-Sudanese patron (who made a fortune in mobile telephony in Africa) often lacks candidates for his prize. The majority of African heads of state have an unfortunate tendency to cling to power once they have achieved it, whether through armed conflict or through the ballot box.

On the occasion of a reception given in Washington in honour of young representatives of African civil society, President Barack Obama made a very pertinent remark: “African states need strong institutions more than strong men.” Unfortunately, this obvious principle is not often followed in the Dark Continent.

Highly politicized and knowledgeable (thanks to RFI radio) of European political practices, Congolese youth feels frustrated at not being able to choose their next head of state freely. This frustration could well degenerate into despair. But nobody has ever built a country on despair.

Moïse Katumbi took a tour of SADC member countries (Southern African Development Community, of which the DRC is a member), a regional organization set up in 1992 to encourage financial and monetary integration and the maintenance of peace.

Will SADC heads of state succeed in persuading Kabila to honour the promises of transparent and inclusive elections he made during the “New Year’s Eve” accords (31 December 2016)? Passed in collaboration between his government and the opposition under the auspices of the Episcopal Conference, these agreements had raised much hope and calmed the spirits of the Congolese population.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Kabila Junior will allow himself to take a softer stance at the behest of his regional counterparts. The president of the DRC has already rejected UN resolutions encouraging him to respect the New Year’s Eve accords. So, in the DRC, we move politically to a gray area, which does not bode well.

Why does Africa, with a handful of exceptions, have so much trouble with democracy? Why did François Mitterrand’s message to the La Baule Conference (June 1990) never take root?

It was the end of the cold war. The French president, in front of 37 heads of African states, which seemed to be agreeing, had argued for the conditionality of aid. European aid would only go to regimes that practice democracy and transparency.

Democratic attempts were made, but ended with horrendous massacres as in Rwanda (1994) or Congo Brazzaville (1997), where parties were built on ethnic and non-political grounds. To these failures was added the major phenomenon of the intrusion of China on the Continent.

At that same time, Beijing intervened with significant investment not tied to any political conditionality, China is only interested in Africa’s resources, not in the future of its people. Unsurprisingly, it never evokes the adjective “democratic”, being itself no democracy.

At the time of the USSR and the Patrice Lumumba University, Moscow had a real interest in training African elites. Today, Putin’s Russia has given up exporting any ideology to Africa. But it is ready to counter Westerners wherever opportunities arise.

To say it how it is – the decline of European influence in Africa is a long-term catastrophe for the continent. Because without democracy, and therefore without the rule of law – how could Africa develop and retain its most dynamic young people on its own soil?

This article first appeared in Le Figaro.

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  1. Nonconformistradical says

    “the decline of European influence in Africa is a long-term catastrophe for the continent”

    Trouble is – it was Europeans in the first place who divvied up Africa along lines of latitude and longitude (taking no account of ethnicity while doing it) for their own ends or used parts of Africa as their plaything (Leopold 2 of Belgium in the Congo).

    Why should anyone be surprised if European former imperialist nations have little influence in Africa?

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