In Africa's south, US 'democracy promotion' needs a rethink

Zimbabwe's flawed election is not the only issue. Africa's southern tier faces potentially volatile elections in Madagascar this year, and Mozambique and Malawi in 2014.

Schalk van Zuydam/AP
The election banners of Presidential candidate Dr. Robinson Jean Louis, rear, behind a man selling bananas at his makeshift stall in the city of Antananarivo, Madagascar, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013.

The author writes on sub-Saharan Africa for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. The views expressed are his own. 

In July President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe won a seventh consecutive term in office. Should he serve his full five years, Mugabe will stand a spry 94- years- old at the end of his term.

His party, the Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) will have held power for nearly four decades. While Mugabe and ZANU-PF are notorious for using all available means at their disposal to remain in power -- including violence, intimidation and manipulation -- his stay in executive office is not by any means a regional anomaly.

Many political parties with roots in liberation struggles have yet to experience defeat at the ballot box, including the African National Congress (ANC) in neighboring South Africa and liberation mainstays in Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique.

Indeed, according to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, all but four countries in the region have registered a decline in the subcategory of “rights,” which takes stock of core international human rights conventions, civil liberties, and basic freedoms.  

Given that prevailing environment of democratic backsliding in southern Africa, it is high time that the United States both reevaluates and reshapes its strategy in the region.

In particular, the US should consider re-calibrating its engagement with domestic civil societies and instead should focus on policy development and oversight and work to better strengthen the adherence to the rule of law in more creative ways.

Now is certainly not the time to disinvest in the region -- intellectually or financially. So it is disconcerting to hear that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) plans a 44 percent decrease in funding for democracy and human rights initiatives for the next fiscal year.

While the US has invested substantially in democracy promotion projects in southern Africa, not nearly enough resources have been devoted to aiding domestic civil societies on issues of policy development and oversight.

By investing in these key areas, we help raise the cost of dictatorship in Zimbabwe, for instance, by promoting platforms like “portfolio committees”where civil society can engage more constructively with parliamentarians.

In doing so, we make it more expensive for the Mugabe regime to pass repressive legislation that not only constrains the lives of ordinary citizens and civic activists, but also provides blueprints to other leaders in the region who are wary of their own unpopularity and thus look for devious ways to stifle civic participation.

One must look no further than the recent proliferation of so-called "public order" acts across Africa to grasp the importance of preventing repression in its early stages.

Efforts to promote good governance and accountability should be an additional, related focal point for the US in the region.

Indeed, the US should actively work with civil society to link the often lofty rhetoric of human rights and democracy to everyday issues that affect ordinary citizens like access to employment, clean and running water, electricity, and other basic services. An emphasis on local governance and holding one's leaders accountable will combat rising voter apathy, as well as improve relationships between elected officials and the citizens they are ostensibly meant to represent.

US policymakers need not prescribe outside solutions to the problems that currently beset the region. In fact, southern Africa is replete with regional conventions and treaties, including, among others, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. However, these rules have not been enforced.

Due to an overall lack of accountability, many of SADC's longtime rulers feel it isn't necessary, or in their best interests, to abide by their own standards.

The July 31 election in Zimbabwe is a case in point. Estimates are that nearly one million citizens were systematically disenfranchised -- in addition to four million people living in the diaspora. There were numerous documented violations of political rights and civil liberties leading up to the vote.

Despite mounting and credible evidence of irregularities, SADC and the African Union (AU) were both quick to label the election as sufficiently "free and peaceful."

In order to combat the lack of respect for basic political and human rights, and in the process strengthen the rule of law in the longer term, the US should support strategic litigation efforts led by domestic and regional legal groups at the highest court on the continent, the African Commission for Human and People's Rights.

Supporting efforts to submit petitions on the right to participate freely in public affairs, the right to vote, and the right to peaceful protest and assembly -- all of which are recognized and presumably protected by the AU and SADC -- are vital interventions for the US to consider.

To strengthen democracy and enhance the respect for human rights, both of which are crucial elements for improving peoples' lives in a sustainable way, US policymakers should take a thoughtful look at past shortcomings in southern Africa.

The region is faced with potentially volatile elections in Madagascar this year and Mozambique and Malawi in 2014.

The sham elections in Zimbabwe, and most recently in Swaziland, present a concerning trend of endorsing deeply flawed electoral processes that may ultimately spark social unrest. Indeed, the negligence displayed by SADC -- which has indicated a preference for maintenance of the status quo at the expense of cultivating democratic principles -- may have profoundly negative effects on regional stability.

US policymakers should therefore not abandon activities that are aimed at building stronger civil societies and domestic institutions. Instead, we must find innovative ways that will encourage civil society actors to hold their governments accountable and keep ruling political parties in check.

To be sure, resolute engagement with domestic and regional civil society actors should remain a focal point of US government policy in southern Africa. However, a more strategic way forward is one that will focus on policy development and oversight, good governance and accountability, and the use of strategic litigation in Africa's own courts to better protect the rights of its citizens.

This rights-based approach will produce shared dividends for both the United States and its more progressive allies in the region -- forces that likely have the best chance of both outlasting and reversing the region's anti-democratic trends.

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