By DREW HINSHAW and PATRICK MCGROARTY
On the same November morning when Boko Haram seized yet another village in
north, police in riot gear surrounded the country’s House of Representatives in
the capital city of Nigeria .
But they weren’t guarding the country’s parliament against an assault by the
notorious Islamist insurgency; they were there to block a politician from
casting his vote. Abuja
Nigerian lawmakers were scheduled to vote on whether to renew a bill that allows soldiers to detain suspects without cause in areas threatened by Boko Haram’s gunmen. Mr. Tambuwal expected to lead the legislative bloc opposed to this grant of sweeping state powers. Instead, the police fired tear gas and effectively shut down the Nigerian parliament.
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“There are signs of the predatory nature of military rule” returning to Africa, said Larry Diamond, director of
Stanford University’s Center
on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. “This is a calamity for a number
of these countries.”
To friends of democratic development,
54 countries pose perhaps the world’s most important test of whether
representative institutions can flourish amid low living standards and rapidly
changing economies. Leaders from the Africa ,
Europe and U.S. have visited the
continent to promote open, politically accountable government. They know that Latin
America , China ’s
biggest trading partner, is offering a rival model in the form of
market-powered autocracy. Africa
For now, the advance of democracy in
appears to have stalled.
In 1990, just three of Africa ’s
48 countries were electoral democracies, according to Freedom House, a
Washington-based pro-democracy advocacy group. By 1994, that number had leapt
to 18. Two decades later, only 19 qualify. Africa
This disappointing record raises difficult questions about the possibility of poor countries becoming durable democracies. Several African states—
and Botswana ,
for instance—seem to be headed in that direction. Rising middle classes there
are demanding more accountability and transparency from their governments, and
public services are gradually improving. Zambia
But many more African countries, such as
and Angola ,
are resource-rich, single-party autocracies that have consolidated their grip
on power, thanks in part to high oil prices and low-interest loans from Sudan .
Some political scientists hope that a slowing Chinese economy—and dropping crude-oil
prices—could give a second wind to democracy in China ,
forcing closed regimes to hold elections in return for Western loans. Africa
But spreading democracy isn’t as simple as dangling aid and applauding elections, democratization experts say. Even hopeful cases like
and Ghana must
confront long histories of military rule woven into their political evolution Benin
In many African countries, soldiers have run the show since the earliest days of colonialism. In the late 1800s, Europeans recruited local men into new armies to help conquer a vast continent. Throughout the imperial century that followed, Europeans used those colonial brigades to repress the African lawyers, civil servants and journalists who were agitating for independence.
War II , Britain and
other European empires withdrew. But the militaries of many newly independent
African states continued to suppress their own civil societies. France weathered more than 60
coups between 1960 and 1990, according to the African Development Bank. Some
overturned election results that military leaders found unpalatable; others
promised to stamp out political corruption, took over and became corrupt
Many of these regimes relied on Cold War-era patronage from
or Washington Moscow.
Soviet patrons often found themselves bankrupt after the Soviet Union collapsed
in 1991, and the lost interest in
supporting corrupt regimes such as U.S. under
Mobutu Sese Seko. Zaire
In the post-Cold War era, dozens of African countries tried to escape financial trouble by staging elections in return for
and aid. The soldiers who once lorded over countries such as U.S. and Ghana returned
to their barracks. After the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many African
governments began to receive military training from Nigeria officials
seeking new allies in their war on Islamist terror. U.S.
That growth has empowered a new middle class. In
, Senegal , Uganda and
elsewhere, cosmopolitan young consumers have rallied to demand Western-style
democracy. Political scientists had hoped that this rising constituency would
convince soldiers that they were better off reaping the benefits of economic
advance from the sidelines than standing in democracy’s way. Kenya
But it often hasn’t worked out that way. Despite rapid economic growth,
civic institutions remain weak, struggling to provide basic services. Public
hospitals in Africa are
fighting an uphill battle against Ebola. Child-protection agencies are watching
young constituents join Islamist rebellions in West
Africa and Nigeria Kenya.
Against this backdrop of weak state capacity, African armies stand out for the manpower and funding they enjoy. They are also increasingly well organized: The U.S. trained some 52,000 African troops in 2013 alone, at a cost of $99 million. So when trouble brews, African presidents and protesters alike often turn to the most capable institution at their disposal.
“When you feel some imminent danger, you call the military,” said Mulbah Morlu, a leader of
top opposition party. But his own country’s history shows the risks of that
approach. After Liberia ’s
14-year civil war ended in 2003, the Liberia paid security
contractor DynCorp International, based in U.S. ,
to train the country’s new, 2,000-person army. Other institutions like the
health ministry received scant attention. , McLean Va.
The Ebola crisis has exposed that gap. Some Liberian doctors abandoned their posts when the epidemic exploded in June and July. The country’s health ministry struggled to track individuals crisscrossing the country carrying the deadly virus. Frustrated, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf called in the military.
That was the wrong move, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf now says. Instead of isolating individuals with the virus, her soldiers quarantined whole neighborhoods—at one point firing shots into a crowd and killing a teenage boy. That scared people elsewhere into hiding their sick neighbors, and the virus spread exponentially.
“I did not know what to do,” Ms. Johnson Sirleaf said last week. “Capacity is always an issue with us.”
Embattled presidents aren’t the only ones asking African armies for help. In some of Africa’s poorest countries—Mali, Guinea, Niger—groups fighting for democracy say that they are fine with the occasional military-led ouster of an elected leader, if a coup is what it takes to speed the democratic process.
“Civil society, because of its frustration, wants a transitional process,” says Alex Vines, an
analyst at the
London-based think tank Chatham House. “In the short term, a military coup is
seen as expedient.” Africa
That is what happened last month in
a quiet democracy in turbulent Burkina Faso .
A former army officer, Blaise Compaoré, had won four elections and governed for
27 years; the constitution banned him from a fifth run. When he tried to change
the constitution to seek one anyway, tens of thousands of protesters took to
the streets and set fire to government buildings, demanding that he leave the
constitution alone. West Africa
Amid the chaos, an odd alliance formed: Protesters rallied behind Mr. Compaoré’s own security detail. Officers seized power and promised new elections within a year. The next morning, protesters thronged back into the streets and started sweeping, a symbolic gesture meant to welcome their new military rulers.
“It is we in civil society that insisted the army come and restore order,” says Aristide Zongo, executive director of the Burkinabé Association for Reducing Child Mortality. “From my point of view, it’s quite acceptable.”
This isn’t how democracy advocates had hoped that
would progress. In the
1990s, activists argued that democracy would pave the way for development.
Elections would make African presidents accountable; those presidents would
improve governance and expand services; as governance improved, big companies
would flock to the continent. Africa
But that virtuous cycle hasn’t taken hold. Though the end of the Cold War did nudge many African autocrats toward elections, businesses rushed in far faster than governance improved. Today, blue-chip companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and General Electric Co. are expanding into countries whose leaders have never faced a real electoral contest.
Elections have now been held across the continent, but their credibility varies. In some countries, rulers deploy state security forces to marginalize opposition leaders. Less autocratic leaders foster loyalty by doling out state jobs and other perks that would raise eyebrows even in many developing nations.
A whole generation of elected leaders is now angling for more time in power. Next year, both Faure Gnassingbé of
and Joseph Kabila
of Togo are
expected to seek third terms. (Mr. Kabila will have to change Congo Congo’s
constitution to do so; has
no term limits.) Both men inherited power from their fathers, who were
ex-military leaders. Togo
Other African leaders are even more entrenched.
president, José Eduardo dos Angola ,
is a military commander who has used his country’s vast oil wealth to build a
police network that has helped to neutralize rivals for more than 30 years. In
2012, his party won more than two-thirds of the vote in elections that
observers called deeply flawed. Santos
Robert Mugabe, 90, has ruled
1980. This week, he tightened his grip on power at a party conference by
sidelining perceived rivals and backing his 49-year-old wife, Grace, for a
senior party post. And former rebel commander Paul Kagame, Zimbabwe Rwanda’s
president since 2000, is widely believed to be weighing a constitutional
amendment that would allow him to remain in power beyond his second elected
seven-year term, which is set to end in 2017. He says that he will do what
Rwandans ask of him.
The youth of the continent’s population makes it harder for these autocrats to gauge the political winds circling around them. Half of Africans are under 19. For many of them, faster economic growth hasn’t translated into jobs and better living standards, and they don’t necessarily identify with opposition leaders, who are often as old as the presidents they seek to dislodge. Some view the military as the best of a bad set of options.
this is complicated terrain. U.S. wants to build up Washington Africa’s
civil society but also its armies. In 2009, during his first visit to the
continent as president, Barack Obama told
Ghana’s parliament that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong
institutions.” Yet Mr. Obama’s time in office has coincided with the
rise of Islamist insurgencies in Africa such as Boko Haram in and al-Shabaab in Nigeria Somalia.
has thus gone to training soldiers, not building health ministries or electoral
The result has been to create strong armies in weak states, said Sean McFate, a former DynCorp official who trained soldiers in
and Burundi Liberia.
“If the most capable institution is the military, in a crisis, that is what the
country is going to lean on, whether that is the appropriate tool or not,” he
The military remains a swaggering presence in
, Nigeria ’s
most populous country. On the surface, the country is a flourishing democracy:
Its economy has averaged 7% growth annually during the four-year term of
President Goodluck Jonathan, one of the first elected Nigerian leaders who
didn’t come from the military. But Africa ’s
army—which led the country almost nonstop from 1966 to 1999—still wields
considerable power. A fifth of Nigeria ’s
nearly $30 billion budget goes to the armed forces. Nigeria
Still, the military has repeatedly lost ground to Boko Haram—a fanatical sect that until recently was armed with just bows, arrows and swords. Soldiers who complain that they lack bullets and body armor have abandoned a swath of northeastern
as large as Nigeria Belgium.
Meanwhile, their superiors have spent lavishly on flashy equipment, including
newly purchased Russian-made helicopters that have crashed because Nigerian
officers can’t communicate with the Ukrainian pilots hired to fly them, said
one security adviser.
Mr. Jonathan has defended his army’s efforts. When Kashim Shettima, the governor of a state in Boko Haram’s heartland, complained that the army was being gutted by corruption, Mr. Jonathan threatened on television to remove the soldiers guarding Mr. Shettima’s house, exposing him to attack by Boko Haram.
The military has defended Mr. Jonathan, too. Soldiers have blocked opposition leaders from landing at airports during their campaigns, and in June, soldiers confiscated bundles of newspapers containing articles criticizing government corruption. (The defense ministry later said that the newspapers were being used to sneak terrorist supplies around the country.)
“Our soldiers are not involved in politics,” said
military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, who declined to comment on
individual incidents. In a statement, Mr. Jonathan’s office said: “It is
absolutely wrong to accuse this administration of repression. If anything, this
administration has been most tolerant of opposition.” Nigeria
In October, Mr. Tambuwal, the speaker of the house, broke ranks with Mr. Jonathan. The police soon recalled his bodyguards. When they blocked his sedan from entering
House of Representatives last month, lawmakers helped Mr. Tambuwal to enter
through a side gate. Police chased them down and shot tear gas into the
building’s lobby. By noon, the legislature of Nigeria ’s
largest democracy was shut down. Africa
Boko Haram spent the day driving unchallenged into the remote
of village Azaya
Kura. Fighters killed
at least 45 people there, residents said, then slipped back into the woods.
Ilustración: Alex Nabaum