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should rethink 'democracy promotion' in Southern Africa
October 03, 2013
Mugabe of Zimbabwe was recently
reelected to serve a seventh consecutive term in office. Should
he manage to serve the full five years as permitted by the constitution,
Mugabe will stand a spry 94 years old at the end of his term, with
the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF)
holding power for nearly four decades. While Mugabe and Zanu-PF
are notorious for using all available means at their disposal to
remain in power - from repeated acts of violence and intimidation
to electoral manipulation - his stay in executive office is not
by any means a regional anomaly. Many political parties that have
roots in their respective 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. Even in Botswana, which is regarded as a
relatively high functioning democracy, the same political party
has occupied the presidency for almost 50 years. As a result of
this prevailing environment, the challenges of impunity, endemic
corruption, and a declining respect for basic political and human
rights have been persistent and often difficult to overcome. Indeed,
according to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, all but three
countries in the region have registered a six-year decline in the
category of Participation and Human Rights.
Given that the prevailing
environment in southern Africa is characterized by widespread democratic
backsliding, it is high time that the United States both reevaluates
and reshapes its strategy in the region. In particular, the U.S.
should consider re-calibrating its engagement with domestic civil
societies to 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,
neither intellectually or financially which is why it's disconcerting
that the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 alike, 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 - though altogether
related - focal point for the U.S. in the region. Indeed, the U.S.
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.
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, with estimates that nearly 1 million
citizens were systematically disenfranchised in addition to 4 million
people living in the Diaspora - and 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 U.S.
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 (ACHPR). 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 U.S. 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, U.S.
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. U.S.
policymakers should therefore not abandon activities that are aimed
at building stronger civil societies and domestic institutions;
rather, we must collectively work to 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 U.S. 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 antidemocratic
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