Five things we learnt about democracy in Africa in 2017


3. Judges can’t promote democracy on their own

The Kenyan Supreme Court made history when it became the first judicial body on the continent to nullify the election of a sitting president – Uhuru Kenyatta – on 1 September. This remarkable assertion of judicial independence was celebrated throughout Africa and beyond, as democrats dared to dream of a new phase of judicial activism.

But any hope that the need to repeat the election would lead to widespread reforms and a better quality process turned out to be overly optimistic. Instead, the second poll was just as controversial as the first as evidence emerged of continued political interference in the electoral commission and the main opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, boycotted the contest.

The Kenyan experience is significant because it demonstrates that while independent judiciaries can have a major impact on democracy, their effectiveness is constrained by weaknesses elsewhere in the political system. Because Supreme Courts lack both legislative and enforcement powers, they are dependent on others for their decisions to be implemented, and so have a limited capacity to enforce the rule of law.

4. Political exclusion breeds secessionism

One of the main stories of the last 12 months is an upsurge of secessionist sentiment in Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria. Significantly, while the demand for the creation of a separate state has complex roots, in each case it was triggered by perceptions of political and legal exclusion – and the fact that certain ethnic and linguistic communities have not held the presidency for decades, if at all.

Although these movements have very different dynamics, they have all led to protests and met with a hostile state response.

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, they are also movements full of people who don’t really want to secede: in each case, opposition leaders are using the threat of separation as a way to highlight – and contest – their political exclusion. Nonetheless, unless some of their demands are met, secessionist sentiment is likely to harden, undermining national identities and paving the way for future political crises.

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The Insider

The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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