Africa: Reflections on the U.S. Summit for Democracy and Africa’s Participation

Johannesburg — In 2020, then presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to convene a global conclave on democracy in view of the rise of populism in the U.S. and around the world. In August 2021, the Biden administration followed through the promise by announcing the convening of the Summit for Democracy, which took place online from 9 to 10 December 2021. See: Summary of Proceedings

This was a major global governance event, with Biden explaining that democracy “knows no borders, and speaks every language”. Various closed and open meetings were held with political, business, civil society leaders to deliberate on respective visions for rights-respecting democratic governance that delivers for citizens and committed action to reinvigorate democracy at home and abroad. Challenges to strengthening democracy and promoting human rights were strategized, including authoritarian encroachment, radicalism and extremism, economic inequality, the climate crisis, and information integrity.

The implementation of the plans coming out of the Summit is reminiscent of the democratisation wave of the early 1990s in Africa in which the U.S. government played a significant role. This review of the Summit aims to tease out and identify aspects and perspectives of interest, relevance and significance to Africa while touching on the implications. Just how do we grasp the Africa-U.S. dimensions and perspectives of this global event? What do the plans and outcomes mean for the continent?

The stated objective of the Summit was “defending democracy, respecting and strengthening human rights, and eradication of corruption and authoritarianism”. It was announced that four themes would guide the forwarding-looking work of the global democracy promotion that the Summit sought. These are supporting a free and independent media, fighting corruption, bolstering democratic reformers, advancing technology and democracy, and defending free and fair elections and political processes. All these are problem areas for a continent experimenting with various forms of governance.

The Summit and its follow-up democracy promotion initiatives provide an opportunity to reflect on, strategize, and offer pathways for good governance, potentially leading to the long-sought-after socio-economic prosperity on the continent. Democracy promotion via the current initiative can serve as an avenue to place democracy at the heart of the renewal of the African continent.

Partnership between the U.S. and Africa would form a strategic partnership with civil society organisations leading the way in collaborations with public and private sector stakeholders. Indeed, during the Summit, President Biden called for collective action by participants in the face of “sustained and alarming challenges to democracy and universal human rights.” Africa can be a significant beneficiary of this initiative as the continent is host to multiple democratic deficits with many instances of democratic backsliding reported over the last couple of months, key among them the resurgence of military coups.

One of the significant outcomes of the Summit is Biden’s announcement of the establishment of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal to implement the Summit’s key commitments. A pledge of $424 million was made with the aim of getting this initiative off the ground. This is a landmark set of new policy initiatives and foreign assistance programs build upon the U.S. government’s ongoing work to bolster and sustain democracy with fighting corruption, and defending human rights as the touchstones worldwide, Africa included.

Trust and transparency

Alluding to democracy as “an ongoing struggle to live up to our higher ideals,” Biden argued that each generation had a role to play, and that democratic renewal would “unleash human potential and defend human dignity and solve big problems.” Vice President Kamala Harris largely echoed these sentiments during her presentations, underscoring the centrality of democracy promotion as the mainstay of the current U.S. administration. From an African perspective, it can be argued that democratic renewal has the capacity to solve major problems, particularly economic ones such as rising poverty with youth unemployment often cited as a ticking time bomb.

Bolstering democratic resilience was a central theme of the discussions. One of the few African presidents in attendance, Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo, emphasized the need for trust and confidence between governments and publics. This can be achieved through transparency in democratic processes, he said.

Transparency as a key ingredient of democracy was echoed by the mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone Yvonne Aki-Sawyer who argued that it would enable effective responses to crises, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated that transparency and trust were pivotal to defending democratic systems. Whichever way one defines democracy, the Summit placed transparency and building trust as cornerstones for governance.

To the question of whether African leaders have earned the trust of their populaces, most commentators think trust has not been earned and lack of transparency is to blame.

With information as a key enabler for transparency, Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Opinion and Expression, recognised media freedom as the “oxygen of democracy,” and that the civic space is shrinking due to rising attacks and intimidation against journalists. This thus tied transparency to human rights as pillars of democracy.

Fighting Corruption

Combating and preventing corruption was identified as a major drawback to democracy. U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen lobbied for the need to eliminate money laundering and illicit finance flows and unveiled bold new steps rolled out by the U.S. Government including tighter regulations, implementing legislation, and imposing sanctions.

African organizations seeking partnerships with the U.S. in addressing these issues would have to look carefully at the anti-corruption programs being implemented by the USAID and State Department.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana explained that his government had created anti-corruption units within every government ministry and emphasised that governments in Africa must provide resources for anti-corruption efforts and create global partnerships to address cross-border corruption. Reuben Lifuka, a Zambian governance expert reiterated the importance of cross-border enforcement of anti-corruption practices while noting the need for an international data exchange treaty as a means of limiting corruption globally.

Mo Ibrahim, whose foundation runs the well-known Ibrahim Index of African Governance recommended a partnership between governments and the private sector to reduce global corruption. He explained that the “rule by law without of rule of law” undermines integrity and credibility of democratic institutions, constitutions, and economic development.

More substantively, Secretary of State Blinken announced the establishment of a new state department coordinator on global anticorruption matters and pledged $10 million towards supporting a global anti-corruption consortium. The U.S. Government also pledged to enhance an anti-corruption change agents program and boost the USAID-led Transnational Corruption Grand Challenge.

Promoting Human Rights

UN Secretary-General António Guterres headlined sessions on promoting human rights as a component of democracy promotion. He could well have spoken for many Africans when he shared anecdotes of living under constant fear of arbitrary arrest, torture, censorship, and other human rights abuses in his native Portugal. Guterres registered deep worry over threats to democratic values globally, including populism, nationalism, various forms of racism, extremism, polarisation, and attacks on rationality and science all these being ills frequently reported in Africa.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, President of the International Peace Institute and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights took an advocacy stance, urging democracies to call out authoritarian governments when they commit human rights abuses, restrict civil society, and undermine independent media.

Lazarus Chakwera, the President of Malawi, echoed the importance of partnerships between governments and civil society in building democratic dispensations. Intoning that, “freedom is non-negotiable”, Chakwera noted that civil society actors are equally important and are ‘full partners’ in a democracy that delivers to citizens.

Egyptian human rights defender Mohamed Zaree, Director of the Egypt Program at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, described the challenges of “eliminated space” for civil society across the Middle East and North Africa and urged the international community to revisit approaches to autocratic nations centred on the concept of stability, insisting that genuine stability required accountable, transparent governance and respect for human rights.

Tangible steps towards the promotion of human rights were provided by USAID Administrator Samantha Power. She pointed out that the U.S. Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal as a major agency intended to assist countries experiencing democratic problems. Several initiatives were announced including “Powered by the People” which supports peaceful mass movements and the “Media Viability Accelerator,” which is intended to increase the business aptitude of independent media outlets. Terming 2022 as the “Year of Action”, Power further said her agency would support the establishment of “Democracy Cohorts” to bring together likeminded advocacy groups across countries.

Further, the U.S. Government committed to provide increased funding for existing and new global initiatives such as the International Fund for Public Interest Media, a media viability accelerator, a global defamation defence fund for journalists, a journalism protection platform.

The Biden administration also pledged to strengthen the Transparency International-led Global Anti-Corruption Consortium (GACC). These initiatives came along with pledges for the provision of an anti-corruption response fund and a global initiative to galvanise the private sector as partners in combatting corruption. On a broader level, the Biden administration indicated it will work with other countries through the bridging understanding, integrity, and legitimacy for democracy (BUILD) initiative.

Fighting Authoritarianism

In one of the sessions, President Biden was optimistic that “autocracies can never extinguish the ember of liberty that burns in the hearts of people around the world.”

U.S. Representative to the UN, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, led the way in discussing the authoritarianism as bottleneck to democracy. She approached the authoritarianism theme from the point of view of defending the institutions that underpin accountable governance. In other words, investing in and strengthening institutions should is the best bet in countering personality cults that are rampant on the continent.

Hakainde Hichilema, President of Zambia, underscored his administration’s work towards a strong and inclusive democracy in the wake of democratic backsliding under Zambia’s previous government. President Hichilema further noted the need for democratic governments to collaborate with civil society, and for democracies to decentralise to better allocate resources according to need.

Nicholas Opiyo, Executive Director, and Lead Attorney at Chapter Four Uganda expressed worry over the number of ‘supposed elections’ held without respect for basic principles of democracy, and added that protecting elections requires constant action, not just on election day.

Kenyan digital activist, Nanjira Sambuli, a Technology and International Affairs Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recognised the successes of civil societies in countering digital authoritarianism, as they pushed governments to support civil society more meaningfully at both global and local levels.

On the link between digital technologies and democracy, Thomas-Greenfield called for greater cooperation among democracies to bolster election integrity and fight disinformation.

Pledges from the U.S. Government to promote human rights included an initiative to advance women’s and girls’ civic and political leadership and the launch the global LGBTQI+ Inclusive Democracy and Empowerment (GLIDE) fund. To support embattled civil society organizations, the Biden administration pledged an assistance fund. multilateral partnership for organising, worker empowerment, and rights (M-POWER), partnerships for democracy. Of course, none of these commitments point directly to Africa, but the continent will certainly be a major recipient of this assistance.

Youth

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield noted the importance of youth having a seat at the table in discussions about democracy. This was during a virtual townhall with 60 young leaders from around the world.

Discussions revolved around the effects of COVID-19 on governance and human rights. Participating youth and other attendants were encouraged to pursue strategies for greater political participation and inclusive representation in democratic processes.

Youth were also implored to exert influence beyond what are considered youth issues. Underscoring youth energy, ideas for how the U.S. government can better support and encourage peaceful `protests abroad were discussed. If followed through, the idea of partnership between American youth and their African counterparts for mutual democratic reforms could be an innovative idea.

Commitments by African governments

Apart from official participation of 16 or the 17 invited African countries countries, statements where heads of states pledged or committed to democratic renewal was an important session of the summit.

COVERAGE: 17 African Countries Join U.S. Democracy Summit

Of the commitments made, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was the only African nation to commit to strengthening democracy within its domestic borders. DRC pledged to release political prisoners and facilitate the return of politicians who have been forced into exile in other countries. It pledged to schedule credible, transparent, free and fair elections within the constitutionally established timeframes and create institutions to curb corruption.

Cabo Verde mentioned the importance of curbing the effects of climate change as part of their priorities in strengthening democracy, as well as the importance of promoting basic welfare such as health and education.

Namibia and Senegal focused on the importance of combatting inequality as an important element of strengthening democracy. Kenya and Niger put forward innovative approaches to combat corruption and the introduction civic education programs, respectively. Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, and Cabo Verde, all echoed similar views on human rights, media and press freedoms, cyber space regulations, stronger democratic institutions, prosecution of public officials, electoral integrity and credibility, transparency and accountability on government transactions, gender equality and representation in political spaces.

Botswana committed to combatting corruption through improving service delivery, promoting human rights through collaboration between University of Botswana and the Presidential Precinct at the University of Virginia in the U.S

Moreover, the southern African country announced plans to host a summit on constitutionalism and democratic consolidation in Africa in partnership with U.S.’s National Democracy Institute.

Africa’s participation at the summit

Africa accounted for 15 percent (17 nations) of the total invited participants at the summit, with Europe, the Americas, and Asia having more representation, respectively. Out of the 54-nation continent, six of the well-governed democracies (relative to other African countries) nations were invited at the presidential levels. These are Mauritius, Cabo Verde, Botswana, South Africa, Malawi, and Ghana.

The U.S. offered no country-by-country explanation for inviting and not inviting certain countries in the continent. The criteria for invitations from the White House to participating nation in the summit has certainly been questioned, as presidents from many countries deemed undemocratic lost out in terms of participation on such an important matter. While it was good to have civil society and private sector actors in the discussions, leaving out presidents from 37 African countries could have the unintended consequences of entrenching bad governance as the leaders double down on their autocratic tendencies.

It is necessary to ask why major players such as Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, or even the smaller players such as Lesotho, Tunisia, and Central African Republic, did not make the cut.

Geographically, representation was poor across the Horn of Africa, central Africa and countries on the eastern side of the continent. Africa’s Indian Ocean islands were better represented compared to mainland Africa.

Invitations to the summit may have been motivated by the U.S. Government’s assessments of African governments standing and efforts with regards to democratic governance and the legitimacy of leaders. However, this approach could have further isolated nations currently suffering from autocracy and democratic backsliding. . the impression created is that the democratic world is an exclusive club. The counter argument is that inviting leaders from the autocratic club could have strategically put leaders such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Zimbabwe’s Emerson Mnangagwa, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, among others, on the spot and subtly ramped up debates on democracy in these countries.

That there was little if even any response from the uninvited African leaders may suggest that African leaders simply ignored the democracy promotion agenda of the U.S. government. South Africa, a regional hegemon and continental powerhouse in both democracy and economic development, conspicuously snubbed the invitation to attend the summit.

Some believe the reason for South Africa’s no show may be because of the travel bans instituted by the U.S. in eight Southern African countries, after South Africa detected, reported and publicised the Omicron variant of Covid-19 o variant at the time. Others believe South Africa’s decision not to attend was informed by its solidarity with its BRICS allies, Russia and China, which were also not invited.

Siviwe is a geopolitical researcher at the African Centre for the Study of the U.S. and Wekesa is the deputy director at the Centre.