By Drew Hinshaw and Patrick McGroarty
In 1990, three African states were democracies. In 1994, that number leapt to 18. Today, it is only 19. Alex Nabaum
Despite two decades of elections and growth, democracy has stalled, militaries are resurgent, and autocrats are in control.
On the same November morning when Boko Haram seized yet another village in Nigeria’s north, police in riot gear surrounded the country’s House of Representatives in the capital city of Abuja. 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.
Nigeria’s Speaker of the House, Aminu Tambuwal, had recently defected to the opposition—a risky move in a government dominated by one party. A court had ruled that he could keep his speaker’s chair, but police at the barricades outside said that he couldn’t. They stopped his car at the gate.
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.
Nigeria’s political drama is just one example of a disquieting trend across the continent. Two decades of elections and economic progress in Africa haven’t erased the vast power that militaries have long wielded in many countries, large and small. In much of Africa, in fact, the armed forces have gained influence in recent years as battling Islamist terrorists has become a priority.
“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, Africa’s 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 U.S., Europe and Latin America have visited the continent to promote open, politically accountable government. They know that China, Africa’s biggest trading partner, is offering a rival model in the form of market-powered autocracy.
For now, the advance of democracy in Africa 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.
This disappointing record raises difficult questions about the possibility of poor countries becoming durable democracies. Several African states—Botswana and Zambia, 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.
But many more African countries, such as Angola and Sudan, 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 China. Some political scientists hope that a slowing Chinese economy—and dropping crude-oil prices—could give a second wind to democracy in Africa, forcing closed regimes to hold elections in return for Western loans.
But spreading democracy isn’t as simple as dangling aid and applauding elections, democratization experts say. Even hopeful cases like Ghana and Benin must confront long histories of military rule woven into their political evolution.
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.
After World War II, Britain, France and other European empires withdrew. But the militaries of many newly independent African states continued to suppress their own civil societies. Africa 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 themselves.
Many of these regimes relied on Cold War-era patronage from Washington or Moscow. Soviet patrons often found themselves bankrupt after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the U.S. lost interest in supporting corrupt regimes such as Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko.
In the post-Cold War era, dozens of African countries tried to escape financial trouble by staging elections in return for U.S. loans and aid. The soldiers who once lorded over countries such as Ghana and Nigeria returned to their barracks. After the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many African governments began to receive military training from U.S. officials seeking new allies in their war on Islamist terror.
Africa’s politics have been relatively stable over the past decade, and African economies have surged. Vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals helped to attract $56 billion in foreign-direct investment in 2013, the U.N. says—triple the $18 billion that arrived a decade earlier. Economic growth, almost flat 20 years ago, will reach 5% this year, according to the African Development Bank—a rate higher than any region except Asia.
That growth has empowered a new middle class. In Senegal, Uganda, Kenya 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.
But it often hasn’t worked out that way. Despite rapid economic growth, Africa’s civic institutions remain weak, struggling to provide basic services. Public hospitals in West Africa are fighting an uphill battle against Ebola. Child-protection agencies are watching young constituents join Islamist rebellions in Nigeria and 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 Liberia’s 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 U.S. paid security contractor DynCorp International, based in McLean, Va., to train the country’s new, 2,000-person army. Other institutions like the health ministry received scant attention.
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.
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 Africa analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “In the short term, a military coup is seen as expedient.”
That is what happened last month in Burkina Faso, a quiet democracy in turbulent West Africa. 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.
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 Africa 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.
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 Togo and Joseph Kabila of Congo are expected to seek third terms. (Mr. Kabila will have to change Congo’s constitution to do so; Togo has no term limits.) Both men inherited power from their fathers, who were ex-military leaders.
Other African leaders are even more entrenched. Angola’s president, José Eduardo dos Santos, 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.
Robert Mugabe, 90, has ruled Zimbabwe since 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, 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.
For the U.S., this is complicated terrain. Washington wants to build up 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 Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Much U.S. effort has thus gone to training soldiers, not building health ministries or electoral commissions.
The result has been to create strong armies in weak states, said Sean McFate, a former DynCorp official who trained soldiers in Burundi and 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 said.
The military remains a swaggering presence in Nigeria, Africa’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 Nigeria’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.
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 Nigeria as large as 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 Nigeria’s 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.”
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 Nigeria’s 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 Africa’s largest democracy was shut down.
Boko Haram spent the day driving unchallenged into the remote village of Azaya Kura. Fighters killed at least 45 people there, residents said, then slipped back into the woods.
—Matina Stevis in Johannesburg contributed to this article.