A testing time for democracy?

A series of coups in recent years has prompted much discussion about the state of democracy in Africa.

Opinion polls show declining satisfaction with the way democracy is working across Africa. Joseph Asunka, the head of the Ghana-based research network Afrobarometer, says the failures of governments and elected leaders to meet popular democratic aspirations have “led to a decline in popular confidence in democratic governance and an increasing attraction to military rule and intervention”.

Nearly a third of Africa’s nations will participate in elections this year.

Could the ANC lose its majority in South Africa?

Thirty years after winning power in historic elections, polls suggest the ruling African National Congress (ANC) might lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since 1994. The party has faced multiple scandals, growing disenchantment with the party, and lengthy power cuts have weakened the country’s economic performance.

Opinion polls suggest the ANC could drop below 50% of the national vote in South Africa’s 2024 general election, and while there is no suggestion any other party has the support required to unseat the ANC from power, early talk about the election centres on the possibility of a coalition government. If that happens, commentators suggest that the ANC might push to replace Cyril Ramaphosa as leader if the party performs worse than expected.

The main competition comes from the centrist Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, and the populist Economic Freedom Fighters, led by former ANC youth leader Julias Malema. Former President Jacob Zuma has also turned his back on the ANC and is setting up a new political party.

No date for the election has been set as yet, but it must be held within 90 days of the end of the parliamentary session in May.

Open elections in Senegal and Ghana

Incumbents in Senegal and Ghana are stepping down after serving two terms as Presidents.

In Senegal, incumbent Prime Minister Amadou Ba is the favourite to take over from President Macky Sall. However, it is still unclear whether popular opposition leader Ousmane Sonko will be allowed to compete in February’s presidential race.

The economy, high cost of living and dissatisfaction with the ruling party are likely to be electoral issues in December’s general election in Ghana. Two parties have dominated Ghanaian politics since 1992. The current Vice-President, Mahamudu Bawumia, is hoping to extend the ruling new Patriotic Party’s time in office by replacing current President Nana Akufo-Addo. John Mahama is leading the opposition National Democratic Party’s hopes.

UK ministers and regional officials have warned of the risk that insecurity in the Sahel region, which lies just below the Sahara desert, could spread to West African coastal states, including Ghana. Both Senegal and Ghana share borders with countries in the Sahel that have experienced coups in recent years (Mali and Burkina Faso respectively).

The Library briefing coups and political stability in West Africa discusses some of the factors behind recent coups in West Africa and surveys recent political developments in countries in the region.

Rwanda’s President seeks a fourth term

In Rwanda, Paul Kagame is expected to be re-elected for a fourth term in July 2024, having led the country since 2000. He was last elected in 2017 with over 98% of the vote.

Rwanda’s human rights record has come under scrutiny. Freedom House, a non-governmental organisation which tracks democracy worldwide, says the regime has “suppressed political dissent through pervasive surveillance, intimidation, torture, and renditions or suspected assassinations of exiled dissidents and journalists critical of the regime”.

Rwanda also marks a significant anniversary this year; it will be thirty years since the genocide of 1994 in which over 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were killed in the space of 100 days.

Instability in the Horn of Africa

Sudan civil war continues

April will mark the first anniversary of the civil war in Sudan, unless the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces lay down their weapons.

It has often been described as a “forgotten war” by headline writers since it has been overshadowed by war in Ukraine and the Israel/Hamas conflict, yet over 7 million people have been displaced as a result of the fighting and an estimated 10,000 people have been killed.

Ethiopia’s coastal ambitions

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s call for a seaport for landlocked Ethiopia last October prompted fears of a new conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, with which it has a long and complicated history.

An unexpected agreement with the self-declared republic of Somaliland in the new year has instead driven a wedge between Ethiopia and Somalia, and reignited the question of Somaliland’s pursuit of independence.

Weak economic growth

Economic growth in Africa is projected to remain weak, increasing from an average of 3.3% in 2023 to 3.5% in 2024 according to the UN World Economic Situation and Prospects 2024 report.

There are particular concerns about debt sustainability. The World Bank has identified nine African countries as being in “debt distress”. Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Lab) led a debate in Parliament on the “escalating debt crisis in African countries” in November 2023. Food insecurity and high inflation continue to put pressure on the everyday cost of living.

The Prime Minister will host the UK-African investment summit in April.

Anti-homosexuality laws

Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the world’s most restrictive legislation against LGBT+ people, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex organisation (ILGA).

In recent years, some countries have sought to introduce or strengthen laws relating to homosexuality, such as Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023, which introduced the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”.

Ghana is considering legislation which criminalises the promotion, advocacy, funding and acts of homosexuality. Same-sex relations are already illegal in the country.

Kenya’s parliament is considering a bill which would allow for up to 50-year jail terms for non-consensual same-sex sexual acts.

Africa on the world stage

Ethiopia has joined the BRICS, the group of major emerging economies led by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Separately, the African Union (AU), which is headquartered in Ethiopia’s capital, has been made a permanent member of the G20, joining South Africa in the group of major economies. Kenya’s President William Ruto said the move “will increase the voice of Africa, visibility, and influence on the global stage”.

The UN Secretary-General’s spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, noted the significance of the AU joining the G20: “when much of the existing international multilateral architecture was built, most of Africa was still colonized and did not have an opportunity to have their voices heard. This is another step towards correcting that imbalance.”

The UK Government supports permanent African representation in the UN Security Council.

Previous lookaheads can be found here: Africa in 2022: Elections and transitions and Africa in 2023: Economies, power and fear of famine.

About the author: Louisa Brooke-Holland is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in Africa and defence.

Photo by Zoë Reeve on unsplash.