There is a global trend of democratic retrenchment across the world, in both new and more established democracies. The African continent is part of the trend, although there are distinct regional variances on the continent. Yet, despite democratic gains in some states and along some dimensions of democratic rights, the overall trend is that the democratic gains won in the period after 1990 are now eroding. Democracy is challenged in ways that pose threats to freedom of speech, association, and information, the ability to choose political leaders, protection of personal integrity and private life, and the rule of law with recourse to independent courts. As part of a global trend of democratic backsliding, African states have adopted legal restrictions on key civil and political rights that form the basis of democratic rule in a range of countries, from dominant party regimes such as Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Tanzania to competitive electoral democracies like Zambia, Senegal, and Malawi. In South Africa, where democracy and rule of law appear deeply institutionalized, the succession battles and exposed levels of corruption under President Zuma, now removed from the leadership of the ANC party, suggest a weakening of the institutions intended to check executive powers. The September 2017 court annulment of the Kenyan elections suggests that the courts were able to perform an important accountability function and safeguard free and fair elections. Yet, the aftermath of the 2017 Kenyan elections culminated in early 2018 with President Uhuru Kenyatta closing down television and radio stations. Civil society actors, policy makers, and scholars warn against the democratic backlash and its negative implications for domestic and international politics. Internationally, the African democratic backlash challenges global actors who have long pressured developing countries to politically liberalize. Yet, following what appears to be a global trend of democratic backsliding, space for international influence and the spread of liberal norms is closing rapidly. Domestically, the observed backlash against democracy may pose further social and political threats with wide-reaching implications for development. This may, in turn, challenge the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Whereas closing space for civil society impacts first and foremost on voice and participation, restrictions on civil society ultimately may curb even the most seemingly apolitical activities such as humanitarian relief. At present, there is limited understanding of possible response mechanisms to the conscious attempts at democratic rollback from political elites. How do activists come together to advocate for particular rights? When are activists more effective in generating mass citizen support for their campaigns? How can researchers, international actors, and domestic civil society organizations work together to disseminate and use knowledge about organizational resilience in these circumstances? These will be pressing questions for scholars and activists going forward.
Lyn S. Graybill
The civil war was a turning point in the life of the faith community in Sierra Leone, which previously had been politically complacent. With the establishment of the Inter-Religious Council (IRC), Christian and Muslim religious leaders joined together with a unified voice based on shared values to first, mediate the conflict and second, promote reconciliation through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The efficacy of faith-based initiatives is attributed to many factors: the vast numbers of religious adherents, a far-reaching infrastructure of churches and mosques, close partnerships with international organizations, untainted reputation of clerics, and sacred texts that promote peace. Reconciliation is a dominant theme in both Christianity and Islam, giving religious leaders a powerful tool in bringing warring sides who share these faith commitments to the peace table, and, also, postconflict in encouraging restorative mechanisms, such as truth commissions that aim at reconciliation among enemies, over more retributive ones, such as courts. Like the earlier South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC), which was headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Sierra Leone TRC was headed by a religious leader, Bishop Joseph Humper, then president of the Inter-Religious Council. Like the SATRC, it turned to religious notions of confession and redemption that resonated in a very religious society, where 60% of the population are Muslims and 30% are Christians. It was only partially successful, however, because of the existence of the Special Court for Sierra Leone operating contemporaneously, which was based on a punitive model of justice. Because of confusion about the two institutions’ different mandates, and fear of being prosecuted by the Court, even low-level perpetrators hesitated to testify at the TRC, limiting its ability to reconcile enemies. Unfortunately, the international community prioritizes justice over reconciliation, and is less supportive of restorative approaches that may resonate more deeply with religious people in postconflict societies.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has generated considerable controversy since it came into force in 2002, principally because of its overriding focus on African conflict situations and suspects. This has led to accusations that the ICC is a neocolonial meddler in African affairs, wielding undue and unaccountable influence over the domestic political arena. Drawing on the author’s field research in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2006 this article contends that the neocolonialism critique of the ICC exaggerates the power of the Court while underestimating the capacity of African states to use the ICC to their own ends. Delivering distanced justice from The Hague with limited expertise on African societies and spending scant time in the field, the ICC has failed to grapple sufficiently with complex political dynamics “on the ground.” Combined with the Court’s heavy reliance on state cooperation, these factors have enabled African governments to use the ICC to target their political and military enemies while protecting themselves from prosecution. This has also emboldened African states in continuing to commit atrocity crimes against civilians, especially during periods of mass conflict and fraught national elections. While claiming to hover above the political fray, the ICC has become heavily politicized and instrumentalized by African states, with lasting and damaging consequences for the practice of national politics across Africa. To avoid being willfully used by African governments, the ICC must bolster its political expertise and become politically savvier. Rather than claiming to be neutral while hovering above the domestic terrain, the ICC must embrace its inherently political nature and deliver justice in a way that improves rather than undermines the practice of national and community-level politics across Africa.