Sub-Saharan Africa continues to feel the impact of the Arab Spring more than two years after the popular uprisings began in North Africa, according to a panel of experts who spoke at the annual ACSS Senior Leaders Seminar (SLS) in Washington, DC.
Dr. Joseph Siegle, Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) Research Director, and Dr. Christopher Fomunyoh, Senior Associate and Director of Africa Program at the Washington, D.C.-based National Democratic Institute, examined how the events of 2011 in the Maghreb have affected popular sovereignty across Africa as a whole and what lays ahead the democratization path in Sub-Saharan Africa. The panel discussion took place June 18, 2013, as part of the two-week ACSS Senior Leaders Seminar. More than 50 officials from 36 nations attended the annual seminar.
Dr. Siegle said the Arab Spring was the result of a deep yearning lead by youth demanding a greater voice in the political direction of their countries. Two years later, the situation has evolved significantly. Islamists political parties have gained power and influence across North Africa, raising questions about the commitment to democracy these parties might have. The crisis in the Sahel is also commonly regarded as a spillover of the fall of the Gaddafi regime.
“Many have come to the conclusion that the Arab Spring has been a failure,” said Dr. Siegle. “That conclusion is significantly premature.”
Dr. Siegle pointed out the need for patience. He stressed that democratization is a process – not an event – and requires stamina. “There are reasons to be skeptical about African democratization,” he said. “But there is also place for hope.”
“The revolution that occurred in North Africa was the beginning, not the end of a process that started a long time ago in Africa,” Dr. Siegle said. “Moreover the Arab spring resonated significantly on the continent, in the sense that the event raised the bar about transparency and legitimacy across sub-Saharan Africa.”
Dr. Siegle finally noted that in African countries, the growing trends of institutionalization, independence of electoral bodies, and greater access to technology are changing both the communication and the political landscapes.
“This also calls for a new approach to security challenges for people in your position,” he told the Senior Leaders Seminar participants.
Democracy was on the rise in Africa well before the Arab spring, Dr. Fomunyoh said during his presentation. Over the past two decades, he added, an increasing number of sub-Saharan countries have witnessed peaceful turnovers of power. To date, eight African countries are democracies and another 20 or so are on a democratizing path, he said.
“When we talked about democracy today, there are a lot of good things to draw from Africa,” Dr. Fomunyoh said. “However, democratization is not easy. Institutions can’t change and become functional overnight.”
He also pointed out the risk of misinterpreting situations or creating pseudo-democracies, factors in the origins of the crisis in Mali.
For decades, while the world praised Mali as the beacon of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, lingering structural problems remained ignored, he said.
“The system of ‘consensus’ adopted by President Amadou Toumani Touré weakened political parties and discouraged open debate,” Dr. Fomunyoh argued. “The legislature was very weak and hobbled by consensus paradigm. Media and civil society followed the lead of other actors and did not foster honest, vibrant debate issues.”
These factors resulted in an amorphous political landscape that would brutally be awakened in March 2012, and Malians have been struggling since to restore a sense of state and democracy country-wide.
The panelists also said that the fact that Arab Spring events where led by young and more educated people calls for African governments to re-visit how they address the higher expectations of the youth generation. How African countries navigate these challenges of greater accountability will ultimately determine how the continent emerges in the future, they insisted.
Thus far, countries that have promoted political pluralism have also paved the way for government accountability and transparency, the panelists said. Those countries have equally enabled a more efficient distribution of national resources and hence, minimized discontent, marginalization and other security risks.