Seventeen African countries have been invited by US president Joe Biden to join nearly 100 other invitees for a virtual “Summit for Democracy” due to take place this week [December 8-10, 2021]. A second summit, in person, is planned for next year.
There are three issues on the agenda: defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights.
Africans have a great deal to contribute. It’s also an opportunity for them to advance their interests – as individual countries as well as collectively.
The US claims it has already consulted widely with non-governmental actors. This means that the views of African media, scholars and other stakeholders should weigh in.
Taken together, the summit’s three topics all beg for greater specificity plus realistic action plans and resources. Africa can – and must – be seen as offering vital and affordable opportunities to design, test and scale collective efforts. On each of the three broad topics they can make important contributions.
The democracy question
It remains a US bureaucratic mystery how the host selected invitees. Of the 113 countries chosen, an estimated 69% are regarded by a Carnegie Endowment study to be “Free”; 28% are “Partly Free” and 3% “Not Free”.
Among the African invitees are Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Even the host country, America, has been deemed in recent global surveys by Freedom House and the Swedish NGO International IDEA to have shown authoritarian characteristics. Its democracy ranking has been lowered. Europe too struggles with illiberalism.
Meanwhile, all 54 member states of the African Union have ratified an inclusive Constitutive Act that implicitly condemns authoritarianism and explicitly affirms democratic goals. These are given operational meaning with the later adoption of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
All African governments are obligated to hold periodic elections, subject to international observation. These are deficient in many ways. Nevertheless they constitute practical expression of a new norm in intra-African relations: the “principle of non-indifference”. This refers to the commitment to no longer tolerate internal abuses of domestic power. The pro-democracy practice has been praised as path-breaking globally by International IDEA.
Beyond formal commitments to defend against authoritarianism, there is also persistent popular support for democracy throughout the continent. This is despite many often volatile democratic deficiencies.
Africans can also constructively disagree with the US host and engage others on two big issues related to tensions between illiberal and liberal democracies.
One is to seek constructive ways to engage all other nations, even in only limited ways, rather than to try to ostracise or penalise them. Today virtually all nations claim to be democratic, even the most autocratic. If the 2022 summit is to be credible then better ways must be found than for the US alone to decide who should participate and how.
A second issue where Africans can set a good example is their pragmatic but principled engagement of China. For African countries, the goal is a productive relationship with both China and the west. This point was made by Cyril Ramaphosa as the lone African guest at the last G7 Summit.
This would advance Africa’s development as well as lower tensions between China and the US.
It’s an outcome that deserves urgent attention from the other attendees at the democracy summit.
The corruption question
Corruption is a pervasive problem throughout Africa. It is abetted by the complicity, or at least lax regulations, of many non-African governments that will be attending the summit, especially the US.
This was a key conclusion of the High-Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa, chaired by Thabo Mbeki and commissioned by the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The panel focuses on driving the issue onto the agendas of African governments, and will meet again virtually on 12 December.
Recent revelations by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the FinCEN Files and Pandora Papers show the scale and extent of corrupt practices that rob African countries of vital tax revenues. The founding president of the NGO Global Financial Integrity, Raymond W Baker, and a member of the high level panel, told me in an email that:
This is so serious as to be what is now probably the major driver of economic inequality and the key reason for the weakness of democracy. Aggressively addressing threats to democracy while inadequately addressing threats to economic and financial integrity will continue to bolster the global drift to authoritarianism.
Given Africa’s poverty and inequality, exacerbated by COVID-19 and climate change, pressing for necessary political resolve and institutional capabilities to redress this issue must and can become a global priority.
Last week the US government released a new Strategy on Countering Corruption. It could serve as a reference for the African High Level Panel to test US resolve to cooperate with Africans in this vital area.
The human rights question
On this, too, Africa can make a vital global contribution.
Human rights are not just a moral imperative. In Africa’s international relations the emphasis is pragmatic. “Today’s human rights abuses are tomorrow’s refugees” has become a politically salient cliché in a continent struggling to mitigate and prevent forced migration and all the human suffering and instabilities, nationally and regionally, the phrase implies.
Human rights abuses are “early warning” signs of conflict that have given political impetus to the “principle of non-indifference”. Preventing unregulated mass migrations to the European countries that comprise the biggest contingent – 39 – invited to the Summit for Democracy should ensure a rapt audience for African ideas about what can and should be done cooperatively to address this problem.
In fact, most of the forced migration occurs among African countries. But ways and means to address this key human rights problem have global implications, with Africa the vanguard.
African leaders and publics can – and must – set their own agendas on the issues to be raised at the summit. This is because they must shoulder the primary responsibilities for the issues on the agenda – defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights – from two perspectives.
Firstly, they must deal with the consequences of these big challenges.
Secondly, they must implement policies to achieve the objectives of plans to tackle them.
The credibility of African governments is at stake at the summit. So is the possibility for building mutually beneficial partnerships that can become more inclusive.
Currently, wealthier democracies have not been reliable partners with African nations in their common battle against the global pandemic. Unless the summit can lead to real partnerships with African countries striving to sustain democracy, African countries invited to the 2022 summit would be justified in declining to attend.
John J Stremlau, Honorary Professor of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand