This Policy and Practice Brief (PPB) draws on contributions made during a virtual policy dialogue organised by ACCORD, in collaboration with the African Peacebuilding Network of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), on the theme ‘Strengthening Democratic Governance and Political Stability in Africa: A Policy Dialogue’. The brief analyses how and why African democracies are backsliding into authoritarianism and proposes actions for strengthening democratic governance and political stability and preventing future crises and conflicts. This PPB collates critical, grounded perspectives from scholars and scholar-practitioners working in the field on actions likely to promote greater inclusion and participation in governance structures and help the continent attain its peace, security, and development goals.
With a few notable exceptions, democratic governance in Africa has experienced a gradual decline in the past decade with adverse impacts on political stability. Growing evidence of a democratic regression includes tenure extensions by some democratically elected leaders through the manipulation of constitutional amendments, intimidation of opposition parties and independent media organisations, and declarations of victory after flawed or controversial elections.
Political analysts have argued that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 provided further pretext for some governments to introduce authoritarian measures, notably the heavy-handed enforcement of lockdowns, postponement of elections, policing of opposition strongholds during elections, and crushing protests against human rights abuses and unpopular policies.41Gukurume, Simbarashe (2020) ‘Abductions, Brutality, and Demolitions: When the State Becomes more Harmful than COVID-19’, Democracy in Africa, 22 May, Available at: https://democracyinafrica.org/abductions-brutality-demolitions-state-becomes-harmful-covid-19 [Accessed 20 October, 2022]. These have, in turn, fuelled cycles of protests, increased activities of non-state armed groups, and worsened political instability.42Chakawata, Webster (2022) ‘Africa’s Response to COVID-19: A Governmentality in Disguise Masterclass?’ International Review of Sociology, 32(1), 147-173, DOI: 10.1080/03906701.2022.2028403; Powers, Theodore (2021) ‘Authoritarian Violence, Public Health, and the Necropolitical State: Engaging the South African Response to COVID-19’, Open Anthropological Research, 1, 60-72.
More recently, the decline in democratic governance on the continent has been characterised by several unconstitutional changes of power and military coup d’états in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, and Sudan. Low-intensity conflicts and insurgencies have also continued to destabilise parts of Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Somalia. These upheavals are having negative effects on citizens across the continent and are proving especially devastating for already marginalised social groups. If unchecked, they may have damaging long-term consequences that could unravel the gains made during Africa’s recent political history.
Africa has a plethora of regional and continental policy and legal frameworks and structures that address a wide range of governance-related issues. However, their existence has not prevented the current democratic crisis. They also seem ill-equipped to respond to the complex crises at the heart of ongoing conflicts in certain countries. To prevent further democratic regression, this impasse calls for a review of current approaches to governance, with a view to identifying critical gaps and proposing workable solutions that could help transform ongoing conflict and political instability on the continent.
There is a high demand for democratic change in Africa, amid increased contention between states and their citizens, the ethno-regionalisation of politics, the actions of some states aimed at subverting accountability mechanisms, and the subversion of social development projects, particularly in relation to questions of gender inequality and youth marginalisation.
Over the years, one of the major challenges to democratic governance and political instability in Africa has been the continued neglect, marginalisation and infantilisation of the continent’s youth and women.43Bangura, Ibrahim (2017) ‘A Call for Constructive Engagement: Youth, Violence, and Peacebuilding in the Mano River Basin Area’, Kujenga Amani, Special Issue: African Youth—Generation Next for Peacebuilding? New York: African Peacebuilding Network. A vast majority of them have been denied a voice, identity, recognition, power and place in the governance and leadership structures and systems of their societies. What continues to exist in most countries is a gerontocratic approach to governance, which is also usually patriarchal and patrimonial in nature. The inclusion of women and youth in governance is, at times, tokenistic, and in most cases, access to power is exclusive to those who are closest to political elites. Several studies have pointed out that in some settings in Africa, the relationship between elites and youth is clientelist, which disadvantages young people.44Kovacs, Mimmi Söderberg and Bjarnesen, Jasper (Eds.) (2018) Elections-Related Violence in Africa, London: Zed Books; Oosterom, Marjoke and Simbarashe, Gukurume (2019) ‘Managing the Born-free Generation: Zimbabwe’s Strategies for Dealing with the Youth’, Norway: CMI, Available at: <https://www.cmi.no/publications/file/7000-managing-the-born-freegeneration-zimbabwes-strategies-for-dealing-with-the-youth.pdf> [Accessed 22 October, 2022].
Given this scale of neglect and marginalisation, the majority of young people in Africa are stuck in what Bangura45Bangura, Ibrahim (Ed.) (2022) Youth-Led Social Movements and Peacebuilding in Africa,London: Routledge. describes as ‘youthhood’. Youthhood has to do with the fact that sometimes, despite their age, some people are permanently regarded as youth by their families and society due to poverty, illiteracy, and their consequent lack of social status and they are marginalised and denied socio-economic opportunities. Their marginalisation has implications for both the state and democracy, as it leads to a contentious relationship between youth and the state, and could contribute to the eruption of violence, as was recently experienced during the August 2022 demonstrations in Sierra Leone.46Sheriff-Switzerland, Mohamed (2022) ‘August 10: A Clarion Call for All Sierra Leoneans to Respect the Law and Protect Our Shared Democratic Gains’, The Calabash Newspaper, 24 August, Available at: <https://thecalabashnewspaper.com/august-10-a-clarion-call-for-all-sierra-leoneans-to-respect-the-law-and-protect-our-shared-democratic-gains> [Accessed 27 September, 2022]. Alongside this, the continent has also recently experienced several mass demonstrations in countries such as Liberia47Crisis24 (2022) ‘Liberia: Nationwide Anti-Government Protests Planned July 26’, 25 July, Available at: <https://crisis24.garda.com/alerts/2022/07/liberia-nationwide-anti-government-protests-planned-july-26> [Accessed 10 November, 2022] and Ghana48Christensen, Sofia (2022) ‘Police Disperse Protest Over Economic Hardship in Ghana’, Reuters, 29 July, Available at: <https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/police-disperse-protest-over-economic-hardship-ghana-2022-06-2> [Accessed 10 November, 2022]. in relation to growing economic hardship, inequality and bad governance.
The continued perception of marginalisation, corruption and bad governance, which undermine the quality of life of youths, have contributed significantly to the eruption and prolongation of violence in several countries on the continent. In countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, bad governance, corruption and their attendant consequences, such as unemployment, poverty, environmental degradation, conflict, political instability, poverty and economic hardship, have forced young people to seek to re-engineer the socio-political space.49Kayizzi-Mugerwa, Steven (2019) ‘Youth in Africa: Between Marginalisation and Demographic Dividend’, Southern African Journal of Policy and Development, 4(2), 6. The emergence of local coffee booths called ‘Ataya Base’ in Sierra Leone and Liberia, or ‘The Office’ in Guinea, are refuges against broken promises and systems.50Bergère, Clovis (2016) ‘Remaking Street Corners as “Bureaux”: DIY Youth Spaces and Shifting Urban Ontologies in Guinea’, In Day, Amber (Ed.), DIY Utopia: Cultural Imagination and the Remaking of the Possible, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, pp. 133–154. These spaces provide the identity and recognition denied to youths by the state and are also a source of community and hope for them. It also enhances the agency of the youth and provides a platform for engagement with state actors, as seen in Guinea and Sierra Leone. While they remain male-dominated, they are gradually opening up to female youths.
Africa is also witnessing the spread of violent gangs and cliques in several post-war countries, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire, as the denial of place, voice and recognition to youths and women have caused some to socialise with violence. The gangs and cliques replace the state to some young people, as they provide them with the identity and recognition that the state denies them. Rather than constructively engaging the youth, the state and its usually instrumentalised security sector use heavy-handed approaches that further alienate them.51Mitton, Kieran (2022) ‘“A Game of Pain”: Youth Marginalisation and the Gangs of Freetown’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 60(1), 45-64, DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X21000410.
The rapid decline in good governance, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Africa is contributing to the spread of activities related to violent extremist groups. Recent studies in Tunisia pointed to how frustrations and grievances among the youth, resulting from the re-emergence of the political elites that they staged the 2010 revolution against, and their continued refusal to allow young people a place in the transition process, have contributed to some of the latter leaving the country to join violent extremist groups in places like Libya, Syria and Iraq.52Bangura, Ibrahim and Sen, Saatchi (2022) ‘Young People and Social Movements in Post-Arab Spring Tunisia’, In Bangura, Ibrahim (Ed.), Youth-Led Social Movements and Peacebuilding in Africa,London: Routledge, pp. 216-232. Similarly, in the Sahel region, violent extremist groups are spreading their influence and getting the support of a wide range of demographics in places like Burkina Faso and Mali, all stemming from disenchantment and the loss of confidence and trust in their states. Similar grievances have also seen the continued growth of extremist group influence and radicalism in East Africa and parts of southern Africa, especially in Northern Mozambique.
In as much as there exist frameworks for the promotion of democracy and good governance on the continent, at the African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) levels, for instance, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance,53AU (2019) ‘African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance’, 27 July, Available at: <https://au.int/en/treaties/african-charter-democracy-elections-and-governance> [Accessed 5 October, 2022]. and the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, very little has been achieved in terms of the change process that is needed by Africans. In some cases, the regional and sub-regional institutions even provide support to legitimise the actions of some governments. For instance, despite all the calls on the part of civil society in West Africa for President Conde’s third term bid to be condemned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the body sent observers during the referendum that sought to legitimise his actions and the elections that gave him a third term mandate.54See: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/20/african-monitors-say-guinea-election-conducted-properly [Date accessed: 10 November, 2022]. Similar experiences were observed in Togo and Côte d’Ivoire.
The decline in democracy on the continent became much more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the heavy-handedness and the repressive nature of the state were felt across the continent, as governments in countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Guinea focused on silencing critical views and entrenching their grip on power.55CIPESA (2021) ‘One Year In: Covid-19 Deepening Africa’s Democratic Regression’, 24 April, Available at: https://cipesa.org/2021/04/one-year-in-covid-19-deepening-africas-democratic-regression [Accessed 10 November, 2022].
There is an immediate and urgent need to address the challenges noted above. It is equally important to note that as the search unfolds for internal, home-grown solutions to the crisis of governance and political instability in Africa, international and regional institutions, such as the United Nations (UN), the AU and its RECs, have a critical role to play in persuading governments to comply with international standards that seek to promote good governance, democracy, human rights, and political stability on the continent.
Young people have been at the centre of the democratic struggle in many African countries. Although youths are often framed as perpetrators of violence and breakers of peace, many young people have used non-violent ways to demand democratic, accountable, and transparent governance.56Gukurume, Simbarashe (2022a) ‘Youth and the Temporalities on Non-Violent Struggles in Zimbabwe: #ThisFlag Movement’, African Security Review, 31, 282-299; Parera, Suda; Kambale, Victor Anas; and Bussy, Josaphat Musamba (2018) ‘Youth Participation and Nonviolent and Nonviolent Resistance in the Democratic Republic of Congo: The Case of LUCHA’, UONGOZI Institute, Available at: <https://www.dlprog.org/publications/research-papers/youth-participation-and-non-violent-resistance-in-the-democratic-republic-of-congo-the-case-of-lucha> [Accessed 26 October 2022]. Youths on the continent have, in the last two decades, succeeded in using social media and popular arts to bring to the fore contending issues in their societies. For instance, the popular North African uprisings and the #ENDSARS protests in Nigeria were all led by young people. This instrumentalisation of social media for political activism57Gukurume, Simbarashe (2017) ‘#ThisFlag and #ThisGown Cyber Protests in Zimbabwe: Reclaiming Political Space’, African Journalism Studies, 38(2), 49-70. has empowered and enabled young people to demand accountable leadership. In Zimbabwe, a group of youths led by the Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust (YETT) challenged unconstitutional amendments, which sought to make several changes meant to entrench and centralise power. The Government of Zimbabwe sought to take advantage of the COVID-19 lockdown to effect these constitutional changes.58ISS Pretoria (2020) ‘Zimbabwe to Change its Constitution Under Cover of COVID-19’, ISS, 9 July, Available at: <https://issafrica.org/iss-today/zimbabwe-to-change-its-constitution-under-cover-of-covid-19> [Accessed 26 October, 2022]. In response to the legislative changes, youth activist Namatai Kwekweza bemoaned, ‘Our future has been stolen as youth and it’s up to us to reclaim it back’.59Ncube, Trevor and Kwekweza, Namatai (2020) ‘“Our Future Has Benn Stolen, We Must Get It Back,” – Namatai Kwekweza’, In Conversation with Trevor, YouTube, 6 August, Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLClm8bbp2k> [Accessed 25 October, 2022]. For her and other young people, part of the process of reclaiming the future is through active citizenship and challenging retrogressive legislation which undermines people’s rights.
Young people have also utilised popular art and music to get their message and frustrations across to the corridors of power in many African countries. For instance, in an interview with Lewis Jennings, Uganda’s youthful opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi (also known as Bobi Wine) asserted:
We talk about the injustices that occur and when you put this into music, it awakens the people, and they get concerned about the government of their country.60Jennings, Lewis (2018) ‘Playing Out Injustice: Ugandan Songwriter and Politician Bobi Wine Talks about How His Lyrics have Inspired Young People to Stand Up Against Injustice and How the Government has Tried to Silence Him’, Index on Censorship, 48(2), 77.
Indeed, young artists in many countries have become vocal critics of authoritarian and corrupt regimes. Many of them imagine themselves as the vanguard of democracy and the voice of the voiceless.
In response to the growing political threat posed by young people to the authoritarian regimes and status quo through social media mobilisation, many African governments have resorted to techniques which have shrunk the online democratic space.61Mare, Admire (2020) ‘Internet Shutdowns in Africa: State Ordered Internet Shutdown and Digital Authoritarianism in Zimbabwe’, International Journal of Communication, 14, 4244-4263; Roberts, Tony and Ali, Abrar Mohamed (2021) ‘Opening and Closing Online Civic Space in Africa: An Introduction to the Ten Digital Rights Landscape Reports’, In Roberts, Tony (Ed.), Digital Rights in Closing Civic Space: Lessons from Ten African Countries, Brighton, UK: IDS, pp. 10-42. As such, there is growing cyber control across the African continent. For instance, the Ugandan government introduced a social media tax for platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. These were the dominant spaces through which young people mobilised protests and articulated their angst and dissent. Similarly, in Zimbabwe, the government introduced cybercrime legislation which criminalised cyber activism. The country has seen a rapid increase in online state surveillance, which has led to arrests for social media posts and comments.62Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Available at: https://www.zlhr.org.zw/?p=2112 There have also been several Internet and social media blackouts in many African countries during protests, all of which have coalesced into declining Internet and online freedom. For example, since 2019, there have been a number of total Internet shutdowns in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia and Mali, among other African countries. According to Chipo Dendere, there were at least 119 total Internet shutdowns, 43 social media shutdowns, and 237 days of delayed Internet across Africa between 2016 and 2017.63Dendere, Chipo (2019) ‘Why are so Many African Leaders Shutting off the Internet in 2019?’ The Washington Post, 30 January, Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2019/01/30/why-are-so-many-african-leaders-shutting-off-the-internet-in-2019> [Accessed 17 September, 2022]. These Internet shutdowns always occurred after periods of intense protest in many African countries.
Studies have shown how Internet shutdowns and other forms of digital repression work to silence political dissent and curtail online mobilisation.64Gravett, Willem (2020) ‘Digital neo-colonialism: The Chinese model of internet sovereignty in Africa’; Gukurume, Simbarashe (2017) op. cit.; Mpofu, Shepperd (2022) ‘His Excellency, the Internet, and Outraged Citizens: An Analysis of the Big Man Syndrome and Internet Shutdowns in Africa’, In Kperogi, Farooq (Ed.), Digital Dissidence and Social Media Censorship in Africa, London: Routledge, pp. 37-57. As such, it is important to note that while social media and other digital tools are playing a significant role in promoting democracy, the very same digital tools are being appropriated by some governments to cement their political repression and hold onto power. In addition, some governments have responded by hiking the prices of data beyond the reach of many unemployed young people.65Shezi, Lungelo (2016) ‘Zimbabwe Data Prices Hiked by up to 500% to Curb Social Media Activism and Dissent’, Mail & Guardian, 5 August, Available at: <https://mg.co.za/article/2016-08-05-zimbabwe-data-price-hiked-up-by-up-to-500-to-curb-social-media-activism-and-dissent> [Accessed 26 October, 2022].
While some governments have intensified clampdowns on political dissent through partial and total Internet shutdowns, young people have devised innovative ways of circumventing these constraints. One of the popular ways through which young people have remained connected amid total shutdowns has been through the use and sharing of virtual private networks (VPNs) – a collection of tunnels which conceal the location of the user, enabling them to bypass any censorship and being locked out of specific Internet sites. Interestingly, in Zimbabwe, some young people have sought legal recourse after the government shut down the Internet for a week. Young people approached the high court, which ordered telecommunication companies and other Internet providers to restore connectivity. The high court ruled that the Internet shutdown by the government was illegal.66News24 (2019) ‘Zim High Court Rules Internet Shutdown Illegal, Orders Govt to Restore Full Internet to the Country’, 21 January, Available at: <https://www.news24.com/News24/just-in-zim-high-court-rules-internet-shutdown-illegal-orders-govt-to-restore-full-internet-to-the-country-20190121> [Date accessed: 25 October 2022]; Dzirutwe, MacDonald (2019) ‘Zimbabwe Court Says Internet Shutdown Illegal as More Civilians Detained’, Reuters, 21 January, Available at: <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-zimbabwe-politics-idUSKCN1PF11M> [Accessed 26 October, 2022]. Similarly, youth activists and human rights defenders argued that Internet censorship and shutdowns are a violation of people’s rights to access information and freedom of association. Across the African continent, the struggles discussed above have been gendered, with women bearing the brunt of police brutality during protests. For instance, three female opposition youth politicians in Zimbabwe were allegedly abducted and sexually abused by suspected state security agents after leading a protest during the lockdown.67Abimbade, Oluwadara; Olayoku, Philip; and Herro, Danielle (2022) ‘Millennial Activism within Nigerian Twitterscape: From Mobilization to Social Action of the #ENDSARS Protest’, Social Sciences and Humanities Open, 6(1), 1-9; Bosch, Tanja (2017) ‘Twitter Activism and Youth in South Africa: The Case of #RhodesMustFall’, Information, Communication and Society, 20(2), 221-232; Gukurume, Simbarashe (2022a) op. cit.; Gukurume, Simbarashe (2022b) ‘Navigating Precarious Spaces: Youth, Social Movements and Political Activism in Zimbabwe’, In Bangura, Ibrahim (Ed.), Youth-Led Social Movements and Peacebuilding in Africa, London: Routledge, pp. 162-180; The Standard (2020) ‘MDC Official Recounts Abduction Ordeal’, 16 May, Available at: <www.newsday.co.zw/2020/05/mdc-official-recounts-abduction3-ordeal> [Accessed 9 September, 2022].
If the structures and policies in our countries and societies do not represent and respond to the multiple constitutive layers of identity, meaningful governance and stability will remain elusive. Using gender and women’s representation as a point of reference, this section examines how excluding or marginalising groups with compromised access to power and the benefits of citizenship not only goes against fundamental principles of good governance, but also impedes their realisation in ways that benefit all of society. While the following three scenarios draw from fieldwork supported by the African Peacebuilding Network (APN) on gender, women, peace and security in West Africa, they represent and symbolise contextual and situational parallels across the continent.
Considerable attention has been paid to the Boko Haram conflict that has raged in Nigeria’s northeast and parts of the Sahel since 2009. This violent faceoff between the state and multiple armed groups is but one aspect of the country’s deteriorating political and security landscape that recently broadened to include banditry and a widespread public safety crisis. This toxic threat profile has had negative effects on most Nigerians, including, increasingly, religious leaders and leading security and political figures. However, its worst victims have been women and girls and other social groups already marginalised from power, politics, and other benefits of citizenship. Worse still, the Nigerian state’s primarily kinetic response continues to heighten the precariousness faced by such groups.
Women have played multiple roles within the context of the ‘Boko Haram’ conflict, from victims, activists, peacebuilders and willing members of armed non-state groups68Agbiboa, Daniel (2021) ‘Out of the Shadows: The Women Countering Insurgency in Nigeria’, Politics & Gender, 1-32; Imam, Ayesha; Biu, Hauwa; and Yahi, Maina (2020) ‘Women’s Informal Peacebuilding in Northeast Nigeria’, CMI Brief No. 2020:09, 18 March, Available at: <https://www.cmi.no/publications/7296-womens-informal-peacebuilding-in-north-east-nigeria> [Date accessed: 21 June 2022]; Matfess, Hilary (2017) Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses. London: Zed Books. to various roles within security sector institutions (SSIs).69Hassan, Idayat (2017) ‘The Role of Women in Countering Violence Extremism: The Nigerian Experience with Boko Haram’, Peace Insight, Available at: <https://www.peaceinsight.org/en/articles/role-women-countering-violence-extremism-nigerian-experience-boko-haram/?location=nigeria&theme=conflict-prevention-early-warning> [Date accessed: 21 June 2022]; Okenyodo, Kemi (2016) ‘The Role of Women in Preventing, Mitigating and Responding to Violence and Violent Extremism in Nigeria’, In Fink, Naureen; Zeiger, Sara; and Bhulai, Rafia (Eds.), A Man’s World? Exploring the Roles of Women in Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism, Abu Dhabi: Hedayah and the Global Centre on Cooperative Security, pp. 100-114. However, at the level of what legal and policy responses focus on, as well as the structures responsible for implementing them, there are significant dissonances between the involvement and representation of women and the recognition of the diverse roles they have played in and around this conflict. Even in those policy areas that the Nigerian state has opted to focus on, which comprise the plight of millions of women and girls displaced by the conflict,70Ajayi, Titilope F. (2020a) ‘Women, Internal Displacement, and the Boko Haram Conflict: Broadening the Debate’, African Security, 13(2), 171-194. narratives of female victimhood and vulnerability supersede those of women’s agency in countering political violence.
In a turn of hand that signals an apparent change in approach to women’s rights and capacities to participate in historically male-dominated spaces, the Nigerian government recently created female-only units within some SSIs, notably the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and the Nigerian Army.71Nathaniel, Soonest (2022) ‘Nigerian Army Women Corps Shines at Democracy Day Parade’, Channels Inc., 13 June, Available at: <https://www.channelstv.com/2022/06/13/nigerian-army-women-corps-shines-at-democracy-day-parade> [Accessed 5 October, 2022]; Premium Times (2022) ‘NSCDC Establishes “Female Squad” to Provide Security in 81,000 “Porous” Schools’, 25 September, Available at: <https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/top-news/555925-nscdc-establishes-female-squad-to-provide-security-in-81000-porous-schools.html> [Accessed 5 October, 2022]. The rationale given by male leaders of SSIs includes a mix of narratives around gender equality, human rights and the acknowledgement that current levels of insecurity demand more inclusive responses. This belated quest to involve more women on the grounds of improving operational effectiveness is a notable sign of the worsening state of national security and stability. It is too early to determine what this ‘gender turn’ portends for the broader landscape of women’s rights, but it is significant that structural inequities and cultural obstacles continue to keep women grossly underrepresented across all economic and political spheres. Combined with the lingering and multifaceted gendered effects of COVID-19 on women and girls, Nigeria’s democratic crisis and instability are projected to have negative medium- to long-term effects on already disenfranchised groups.
The context for this illustration is a senatorial election in Gbarpolu County, Liberia, in December 2020. Botoe Kanneh, the lone female senatorial candidate, was in the lead. Owing to entrenched gender norms about women in power that fuel resistance to female leadership, the town chief ordered the release of the Poro society masquerade or ‘country devil’ which belongs to a secret traditional society exclusive to men and thus can only be seen by men. This meant that women could not come out to vote. To further suppress her, men in Kanneh’s town beat her and arrested members of her campaign team, two of whom were reportedly raped while in police custody.72Front Page Africa (2020) ‘Liberia: Women Rights Organizations Daringly Rescues Madam Botoe Kanneh’, 17 December, Available at: <https://frontpageafricaonline.com/news/liberia-women-rights-organizations-daringly-rescues-madam-botoe-kanneh> [Accessed 21 June, 2022]. In the same country, the party of the president who declared himself ‘feminist-in-chief’ in 2018 fielded no female senatorial candidates in the December senatorial elections. At present, only three of 19 ministerial appointees are women, and men occupy most deputy and assistant minister positions. In the Liberian House of Representatives, women represent only eight out of 73 seats, and there is just one Liberian woman senator out of 30 seats.73Porkpa, Darlington (2020) ‘Liberia’s Self-Proclaimed “Feminist President” Weah Fails to Nominate Woman Candidate’, Radio France International, 12 August, Available at: <https://www.rfi.fr/en/africa/20200812-liberia-s-self-proclaimed-feminist-president-weah-fails-to-nominate-woman-candidate-politics-africa> [Accessed 21 June, 2022].
With the exception of Rwanda, such situations are common across Africa.74IDEA (2021) ‘Women’s Political Participation: Africa Barometer 2021’, Available at: <https://www.idea.int/news-media/news/women%C2%B4s-political-participation-africa-barometer-2021> [Accessed 5 October, 2022]. They occur not because there are no laws or policies, except in the case of Nigeria where the legislature has consistently rejected bills designed to promote more opportunities for women in politics, governance, and the society at large.75Iroanusi, Queen Esther (2022) ‘#IWD2022: Nigeria’s Parliament Fails to Break Bias, Frustrates Moves for Gender Equality, Affirmative Action’, Premium Times, 9 March, Available at: <https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/516319-iwd2022-nigerias-parliament-fails-to-break-bias-frustrates-moves-for-gender-equality-affirmative-action.html> [Accessed 5 October, 2022]. They occur because, despite the existence of laws and policies designed to prevent or minimise the abuse and exclusion of women, patriarchal sociocultural norms continue to impede accountability and effective implementation.
The COVID-19 pandemic had three layers of impact on women and girls that must be considered within the contexts of conflict and political marginalisation outlined earlier. Immediate impacts include the loss of livelihoods and income caused by shocks to the informal sector, which is dominated by over 70% of women in many African countries. Among the ripple effects of the pandemic on health and other aspects of life in many countries, women also experienced increased care burdens and worsened sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)76Ajayi, Titilope F. (2020b) ‘Violence against Women and Girls in the Shadow of Covid-19: Insights from Africa’, Kujenga Amani, 20 May, Available at: <https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2020/05/20/violence-against-women-and-girls-in-the-shadow-of-covid-19-insights-from-africa> [Accessed 21 June, 2022]; UN Women (2021) ‘Measuring the Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women during COVID-19’, Available at: <https://data.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/documents/Publications/Measuring-shadow-pandemic.pdf> [Accessed 21 June, 2022]. – one article termed the latter a ‘syndemic’.77Stark, Lindsay; Meinhart, Melissa; and Vahedi, Luissa, et al. (2020) ‘The Syndemic of COVID-19 and Gender-Based Violence in Humanitarian Settings: Leveraging Lessons from Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, BMJ Global Health, 5(e00419). Some of this violence was committed by state security actors as part of aggressive lockdown enforcement measures in countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, and South Africa.78Ajayi, Titilope F. (2020b) op. cit. Women and girls either displaced by or living in conflict faced even higher insecurity.
Among COVID-19’s medium- to long-term impacts were setbacks in and reduced access to education caused by school closures and consequent spikes in teen pregnancies in Ghana, many of which occurred through sexual abuse or so-called ‘transactional sex’.79Ajayi, Titilope F. (2021) ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality: Women’s Empowerment and the Rise of New Opportunities Through Business and Innovations’, Africa Skills Hub, Available at: <https://africaskillshub.com/publications/impact-covid-19-gender-equality> [Accessed 21 June, 2022]. Many states were unable to provide needed respite because they had not factored gender disparities in the impact of COVID-19 into their interventions. This wilful gender blindness had less to do with the abruptness of COVID-19 than with a habitual neglect to analyse and plan policies and interventions from an informed gendered perspective. It has been predicted that this will have the cumulative effect of long-term losses in human capital and contribute towards democratic retrogression concerning the many gains previously made regarding women’s rights. It is worth noting that COVID-19 did not cause these crises; it only exacerbated pre-existing inequities.
Two broad threads unite each of the above scenarios: the prevalence of high levels of SGBV and the predominant deprioritisation by patriarchal and authoritarian governments of the needs, concerns, agency and humanity of women and girls. With particular reference to SGBV, there is abundant research and grounded evidence of the linkages between high levels of gendered violence, economic insecurity, and other forms of disempowerment. Perceptions of female pacifism lead many to believe that those worst affected by this trio of threats are unlikely to take up arms against elected governments, thus downplaying their perception as security threats. However, extreme violence against women has catalysed female-led violence in similar contexts.80Bloom, Mia (2011) Bombshell: The Many Faces of Female Terrorists, London: Hurst Publishers. Furthermore, the reductions in human capacity occasioned by the systemic exclusion and marginalisation of certain social groups cause states to operate below their maximum potential, which, in turn, has negative effects across societies.
As with all crises, the wave of political instabilities currently confronting Africa offers an opportunity to reflect, review and restrategise toward the Africa we want to prevent further disintegration of human rights and democracy on the continent. As citizenries become more politically informed and aware, and more willing to use tools of resistance, their tolerance for misgovernance is dwindling and becoming more open to exploitation by political opportunists. As such, there is a need for transformative change, starting with the more equitable and meaningful participation of women and youths in consolidating democratic governance, stability and economic prosperity.
National and regional responses to the increasing spate of instability and political upheavals across Africa require more attention that goes beyond existing legal and policy frameworks. In this regard, we raise questions as to whether and how well they are being implemented, and to whose benefit or detriment they will be.
The following recommendations engage observed gaps with a view to arresting extant instability and preventing further deterioration.
To African civil societies and social movements: Leverage the power of citizen uprisings and advocacy. From feminist, women, and youth activism to movements like End SARS, Bring Back Our Girls and the North Africa uprisings, the world has witnessed how much power is unleashed when citizens come together purposefully to counter the excesses of unruly states. It is also imperative to close the gap between ordinary citizens and regional organisations and structures.
To the AU, its RECs, and their member states: Adopt inclusive and intersectional perspectives. Interventions to address governance deficits should focus more on identifying and changing mindsets that can lead to positive changes in gender norms that will, in turn, pave the way toward better and more equitable access to power and participation by broader social groups, especially women and girls.
To African states and civil societies: Enhance women’s political capacity. Considerable resources have been and continue to be invested in strengthening women’s capacities for politics, among others. Given that a global gender inequity crisis persists despite the historic plethora of such initiatives, it is important to ascertain their quantitative and qualitative impact scientifically and determine the most productive ways forward.
To African states and heads of state and government: Reconfigure the structures of governance without essentialising or romanticising African traditional governance structures, in light of the prevailing crisis of democracy and democratic order. This reconfiguration should be conducted with a view to retooling the apparatuses of statecraft toward values and worldviews more closely aligned with Africanist philosophies, such as Ubuntu.
Titilope F. Ajayi: Independent scholar-practitioner; gender/women, peace, and security expert.
Simbarashe Gukurume: Senior Lecturer, Sol Plaatje University, Kimberley, South Africa.
Ibrahim Bangura: Senior Lecturer, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.