How the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Undermine Democracy (Quartz - June 7, 2018)

BY: Jeffrey Smith and Alex Gladstein

This weekend, the Group of Seven (G7), an informal alliance of the world’s advanced economies, will meet to discuss today’s most pressing global challenges. A key theme of the meeting will center on progress made towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including gender equality, climate change, “building peace,” and “jobs of the future.” These issues are certainly worthy of concern, and on the surface, there would appear to not be much to criticize. Conveniently missing from the menu of high-level discussion topics, however, are the very causes of the world’s most persistent social ills: lack of respect for democratic values and basic human rights. Indeed, this is by design and not at all a coincidence.

In 2015 the United Nations unveiled the SDGs -- an evolution of the Millennium Development Goals crafted in 2000 -- to address endemic poverty, the proliferation of HIV/AIDS, lack of clean drinking water, adequate healthcare and other basic services in the developing world. Today, there are countless global conferences based on SDG themes. Billions of dollars of investment have been spent and donated to the cause. And numerous working groups, task forces, family foundations, philanthropic endeavors, and government delegations have formed part of a growing army dedicated to spreading the SDG gospel.

There is one glaring problem: the SDGs are pushing an agenda carefully calibrated to avoid upsetting the world’s dictators, kleptocrats, and this century’s worst human rights offenders.

Search the 17 SDGs and you will fail to find a single mention of the word “democracy.” Out of thousands of words of text, “human rights” is mentioned merely once (and not as its own category, but as a secondary bullet point). Critically important terms like “anti-corruption,” “civil liberties,” “free expression,” “press freedom,” “independent judiciary,” “separation of powers,” “free and fair elections,” and “civil society” are also absent. In other words, the basic freedoms that underpin and advance human development are missing from the SDG equation.

Despite their feel-good vibe the SDGs are, in many ways, an authoritarian project, assisting a status quo in which 93 countries, and an estimated four billion people, are ruled by authoritarian regimes, according to the Human Rights Foundation. And despite the perceived success of the SDGs, there has been twelve consecutive years of decline in global freedom, according to a recent report by Freedom House.

Today, dictatorships like Algeria, Belarus, China, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe are part of the Open Working Group tasked with implementing and monitoring SDG progress. Make no mistake: the future that these regimes and their backers want is one where repression and blatant looting is permitted so long as superficial “development” gains are made and quantified, and so long as pesky issues like respect for democratic rights and the holding of free and fair elections are sidestepped entirely.  

Since the SDGs do not require political reform, they are a big hit with wannabe life presidents, despots and one-party states. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, for example -- arguably the 21st century’s most brutal human rights offender -- was involved in drafting the SDGs and has since promoted them worldwide. The current co-chair of the main African institution charged with tracking SDG performance is the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. Kagame has now been in power for over two decades and has cleverly used his country’s SDG “success” to deflect from systematic human rights abuses at home, while orchestrating catastrophic wars and politically motivated assassinations abroad. Similarly, Eritrea’s tyrant presides over the most repressive regime in Africa but is readily able to flout his positive SDG pedigree. Likewise, the Communist Party of China has a detailed national plan for meeting the SDGs. The regime in Saudi Arabia is also “committed” to achieving its goals. And even the long-standing Cuban dictatorship is “on the path to achieving the 2030 Agenda,” according to a profile in a state-controlled newspaper.

These modern authoritarians – often with the aid of Western PR and lobby firms – have constructed a massive façade, agreeing in principle to a vague set of objectives in partnership with Western leaders that will, in turn, stay silent on their evident excesses. Indeed, this modern authoritarian cohort has employed a genius method to both speak the language of “development” internationally while fundamentally undermining it at home.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – the main agency overseeing SDG implementation – is also tainted by the involvement of illiberal democracies and dictatorships. Board members of the “SDG Impact Finance” operation, for instance, include Egypt’s minister of investment, fresh off the massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators; it also includes the minister of finance of Bangladesh, whose colleagues in government seized power by military coup; and then there is Li Zhenxi of the Chinese Communist Party, whose government is enslaving an estimated one million Muslim citizens in internment camps. These are just several of the more glaring examples of how abusive governments can manipulate the SDG system to curry favor among the elite and conceal their crimes.

And it is not just governments that are being guided by the SDGs away from criticism of human rights violations. The impact investing community, for example, is building significant influence in this area. The Global Impact Investing Network has launched a campaign to direct more capital to the SDGs, claiming that 26% of the investors they surveyed were tracking performance of their investments to the goals, with an additional 34% planning to do so in the near future.  The Case Foundation says that impact investors have “reframed their thinking” to meet the SDGs. And the impact investor network Toniic recently released a framework to encourage their community to likewise align their global investments.

The SDG influence is equally pronounced in the corporate and institutional sectors. The Case Foundation has suggested that the SDGs are now the “North Star” for corporations. Private equity funds, including Encourage Capital and Sonen Capital, are also helping lead the way with SDG impact. Corporate titan UBS is launching a series of investment products aligned to the SDGs. And some of the world’s largest public funds – in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands – have changed their investment strategies to incorporate the SDGs. According to CNBC, 2018 has seen “more governments and businesses than ever before put the SDGs at the heart of their development plans.” The end result has been trillions of dollars of funding for activities that will focus on countries that are ostensibly crossing the SDG goalposts.

In theory, this trend would appear to be a positive development. To be sure, there is one SDG that its backers can highlight when asked about the issue of democracy— namely, SDG 16 (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions). While it does not mention democracy or human rights explicitly, former UNDP Administrator Helen Clark told us that “development partners should see investments in implementation of SDG 16, and its targets, as top priority investments.” She noted that SDG 16 was “the most hotly contested” during the UN Member States’ negotiations. She continued: “progress on SDG 16 will not be fast, and in some countries, we see regression, but in others, from The Gambia to Malaysia, we see the power of the ballot box to bring about change.” What Ms. Clark makes clear is that SDG 16 -- faulty as it may be -- can potentially be utilized as leverage to advance basic freedoms and democratic reforms.

We certainly agree. But in order for impact investing to be truly effective in the long run -- and for investors to get the biggest return on their venture – they are going to need to diversify and open new areas of focus beyond the SDGs. If you are a human rights advocate or an investor working to harness your wealth to make the world a better place, you should ask yourself a few key questions:

1)    Why are abusive governments and dictators such huge fans of the SDGs?

2)    How are the SDGs measured and where does the data originate from?

3)    Why do the SDGs fail to mention the word “democracy?”

We are not asking for investors to ditch their SDG strategies. They have built positive momentum that we do not want to disrupt. However, . We are, however, asking that they consider supplementing this philosophy with investments that can directly address and help to build democratic foundations upon which sustainable development is made possible.

One cutting edge idea is the concept of “DemTech,” which focuses on investing in decentralized data, encrypted communications, and distributed storage solutions to help individuals and activists maintain privacy, own and control their own data, and increase resistance to censorship, which is on the rise across the world. Another option is to focus on the root causes of the world’s democratic backsliding, evident over the past decade, by investing in free media, citizen journalism, and voting technology to strengthen free and fair elections. As studies have repeatedly shown: democracy contributes to development, growth and good governance. And this only happens if they key components of electoral democracy are fully realized.

Today, maintaining the SDG status quo is not an option. Until we collectively focus on the true building blocks of democracy, abusive leaders and dictators will continue to be feted at glitzy conferences, pat each other on the back with a wink and a nod, and maintain a brutal level of repression against their own people. What’s more, their repression will continue to proliferate under a guise of “development” that continues to fool do-gooders everywhere. It is time to recognize the problems inherent in the SDGs and chart new courses for investing in a free and healthy planet.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit group that consolidates democratic forces advocates for free and fair elections in Africa. You can follow him on Twitter at @Smith_JeffreyT. Alex Gladstein is the chief strategy officer of the Human Rights Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes human rights across the world, especially in closed societies. You can follow him on Twitter at @Gladstein.

Don’t Whitewash Mugabe’s Henchmen (Washington Post – February 1, 2018)

Mnangagwa is not the cartoon dictator of the past. He is savvier and knows how to play the international game. He has pledged to hold “free and fair” elections by late August and to revive a failed economy. A slick public relations and aggressive social media campaign have led to sympathetic press coverage and a warm reception in Davos. Mnangagwa is hoping to attract investors and convince the United States and others to lift targeted sanctions on him and his allies for past human rights abuses. Mnangagwa is also pushing hard for the World Bank to help to repay its massive debts and secure new loans.

Yet it’s far too soon to embrace the junta or to bail it out.

Remarks by our Executive Director Jeffrey Smith at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard University (March 2, 2018)

Successes and Challenges of Democracy in Africa

Many scholars and practitioners alike point to the post-Cold War era as an unquestioned time of democratic development, wherein citizens across the world were able to break the repressive bonds of communism and courageously stand tall to demand their inalienable rights. This momentous period gave rise to “The End of History” narrative and a so-called “global march to freedom.” There was a prevailing theory that the universalization of Western liberal democracy and the enshrinement of civil liberties and basic political rights were inevitable. And indeed, between 1980 and 2000, democratic gains across the world were evident. By any reasonable standard, democracy flourished, including in Africa.

Africa, for instance, experienced a spectacular growth in competitive elections during the 1990s, following an impressive post-colonial rebirth. Recall that only three African countries held genuine multi-party elections during the whole of the 1980s. Today they remain the norm (to varying degrees of freedom, credibility and success).

However, the brimming optimism of the post-1989 era has now ceded way to what one scholar has aptly labeled a “democratic recession.” Specifically since 2000, the global narrative on democracy began to fundamentally shift. Declines in key democratic indicators have now outpaced gains for twelve consecutive years, according to the international watchdog group Freedom House. Similarly, a study by the Varieties of Democracy Project has determined that the quality of democracy has declined in more countries than the number in which it has increased over the past five years.

Africa has been no exception: over the past decade in particular, democracy has been in steady retreat as political freedoms decline, attempts are made to stifle civil society, muzzle the press, dismantle democratic institutions, and restrictions on presidential term limits are lifted.

Compounding this problem is that populist, nationalist and oftentimes-xenophobic forces based on fascist foundations are clearly gaining in democratic states. Brazil, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea and the United States are a few examples of this trend. Other nations like Hungary, Turkey, and Ukraine have fallen even further on the authoritarian scale.

Likewise in Africa, democratic standard-bearers are largely failing to live up to their responsibilities, helping to solidify the context in which the quality of civil liberties in the region is actually declining, as is the functioning of government, according to the latest index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The simple point here is that influential countries provide regional counterparts with expedient political cover to violate the rights of their own citizens (ex. Ethiopia). It also allows abusive leaders to maintain political power and access to their country’s wealth, often at the expense of their citizens who are mired in poverty. Sub Saharan Africa, for instance, has lost an estimated 6% of its GDP from 2002 to 2011 through “illicit financial outflows,” a catchall term that incudes tax evasion, official corruption and graft, and myriad financial crimes.

In general, leaders strategically hide behind the principles of sovereignty and non-interference, which are enshrined in the United Nations charter. The real aim, however, is to curb criticism of their brazenly horrendous human rights records, as well as those of their allies and friends. These leaders also conveniently eschew the notion of “responsible sovereignty,” which has lost much of its luster in recent years. Human Rights Watch has referred to this a “callous solidarity.” The rising political and military influences of China, tech support from North Korea, and an emboldened Putin regime in Russia have also contributed to this vexing downward trend.

Global leaders and wealthy democracies like the United States are also failing by not supporting regional leaders to promote broader democratic ideals in their respective backyards. In addition to a decline in low-level support to democratic actors -- as evidenced by the massive spending cuts to U.S. democracy and governance programming -- the United States has also been missing the mark at a higher diplomatic level. The current administration and its seemingly daily embrace of bloody autocrats around the world are certainly not helping the advance of democracy, or otherwise emboldening activists on the ground. President Trump has also touted the need for an increased military presence in Africa, building on the long-held and counterproductive belief that “stability” somehow trumps respect for basic human rights, civil liberties and individual freedoms.

I would argue that what we have witnessed is the unequivocal rise of modern authoritarianism, which is quite distinct from earlier epochs. First: political elites are holding onto power by any means necessary, but they are doing so in more clever ways that do not necessarily attract negative headlines or international condemnation. Again, embracing an autocrat in Egypt as an “excellent guy” or cheerleading the man responsible for the brutal suppression of the press, assassination of critics and dissidents, and the blatant subversion of democratic elections in Rwanda do not help either.

Generally, a good test for the health of a democracy is whether leaders leave office when the law says their time is up. These days, African leaders are increasingly securing longer terms through “constitutional coups,” proposing amendments that allow for additional terms in office. This practice gained particular intensity after 2000 when many postcolonial leaders were nearing the ends of their constitutional mandate. Since then, at least 30 presidents have tried to extend their rule and 18 of them have actually succeeded. Not surprisingly, countries lacking term limits in Africa tend to be more unstable. Indeed, a third of these 18 countries are currently facing armed conflict. In contrast, just two of the 21 countries with term limits are in conflict. This research comes courtesy of the African Center for Strategic Studies.

Strong regional variations in adherence to term limits are also evident:

  • Central Africa: 8/10 countries have had term limits undone
  • Horn of Africa: highest concentration of countries w/out term limits
  • Southern and West Africa: greatest strides in adhering to term limits

Where term limits are not respected, there is a lack of genuine political contestation, and in turn, a depressed faith in democratic processes. According to a recent Afrobarometer survey, just 40% of Africans (polled in 36 countries) believe that their last elections were ‘free and fair.’ Leaders in these countries have invested significant resources to ensure a favorable outcome by stifling democratic space in a number of underhanded ways: rigging the registration process, misusing state resources to dispense patronage, controlling the flow of information (through state media monopolies, for instance, or shutting down the internet when it suits their selfish purposes) and, if all else fails, directly manipulating the results, frustrating any subsequent legal challenge, or jailing their opponents.

Disillusioned with elections, deliberately shut out of political processes, and limited in their ability to speak freely and organize, citizens are becoming more and more apathetic and frustrated. A Pew Research poll from last year showed that only 18% in Africa are now “committed to representative democracy” – the second lowest percentage in the world (Asia-Pacific).

In many of these environments, the ruling party = state. Where the state and party have become one, the political opposition is typically portrayed by governments in the grammar of security (i.e. ‘enemies of the state’). It also usually transforms into a grammar of violence around election time. As the new book “How Democracy Dies” points out: “Democracy depends in no small part on elite’s willingness to … work with political opponents and to exercise political power with restraint rather than ruthlessness.” The authors go on to argue: “when the political elite begin playing no-holds-barred politics, nations risk slipping toward authoritarianism.”

There are dire consequences here; for example, studies have shown a strong correlation between Africa’s entrenched leadership and developmental and security challenges, including conflict or instability, stagnant or declining economies, and overall democratic backsliding. In total, extended terms in office across Africa have contributed to the slowing down of democratization we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s.

A second reason for democratic backsliding in the region is that we have collectively allowed the democratic bar to be lowered to a dangerous and wholly unacceptable level. As a recent report from the Brenthurst Foundation in South Africa put it: “a crude ethos has developed…that if there was no violence, then basically it was a ‘good’ election.”

Due to a changing global power balance, rigged or stolen elections in Africa face fewer international penalties than ever before. The African Union, for instance (which has never disavowed an election in its history), and the various regional economic communities, consistently prioritize stability in pronouncing on election processes, favoring the incumbent elite rather than their democratic challengers. The international community, writ large, often appears untroubled by the idea that elections that would not pass muster in the major powers, including here in the U.S., are somehow ‘acceptable’ in Africa. This is both disrespectful and unsustainable.

Relatedly, and as I recently wrote in the Washington Post with two colleagues of mine: election observers need to start doing their jobs. Full stop. Too often the election cops are letting the bad guys get away. Worse, they are abetting the theft of many nascent democracies.

Election monitors regularly fly into a country to watch voting. Ideally, they are objective witnesses to a poll, helping to deter violence and to boost the credibility of the end result. Monitors are supposed to help make democracy work. Recent elections in Africa, however, suggest the opposite. Observers keep missing -- willfully or otherwise -- the actual ways in which elections are being stolen. All too often, they confuse peaceful voting with a “free and fair” election. This misplaced tolerance leads them to endorse illegitimate outcomes. Rather than expose rigging, monitors are too often helping undemocratic leaders hold onto power. Kenya’s election last August was the most recent and most glaring example of this phenomenon.

Other examples: Zanzibar (2015): Gabon, Zambia and Uganda (2016)

Now, why does all of this matter? In sum, I want to critically point out the positive relationship between electoral democracy and sustainable development. A recent report by the Institute for Security Studies found that democracy steadily contributes to good governance, development and economic growth. This only happens if the key components of electoral democracy -- including genuine political contestation and free and fair elections -- are present.

Another report by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) notes that: Because democracies are accountable to the public rather than the elite, they are more likely than autocracies to produce public goods, maintain the rule of law, and protect individual rights. More often than not, autocrats and other abusive leaders -- who hang on to power for decades at a time -- fail to implement reforms to sustain development because they are not held accountable (and because it’s not in their interests to do so).

Supporting genuine political contestation, consolidating democratic forces and ensuring truly free and fair elections are therefore paramount. Popular support for democracy, with all of its imperfections and flaws, remains high in one critical segment: Africa’s rapidly growing youth population. As my colleague John Githongo from Kenya recently wrote: “a massive generational struggle is now underway between entrenched elites and impatient youthful populations across the continent.” Recall that it is young people who have made up the bulk of demonstrators battling with police in recent months from Togo and the DRC to Kenya and Cameroon. Their optimism has been buoyed in part by the rise of an aggressively independent media and online platforms for dissent, and by the proliferation of NGOs fighting to hold repressive governments accountable.

Across Africa, it is the supply side of democracy that has been woefully missing. By focusing efforts on addressing this evident discrepancy, we can help empower citizens to take local ownership over the democratic process that can ultimately lead to a brighter, more prosperous and stable future.

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is one existing institution that can be leveraged and utilized to this effect. The AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance is another. Adopted in 2007 and entered into force in 2010, only ten African countries have signed and ratified it. This is the direction we must ultimately head in if we are to collectively fight back against modern authoritarianism and to entrench democratic rights; and in turn, inspire a new, emboldened generation of democracy defenders.

That so many people across Africa, particularly the youth, remain undaunted by the major trials ahead, offers a ray of hope that citizens with good intentions are more than capable of meeting this formidable challenge.

Cameroon: What One Man’s 17-year Ordeal Tells us about Paul Biya’s Regime (African Arguments – February 23)

Today, Cameroon is again at a crossroads as it was in 1994 when Michel Atangana was imprisoned. As this year’s elections approach – likely to take place by October – the economy continues its free fall, sped up by the regime’s increasingly routine internet shutdowns, costing tens of millions of dollars in potential revenue and related business.

Ethiopia Is Falling Apart (Foreign Policy - January 11)

For a brief moment last week, Ethiopia seemed poised to shed its reputation as Africa’s Stasi state. At a press conference on Jan. 3, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn vowed to free political prisoners and shutter the notorious Maekelawi prison, which has long served as a torture chamber for government critics, opposition leaders, journalists, and activists.

Desalegn’s announcement shocked Ethiopian citizens and observers alike. Initial reports indicated that the Ethiopian regime had finally accepted that mistakes had been made and serious abuses had been committed on its watch. Indeed, the stark admission would have marked the first time ever that Ethiopia had acknowledged holding political prisoners in the country. (Human rights groups have estimated that they number in the tens of thousands.)

The outpouring of optimism did not last long. Within hours, an aide to Desalegn clarified the prime minister’s remarks, saying that “mistranslation” by the media was to blame for the confusion. And indeed Desalegn’s actual comments in Amharic were less clear-cut. He spoke of the need to cultivate national reconciliation and to expand democratic freedoms, adding that “some political leaders and individuals whose crimes have resulted in court convictions or their ongoing trial” would be pardoned or have their cases withdrawn. A week after the press conference, it remains unclear how many people will be freed or when, if at all.

One fact remains clear, however. Following three years of escalating anti-government protests — mostly by the Oromo ethnic group and to an extent the Amhara, who together comprise two-thirds of the country’s 100 million people — Ethiopia can no longer afford to ignore demands for political reform. For years, the regime has sacrificed respect for basic political rights and civil liberties on the altar of economic growth. And its claims of a rapidly growing economy have always been dubious at best. The status quo can no longer hold.

A staunch U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, Ethiopia is seen as a stable oasis in the troubled Horn of Africa region, which is plagued by both extremist attacks and ruthless counterinsurgency operations. This image of stability has been cultivated by well-oiled lobbyists in Washington and by an army of social media trolls on the government payroll. However, despite the outward veneer of growth and stability, all is not well in Ethiopia.

In an effort to boost lagging exports, authorities devalued Ethiopia’s currency, the birr, by 15 percent last October. The country is also struggling to mitigate the effects of massive youth unemployment, high public debt, rising inflation, and a shortage of foreign currency. The economic woes that have beleaguered Ethiopia have fueled the increasing unrest. Amhara and Oromo protesters decry economic marginalization and systemic exclusion at the hands of powerful ethnic Tigrayan leaders. The economic dividends of the country’s modest growth are not broadly shared outside the wealthy business class and associates of the ruling party. To make matters worse, a long-simmering border dispute between the Oromia and the Somali regions has left hundreds of people dead and more than 700,000, mostly from the Oromo ethnic group, internally displaced.

Taken together, these burgeoning crises have raised credible concerns about the risk of state collapse. And there are good reasons to be worried. Western donors and foreign investors alike are increasingly jittery about the political uncertainty and growing popular unrest. In its annual Fragile States Index, which predicts risk of state failure, the Fund for Peace ranked Ethiopia 15th out of 178 countries surveyed, up from 24th in 2016.

Adding to the creeping sense of doom is an internal power struggle that is ripping apart the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been in power since 1991. The EPRDF is a coalition of four unequal partners, including the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Oromo People’s Democratic Party (OPDO), and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ostensibly, each party is meant to represent the vested interests of its ethnic region within the EPRDF.

In theory, Ethiopia is a federation, based on decentralized ethnic representation. In practice, the federal system has for years enabled the domination of the country’s political space, economy, and security services by ethnic Tigrayans. The TPLF represents the Tigray region, home to only about 6 percent of the country’s population. Yet the party gets the same number of votes as the OPDO, which represents the roughly 40 percent of Ethiopians who are ethnic Oromos.

This inherent tension broke the surface in October 2016, when newly elected OPDO leaders began to openly embrace protesters’ grievances and calls for reform. This marked the first sign of a split within the EPRDF and set the stage for the ongoing power struggle over how to respond to the increasingly deadly and destabilizing Oromo protests.

The Oromo protest movement has amplified the OPDO’s voice within the EPRDF. At the press briefing held with Desalegn on Jan. 3, Lemma Megersa, the head of the OPDO and president of Oromia, accused TPLF officials of planting cronies inside his party and viewing political power as their own personal property. He made this claim in the presence of the TPLF chairman — a stunning public rebuke.

On the surface, the ruling coalition now appears open to correcting course. Instead of blaming its failures on terrorists, “anti-peace elements,” or diaspora-based opposition groups as the EPRDF has done in the past, Desalegn acknowledged the need for reform. To stop Ethiopia from falling apart, however, the government will need to go much further than the halfhearted concessions hinted at by the prime minister. It must undertake a host of long-overdue political and legal reforms, including dismantling the fusillade of draconian laws it has enacted over the last two decades to stifle dissent, decimate civil society, and muzzle the opposition.

A number of prominent Ethiopian opposition leaders, activists, and journalists — some of whom are expected to be freed after Desalegn’s remarks — have been unjustly detained and convicted under a noxious trio of laws, namely the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. To ensure that prisoners who are pardoned do not end up back behind bars, and to truly reckon with the abuses committed during the EPRDF’s 27-year rule, Ethiopia’s leaders should immediately begin dismantling the machinery of oppression by repealing and replacing those laws, which have been routinely condemned for failing to meet international standards.

In addition, to turn the page on its checkered past, the EPRDF regime — which now controls 100 percent of seats in parliament — must also implement a process of national reconciliation based on the principles of inclusivity and genuine political dialogue. In his Jan. 3 statement, Desalegn cited the need for social healing as a reason for the pardon of some prisoners. It was a historic moment. But for it to translate into real change, the country’s leaders must resolve to release all political prisoners without delay or preconditions; fully implement the country’s rarely applied but progressive constitution; ensure the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; end unchecked impunity for corrupt officeholders and security officials; and hold to account those responsible for the death and displacement of hundreds of Ethiopians.

No one expects change in Ethiopia to occur overnight. The reform process will undoubtedly be lengthy and fraught with potential obstacles. But to rescue the country from the undue weight of its own repression, EPRDF leaders have no choice but to change course.

Mohammed Ademo is a freelance journalist based in Washington. He’s also the founder and editor of OPride.com, an independent news website about Ethiopia. Follow him on Twitter at: @OPride.

Jeffrey Smith is an international human rights consultant and the executive director of Vanguard Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

Is Kenya’s Election Debacle a Failure of Technology or Governance? (World Politics Review - October 3)

he technological challenges that seemingly doomed the election from the outset have been a subject of intense debate in recent weeks. But that debate has tended to ignore the lack of good governance and respect for democratic rights that prevail in Kenya—the larger context, in other words, that caused the election to fall well short of democratic standards in the first place.

Remarks by our Executive Director at "The Future of Angola" event (August 31, 2017)

Remarks by Jeffrey Smith, Executive Director of Vanguard Africa

 The Future of Democracy and Human Rights in Angola: Looking Beyond the 2017 Election (August 31, 2017)

Africa has witnessed a spectacular growth in competitive elections since the 1990s. Recall that only three countries held genuine multi-party elections during the whole of the 1980s. Today they are the norm. Importantly, elections are a key indicator of the strength of democracy, which, one could argue has been reflected in Southern Africa.

First, the relative good news for the region:

In all of sub-Saharan Africa, there are currently 9 countries that register as ‘free’ according to the methodology used by Freedom House. Of those 9 countries, 4 of them are located in southern Africa: Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius and South Africa. Similarly, those same countries also feature in the top ten of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

On several important indicators, Southern Africa is ahead of other regions of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Asia – specifically in terms of political participation and other democratic advancements. Even Africa’s remaining tyrants, and what I refer to as “dinosaur presidents,” seek popular legitimacy through multiparty elections.

This sounds pretty great, until you start interrogating the issues in-depth.

Here is the bad news that should be cause for concern.

Staying with the Ibrahim Index for a moment, if you look into the declines taking place on human rights particularly, the most significant are occurring in what have previously been and continue to be the region’s democratic standard bearers (for better or worse): namely South Africa and Botswana. This poses a very significant threat to the region. When regional powerhouses begin to stifle basic freedoms and experience significant setbacks, this inevitably provides cover to other countries to do the same.

To be sure, regional standard-bearers are not living up to their responsibilities, helping to solidify the context in which the quality of civil liberties in the region is actually declining, as is the functioning of government, according the Economist Intelligence Unit.

International partners, and global leaders like the U.S., are also failing by not supporting these regional leaders to promote broader democratic ideals. In addition to a decline in low-level support to democratic actors – as evidenced by the massive spending cuts to U.S. democracy and governance programming – the United States has also been missing the mark at a higher diplomatic level, and I think Angola’s a good example here.

To date, Angola remains one of only three strategic African partners to the U.S., along with Nigeria and South Africa. In line with previous administrations, President Trump is poised to maintain the status quo, which includes strong ties with leaders in Luanda, despite its evident lack of respect for the basic political and civil rights of its people. In May of this year, Angola’s then defense minister, and now president, met with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, during which a new security agreement was signed and the country was praised for its “leadership.” Among other items, the agreement confirmed the continued training of (notoriously abusive) Angolan security service members in the U.S. The current president also touted the need for increased military cooperation, capitalizing on the long-held and entirely counterproductive belief in the U.S. that “stability” somehow trumps respect for basic human rights, civil liberties and democratic freedoms.

A few additional thoughts on what might be causing the regional backsliding and the political volatility that often comes with it.

First: political elites are holding onto power by any means necessary, and doing so in more clever ways that don’t necessarily attract international headlines or condemnation. Generally, a good test for the health of a democracy is whether leaders leave office when the law says their time is up. These days, leaders are increasingly securing longer terms through “constitutional coups,” proposing amendments that allow for additional terms in office. This practice gained particular intensity after 2000, when many postcolonial leaders were nearing the ends of their constitutional mandate. Since then, at least 30 presidents have tried to extend their rule and 17 have of them have succeeded, including in southern Africa: Angola and Namibia being the two primary examples.

In these environments, there is, quite simply, a lack of genuine political contestation. According to a recent Afrobarometer survey, just 40% of Africans (polled in 36 countries) believe that their last elections were ‘free and fair.’ Leaders in these countries have invested significant resources to ensure a favorable outcome by stifling democratic space: rigging the registration process, misusing state resources to dispense patronage, controlling the flow of information (through state media monopolies, for instance) and, if all else fails, directly manipulating the results, frustrating any subsequent legal challenge, or jailing their opponents (ex. Zambia).

It should thus come as no surprise that in southern Africa, no liberation movement turned political party has ever lost an election at the national level. This undefeated streak continued in Angola, and will likely persist for the foreseeable future. To date, the record stands at 35-0. In these environments, the ruling party = state. Where the state and party have become one, the political opposition is typically portrayed by governments in the grammar of security (i.e. ‘enemies of the state’). It also usually transforms into a grammar of violence around election time.

There are dire consequences here; for example, studies have shown a strong correlation between Africa’s entrenched leadership and developmental and security challenges, including conflict or instability, stagnant or declining economies, and democratic backsliding. Overall, extended terms in office have contributed to the slowing down of democratization we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s.

A second reason for democratic backsliding in the region is that we’ve collectively allowed the democratic bar to be lowered to a dangerous and wholly unacceptable level. As a recent report from the Brenthurst Foundation put it: “a crude ethos has developed…that if there was no violence, then basically it was a ‘good’ election.”

Due to a changing global power balance, rigged or outright stolen elections in Africa face fewer international penalties than ever before. The AU, for instance, and the various regional economic communities like SADC, consistently prioritize stability in pronouncing on election processes, favoring the incumbent elite rather than their challengers. The international community, writ large, often appears untroubled by the idea that elections that wouldn’t pass muster in the major powers are somehow ‘acceptable’ in Africa. This is both disrespectful and unsustainable.

In sum: there is a positive relationship between electoral democracy and development. A report by the Institute for Security Studies last year found that democracy steadily contributes to good governance, development and economic growth. This only happens if the key components of electoral democracy – including genuine political contestation – are present.

Another report by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) notes that: Because democracies are accountable to the public rather than the elite, they are more likely than autocracies to produce public goods, maintain rule of law, and protect individual rights. More often than not, autocrats fail to implement reforms to sustain development because they are not held accountable (and because it’s not in their interests to do so). This is where we are with Angola today and throughout much of the region.

Supporting genuine political contestation, consolidating democratic forces and ensuring truly free and fair elections is therefore of paramount importance. Popular support for democracy, for all its imperfections, remains high in the region. It is the supply side that has been sadly missing. By focusing efforts on addressing this evident discrepancy we can help empower citizens to take local ownership over the democratic process that can ultimately lead to a brighter more prosperous and stable future.

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is one existing institution that can and should be utilized to this effect. The AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance is another. Adopted in 2007 and entered into force in 2010, only ten African countries have, to date, signed and ratified it. To improve democracy and entrench democratic rights in Angola – and elsewhere in the region – this is the direction we must ultimately head in.

Thank you very much. 

Budget cuts Present Opportunity for US NGOs and the Private Sector (The Hill - May 13)

In light of President Donald Trump's notable shift in foreign policy, US-based NGOs working on African issues can be capitalized on by private donors, while working side-by-side with the Administration, USAID and State Department to create pillars of democratic stability.

To Ensure Its Democratic Transition, Gambia Will Need Justice—and Reconciliation (World Politics Review - May 2)

Gambians hope to collectively overcome a deep-seated national trauma and move forward in a way that satiates the rising call to bring those responsible for past crimes to justice, while also dousing the flames of division that Jammeh had so frequently fanned with impunity. 

Gambia’s Opposition Unites: The Stakes of December’s Election (Foreign Affairs – November 25)

Gambia’s Opposition Unites: The Stakes of December’s Election (Foreign Affairs – November 25)

On December 1, Gambians will vote in their country’s most consequential election since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. For the first time, a unified political coalition will challenge Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s longtime dictator, only months after the most vigorous protest movement in the country’s recent history.

The U.S. and Nigeria’s Buhari on the Human Rights Hot Seat (The Hill – August 30)

The many nuances of the situation on the ground in Nigeria – a deteriorating economy, a seeming rise in violence, and a political witch hunt under the guise of anti-corruption – cannot be overstated. In simple terms, aid offered to Nigeria, from any U.S. executive branch agency, should only be provided with a mutual understanding that members of the Nigerian military who stand accused of gross violations of human rights be held accountable.

Increasing Risk of State-Led Mass Killing in The Gambia (Early Warning Project – June 23)

Increasing Risk of State-Led Mass Killing in The Gambia (Early Warning Project – June 23)

Several factors indicate that the risk of state-led mass killing in The Gambia is increasing: a steady deterioration of the Gambian economy due to mismanagement and rampant corruption; the death and disappearances of several prominent opposition leaders; and a recent uptick of inflammatory rhetoric and political violence.