Africa: A 2020 Look Ahead (w/ Chris Fomunyoh and Johnnie Carson)

Chris Fomunyoh, senior associate and regional director for Central Western Africa at NDI is joined by Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a proud member of the board of directors of NDI with a 37-year career in the U.S. foreign service focused on Africa. 2020 looks like it’ll be an exciting year for Africa with emerging opportunities for some countries to consolidate their democracies, but what backsliding could undermine recent gains in democratic governance?

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Johnnie Carson: Weak institutions create weak governance, weak governance creates authoritarian leaders. Authoritarian leaders do not serve the interest of their countries. Countries where the interests of people are not served by governments are generally going to be impoverished, and they are generally going to generate insecurity, instability and civil conflict.

Chris Fomunyoh: I'm Chris Fomunyoh, Senior Associate and Regional Director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, NDI. Welcome to this edition of DemWorks.

This morning we have a distinct honor to receive a very distinguished guest, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, who is a proud member of the Board of Directors of NDI, with a 37 year career in the US Foreign Service, all focused on Africa.

JC: Chris, thank you very much. It's a real pleasure to be here with you and it's a pleasure to be in the offices of the National Democratic Institute this morning.

CF: Welcome to the podcast, and thank you very much for joining us.

Prior to retiring from the US Foreign Service in 2013, Ambassador Carson was the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs from 2009 to 2013. Prior to that, he was the National Intelligence Officer for Africa at the National Intelligence Council, after serving as the Senior Vice President of the National Defense University in Washington DC. Carson's 37-year Foreign Service career includes ambassadorships to many African countries, including Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs. Earlier in his career, he had assignments in Portugal, Botswana, Mozambique and Nigeria, and then Staff Officer for the Secretary of State from 1978 to 1979, and interestingly also served in the legislative branch of government as Senior Director for the Africa Subcommittee of the US House of Representative of the US Congress. Ambassador Carson is currently the senior advisor to the President of the United States Institute of Peace, USIP.

Now, 2020 looks like it will be an exciting year for Africa, with emerging opportunities for some countries to consolidate their democracies, but also some backsliding and some challenges that could undermine recent gains in democratic governance. Now from where you sit, Ambassador Carson, what are some of the major trends that you think are worthy of attention?

JC: Chris, thank you very much. I think you're absolutely right, 2020 is going to be a very interesting year in Africa for elections and democratic consolidation. Across the continent, there are some 18 countries that are going to have presidential, parliamentary and regional elections, and in 10 of those countries there will be presidential elections. Clearly, while there has been a great deal of democratic progress in Africa since the early 1990s, we are now at a stage where we see enormous democratic challenges to democracy emerging in Africa. This will be a challenging and uncertain period for democracy, in 2020 going forward. We have seen some great progress in several countries, Sudan and Ethiopia in particular, but we also are some experiencing some very serious backsliding. We're seeing a serious backsliding in countries like Tanzania, in Burundi, in Cameroon, in South Sudan, and we see it also in a few places in West Africa, noticeably in Guinea Conakry. These are going to be challenging elections. These will be challenging times for democracy, and those in those countries, for a variety of reasons.

CF: Thank you. Thank you, Ambassador Carson, and you are so right about the elections, because elections have become a true test for the resilience of democratic practices on the continent, and of the countries that you cite, which ones have impressed you over the years in terms of electoral processes that are becoming more inclusive and more transparent, and which ones do you think are worthy of praise, in terms of progress that's been made?

JC: I think there are several countries in Africa that have shown consistently good progress in the operation of elections, and those are in countries where democratic consolidation seems to be the strongest. I would point out perhaps three or four countries. Botswana has had strong democratic traditions, that continue to move forward. We see strong democratic traditions in Mauritius, we're a democracy continues to move forward. We see a good strength in Namibia, and we see good strength in places like Cabo Verde.

Where I am most concerned about democratic backsliding, is in some of the larger countries. I see democratic backsliding taking place in Tanzania. For a good 15 or 20 years, Tanzania was making very, very good progress and while Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the dominant party, continued to win elections, those elections were being contested by other parties and by other political leaders, who had space to go out to campaign, to access the media, and to organize their constituents to vote. We see just the opposite happening now under the government of President John Magufuli. We see that government cracking down on opposition parties, arresting parliamentarians, closing down access to the media, shutting internet access, and intimidating those who are opposed to his increasingly authoritarian activities. That one is of concern.

We continue to see a lack of consolidation in Guinea Conakry. We see authoritarianism continuing in places like Cameroon, and so those are very, very worrying places. Burundi is another worrying place, and I would also add to that Togo and Benin.

I also would like to acknowledge and praise what we have seen in Ghana, and hope that that will continue this year. Over the last three election cycles in that country, we have seen enormously close races between the two main opposition parties, where the decisions of the people have resulted in outcomes that have resulted in differences of one, and one and a half percent between the winner and the loser. In each case from opposition parties on both sides, they have taken their electoral disputes to the courts, and not to the streets, and they have resolved those in constitutional and legal fashion. Ghana has very important democratic elections coming up this October, between the current president, President Nana Akufo-Addo and the former president, John Mahama. Those elections are expected to be tightly contested, but we hope that, as in all the previous elections over the last 15 years, that the Election Commission will continue to run them in a transparent and open fashion. Their Election Commission has been very good. Their police and security officials have maintained neutrality, and they've stayed out of the electoral processes and their courts have been responsive.

CF: This seems like a good place to take a short break.


Yeah, about Ghana one cannot help but be impressed in the fact that the past 20 years there's been this very peaceful [inaudible 00:10:08] of political power through the ballot box, and that's really to be commended. And it also makes me think of other countries in the sub region. We saw that in Liberia, in Sierra Leone, even in Nigeria, that increasingly the notion of political change through the ballot box is taking a lot of meaning on the continent. And interestingly, we just had this decision coming out of Malawi, because with elections we now have new institutions also stepping forward and playing a constructive rule, whether they are Election Commissions or whether they are the courts. And we had the constitutional court of Malawi, throughout the last presidential elections that took place in May. What do you think about that?

JC: I think it was a courageous decision on the part of the courts. They acted independently, they acted responsibly and they acted according to the law. And I hope that the current president accepts the court decision and that there is an expeditious effort to rerun those elections. It is only the second time in recent African history that we have seen a judicial authority stand up and say that an election was not run properly, and needed to be rerun. The last time this was done was in Kenya, and again, the court acted thoughtfully and responsibly, to ensure that there would be a transparent election when there were indications of illegalities and wrongdoing, in terms of process, with that outcome. So I think Malawi is a good example of what can happen, and should happen, and it speaks to one of the great issues that surrounds entrenching democracy in Africa.

In order for democracy to work, institutions have to be strong. Institutions have to stand up and do their part in ensuring that the constitution, and the framework of the constitution, is in fact adhered to. It is important across Africa that institutions like legislatures, institutions like courts, institutions like the press, institutions like civil society, all stand up and defend the constitutional framework, exercise their responsibilities under the law. Weak institutions create weak governance. Weak governance creates authoritarian leaders. Authoritarian leaders do not serve the interest of their countries. Countries where the interests of people are not served by governments are generally going to be impoverished, and they are generally going to generate insecurity, instability and civil conflict.

CF: That's great. Because listening to the judgment out of Malawi, I thought the constitutional court in Malawi raised the bar, not just on the Election Commission, but even on the legislators in terms of the electoral framework, which the constitutional court said needs to be improved upon, in terms of electoral reform. It also raises the bar on other constitutional courts across the continent, to say that they should be more assertive in playing their roles as arbiters, neutral arbiters of electoral processes. And I think with that, the civil society in Malawi really needs to be commended, because they also monitor the electoral process, and made their views known.

But as someone who has been on the international election monitoring ring, this raises some questions people have asked, "Does this mean that when international delegations go in and say the elections were free and fair, that they haven't really captured what may have transpired on election day?" Because part of the controversy now in Malawi, is that most of the international delegations said the elections were fine. And here we have the court, saying there were a lot of irregularities. How do you think we should be approaching our work as international election observation missions?

JC: I think election observations are extraordinarily important, and I think election observations carried out by the citizens of a particular country are probably the most important election observations. The second most important election observations come from outside international groups, like NDI, that come in and provide observation. But increasingly, what we as both inside and outside observers have to do, is to look at increasingly expanding our focus on what in fact constitutes a fair and transparent democratic electoral process. We not only have to look at what is happening on election day, but we have to look at the mechanics and the architecture, that create the structure for what goes on, on election day.

I think it is absolutely important, as one aspect, to see the procedures that are in place on election day, whether people have easy access to polling places, whether they can vote secretly and independently, whether there is any skullduggery apparent on the part of those who would seek to do it, but that's only one part of the process. Elections in Africa are not frequently stolen on election day. This is 2020, this is not 1960, 1966, or 1969. In the early years of independence for many African States, elections were stolen on election day, by interference, by security forces, by political parties interfering. Today an election can be stolen, or it can be manipulated, long before, and it is increasingly important that the whole process be looked at.

It is important that Election Commissions are independently and freely constituted, that they do their work transparently and responsibly. It's important that the laws that govern their activities be monitored and executed responsibly. It is important that Election Commissioners, and INX, and others that are responsible are monitored for ensuring that they do their work. It's important that the parties have codes of conduct. It's important that the media access be given, and it's important, I think NDI certainly does not view the notion that monitoring an election is a one day, or a 24 or 36 hour process.

As you well know, Chris, NDI sends out teams far in advance of any election, to look at the procedures that are going to govern that election, to look at the architecture, look at the framework, the laws, the ability of parties to participate. Do initial assessments and recommendations, and they also then follow up, weeks before the elections, with teams on the ground to monitor, to suggest, to advise. I think that has to be done increasingly with more care, more attention, and more focus on what Election Commissions are doing, what the government structures are, the laws that are governing an election, and citing the deficiencies and faults that may be there, which may undermine the electoral process on election day.

So it's not a one day process, it's a multi-week, multi-month process, that requires constant engagement and constant input from us. Again, I put the focus on domestic monitors, but I strongly believe that international monitors, working closely with domestic monitors, can help amplify their concerns, amplify their desire to have a transparent process, can strengthen their ability to show that a process works.

In the case of Malawi, I don't think there was as much attention focused on the front end as there was on the back end, on election day. We have to focus increasingly on the front end, and even after the election is over we need to be able to go back and say to governments, say to parties, say to Election Commissions, "This is where we think you did well, and moved forward. This is where we saw deficiencies that really genuinely need to be corrected, in order to make this better the next time around."

CF: We'll be right back after this quick message.

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As we were talking about NDI's work and citizen observations, this is one of the areas in which we have accomplished a lot in the past two decades and we are most, very proud really, of the partnerships that NDI has developed with citizen observation groups across the continent, across the globe, globally, and especially in Africa. And now we see, in countries such as Malawi, but also Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, and even in Ethiopia as we speak, citizens coming together and forming broad-based coalitions to monitor all of the phases of the electoral process, from the beginning, through election day, and even in the post election period. So there's been tremendous progress in that regard.

And we now see every new level of sophistication with citizen observation groups such as Yaga Africa, that's based in Nigeria, that organize themselves to do a para-vote tabulation, which really raises the standards in terms of expectations in the performance of the Election Commission, but which allowed them to transmit data in real time. And then to be able to make a judgment call on the veracity of elections announced on election day. CDD Ghana is already preparing to do that for the upcoming Ghanaian elections, and a number of groups across the continent have become really the platforms through which citizens are able to have their voices heard on electoral matters.

I realize that you, particularly, and the USIP very engaged in Northern Nigeria, and we commend your efforts there, because that's an important piece, not just for Nigeria as a country, but for the entire sub region, and in fact for the entire continent. But as we talked about countries that are under tremendous pressure from the outside, or from negative forces on the outside, it got me thinking about a country that's going, hopefully, in the right direction, which a few years ago was seen as a rogue state. But now, because of a transition seems to be on the path to becoming a democracy in the not too distant future.

And I'm thinking about Sudan, and in that regard I'm thinking especially about the role of women, and the fact that women played such a crucial role in that transition, to bring about the transition. They were a powerful force within the coalition of professionals, Sudanese professionals, who took to the streets for months, demanding change, and ultimately led to the fall of the Bashir regime, that had been powerful more than 30 years.

And I look across the continent and see that 50%, more than 50% of the population is made up of women, that when there're transition movements, as we recently saw in Sudan, women are front and center, but sometimes ultimately, when it comes to actually having access to political power and decision making, that they left behind. Do you think that the ongoing transition in Sudan is going to create those avenues to be inclusive of women and youth, who were such a critical part of the transition that happened just last year?

JC: I think you're absolutely right about the important role that women played in bringing about the political transformation and change that's going on in Sudan today. I think women are extraordinarily important in this aspect, as is civil society as a whole. I think in Sudan, women were in a leadership role, but civil society stood up in Sudan against authoritarianism.

Coming back to the specific question, the government of Prime Minister Hamdok has in fact included a number of women in prominent places, but he, and others, have to remember that it is absolutely critical not to have the voices of African women in Sudan marginalized. They must not just be represented in key ministries by a few people. They have to be represented in larger numbers. They must be represented in the discussions going forward in the legislative process. Their voices cannot be marginalized and they cannot be limited to only a handful. They must be at the table, in the discussions, all the time.

I think the great challenge for Prime Minister Hamdok, going forward, is not to lose sight of what brought about the change, and not to lose the linkage between his government and the people, and the women, who brought him there, and not to ever not include their voices on an equal basis to all the other voices in the room. When female voices are not heard, the conversation is crippled, the policy is crippled, the institutions are crippled, and the results are crippled. Women's voices have to be there every step of the way, and if they aren't, the danger is adherent and it begins to set in almost immediately.

CF: In fact, that's a very powerful message, especially because we are now celebrating Beijing +25, which is a huge anniversary, and NDI is joining the global partners to celebrate this, and to make sure that women's empowerment, which is a cross-cutting theme in all of our programming, continues to be strengthened.

Thank you, Ambassador Carson, for joining us today. Please join us for the next part of this conversation, as we discuss countering violent extremism through better communications. Thank you for listening.