Courage, optimism, and action: A pathway to boost African democracies

Friday December 01 2023

Supporters of ousted president Mohamed Bazoum gather to show their support for him in Niamey, Niger on July 26, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


Governance in Africa is undergoing an upheaval – the kind that is people-driven, and more recently and unfortunately, army driven.

These are trying times for democracy globally. From civilian threats against democratic processes in the United States in January 2021, to the recent combatant takeover of Gabon’s Government.

But democracy remains the most popular means of governance among Africans. Protection of democracy calls for us all to reject coups unequivocally, and counter harmful narratives that democracy could be traded off for good governance.

Read: OBBO: Some Africans have their bad democracy, good coups, people’s dictators

Funders, civil society organisations, media and others can do more to support democracy in Africa.

I am a permanent optimist for democracy in Africa. I witnessed how Kenyans, through a people-driven democratic process, ended an autocratic regime with the 2002 election. More women ran and won political office in Kenya’s 2022 elections.


I lived through the transition to democratic rule after years of military rule in Nigeria. This year, young Nigerians inspired me through their passionate political mobilisation, invigorating voter registration campaigns.

Yet, in the last three years, there have been 13 coups on the continent. The coupists perpetuate effectual, albeit flawed, narratives portraying themselves as ultimate solutions to governance problems – with some opinion leaders likening them to the heroic Africans who liberated the continent from colonial powers.

Freedom fighters who pushed for the right to self-determination for all Africans, are incomparable to coupists, who seize power by the might of the few.

It is sobering to observe the sentiments among some young Africans who prefer a ‘strong leader’ who delivers to ‘non-performing governments’ installed by democratic processes. 

These sentiments bubbled under the surface as hundreds took to the streets of Libreville to celebrate the takeover.

Read: EYAKUZE: La Francafrique is cut out for coups

In a country with rich natural resources, young Gabonese feel that things should be better, and that the coup offered hope for new representation. The putschists in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger also saw similar public enthusiasm.

If unchallenged, these narratives pose a great threat to democracy, especially among the majority youth population on the continent.

Armed takeovers of government usually create newer, bigger monsters, like dictatorships, which are antithetic to the desired freedoms.

So, how are we ensuring democratic institutions are robust enough to return legitimate leaders who are accountable to the electorate?

Democracy, at its most basic, pushes for one voice and vote as the most accessible level of active citizenry.

Yet this guiding principle matters only if each vote counts. Everyone should be included and allowed to contribute, equally.

Rigging elections, therefore, is a mockery of that principle, and a mockery of the people who believe in it.

Exclusion in both electoral (input) and open government processes (output) creates a chasm between the democratic construct and its praxis, leading to a crisis of democracy.

Women and youth are especially excluded at the input and output sides of the governance loop, thereby discounting their interest in participation.

Civil courage demands that we resolve entrenched barriers that influence people’s political effacement: financial, ageist policies, political narratives, lack of protection for women in politics, and more.

In Kenya, for example, there is a national training curriculum to broaden capacity and understanding for women to prepare them to be successful political candidates.

Read: NGUGI: There’s no one coming to save us but ourselves

The Political Party Leadership Program (PPLI) trains youth across Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia to ‘build youth participation in party processes and leadership.’

But more investment could further these developments. Resourcing youthful participation in politics, is instrumental in avoiding the violence of coups and election discrepancies, through political training academies like the School of Politics, Policy, and Government (SPPG) and Futurelect.

At Luminate, we continue to support those who are working to remove barriers to inclusive participation and amplify diverse voices who invest in capacity building, research, and other initiatives.

We and other development partners and funding organisations need to invest more in training for young leaders, and support those in the information and behaviour-influencing space, to build the messaging that encourages inclusive participation.

African media’s role in shaping new narratives of change is also invaluable to deter the entrenched stories such as the trope about politics in Africa being only for old, rich men looking to get richer.

Ongoing discussions platformed by the media are important in spotlighting gaps in communication among relevant constituencies that shape public sentiments.

In my unwavering optimism, I believe that Africa is soon coming to a place where coups are widely condemned, while democratic institutions are strengthened to include diverse voices – especially young people.

It is building on work done by aspirational individuals and movements that took on the difficult task of building democratic republics during the post-independence era, like Thomas Sankara, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Toyin Akinniyi is Vice President, Africa, at Luminate.