As the fight for democratic space in the Horn of Africa continues, the push and pull between the traditional modes of governance and modern democracy in the post-colonial Africa seems to be the cause of friction in the region.
While most of the countries, through pressure from the west accommodated multiparty in their political systems, democratic space remains a far cry given the number of leaders who continue to cling on to power.
From Uganda, Kenya and Somalia to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea not forgetting Sudan and South Sudan the push for democratic space over the years has brought tensions and conflicts.
While there has been some semblance of democracy in Kenya, the same cannot be said about other nations in the Horn of Africa.
Somaliland, though not yet recognized internationally has also succeeded in building its internal democracy despite some hiccups.
The continued stay in power by some leaders in the region has continued to suppress the quest for democracy. For instance, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda since 1986 and continues to manipulate the constitution to cling on to leadership.
In Sudan, it had to take an uprising for former President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to forcibly step down in 2019 after 30 years of totalitarian rule. However, the transitional political system in Sudan remains dominated by the military hegemony, and there is no guarantee the country will embrace neo-democracy any time soon.
For South Sudan, the story paints a more grimmer picture. President Salva Kiir has been ruling this nascent and post-conflict fragile country since its independence in 2011. South Sudan state-building aborted from the onset and ineptness of the Africa Union and IGAD leadership in helping build cohesion has left the continent’s youngest nation on the brink.
Across in Djibouti President Ismail Omar Gueleh has been in power since 1990 while in Eritrea President Isaias Afwerki continues to rule since taking leadership in 1991.
While Kenya’s transition in leadership from one president to another since 2002 has been seamless and nation’s constitutional amendments in 2010 being among the commendable steps the country has made in a path to advance the democratic process and power devolution, the ethnic tensions that are usually evident during electioneering period and cases of electoral malpractices have placed the country into sharp focus.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has been in power since 2013 but his election victory in 2017 was denounced by the opposition parties particularly the main contender Raila Odinga and annulled by the Supreme Court. However, Kenya’s democratic process is a more open-minded and more civilian political project.
Ethiopia has over the years experienced either monarchic or authoritarian political rule. Former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who ruled since 2012-2018, created ethnic federalism political system complemented with a highly decentralized developmental state and less privatization.
The new leadership of Dr. Abiy Ahmed under the Prosperity party (PP) seems to be heading the path of former EPRDF supremacy with reports suggesting that he is grudgingly for ethnic federalism prototype political system, and power devolution of regionalization, and ethnicity.
When Dr. Abiy Ahmed become Ethiopia Prime Minister, he instantaneously made some imperative steps for democratizing the country such as releasing political prisoners, interrogating previous human rights violations, and welcoming opposition parties. These were all metaphorical and inspirational signs of a step towards democracy in Ethiopia political history, which was good for Africa.
Dr. Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel peace prize a few months into power, because of his successful, and encouraging political steps. Nonetheless, the Abiy’s narrative of democratization seems parochial and distorted with the political incarceration, prosecutions, and massive arrests of the civilians, the shutting down of internet in order to suffocate the public expression which is contrary to the democratic aspirations for Ethiopia people.
But there is still a hope that the agenda of democratization in Ethiopia pursued with the assistance of the international community and the political ambition of Dr. Abiy will hold. A return to one-party rule will be untenable and unpersuasive locally and internationally.
Ethiopia is the most populous nation in the region that remained undemocratic in many centuries. The regional polls as the Tigray elections in September 2020 may not validate the bigger dream of Ethiopia democracy unless the competitive, free, fair and multiparty elections are through a convincing political atmosphere and upholding a democratic culture of healthy competition and compromise. The forthcoming multiparty elections are not only a breakthrough within Ethiopia but paving the way for democratic transformation in the Horn of Africa.
Somaliland is an astonishing nation for its track record in democratic and multiparty elections. Since 1991, when the country regained its sovereignty, five presidents succeeded one another through a democratic manner which makes the current Somaliland President, Muse Bihi Abdi, the only elected president in the region right now for his first term.
The shortcoming of Somaliland democracy is the failure to hold parliamentary elections in time though there is a consensus to hold the same in 2021. The grievances of the regional representation in the parliament are foremost potent and underlying unresolved issues which have caused postponements in the past.
The story is grim in Somalia, a country that has been under the protection of the foreign troops for nearly two decades. The efforts to hold the popular elections in Somalia has become an improbable for a country categorized as one of the most failed states in the world. Clan federalism is the center and the main driver of Somalia politics, and there are many domestic and external actors battling in the country.
The externalization of the Somalia state-building and peacebuilding coined the perpetuation of political deficiencies and failure to accomplish a proper state formation. Somalia’s political system is so condensed and the political situation continues to disintegrate from time to time because of the absence of an agreed or ratified constitutional political system.
The clan federalism is poorly performing and the political situation of Somalia is inflammable and divergent. The international community project of holding popular elections and President Abdullahi Farmajo imitation now lapsed by recycling the 2017 clans’ elections modality.
In this regard, the international community must admit that the political ailment of Somalia cannot be preserved with this longstanding top-down approach. In other words, without a constitutional political system, Somalia will remain such a delicate political system and reiterating earlier mistakes.
Finally, many people in the region are so pessimistic and upset on the slower and penurious governance indicators, as efforts to intensify the democratic multiparty system elections and governance botched in the region. Some of the current presidents in the region are incumbent for decades-long and this is a sign of how undemocratic leadership in the region is virulent and repellant.