Feingold Statement on the State of Democracy in Africa

FeingoldFor the Congressional Record – 2 March 2010 -Mr. President, I’d like to note the many challenges to democracy we are seeing across Africa today. I have long said that promoting and supporting democratic institutions should be a key tenet of our engagement with Africa, as good governance is essential to Africa’s stability and its prosperity. Africans are well aware of this and that is why we have seen spirited democratic movements throughout the continent, even against great odds. It is also why African leaders have committed at the African Union with the Declaration on Democracy, Political, Economic and Corporate Governance that they will work to enforce “the right to participate in free, credible and democratic political processes.”

The previous administration spoke often about its commitment to promote democracy in Africa and throughout the world. The current administration too has committed to encourage strong and sustainable democratic governments, though it has rightly acknowledged that democracy is about more than holding elections. In his speech in Ghana, President Obama said, “America will not seek to impose any system of government on any nation – the essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny. What we will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance – on parliaments, which check abuses of power and ensure that opposition voices are heard; on the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice; on civic participation, so that young people get involved…”

Mr. President, I agree that we must take a more holistic approach in our efforts to promote and support democracy. Democracy is not just about a single event every few years; it is also about an ongoing process of governance that is accountable and responsive to the needs and will of citizens. And it is about citizens having the space, encouragement, and ability to educate themselves, mobilize and participate in that process. We must help countries build such institutions and encourage such space. And we must be willing to speak out against erosions of democratic rights and freedoms – and not only once a country reaches a crisis point such as a coup.

Mr. President, while some African countries have made great democratic strides, I am concerned about the fragile state of democracy on the continent, especially within a number of countries set to hold elections over the next 15 months. In particular, I am concerned by the democratic backsliding in several countries that are close U.S. partners and influential regional actors. It is notable that the Director of National Intelligence included a section on “stalled democratization” in Africa in his public testimony last month to the Senate Intelligence Committee on annual threat assessments. He stated, “The number of African states holding elections continues to grow although few have yet to develop strong, enduring democratic institutions and traditions. In many cases the ‘winner-take-all’ ethos predominates and risks exacerbating ethnic, regional, and political divisions.”

Elections are only one component of the democratic process, but still they are a significant one. The pre- and post-elections periods in many countries are ones in which democratic space and institutions are most clearly tested and face the greatest strains. They can be the periods in which democracy is at its best, but they can also be the periods in which democracy faces some of its greatest threats. This is the case not only in Africa; this is the case here in the United States and that is why I have worked tirelessly to limit the power of wealthy interests to unduly influence our elections.

Among those African countries scheduled to hold national elections in 2010 are Ethiopia, Sudan, Togo, Central African Republic, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burkina Faso. Guinea, Madagascar, and Niger, three countries that have recently had coups, have also committed to hold elections this year. And in early 2011, Benin, Djibouti, Uganda, Nigeria and Chad are all scheduled to hold elections.

Mr. President, of all these elections, Sudan’s is already receiving significant attention, and for good reason. That election – the country’s first multiparty one in 24 years – has the potential to be a historic step toward political transformation in Sudan if it is credible. However, restrictions on opposition parties and the continued insecurity in Darfur have many doubting whether the conditions even exist for credible elections. Furthermore, increasing violence within southern Sudan is very worrying. In any case, the results of Sudan’s election in April will have a great influence on political dynamics within the country and region for years to come and will pave the way for southern Sudan’s vote on self-determination, set for January 2011. The international community is rightly keeping a close eye on these elections, and we need to continue supporting efforts to make them credible and be prepared to speak out against any abuses or rigging.

Similarly, we need to keep a close eye on the other African countries holding important elections this year. Let me highlight four countries whose upcoming elections I believe also merit close attention and specific international engagement.

The first is Ethiopia, which is set to hold elections in May. In his testimony, the Director of National Intelligence stated, “In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Meles and his party appear intent on preventing a repeat of the relatively open 2005 election which produced a strong opposition showing.” Indeed, in Ethiopia, democratic space has been diminishing steadily since 2005. Over the last two years, the Ethiopian Parliament has passed several new laws granting broad discretionary powers to the government to arrest opponents. One such law, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, imposes direct government controls over civil society and bars any civil society group receiving more than 10 percent of its funding from international sources to do work related to human rights, gender equality, the rights of the disabled, children’s rights or conflict resolution. Another law, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, defines terrorism-related crimes so broadly that they could extend to non-violent forms of political dissent and protest.

Mr. President, Ethiopia is an important partner of the United States and we share many interests. We currently provide hundreds of millions of dollars in aid annually to Ethiopia. That is why I have been so concerned and outspoken about these repressive measures. And that is why I believe we have a stake in ensuring that Ethiopia’s democratic process moves forward, not backward. With the elections just three months away, several key opposition leaders remain imprisoned, most notably Birtukan Mideksa, the head of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party. There is no way that elections can be fair, let alone credible, with opposition leaders in jail or unable to campaign freely. At the bare minimum, the international community should push for the release of these political prisoners ahead of the elections. And if nothing changes, we should not be afraid to stand with the Ethiopian people and state clearly that an election in name only is an affront to their country’s democratic aspirations.

The second country I want to highlight is Burundi. As many people will recall, Burundi was devastated by political violence throughout the 1990s, leaving over 100,000 people dead. Yet, the country has made tremendous strides in recent years to recover and rebuild from its civil war. In 2005, it held multi-party national and local elections, a major milestone on its transition to peace. Burundians are set to head to the polls again this year. If these elections are fair, free and peaceful, they have the potential to be another milestone along the path toward reconciliation, lasting stability and democratic institutions. This would be good not only for Burundi, but also for the whole of Central Africa. Burundians deserve international support and encouragement as they strive for that goal.

Still, many challenges remain. The tensions that fed and were fueled by Burundi’s civil war have not entirely gone away. And there is some evidence that the parties continue to use the tools of war to pursue their political goals. According to a report by the International Crisis Group last month, “opposition parties are facing harassment and intimidation from police and the ruling party’s youth wing and appear to be choosing to respond to violence with violence.” Furthermore, there continue to be reports that the National Intelligence Service is being used by the ruling party to destabilize the opposition. If these trends continue, they could taint Burundi’s elections and set back its peace process. The international community, which has played a big role in Burundi’s peace process, cannot wait until a month before the election to speak out and engage the parties these issues. We need to do it now.

Mr. President, Burundi’s neighbor to the north, Rwanda, is also slated to hold important elections this summer. Rwanda is another country that has come a long way. Since the genocide in 1994, the government and people of Rwanda have made impressive accomplishments in rebuilding the country and improving basic services. It is notable that Rwanda was the top reformer worldwide in the 2010 World Bank’s “Doing Business Report.” President Kagame has shown commendable and creative leadership in this respect. On the democratic front, however, Rwanda still has a long way to go.

Understandably there are real challenges to fostering democracy some 15 years after the genocide, but it is troubling that there is not more space within Rwanda for criticism and opposition voices. The State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report for Rwanda stated, “There continued to be limits on freedom of speech and of association, and restrictions on the press increased.” With elections looming, there are now some reports that opposition party members in Rwanda are facing increasing threats and harassment. The international community should not shy away from pushing for greater democratic space in Rwanda, which is critical for the country’s lasting stability. We fail to be true friends to the Rwandan people if we do not stand with them in the fight against renewed abuse of civil and political rights. In the next few months in the run-up to the elections, it is a key time for international donors to raise these issues with Kigali.

Mr. President, finally I would like to talk about Uganda, which is set to hold elections in February 2011. Uganda, like Rwanda, is a close friend of the United States, and we have worked together on many joint initiatives over recent years. President Museveni deserves credit for his leadership on many issues both within the country and the wider region. However, at the same time, Museveni’s legacy has been tainted by his failure to allow democracy to take hold in Uganda. Uganda’s most recent elections have been hurt by reports of fraud, intimidation and politically motivated prosecutions of opposition candidates. The Director of National Intelligence stated in his testimony that Uganda remains essentially a “one-party state” and said the government “is not undertaking democratic reforms in advance of the elections scheduled for 2011.”

Uganda’s elections next year could be a defining moment for the country and will have ramifications for the country’s long-term stability. The riots in Buganda last September showed that regional and ethnic tensions remain strong in many parts of the country. Therefore, it is important that the United States and other friends of Uganda work with that country’s leaders to ensure critical electoral reforms are enacted. In the consolidated appropriations act that passed in December, Congress provided significant assistance for Uganda, but also specifically directed the Secretary of State “to closely monitor preparations for the 2011 elections in Uganda and to actively promote…the independence of the election commission; the need for an accurate and verifiable voter registry; the announcement and posting of results at the polling stations; the freedom of movement and assembly and a process free of intimidation; freedom of the media; and the security and protection of candidates.”

Mr. President, again these challenges are not unique to Africa. Here in the United States, we too have to work constantly to ensure the integrity of our elections and our democratic processes. But I believe these upcoming elections in a number of African states could have major ramifications for the overall trajectory of democracy on the continent as well as for issues of regional security. I also believe several of these elections could significantly impact U.S. policy and strategic partnerships on the continent. For that reason, I do not believe we can wait until weeks or days before these elections to start focusing on them. We need to start engaging well in advance and helping to pave the way for truly democratic institutions and the consolidation of democracy. This includes aligning with democratic actors that speak out against repressive measures that erode political and civil rights. The Obama administration has done this well in some cases, but we need to do it more consistently and effectively. In the coming months, I hope to work with the administration to ensure we have a clear policy and the resources to that end.

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Posted by on March 5, 2010. Filed under NEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.