American Democratic Backsliding and the Future of U.S.-Africa Relations

American Democratic Backsliding and the Future of U.S.-Africa Relations 

By Hannah Pedone

Image source: Mashable SE Asia

One year before his government was overthrown in a CIA-backed 1966 coup, Kwame Nkrumah’s “Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism” caused enough stir that the CIA wrote a distressed book review about it.  The first President of Ghana and a foremost leader in the pan-Africanist movement, Nkrumah warned of America’s neo-colonialist economic hold on the continent through the remit of international financial institutions and their value-based conditionalities.  Nkrumah’s writings were of “greatest interest to the CIA,” noted the memorandum.  Post-ouster, Ghana aligned closely with the Western Bloc, the IMF, World Bank, and the neoliberal values that such institutions’ subscribers represent.  Ghana has been lauded for its peaceful democratic transitions.

Fifty-five years later, the United States has confronted an alleged attempted coup of its own. On 6 January 2021, President Trump-aligned rioters, egged on by the president himself, stormed the U.S. capitol building, halting the certification of electoral votes and endangering lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.  In 2021, America has conceded the reputation many claim it has carried as a beacon of democratic values.  President Obama famously outlined such values in a speech to the Ghanaian Parliament in 2009.  He declared his administration’s commitment to “challeng[e] leaders whose actions threaten the credibility of democratic processes.” He stated, “The United States will not stand idly by when actors threaten legitimately elected governments or manipulate the fairness and integrity of democratic processes.”  In 2021, America’s unmatched democratic crumbling will profoundly affect the legitimacy it carries to engage with African nations and the values they prop up for the foreseeable future.  Mike Pompeo, among other commentators, has tried to save face claiming that the U.S. is no “banana republic”, despite its recent undemocratic tendencies, typified by some African nations.  Ever still, American democratic values, expected to be at the forefront of the future Biden administration, face waning legitimacy.  

This vacuum of American moral leadership is not simply a political theoretical concept. The 6 January events will affect the leverage the U.S. holds in implementing sanctions, overseeing elections, swaying mediations, and securing demands in conditionalities of aid, which Nkrumah spoke of.  From economic policy, to trade agreements, to military interventions, to aid, the way the United States engages with the African continent has been shaped by the pursuit of and reward for democratic values since the Cold War.  America’s democratic backsliding will not only weaken the U.S.’s authority in bilateral relations with African nations, but may make Washington a hypocrite in international fora such as the IMF and World Bank, in leveraging funds on conditions of good governance.  

Turning to examine the effects of America’s potentially weakened stance in implementing democracy-based sanctions regimes, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa has already called out the Trump administration’s hypocritical economic policies implemented over concerns about the African nation’s antidemocratic leanings.  President Mnangagwa stated on 7 January, “yesterday’s events showed that the U.S. has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy.”

Other African leaders called out American hypocrisy in election monitoring and criticism.  Ugandan Labour Minister Frank Tumwebaze ripped at Marco Rubio’s twitter statement describing the capital violence as “3rd world style”…”So you are benchmarking 3rd world style? This rhetoric & double standard, God have mercy!”  Uganda has faced growing violence and unrest ahead of the 14 January 2021 election in which former pop-singer Bobi Wine will face long-time incumbent Yoweri Musevini, who has ruled the country since 1986. Yet, American commentary on Ugandan pre-election violence comes off as sanctimonious after the siege of the capital.

Former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar stated that the 6 January events were “a lesson to be learnt: that strong institutions and not strong personalities are the bulwark of a rich democratic culture.”  As for the American place in international institutions, America’s ability to dangle aid against democratic demands, whether it be in the World Bank, IMF, or bilaterally, has been severely delegitimized.  Council on Foreign Relations scholar John Campbell argues, “For now, American prestige in Nigeria, at least, is in the gutter and American soft power in the world’s second largest continent is evaporating.” One main channel for the exertion of U.S. soft power on the African continent is through aid and international financial institutions, and the American ability to demand good governance in exchange for financial relief now seems faulty at best (if it wasn’t already before).

The consequences of the U.S’s declining legitimacy in engaging with African nations on the basis of promoting democratic values, will be mixed, just as the consequences of U.S. interventions, (military, economic, and aid-based) have indeed, been mixed.  It is no secret that the push for western liberal democratic values in Africa has also been carried out with a side of violence and election rigging.  In other words, the absence of U.S. moral leadership post January 6th, is not new.  As scholar Damola Adejumo-Ayibiowu writes, “Western donors…contribute to these democratic failures because they always endorse any African country where elections are held as democratic, even when undemocratic leaders win.”  However, American external support for political liberties in Africa has played an important role in fostering peaceful transitions in several African contexts.  For example, the U.S. was key in the transfer of power from Nigeria’s dying President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2010, participating in the coalition restoring constitutional government in Niger in 2011, and fostering the peaceful transition in Malawi under Joyce Hilda Banda in 2012.  

While the U.S. has receded from conducting CIA-backed coups on the African continent, Kwame Nkrumah’s 1965 writings of the American persistence to shape democratic and neoliberal values abroad have not dimmed and are unlikely to under a Biden administration.  Yet America’s credibility in imposing such values has been tarnished.  President-elect Biden faces a catastrophe for democratic rebuilding.  It should start at home.

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