University of Chicago

Democracy in Africa: Is the Use of ‘Erosion’ Appropriate?

In this class we learn terminology and methodology that helps us understand mechanisms that cause the erosion of democracy in different specific scenarios. Through this we can have a bigger conversation, extrapolating common trends and projecting those trends to hypothetical outcomes. However this methodology gets complicated when the terminology and trends don’t quite fit into the mold we have established. This is the case for a large portion of African countries.

For my case study essay I was assigned Niger. I previously had little to no knowledge of the region and the country’s political climate in particular, so as I was learning about the country I was simultaneously applying the knowledge i gained from this class. But as I learned more and more about the countries situation i started to become more and more confused. A lot of the things that we talked about in class, such as the erosion of civic freedoms, limitations on press and assembly, political imprisonment, were all happening but the context wasn’t fitting. And I think I might have figured out why.

Niger gained its independence in 1960 along with a lot of other African colonies. Throughout the next 60 years Niger was in an almost perpetual state of political turmoil, with 4 military coups, 7 define-able republics, multiple assassination attempts on the nations leader (with one being successful) and a whole plethora of miscellaneous chaos. The nation has only known relative peace and stability in the past 20 years, and even then it was still on shaky footing, with a couple of major crises here and there.

All these trends make it seem like Niger’s case for democratic stability is a lost cause. However, through all this turmoil many of the pillars of democracy remained firm: each constitution drafted again and again had multiple guarding clauses included the courts, though semi-controlled by the leadership, remained incredibly impartial and critical of executive overreach, the political scene remained incredibly diverse and exhibited vocal opposition even when party formation was prohibited.

Looking through the framework of our class this can be pretty confusing. Authoritarian over reach combined with a vocal opposition and a powerful court system? It doesn’t add up!

The thing is, the framework of ‘erosion’ analysis applies very well to situations where an established democracy is being eroded. It doesn’t stick in cases like Niger as there isn’t an established democracy to erode. Even though there’s a clear historical transition to democracy, and it is clear on paper that democracy existed in the country, it’s apparent in the reality on the ground that democracy isn’t an established system there, and therefore there is nothing to erode in the first place.

Niger isn’t the only instance of this. Countries all over West Africa (like Togo, Mali, Liberia, and others) share the same unfortunate reality. And unfortunately, the term ‘erosion’ doesn’t encapsulate a lot of what makes their situation so confusing and dire. In my opinion it’s time to add more terminology and nuance to the conversation.

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