The role of key stakeholders in transitions to democracy

Female-run SMEs and youth at the heart of AfCFTA
Amos Safo is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.

Two weeks ago, my article titled ‘Stakeholders forecast stronger democracies in future’ highlighted the optimism among key stakeholders in Africa – despite the resurgence of military coups that are challenging so-called democratic systems. I argued that reestablishing trust in multi-party democracy is contingent on the commitment and ability of future democratic governments to reverse a legacy of poverty, corruption, illiteracy and underdevelopment created by previous incompetent and/or corrupt governments.

In this article I will elaborate on critical roles of the military institution, which constitutes a major stakeholder in sustaining democracy in Africa, and the soft role of women in the future of peace, security and stability. Focus will also be on other social factors – such as tribalism; ethnicity – which often fuel civil conflict; social instability; and eventually military interventions. Lastly, the media’s role as a watchdog and the promotion of peace will be underscored.

Transforming the military

A key challenge in securing and fostering peace, security and economic development borders on how to deal with one of the major contestants for political power in Africa – the military. In Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger and Gabon, it is the military, not civilians, who intervened – though in most cases it is often civilian interest groups which incite the miliary to take over.

During past and recent workshops on the future of Africa’s democratisation and development, participants have suggested that the military must be transformed in the process of democratisation as part of civil society’s empowerment. It has emerged that for a clearer roadmap to peace and security, the role of military force in African politics must be critically reevaluated. The fact is that it will be difficult to foster democratic transitions in Africa when some people or institutions are playing an ethnic game in which the winner takes all. Where such force exists, the nightmare scenario of societal fragmentation into a series of armed warlords, such as in Liberia and Somalia, can and do often emerge.

The recent events in West and Central Africa are not a new phenomenon.  It is well documented that the first coup in sub-Saharan Africa occurred in the small West African country of Togo in 1963 – three years after most states had become independent.  While various reasons have been cited for military interventions, it appears the military’s role as a bastion of national stability is the overriding reason for interventions, though a few coups were staged for personal gain rather than for protecting national stability. It is critical to note that the military do not often act in vacuum; they often intervene with the backing of interest groups.

Cold war

Some participants argue that the current military threat is more severe than in the past, partly due to the large-scale militarisation that resulted from the cold war. This resulted in what was called the “arms race in Africa”, which left tragic results in some countries. For example, prolonged periods of warfare and collapsing economies groomed large numbers of young men with no skills other than warfare and use of firearms. Even though there were a few opportunities for civilian employment, most of the youth did not have employable skills. The real issue Africa faced was violence, as potentially exercised by paramilitaries which were armed by both governments and opposition – with funding from foreign countries.

Managing ethnicity

The politicisation of ethnic identities and repression of one group by another were identified as primary sources of conflicts on the continent. As indicated earlier, at the heart of many military coups is the ethnic factor, where the ruling class/ethnic group are often accused of marginalising other tribes in distribution of the national cake. Thus, the ethnic variable, as participants labelled it, proved to be a contentious issue in many deliberations on Africa’s democratic future. There was a recognition that ethnic tensions in countries such as Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana and Zimbabwe have led to violence, military coups and even civil wars in the past. Therefore, the failure of the ruling class to promote inclusion in development and decision-making cannot be swept under the carpet forever, as recent occurrences have demonstrated.

Moving forward, African leaders must commit to recognising ethnic groups, pressure groups, interest groups etc. as part of civil society – and harness their skills, talents and views for national development. It is obvious that since God created all the tribes and ethnic diversities, these natural characteristics cannot disappear because one political party or another is in power.  Rather, these diversities should be managed and recognised by providing guarantees against their suppression. It must however be pointed out that should any government make the promotion of ethnicity a blueprint for national development and clinging to power, this cannot be tolerated. Ensuring the integrity of national stability and ethnic identity should be a national policy no matter which political party is in power.

Participants identified two possible outcomes when leaders of ethnically-diverse countries fail to address ethnicity during the transition period. Firstly, a continued suppression of ethnic identities might lead to the emergence of open conflict – in which groups demand equal treatment and equal access to opportunities and development. Secondly, in cases when the state imposes an assimilation policy in national development, it is possible that some ethnic groups might reject the imposed national identity. Therefore, African countries currently undergoing transitions to democracy must find ways to deal with diversity among various ethnic groups and recognise the rights of individuals to promote their ethnicity and culture.

Ethnic coexistence

To promote ethnic coexistence, there should be national policies that aim at balancing interests and opportunities among ethnic groups. Participants advocated equal opportunities for all individuals, regardless of their ethnicity. In that regard, it is critical for the state to transcend ethnic divisiveness and remain above all groups in society. Similarly, participants argued that merit and professionalism, rather than ethnicity, religion or political affiliation should be the primary criteria for getting a job and getting promotion in the security forces and the civil service.

The consensus among participants was that equal access to education, the recognition of ethnic languages and some interim affirmative action is needed to ensure that hitherto disadvantaged groups and regions will not be excluded from meaningful participation in society. Although such measures might reduce the political salience of ethnicity, the demand for preferential treatment by some ethnic groups can be a hindrance.

This calls for a political and legal framework within which ethnic groups can negotiate and live together. Over the long-term, some participants advocated a need to harness the strength of ethnicity as an opportunity to build civil society for the enhancement of peace and stability. For us in Ghana inter-ethnic marriages have become the bridge for national and ethnic cohesion, not forgetting the boarding school system and religious tolerance.

Role of Women

Furthermore, the crucial role of women in the democratisation process and fostering peace and security was acknowledged. Some suggested that the democratic wave has not adequately addressed the expectations of women, especially rural women at the grassroots level. They indicated that women were not consulted in the governance or transition process, despite women constituting the majority of labour forces in many Africa countries.

While literacy is generally low in many African countries, illiteracy is higher among women and girls. The onus is on governments and duty-bearers to commit more resources for female education and eliminating the barriers to female empowerment in politics and business. It is envisaged that if women had economic independence, they could develop themselves and play an important role in national development, peace and security.

Undoubtedly, the subordination of women in Africa has strong historical roots that have been reinforced by contemporary legal codes. In some African countries such as South Africa and Namibia, gender inequity is explicitly codified in law. Many participants held that women’s rights will not be achieved by granting decrees of equality, but through a socialisation process that recognises their legal rights and political participation.

Moreover, participants recognised that changes in African legal codes would constitute an affirmation that women and men are equal human beings. Participants further argued that the entire democratisation process should be accompanied by a positive campaign of empowerment and access to the legal system, emphasising the rights of women, children and the poor.

In addition to economic marginalisation, their role is further constrained by cultural, religious and ideological orientation.  The notion is that once women begin to understand and exercise their power, they will play a significant role in promoting peace and stability. It was argued that because of women’s experience with the oppressive power of the state and as a primary socialising agent, their role is crucial for any society aspiring to democracy. The discussants pointed out that democratic rights are basic rights which should include women.

Participants also suggested an examination of linguistic and social barriers, particularly the disrespectful way in which women are addressed and portrayed as lesser beings. Although affirmative action was encouraged by some, others stressed that democratic rights should be universal because affirmative action – which aims to create separate rights for women – could create more inequality. Nevertheless, there was agreement on the need to educate both men and women on gender issues relating to democratisation.

Enabling environment

One significant ingredient of democratic transitions identified in the meetings was creating an enabling environment that permits citizens to live in accordance with their beliefs and rights without obstruction from government. One view was that the proper role of government is to create an enabling environment in the governance process within which traditions and values are enabled to take root.

Most importantly, other participants suggested that non-governmental and private voluntary organisaations should assume primary responsibility for creating an enabling environment. In this process, the separation of powers must be facilitated.  Moving forward, governments must allow institutions to work and allow citizens to exercise their rights to live in accordance with their religious beliefs and cultural values without interference.

There was no clear agreement, however, on whether government should be responsible for the creation of such an environment. Perhaps civil society organisations should be empowered to discharge their contesting responsibilities well, while the media have the capacity to hold governments accountable by exposing corruption and providing early warning systems.

Regardless of whether societal organisations, media or the state assumes the responsibility for creating or facilitating an enabling environment, participants identified certain prerequisites for such an environment – which include a legal order based on human rights; societal awareness of the intrinsic values of democracy; a competent state; a committed minority; and a culture of tolerance. Quite expectedly, if all stakeholders perform their duties well, Africa’s democracy should get back on track.


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 1992. Democratisation in Africa: African Views, African Voices. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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