by Kyle Murphy | Just Security
U.S. democracy is facing its greatest challenge in a generation, simultaneously confronting an authoritarian leader, a global pandemic, and the consequences of centuries of systemic racism and inequality. Americans tend to think of our country as democracy’s exemplar, and the United States has a long history of pointing out governance problems abroad, suggesting steps to solve them, and often devoting resources to various forms of intervention.
This has been the case in U.S. policy toward Africa for decades, and I am among those who did it. But we are too often guilty of that stereotypically American habit of exercising our mouths more than our ears and casting our gaze abroad while averting our eyes at home. It’s past time for the United States to listen and draw lessons from pro-democracy movements in Africa.
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There’s remarkable similarity in how autocratic leaders go about seizing and retaining power, and civil society movements in several African countries have recent, hard-won experience with many of the scenarios we face in the United States. Sometimes they have prevented democratically-elected leaders from becoming autocrats or replaced ruthless dictators with more democratic systems, and at other times they have fallen short. But their experiences have yielded smart strategies, creative tools, and pitfalls to avoid.
Drawing from conversations with African movement leaders and my time as a U.S. policymaker and intelligence analyst focused on Africa, I will highlight lessons the United States can learn from case studies of pro-democracy efforts in Burkina Faso, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), The Gambia, Madagascar, and Nigeria. The most important lessons Americans should take are best delivered directly from women who are leading civil society movements on the continent.
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Yemi Adamolekun heads Enough is Enough Nigeria, which helped bring about Nigeria’s first democratic transfer of power from one party to another and continues to press Nigeria’s government for accountability. When I asked the lesson she most wanted to share, she said:
There needs to be massive engagement and efforts to get out and vote. Citizens need to have their eye on the ball. There are times when you must recognize the need for an alternative to your current leader. There are times when the choice is basic and it’s about protecting institutions not fighting over ideology or party.
So What’s the Scenario: Lessons from Recent Pro-Democracy Struggles in Africa
The table below summarizes the scenarios and lessons that come out of the cases that follow. The cases are presented in order of whether the movements were successful, partially successful, or unsuccessful. This is not an exhaustive list of recent pro-democracy fights on the continent, nor a comprehensive analysis of what happened in each case. Nearly all of these struggles against authoritarian political leaders included many overlapping factors and strategies, and I have distilled them to emphasize the dominant elements and most relevant lessons for the current situation in the United States. I refer to the various actors by position to make it easier for a broad audience to follow a series of complicated cases. Nonetheless, this article also aims to convince you to pay closer attention to leaders and movements on the continent.
Political commentators in the United States have mined 19th century U.S. history for comparisons to President Trump and scenarios for the upcoming election. But there are potentially more relevant lessons to learn from contemporary, tech-savvy, and well-organized struggles against corrupt leaders around the world who refuse to leave. Extrapolating from each unique context to the United States comes with many opportunities to oversimplify and misunderstand, but the risks are no greater than comparing the present to the United States 200 years ago. I intend to elevate the concepts that could apply across contexts and offer these potential takeaways with humility.
In the United States, where the electoral college can put single states in decisive roles (like Florida in 2000), each of these takeaways should be considered not only as part of national strategies but also as they could relate to specific states and communities that may be pivotal to writing the history of the 2020 election. In other words, a lesson learned from one of these African countries could be applied to one or more swing states in the United States, not strictly the United States as a whole.
Nigeria 2014-2015: Ensuring an Incumbent Accepts Defeat
In Nigeria in late 2014 and early 2015 there was widespread domestic and international concern that the incumbent and his allies would follow the playbook perfected in previous Nigerian elections to remain in power, including constraining the opposition and condoning violence. Nigeria was in especially bad shape heading into its election, with the violent extremist group Boko Haram having run government forces out of nearly the entire northeast quadrant of the country and continuing to terrorize the population with mass killings and kidnappings. In addition, the government presided over widespread corruption and mismanagement that diverted billions in government funds to officials and allies as economic growth slowed sharply in a precursor to recession. The president and his administration were tragically ineffective, but they were not yet autocratic.
Against this backdrop, the president and his allies knew they had much to lose in the election, including access to the proceeds of corruption and risk of prosecution. But they failed to anticipate and account for several important factors that contributed to their defeat. Civil society leaders channeled public frustration with the security situation, corruption and the lack of broad economic benefits, and generally limited government responsiveness to their needs. They also drew the attention of important international actors with leverage over Nigerian elites. Former UN Secretary General brokered a joint pledge from both candidates to oppose electoral violence, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria just before the election and warned the candidates that anyone who might fail to respect the election results and contribute to violence would be banned from traveling to the United States. The point was to have some powerful incentives to get political leaders to make commitments and to rein in their subordinates and their supporters.
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Nigeria’s leaders also failed to anticipate and appreciate the impact of losing support from key figures within their own party, a public mood of frustration and desire for change, and institutional leaders committed to the integrity of the election process. The president’s mismanagement and poor performance sparked a wave of defections from his party, including by a powerful former Nigerian president who helped found the party. The opposition capitalized on public frustration and ran against the president by highlighting the appeal of change. In the background, Nigeria’s electoral commission chairman played a profoundly important role in running the country’s best election process to date that made it much more difficult for the parties to cheat. Taken together, these factors help explain why the incumbent lost by nearly 9 points, leaving effectively no room for a plausible challenge.
Lessons: The most salient – albeit obvious – lesson for the United States from this example is that an overwhelming victory is the best way to close off a number of pathways for an autocratic leader to derail a democratic process. Another takeaway is that pressing key actors to commit that they will respect the will of the people can be effective. While President Trump has refused to make this commitment, pressure on Members of Congress and state officials has generated notable action. A third lesson from Nigeria is that defectors from an autocratic leader’s administration or party can also be a powerful signal to voters regarding when it is necessary to put preserving democracy over party loyalty. It also helps mobilize opposition by showing fractures within the ruling party. And finally, it is hard to overstate the importance of bolstering the key leaders and institutions that run and oversee election processes at every level. As in Nigeria’s federal system, U.S. elections rely on multiple layers and leaders with different partisan affiliations, and Congress and the courts have roles to play. Nigeria’s 2015 election demonstrated that public pressure and attention to these roles reinforces their function and helpfully lionizes the individuals and institutions that faithfully protect the integrity of democratic institutions.
Civil society movements in several African countries have recent, hard-won experience with many of the scenarios we face in the United States. … Their experiences have yielded smart strategies, creative tools, and pitfalls to avoid.
Burkina Faso 2014-2015: Refusing an Attempt to Change the Rules
In late 2014, young people in Burkina Faso led protests against their president who, after 27 years in power, planned to alter the constitution so he could run for yet another 5-year term. The protests followed months of signaling from the ruling party and the president that he was considering proposing the change. The year before, two relatively young and influential musicians named Sams’K Le Jah and Smockey organized a group whose name roughly translates to the Citizen Broom, which signaled its dual purpose of sweeping away corrupt leaders and encouraging young people to clean up their communities. The group was pressing for more responsive government before the president introduced the constitutional amendment that would have allowed him additional terms. When he did, the group helped mobilize tens of thousands of young people and others who took to the streets to reject the legitimacy of the president’s move. In less than a week, the protests brought the capital to a halt, triggered prominent defections from the ruling party, convinced the president to abandon the effort, and forced him to resign and flee the country. There were episodes of violence during the demonstrations that included protesters damaging buildings and heavy-handed security force responses that killed and injured dozens of people.
Burkina Faso’s recent pro-democracy movement successes don’t end there. The following year members of the military’s presidential security regiment launched a coup against the interim government in an attempt to protect their interests and the interests of those associated with the previous president. But again, Burkinabe civil society rejected the lurch to authoritarianism. They returned to the streets non-violently, and in the following days the regular army backed the protest movement against the coup, reasserted control over the capital, and restored the transitional government with the support of traditional and religious leaders and regional countries.
Lessons: The first lesson for the United States is the need to fully and immediately refuse to entertain the legitimacy of authoritarian moves, using all of the tools at your disposal. This includes being ready to mount legal challenges, make public statements, and back them with widespread demonstrations. Like in Burkina Faso, this means listening to and taking seriously the signals a leader sends about what he plans to do, and being ready to fight back. A second lesson is how critical it is to speak to, empower, and encourage young people to lead movements and articulate the kind of democratic governance and future they wish to see. Their visibility in the movement, along with the energy and connectivity they bring, can be a powerful force.
In the United States, the largely youth-driven Black Lives Matter movement has shown the values, dynamism, savvy, and readiness to lead that their generation embodies. It’s also likely the movement that has brought the most people in the United States onto the streets to protest. African activists I spoke with sometimes lamented the difficulties in motivating young people, but there are many examples of success, and encouraging sometimes reticent popular cultural figures to speak up can galvanize action. In the United States more musicians, athletes, and other celebrities are saying they are citizens with the same rights and obligations as the rest of us. Burkina Faso’s Smockey answers critics of his activism with a similar argument:
If the problem is political, then the solution is political. You don’t choose to be an artist or an activist with a political pen – it happens because our universe is extremely politicized, and all the problems that you see are problems of bad public management and of bad governance.
And Sams’K Le Jah addresses how these cultural leaders can maintain their independence and complex identities while contributing to pro-democracy and social justice movements:
I don’t represent anyone. I represent me. I don’t speak for anyone else … I don’t tell people ‘Come down [to] the street.’ … I just go onto the street and say ‘hey I am going onto the street; I am going to go march. You should come if you want to.’ People will follow if they agree with you.
The Gambia 2016-2017: Removing a Leader Who Rejects Defeat
The period immediately after The Gambia’s election in 2016 provides lessons for the other kind of scenario in which an incumbent is unwilling to accept defeat. The Gambia’s president was a ruthless dictator who had been in power for more than 20 years, violently suppressed the opposition, and lived extravagantly by stealing millions of public dollars. Despite dissent routinely leading to imprisonment, disappearance, and death, Gambians worked over years to build opposition and leverage the voices of those who had left the country and could speak freely.
Ahead of the 2016 election, the president imprisoned his main rival and other opposition leaders for organizing a pro-democracy protest. But the opposition formed a coalition behind a new and relatively unknown candidate, worked tirelessly to turn out the vote, and delivered a shocking electoral defeat to the president. Although the president lost the election, the margin was relatively small, and a third-party candidate earned 17 percent of the vote. Even more surprising than the opposition victory was the authoritarian leader’s quick decision to accept the results. However, days later he changed his mind, unilaterally invalidated the election result, and asked the supreme court to rule on the election.
In the days after the election, Gambians held muted celebrations as they rightly feared the outgoing president may find a way to stay and take revenge on opponents. However, Gambian professional and civil society organizations, including the Gambian bar association, labor unions, and the preeminent religious council, took advantage of strength in numbers to condemn the president’s attempt to overturn the results. Neighboring countries, regional and international organizations, and others outside the country joined Gambians in categorically rejecting the move and pressured the president to step aside. Regional heads of state worked to negotiate terms for the president’s departure but ultimately resorted to mobilizing regional troops which prompted the Gambian military to signal it would not back the president. The neighboring countries reached a deal with the president that saw him sent into exile and that allowed the rightfully elected leader to take office more than a month after the election.
Lessons: Regional military intervention is, of course, not a plausible scenario for the United States, so thankfully the U.S. opposition retains the legal and political tools to push back authoritarianism without violence. The lessons from The Gambia come from earlier in its story. Despite decades of extremely harsh repression that reshaped institutions to perpetuate authoritarian rule, Gambians remained committed to organizing however they could and expressing their will at the ballot box. This determination to participate and refusal to be intimidated into hopelessness produced the surprise victory that set the rest in motion. Likewise, in the United States voters must not be deterred by the president’s disinformation, calls for exclusion and voter intimidation, and threats to ignore the results. These tactics are more propaganda than reality, and citizen reactions determine whether they work or not.
Another important takeaway from The Gambia is that action from civil society organizations can amplify the voices of citizens and add weight to post-election fights to uphold the will of the people. The international response to the situation in The Gambia was predicated on a unified domestic rejection of the president’s actions, and powerful civil society organizations gave the opposition strength in numbers that make individual retribution more difficult. Earlier, I emphasized that we should consider how these lessons could apply at the sub-national level in the United States. In this instance, consider the possibility that the U.S. election comes down to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, there is a dispute over counting, and there is concern that the Republican-controlled legislature will intervene to declare Trump the winner. Rapid response advocacy from influential civil society organizations in Pennsylvania would be important. Likewise, regional or national pressure on Pennsylvania, through trade and consumer groups among other avenues, could be useful for defending the process in a targeted way.
The Gambia case also provides a potential cautionary note about how third-party candidates can divide opposition and help authoritarian leaders remain in power. Although it’s difficult to say exactly how sidelining the third-party candidate would have influenced the Gambian election, U.S. election outcomes in 2000 and 2016 highlight the potential significance of splits, particularly on the left side of the political spectrum. It’s worth emphasizing that under current U.S. election procedures, a party is much more likely to fail if it cannot overcome internal differences and unanimously back the candidate with the best chance of beating an authoritarian.
DRC 2018-2019: Rigged Process, Disenfranchised Voters, But New Leader
The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) 2018 national election process and results have been subject to widespread doubts and suspicion of manipulation. The election followed years of unconstitutional delays and widespread protests led by youth, opposition politicians, and DRC’s large Catholic community. Security forces violently suppressed youth protests in 2015 and 2016, which drove the church to take on a more central role, offering its buildings for organizing and refuge. The church also took on a mediating role, and the president eventually agreed reluctantly to step aside and allow elections. He put his support behind a former cabinet member to protect his wide-ranging commercial interests and protect himself and his family from prosecution for corruption and human rights abuses. In the months leading up to the vote, his party’s strategy for maintaining control seemed to come into focus. Congolese courts barred the two most popular opposition candidates from contesting the vote. Then a warehouse fire destroyed thousands of voting machines and materials. And just days before voting was to start, the government announced the vote would be suspended in four opposition stronghold districts, disenfranchising more than a million voters ostensibly because of an ongoing Ebola outbreak and communal violence. But the population was eager for change, and two popular exiled opposition leaders made a deal to back a coalition candidate who had been a leading figure in anti-regime protests over the previous years.
Congolese civil society, with the influential Catholic Church in the lead, fielded tens of thousands of observers and ran a parallel vote counting process that they said revealed that the coalition opposition candidate won around 60 percent of the vote with the other opposition candidate earning 19 percent. The ruling party candidate had come in a distance third, consistent with pre-election polling showing him to be extremely unpopular. After a government-imposed internet shutdown, more than a week’s delay, and reports of closed-door negotiations between the ruling party and the second opposition candidate, the electoral commission announced that the latter won, edging out the coalition candidate. The opposition coalition filed a protest with the constitutional court, but the court was packed with ruling party loyalists who upheld the fraudulent results.
Most importantly, after the ruling, there was little sign of the kind of massive protests in DRC’s largest cities like those that forced the past president to capitulate and hold elections. Many seemed willing to accept a backroom deal if it meant finally having the former president out of power, but unfortunately concerns about that outcome have largely come true as the former president and his party have retained significant, political, economic, and military influence. Another factor that likely informed the calculus was the considerable risk that protesters would face the same brutal security force crackdown that met other protests around the same time, including by the communities that were excluded from participating because of Ebola and armed groups. In summary, DRC’s years-long mobilization against an authoritarian leader succeeded in its primary objective of forcing him out, but it did not get the full and true democratic transition for which it fought.
Lessons: There are two key takeaways for the United States from the DRC example. The first is to replicate some of the ways Congolese civil society made it hard for the ruling party to rig the vote. Namely, capitalizing on frustration with failed leadership to build a broad-based movement that mobilizes voters, partnering with trusted cultural influencers (think Ayesha and Steph Curry, Beyonce and Jay-Z, John Cusack, Jennifer Lopez, LeBron James, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks, and Jon Stewart) and powerful social institutions, and running an expansive election monitoring and vote tabulation effort. The second is more cautionary, and it is to be ready for surprises and be wary of conceding away leverage to a losing authoritarian who tries to use his remaining power to negotiate or maneuver out of complete defeat. Maintaining absolute focus on the objective of respecting the will of the people and restoring democratic governance is vital to avoiding the allure of an outcome that seems good enough in the heat of the moment because it allows a movement to claim victory and its supporters to return their energy to their long-disrupted normal lives. The risk, as in the DRC example, is that the victory ends up being superficial and authoritarian forces retain their ability to exert influence or eventually regain control.
Madagascar 2018: Partial Success Against Foreign Interference
Russia attempted to swing Madagascar’s 2018 election in favor of the incumbent president with many of the same techniques it used during the 2016 U.S. election. The story starts earlier in 2018 when Madagascar’s president emerged from a meeting with President Putin in Moscow and told his advisors that Putin wanted to help him get reelected. If you’re wondering why Putin would care, it’s helpful to know that there was a third person in the meeting: Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin who not only owns a substantial stake in a Russian partnership with Madagascar’s state-owned mining firm, but has also been indicted and sanctioned for meddling in U.S. elections.
A team of about 20 Russians appeared in the Malagasy capital in the weeks after the meeting, and they started spending profligately to help the president’s campaign and hurt his opponents. According to New York Times investigative reporting, several of the Russians in Madagascar had previously worked in Ukraine on behalf of Russian-backed separatists. In Madagascar, they ran a social media influence operation, hired locals to publish a newspaper with positive coverage of the president, created campaign materials and bought advertisements, and bankrolled minor candidates’ campaigns. For months the Russians were ubiquitous in political circles, bolstering the president and tracking polling but also pushing lies and supporting spoiler candidates to hurt the opposition.
Despite these measures, the Russians could not overcome the president’s diminishing popularity. In an effort to protect their interests, they decided to switch sides in the final weeks of the election and threw their support behind the candidate who eventually won. But first they approached the fringe candidates they funded and offered a personal payoff to drop out of the election and endorse the Russians’ new favored candidate. When those candidates refused, the Russian team resorted to hacking their campaign websites and other tricks to undermine them. In all these efforts, though, the outsiders were sloppy, condescending, and frequently seemed most interested in personal enrichment. In the end, at least a handful were arrested and deported. Prigozhin’s joint mining venture with Madagascar went ahead.
Lessons: When it comes to taking lessons for the United States from Madagascar’s experience with Russian interference, it’s important to account for some of the differences in context. For Russia’s resurgent activity in Africa, profit is a driver, whereas Russian interference in the United States aims to weaken U.S. power by encouraging internal divisions and self-defeating poor governance. Nonetheless, Russian interference in Africa, the United States, and elsewhere also has shared strategic aims. Moscow is making barely deniable, often improvisational plays around the world to make its adversaries’ lives more difficult, generates profit for Russian oligarchs, and occasionally outmaneuver the United States, international institutions, and others it sees as obstacles.
With these common drivers in mind, there are at least a couple lessons we can learn from Madagascar. First, Moscow seems to have a relatively simple and consistent set of basic moves, which can make it easier to spot interference. Recognizing, revealing, and rejecting foreign interference is something everyone plays a role in, even if special responsibility belongs to social media companies and other enterprises to prevent their tools and platforms from being used to undermine democracy. The Malagasy press, some campaigns, and others rejected Russian influence operations and helped prevent them from achieving all of their objectives. Whether in a local op-ed that pointed out the nefarious similarities between Russian activity in the United States and Madagascar, or through candidates elevating national sovereignty and pride to reject Russian demands, these actions helped limit Russian success. The second key takeaway is that substantial foreign interference was not enough to overcome a low-performing incumbent who did not deliver on his promises. In the United States, this means that an organized and energetic opposition with a proactive vision for tackling the problems that matter to voters poses a formidable challenge to foreign meddlers backing an unpopular incumbent marked by corruption, failed policies, and lack of discipline. When Russia saw the writing on the wall that the opposition was likely to win, Moscow quickly backed away from supporting the incumbent.
Burundi 2010-present: Failed Opposition
The crisis surrounding Burundi’s 2015 election shares similarities with the previous case, but it ended with the authoritarian incumbent winning an election and remaining in power for another five years. Burundi’s president came up through the ranks of a rebel group during a civil war, eventually becoming the leader of the movement and participating in negotiations that ended the war and allowed him to run for the office of the presidency and win it in 2005. Before that election, Burundi adopted a new constitution that included key provisions from the peace agreements that ended the war, which included limiting a president to two consecutive 5-year terms.
At the end of his first term in 2010, tensions were high and there was episodic violence between the government and opposition. Several opposition candidates intended to challenge the president, but in the weeks leading up to the vote, all of them withdrew citing ruling party plans to rig the vote. The opposition boycott failed to stop the election, and the president won more than 90 percent of the vote.
In 2015, as the end of his second term approached, the president and his party argued that he was eligible for a third term because in 2005 he was elected indirectly, by parliament. The previous year, the opposition had agreed to unify behind a single candidate to improve their chances at victory, and when the ruling party announced its plan to put the president forward for a third term, they protested. The constitutional court took up the issue two months before the election, and just before it ruled in favor of the president a senior judge fled the country and said the majority of the justices were threatened into changing their opinion. Within weeks, a breakaway group of generals attempted a coup while the president was out of the country, but loyalist troops overpowered them after a brief fight in the capital.
Amid violent repression and international calls to delay the election, the opposition again withdrew from the election, and the ruling party again pressed ahead. The president eventually won a third term, and leading oppositionists either fled the country or agreed to token roles in the new government. With the opposition largely dismantled or coopted, the president consolidated control and subsequently pressed through a constitutional change that reset presidential terms to two consecutive 7-year periods. Perhaps confident his interests and control were protected, he took a golden parachute and his ruling party endorsed a successor who won Burundi’s 2020 election and took office in June.
Lessons: It’s important to fairly account for context-specific difficulties when trying to learn from an opposition’s unsuccessful struggles against authoritarianism. In Burundi, this means recognizing when repressive state structures had become so strong and democratic institutions so weak that resistance is much more difficult. While this remains the case in Burundi, it is not yet the case in the United States. One basic lesson to learn from Burundi is that boycotting elections is usually self-defeating because refusing to participate doesn’t come with any meaningful leverage and inadvertently cedes the democratic process to the incumbent.
Another important lesson is that voters must be able to rely on the integrity of the judiciary when hugely consequential political decisions are put to the courts. It’s better to settle democracy’s toughest issues with a vote of the many rather than a court ruling by the few. But when these contests are put to the courts, there is no room for doubt about the independence and courage of the justices to uphold the law. In the United States, courts are becoming more partisan as we increasingly press them to solve sharp disagreements that political actors have not. This is a kind of institutional erosion that eventually robs a population of its best tools for resisting authoritarian leaders. It’s still early in the U.S. election period, but the facts so far overwhelmingly undercut the claims Trump has offered as potential grounds for rejecting a defeat (e.g., imaginary voter fraud). The U.S. Supreme Court vacancy and the likelihood of a 6-3 conservative majority raises understandable fears, but the Burundi example is a cautionary reminder that an overwhelming electoral defeat is the best means to avoid a court-brokered outcome. In the unlikely event it does go to the courts, members of the judiciary, legal experts, and citizens will need to press the case in public to remind the court that its legitimacy rests on upholding the will of the people.
Make It Front-Free: Mutually Reinforcing Democracy
The common element across these examples is that complacency and hopelessness are the autocrat’s lifeline and unified action by the many is their political death knell. Authoritarians win when they trick people into believing they cannot be beat, and then they take advantage of apathy and despair to make it true. Dictators lose when people participate and leverage the tools of democracy—elections, civic organizing and advocacy, and non-violent demonstrations—to make government and leaders responsive to their needs.
President Trump is trying to create confusion and make Americans doubt our most powerful tools to fight authoritarianism. He has tried to delegitimize the election process and suppress the vote by lying about the safety and reliability of mail-in voting and apparently attempting to starve the Postal Service of the resources it needs to handle the vote. Trump and his allies hope to skew the election in his favor by excluding or making it harder to participate for people who are likely to vote against him. He told his supporters they should consider committing fraud and intimidating opposition voters, and he most recently threatened election violence by telling a white supremacist group to “standby.” Trump’s campaign has reportedly considered far-fetched schemes to subvert the will of the people by working around the Electoral College, and he has raised doubts about his willingness to concede if he loses. And long before the election, he was impeached for soliciting foreign interference to help him win, and his former national security advisor revealed Trump’s attempts to get others like China to help his reelection bid.
These developments are a stark reminder of what has always been the case. U.S. democracy is susceptible to the same flaws and reversals as any other. But that also means the United States can prevail with the help of hard-won lessons from democracy movements in other countries. Democratic governance has no autopilot. It requires all of our participation not only to avoid autocracy, but also to take bold action to overcome existential challenges from pandemics and climate change to racism and inequality.
The 2020 election is also an opportunity to reorient U.S. thinking about promoting democracy and good governance globally, in favor of greater self-awareness and solidarity. Pretending we are exceptional and dispensing advice in strongly worded statements guarantees a future filled with global eye rolls. However, it would also be a mistake to think authoritarian leaders and the prodemocracy movements opposing them will not be influenced by what happens in the United States. Zimbabwean opposition spokesperson and youth leader Fadzayi Mahere laid out the stakes when she told me:
We are watching … Democracy across the world would benefit from the United States returning to a more values-based political culture. The more Trump is allowed to act in unprincipled ways, the more autocrats around the world will have an excuse to treat their citizens badly.
Across Africa, home to more than a fourth of the world’s countries and the youngest population, the vast majority favor democratic governance and there are many ongoing struggles to advance democracy and to challenge abuses that are antithetical to democratic governance. It’s time for the United States to take its rightful position as an equal alongside others working to protect and advance democracy. Collectively, like-minded governments and civil society must learn from each other’s experiences and stand behind each other’s democratic aspirations.
Photo: Burkina Faso’s opposition supporters attend a mass rally at the “Stade du 4-Aout” stadium in Ouagadougou. Burkina Faso’s opposition leaders filled the 35.000 seats stadium as they called for protests against referendum plans by Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore to extend his mandate by another five years. AFP PHOTO/AHMED OUOBA (Photo credit should read AHMED OUOBA/AFP via Getty Images)
About the Author(s)
Kyle Murphy served as a senior intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he authored assessments on political and security issues that covered every region in Africa and many of the non-state and outside actors on the continent. He previously served at the White House from 2015-2017 as the National Security Council (NSC) director for West Africa and as the acting senior director for Africa during the 2017 presidential transition. Follow him on on Twitter (@kyle_a_murphy).
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