Samson Itodo is a lawyer and democracy activist from Nigeria.
A conversation with Samson Itodo on democratic recession
Africa's yearning for democracy & rays of hope for its renewal
In fall 2023, Samson Itodo, lawyer and democracy activist from Nigeria, and Raphaela Hobbach, political scientist and Futurium staff member, led a conversation on the future of democracy with a special focus on the African continent.
Samson Itodo is a lawyer and democracy activist from Nigeria.
Raphaela: Welcome Samson! I would like to speak with you about the current state of democracy – worldwide and specifically in your region.
Samson: Thanks, Raphaela. It’s always a delight to speak about democracy because I'm a firm believer in democracy. Despite its weaknesses, it remains the most reliable form of government. Yet, if we look at the global level, we see that democracy is under scrutiny. Think of the Covid 19 pandemic, the war between Russia and Ukraine, look to Myanmar, China or even to the US. Every continent is struggling with democratic backsliding and recessions.
Africa is experiencing its own form of democratic recession. The resurgence of military takeovers and unconstitutional changes of government are troubling. Authoritarians are changing the rules of the game to extend their terms of office. There are major problems in many African countries with the way elections are conducted. In South Africa, elections have been stolen, in Zimbabwe, authoritarians have used elections to legitimize their stay in office. This is also the case in Sierra Leone or Nigeria.
You see a high poverty rate across the continent. It breaks my heart, because this is not the aspiration of democracy. What democracy should ideally do is to create a marketplace where economies can actually thrive. But that is not the case. Democracy in Africa is under scrutiny right now because people are tired and frustrated because democracy is not delivering its promise of a better life. People want food and people want security.
The Afrobarometer tells us that there is an appetite, a yearning for democracy in Africa.
Raphaela: Given this political situation, how do you deal with disappointment about the current state of democracy in Africa?
Samson: With Yiaga Africa, our NGO promoting participatory democracy in Africa, we want to push the boundaries of accountability. We support citizens to demand accountability from people who seek their votes during elections. But democracy is not just about elections. The kind of democracy that Africans have been taught is one where democratic participation or engagement begins and ends with the elections. But the work and the task begin after the elections.
There are shiny lights from Africa that inspire hope. Think of the resilience of citizens in places like Senegal, where President Macky Sall wanted to impose himself for a third term. Citizens and civil society mobilized to put pressure on him to step down. In Zambia, voter turnout exceeded 80 percent during the election. This tells you that Africans have not lost faith in democracy. Data establishes that: the Afrobarometer tells us that there is an appetite, a yearning for democracy in Africa. What should concern us is that support for democracy is higher amongst older people than younger people.
Raphaela: That surprises me. How do you explain that?
Samson: One reason is the economy. The political leadership has failed to create jobs. What you're seeing across the African continent is anger. There's a pandemic of discontent among young people. The other reason is security. If people do not feel safe, the state has failed in its responsibility. People are asking the fundamental question: Why should we trust democracy when political leaders don't deliver on campaign promises? Why should we trust democracy when we are excluded from political decisions?
The existing problems and practices of politics in Africa such as dynastic rule discourage citizens from participating. Young people are looking for alternatives. Sometimes they see an alternative in a military dictatorship. I believe that our development cannot be sustained with a military dictatorship, and Nigeria's experience serves as a classic example. That is why we must continue to mobilize young people to tell them that military rule is not a solution to our economic and political challenges. It is democracy, a system in which everyone must participate and in which we must hold our leaders accountable.
Raphaela: What do you think has to change to make African democracies more resilient to future attacks? How can we prevent military coups in the future?
Samson: One important point is trust. Many democratic communities are being torn apart by fake news and disinformation because of the lack of trust between state and society. You cannot succeed as a state if citizens don't trust you. And a state must earn trust. We need greater transparency on the part of the state towards citizens. The state needs to explain policies, engage with citizens and give them the opportunity to get involved in politics.
The second point is political education. Citizens need to understand the concept of democracy, that democracy has its challenges and limitations and that democracy is not an end in itself, but a process. All this information can and should be embedded in creative political education.
And then there is the issue of accountability, that I have mentioned before. The reason why democracy is so often under attack is because those who attack democracy get away with it. The reason why some Africans have lost faith is because these custodians of our regional norms and standards have become politicized, lacking both moral and political legitimacy to hold leaders accountable. When leaders steal elections, oppress their people and violate human rights, someone has to call them to order. And this is where regional institutions have a critical role to play.
My fourth and final point is about improving our elections. It is crucial that we have elections where people are able to choose freely and that choice is respected. We are increasingly seeing a judicialization of politics, where the judiciary decides who actually wins an election. But you cannot have a bunch of unelected people appointed by politicians deciding who wins elections when the people have decided who they prefer at the ballot box!
Raphaela: I’m familiar with this debate about the judicialization of political decisions, especially from Eastern Europe and the USA – interesting to hear from you that this is also relevant in Africa. While we're on the subject of defending democracy: Which actors and alliances should come together here? You have already mentioned regional organizations.
Samson: We need alliances across geography and across communities. You need transnational and cross-national alliances to strengthen the entrenchment of democratic values and to respect the norms and contexts that shape democratic practice in a particular community. There’s much to learn from our peers around the world about how to institutionalize democracy. When I visited Futurium, I saw a great illustration of what the future of democracy might look like. I am interested in recreating the future of democracy in Africa or even in Nigeria. I think there's a space for mutual learning and exchange that can help advance democracy.
An alliance across generationsis equally important. The Afrobarometer data mentioned earlier should really give us cause for concern because Africa has the largest concentration of young people across the world. We should address the factors that make young people support military dictatorship or military rule rather than democracy. In this process, we need alliances across communities, online and offline. Everyone is part of our democratic community, regardless of the digital divide.
I think that the world actually has so much to learn from Africa if they are humble enough to learn.
Raphaela: We at Futurium try to look optimistically into the future. As a final input, I would be happy if you could share some future-oriented ideas and practices from the African continent with us.
Samson: There are lots of bright spots in Africa. In places like Cape Town inequality is very high. But you’ve got groups like Equal Education who are advocating for the rights to education and getting marginalized communities to speak out. They ensure that the state creates equal access to education. There are also practical examples of participatory budgeting in Uganda and Rwanda. When it comes to women's participation in the political process, you can look at countries like Kenya who addresses this issue with a ballot box that is only meant for female candidates. In Nigeria, civil society is mobilizing. The successful "Not Too Young to Run" campaign aimed to reduce the minimum age for running for political office in the constitution. Moreover, young people rose to push back on police brutality in the #EndSARS protest.
Looking at the role young people play in social media and technology, many of the tech giants are actually right here and invest in Africa. Beyond the markets that Africa offers, there are also innovators who are providing technical solutions to improve services – be it healthcare or e-commerce. We see young Africans developing solutions to facilitate public decision making across the board. Technology plays a critical role from Sudan through West and North to Central Africa. I think that the world actually has so much to learn from Africa if they are humble enough to learn.
Raphaela: This sentence seems to me to be a wonderful ending to our interview. Thank you, Samson, for taking the time to share your knowledge with us!