Africa’s future: bright or blighted?

Pat Sidley, IBA Southern Africa Correspondent, JohannesburgWednesday 19 January 2022

Across a continent not always well-covered by the world’s media, there tends to be a focus on corruption, famine and genocide. Global Insight seeks out more positive stories and signs of hope.

In December 2021, US President Joe Biden hosted his Big Democracy Summit. Over 100 countries were invited to attend, including 17 from Africa. Some of these could not easily be described as free democracies, with 31 countries ranked as ‘partly free’ and three as ‘not free’ according to Steven Feldstein, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Some countries did not make the invitation list at all, like Zimbabwe, and others that did, like Angola, raised some eyebrows. Several countries are notable for their adherence to the rule of law, democratic practices, free media and other attributes that contribute towards good governance and stability. Even though some of these countries have had setbacks, some are starting out on the road to democracy and almost all have suffered economically due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with some countries using this as an excuse to crack down on perceived political foes. Within these parameters, however, many countries have continued to fare relatively well.

The choices of countries, and the definitions used in this article, reflect the origins of the Democracy Summit with some drawn from Freedom House’s ‘Countries and Territories’ list and others from the Varieties of Democracy project. The World Justice Project (WJP) has a Rule of Law Index, which presents insights into the relative conduct of various countries. Countries that have not suffered major setbacks and have thriving democracies, a free press and an active civil society include Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, Mauritius and Zambia, and one making progress is Angola.

There can be no pride in fundamental rights in an environment where the judiciary is not independent

Sternford Moyo
IBA President

‘Observance of human rights and the rule of law lie at the heart of any successful country’, says IBA President Sternford Moyo, who has practiced law in Zimbabwe for many years. ‘In an environment in which the rule of law and human rights are not observed, it is impossible to have security of ownership of anything.’

He says: ‘There can be no pride in owning anything in an environment in which property rights are not, for example, adequately protected. There can be no pride in fundamental rights in an environment where the judiciary is not independent. When the executive gets involved in excesses which violate human rights, it is an independent judiciary which strikes down such excesses as unlawful.’

Moyo also notes that a vigorous ‘civic society’ is as important to the observance of human rights, the rule of law and democratic values as the judiciary, the legal profession and the media.

Justice, equality and investment

Asked about the importance of the rule of law in a difficult economic environment where investment and development are the goals, Justice Richard Goldstone, Honorary President of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, notes that ‘the rule of law is an essential ingredient of democracy’. This view is echoed by Moyo who says ‘companies seek information on observance of the rule of law and human rights without which it would be impossible to build sustainable businesses without such democratic values’.

Goldstone says that ‘equality of all within a State can only be guaranteed by the operation of the rule of law’. He adds: ‘To ensure the operation of the rule of law, independent courts are essential. Investors, both domestic and more especially international, are less likely to commit their funds in states that do not have independent courts that are able, fairly and without bias, to determine disputes that might arise and particularly with governmental agencies.’

Goldstone says ‘any restrictions on the rule of law are calculated to have a negative effect on investment. […] Whether restrictions are the result of autocracy or the use of the pretext of fighting the Covid pandemic, the result is the same’.

Feldstein says some countries in Africa have ‘positive trajectories’ and are ‘reform-minded’ and that it would account for Angola’s appearance at the Democracy Summit, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. And some, like Kenya, face elections in 2022 and, according to Feldstein, the Biden administration may be looking at reinforcing moves towards democracy.

Some of those countries that were ‘experiencing serious democratic backsliding, populist politics and regular political violence’ along with reversals of important rights of the population, are large and influential in their regions and Nigeria, according to Feldstein, would be one of these.


Any restrictions on the rule of law are calculated to have a negative effect on investment

Justice Richard Goldstone
Honorary President, IBA Human Rights Institute

The list, with its qualifications, contains a record of the democracies and potential democracies around the world. While many view the continent of Africa as one large catastrophe, the rationale for the inclusion of some countries can be easily separated from areas like Ethiopia, which may have made the cut just over a year ago before its war started.

The WJP Rule of Law Index for 2020 showed declines in overall rule of law performance in many countries around the world, not only Africa. ‘In every region, a majority of countries slipped backward or remained unchanged in their overall rule of law performance’ since the 2019 Index, according to the 2020 report. Some however, like Malawi, show a marked improvement in its adherence to the rule of law.


Though Malawi is described by Feldstein as ‘partly free’, it would have earned its democratic stripes in its rerun election of 2020, which was itself challenged a year later. The original election had been held in May 2019 and the then-President, Peter Mutharika, was re-elected. His party, the Democratic Progressive Party, had defeated the Malawi Congress Party, headed by Lazarus Chakwera, and the United Transformation Movement, headed by Saulos Chilima. That election was declared free and fair by election observers and the election body in Malawi. But Chakwera and Chilima challenged the outcome, which resulted in the Constitutional Court annulling the results and ordering fresh elections. It meant Parliament had to pass a new law to facilitate the election, which was delayed but eventually took place in June 2020. This election was won by Chakwera, who then became President.

But the saga was not quite over. In August last year, the defeated Democratic Progressive Party challenged the results by appealing to Malawi’s Supreme Court – a move which was defeated. Chakwera has, since his election, made promises to minimise his power – promises which have not yet been carried out, according to some local analysts. Chakwera is conscious of the effective dictatorship of Hastings Banda. In a May 2021 speech, he cautioned people against ‘over-praising’ and ‘over-depending’ on him, which he said could turn presidents into dictators.

Banda ruled from 1963 to 1994, wielding his power to squash any opposition, as the leader of the one party allowed. Many Malawians were forced into exile or, according to media reports, killed by government agents. Hinting at Banda’s rule, Chakwera said ‘you want the president to respond to everything, including where to draw water, how to look after your children, your household, even what you want to wear’, in a speech reported in May 2021 by Voice of America. The event commemorated Banda, who was Malawi’s first President after independence.

Malawi’s evidently independent judiciary does not guarantee that food can be put on people’s plates immediately and its economy has been in serious trouble for some time. But, the government has grand plans for the future with a forward-looking plan until 2063, which it hopes will transform the country into a middle-income country.

Out of civil war and corruption

Angola is one of the countries that has emerged from a particularly difficult past with long-running wars, the crushing of human rights and civil society and a large amount of corruption. The current president, João Lourenço, who was elected five years ago, remains part of the long-ruling MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) party. Its position on the Rule of Law Index improved markedly.

When Lourenço was elected in 2017, the previous President, José Eduardo dos Santos, had ruled Angola for some 38 years, and Dos Santos might have thought he would benefit from the continuation of the same political party. But this has not quite materialised. ‘Dos Santos thought he could rely on the incoming president. But Lourenço instead prosecuted some of the top people in the previous regime and moved against those who benefitted from corruption’, says Justin Pearce, an expert on Angola and currently a researcher at Sussex University.

This gained him some goodwill, says Pearce. He had taken over ‘when Dos Santos had run it into the ground’.

Dos Santos thought he could rely on the incoming president. But Lourenco instead prosecuted some of the top people in the previous regime

Justin Pearce
Research Fellow, Sussex University and an expert on Angola

Angola is an oil-rich country, which has not diversified and remains dependent on its income from oil. But the large slump in oil prices in 2014 has not helped the economy recover and a large proportion of its population lives in poverty.

While economic benefits have been in short supply, Lourenço has attempted to deal with the corruption and has tried to bring Dos Santos to account.

Having travelled to Angola recently, Pearce says the previous climate of fear had diminished significantly. Police, he said, who were noted for their brutality when dealing with civil society and human rights activists, had modified their way of dealing with opposition politics – and he did not know of political dissidents in jail at present. Significantly, Angola decriminalised homosexuality in 2019 – a law not commonplace among African countries.

That said, at the end of 2021, another attendee to the Democracy Summit – with higher scores in the democracy rankings than Angola – added a further democratic feather to its cap. Botswana’s Court of Appeal decriminalised anti-gay laws, saying they were against the constitution. In 2019, the High Court ruled against the anti-gay law for which infringements could garner seven years in prison, but it was appealed by the government. This appeal failed and the Court of Appeal ruling is final.

Botswana is a large but sparsely populated country, with just three people per square kilometre (nine per square mile). The World Bank ascribes its success to prudent economic management and good governance. The country has only 2.4 million people and is relatively wealthy. Its wealth is derived from its diamond mining industry, which accounts for 50 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) thanks to a 50:50 investment split with De Beers.


According to Peter Fabricius of the Institute for Security Studies, Botswana’s elections have been free and fair.

Zambia after Kaunda

Zambia, described as ‘partly free’ and an ‘electoral autocracy’ has recently held peaceful elections and a transfer of power. The country has had a patchy history with periods of one-party rule under Kenneth Kaunda, who died in 2021. However, before his death, his status in Africa had been elevated and he was a highly respected elder statesman.

According to Fabricius, the new President Hakainde Hichilema inherited significant debt and a country knocked by the Covid-19 pandemic. This caused the GDP to shrink by 4.9 per cent. The previous government was said to have suffered from corruption, but Hichilema has signalled that he intends to deal with this.

Much of the debt has been said to have come from loans from China, but Fabricius has doubts about this. Zambia has mineral wealth, much of it from copper. According to the World Bank it is considered a stable country, with elections every five years. The World Bank also notes that climate – rainfall in particular – has been a risk factor in agriculture and in electricity.

Island paradise

Heavily reliant on tourists, and an island paradise, Mauritius managed to recreate its economy and was consequently classified by the World Bank as a high-income country in 2020. That was despite the fact that Mauritius had a particularly bad year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The country became independent in 1968 and for many years was heavily reliant on sugar for its income both for the country and as income for those working in the industry. The sugar industry goes back some 300 years. Changes to the international sugar industry brought prices down gradually over the years with a particularly hard landing in 2007. The country has since diversified into the financial services industry and has done very well out of this.

But revelations such as the Panama Papers have attracted increasing attention to where illicit money is stashed internationally and where tax, that should rightfully belong to the treasuries of many countries, ends up. And, within the term ‘financial services industry’, somewhere lies the concept of a tax haven. Mauritius derives approximately 12 per cent of its economy from the financial services industry, which in turn employs some 15,000 professionals, according to the Economic Development Board of Mauritius. Inevitably, as pressure for change of the offshore world increases from groups such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, this will have an impact on Mauritius.


Of all the African states on President Biden’s invitation list, Ghana was perhaps the least surprising. Ghana’s invitation was related to the description of the country in the Carnegie Endowment paper as ‘free’ and a ‘liberal democracy’. According to the World Bank, Ghana’s independent judiciary has won public trust. The World Bank also states that Ghana ranks in the top three countries in Africa for freedom of speech and press freedom.

Ghana has experienced reasonably strong economic growth in recent years, of seven per cent between 2017 and 2019. This, however, came to a sudden halt with the Covid-19 pandemic. Poverty increased and public debt increased to 81 per cent of GDP in 2020.

More surprising might be the inclusion of Angola. It has gone through long periods of very harsh rule by the last administration and is still ruled by the same party. Press freedom, and a clear regard for human rights, have been absent. However, it now offers a key item for the future – hope.

Angola, as with other countries in Africa, has an active civil society. And, says Justice Goldstone, ‘without an active civil society, democracy and the rule of law will be in greater danger of being weakened and abused. For democracy to work, people have to understand their rights and to exercise them, this is the role of civil society’.

‘A free media is, without a doubt, the first manifestation of a free and democratic society’, says Moyo. ‘Freedom of expression anchors other democratic freedoms and liberties, particularly in that the electorate requires to be informed on a regular basis regarding the actions, conduct and activities of those wielding state power.’

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to short-circuit any attempt to report unqualified good news from the African region, as economies that have been severely knocked by the spread of the virus attempt to contain it. Nevertheless, as hopes that 2022 will see widespread easing of the impact of Covid-19, these countries are among several that offer hope for the future in a fraught setting.

Pat Sidley is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at pattykate@icon.co.za

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