Arusha. Former and serving heads of state and governments Monday underscored the relationship between democracy and a country’s ability to maintain peace, stability and prosperity, with President Samia Suluhu Hassan, for instance, admitting that she doesn’t see any alternative to democracy.
The leaders acknowledged democracy’s invaluable role in nation-building during the Africa Drive for Democracy Elders’ Retreat at the Gran Melia Hotel in Arusha. The retreat is part of several activities accompanying the 2023 Drive for Democracy Conference, which will occur between July 19 and July 21 in the city.
Jointly organised by the Center for Strategic Litigation (CSL), the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and MS Training Centre for Development Cooperation (MS TCDC), the conference will bring together over 300 participants from across Africa to discuss the issue of democratic backsliding facing the continent.
Monday’s retreat involved former heads of state and governments from Tanzania (Jakaya Kikwete), Siera Leone (Ernest Bai Koroma), Mozambique (Joaquim Chissano), and Ethiopia (Hailemariam Desalegn). President Samia inaugurated the retreat before she joined the elders in a conversation on democracy in a closed meeting.
Inaugurating the retreat, President Samia described the convening of the retreat as timely given the fact that the democratic gains that were made in the past are regressing, even in democracies that once flourished.
“Until African governments address the deficiencies in democratic governance and deliver essential public services to the people, democracy will remain an aspiration, never to be meaningfully realised,” said Samia, who came to power on March 19, 2023.
She mentioned her own efforts to improve multiparty democracy in Tanzania as an example of the commitment, describing democracy as the best-proven means of enabling our people to mobilise, organise, and engage in the governance of their public life.
Described as a reformist, President Samia has taken several measures interpreted to improve democracy in Tanzania, which include lifting an illegal ban on political rallies, releasing from prison people accused of trumped-up charges, and engaging political actors to improve multiparty democracy in the country.
“I don’t see an alternative to democracy as a prerequisite to achieving sustainable development and strong economic growth for countries, for democracy is closely associated with peace, social stability, and rapid socio-economic development,” the Head of State theorised.
But she added: “For democracy to be meaningful, it needs to translate into improved public services and livelihoods of our people.”
Monday’s elders’ retreat occurred against the backdrop of worrying reports of Africa’s democratic promise failing to deliver, threatening to erode the gains made through the third wave of democratisation.
The Mo Ibrahim Index on African governance notes that despite the progress made in establishing multiparty democracy and democratic values, there are still many obstacles to genuine political participation due to legal restrictions and economic burdens.
The report also notes that the inclusiveness of democracies in Africa is declining, and improvements in good governance have stalled. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the situation by imposing restrictions on freedom of association and assembly and delaying elections.
According to Mr Kikwete, who served as the president of Tanzania from 2005 to 2015, these threats call for African leaders to explore home-grown solutions to African problems collectively.
“As a former leader myself, I can rightly testify that sitting African leaders have a pivotal role to play in addressing these challenges,” President Kikwete said. “It is their primary responsibility, but I also believe former leaders can play a role.”
Mr Kikwete said that former leaders are connected to both the past and present, enabling them to contextualise existing challenges and share their reflections on past experiences with existing leaders.
READ MORE: ‘Democracy Should Go Beyond Elections’
Serving as the Chair of the Africa Drive for Democracy Initiative, President Bai Koroma said the retreat will allow former and serving leaders to engage and inspire each other as they work to improve democratic good governance in Africa.
Mr Koroma, who served as the fourth President of Sierra Leone from 17 September 2007 to 4 April 2018, said there are many issues happening in Africa that leave the continent’s people with more questions than answers.
“The spread of violent extremism, the increasing poverty, and economic hardship have left societies and families devastated and buried in the ashes of pain and abandonment,” Mr Koroma said. “In the heart of this development is the rapid decline of democracy, manifested through state capture of democratic institutions.”
Mr Koroma said as a direct impact of these developments, Africa is experiencing a growing contention between the state and its youth, civil society and the media, all of whom are increasingly being muzzled, leading to the reemergence of the military governments in several countries.
He said achieving necessary changes requires like-minded people to come together to deliberate on the issues affecting the continent, a phenomenon he said is happening in several parts of Africa.
A vehicle of hope
“Democracy is not just a system of governance,” Koroma said. “It is a vehicle of hope, progress, and social cohesion. It empowers individuals and communities, giving them a voice and agency in shaping their destinies.”
Mr Deus Valentine, the CEO of the Center for Strategic Litigation, who spoke on behalf of his co-conveners, said that the former leaders were not chosen randomly but strategically, with the main criterion being respecting the term limit outlined in their respective constitutions.
READ MORE: What Does the Future Hold for TZ Democracy?
Mr Valentine, whose organisation is based in Zanzibar, said the conference to take place on July 19 is being informed by their confidence that changes are possible, particularly if forums are created for people to share their experiences, knowledge and inspire each other.
“Africa can be democratic,” Mr Valentine said assuredly. “Africa can generate its own formula for democratisation. We don’t need a template imported in this continent and be taught how to become democratic.”
This year’s Africa Drive for Democracy Conference will be the second after the one that happened in 2022. Participants from over 45 African countries are expected to participate in the conference.
The gathering brings together the diversity of Africa’s democratic community, including scholars, religious leaders, NGO leaders, donors, trade unionists, students, professionals, artists, women leaders, farmers’ associations and political formations.
Lukelo Francis is The Chanzo’s journalist from Dar es Salaam. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.