Sprouts of freedom in Africa


Enough polls of young people and a few examples of democratic practices hint that Africans may be demanding better governance.

The people of Niger live in a sweltering sandscape on the southern reaches of the Sahara known as the Sahel. The country is surrounded by neighbors with overlapping Islamist insurgencies. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have streamed across its borders in recent years. Hundreds of thousands of its own people are internally displaced by fighting between extremists and the military. Agriculture, the backbone of its economy, is at risk from climate change.

All of this makes Niger an unlikely indicator for an underlying shift in Africa despite the continent’s many conflicts and anti-democratic leaders.

In the past decade, Niger has been able to maintain robust economic growth, shaving the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty by nearly 10%. Both school enrollment and life expectancy are up. Even more significantly, when results from a presidential runoff election were announced last week, President Mahamadou Issoufou, who has been in power since 2011, accepted defeat and vowed to step down next month.

A peaceful transfer of power would mark a first for a country that has gone through seven constitutions and a military coup since independence from France in 1960. Yet Mr. Issoufou’s concession is no isolated event. A popular hope for more peaceful transfers of power in Africa has taken hold.

In the island nation of Seychelles, for example, President Danny Faure accepted defeat in an election last October, ending 43 years of one-party rule. Three days later he attended his opponent’s inauguration. The incoming president, Wavel Ramkalawan, called Mr. Faure his friend and appointed him an ambassador.

The norm in Africa is still stark. Sixteen countries face sustained armed conflict, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The latest survey by the watchdog group Freedom House shows 23 of Africa’s 54 nations are “not free,” while another 21 are only “partly free.”

But if Africa’s rulers remain stuck in authoritarian ways, its people are showing more signs of pushing back. A survey done for UNICEF and the African Union last year found an overwhelming majority of young Africans (91%) would like more say in political decisions that shape their lives. Currently 59% say they lack access to policymakers. And in another survey by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, 86% of young people in 14 African countries say the democratic values of Nelson Mandela are still relevant for them today.

Such sentiments are evident in many African countries. In Senegal and Uganda, opposition supporters have lately launched rolling protest campaigns against presidents who have changed their countries’ constitutions or arrested their political opponents to remain in power. In Tunisia and Ethiopia, fear of political fragmentation has prompted urgent calls for dialogue among rivals.

The decision by Niger’s president to accept defeat has won quick praise. Last week he was awarded a prize for “achievement in African leadership” by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Although the award is meant to be given annually, it has been withheld more often than bestowed over the last 15 years for lack of worthy recipients. In announcing the award, former Botswana President Festus Mogae said “a seed has been planted” in Niger. The country’s peaceful transition, he said, “will encourage the population to be more demanding of future leaders.”

More Africans want to claim their moral right to basic freedoms, equality, and rule of law. Despite ongoing instability in Africa, Niger and Seychelles are the latest examples of a public yearning for such ideals. Amid the violence and crackdowns, those voices are being heard.