For many African leaders, protests by citizens are seen as a form of dissent instead of an a fundamental exercise of their inalienable human rights and an expression of dissatisfaction with issues in the country. The term democracy has a narrow meaning for most of these leaders, understanding the term as the holding of elections. However, elections are just a part of democracy, and democracy entails a full spectrum of economic, social and political freedoms, which include citizens’ right to protest.
The focus on elections as the sole arbiter of what democracy truly is has been aided by some Western countries. The West focuses more on term limits rather than the achievements a leader records whilst in power. The preoccupation of endorsing an election as “peaceful” without necessarily considering the intricate details involved in electoral process has also been raised and critiqued.
Before the annulment of the August 8 elections in Kenya, the foreign election observers had given the election a clean health bill. Consequent events in Kenya would lead to protests and violence.
In Togo, there have been on-going protests for the past five months against the 50 year rule of the Gnassingbe family. The protests were met with a legion of armed policemen and soldiers who killed protesters.
The protests in Togo were followed with the hashtags #Togodebout and #Fauremustgo. The response of the government was however violence before they considered dialogue with protesters, political parties and civic groups. One could say the instinctual response of many African leaders to protesters is violence. The leaders find protests an inconvenient challenge, not as right to demand better leadership and good public service delivery, but the protests are viewed as an attack on their authority. Many African leaders never listen to the issues raised during a protest or social media campaign. The immediate response is to quell the protest, or discredit the protests, and in some cases, seemingly elaborate, but some leaders even resort to hiring counter-protestors.
I strongly believe that democracy should create a space for dialogue, constant scrutiny, accountability, questioning the government and public officials. Democracy also entails leaders respecting citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, even the dissenting voices. In Nigeria, this week marks two years since the Nigerian Army killed Shiite protesters. The agitation for Biafra, which led to a series of protests was also countered with the use of the Nigerian Army, leading to extra-judicial killings. Currently, the hashtag #EndSARS has been trending for a number of days, yet no government official has come forward to comment on the issue despite a number of videos showing evidence of how the police harass, frame and kill citizens, without giving them an opportunity to seek justice.
It’s of great concern that to African leaders, protests and hashtags are certainly not part and parcel of their understanding of democracy. It is only towards the election period that we get to see African leaders engaging with the citizens on social media platforms at a much debased level. Either sharing kerosene, or sitting beside a maize seller to sell roasted maize. Democracy, is what happens before the next elections take place, the important details in between electoral periods.