The Alarming Decline of Democracy in East Africa

How Washington Can Help Reverse the Trend

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni delivers a speech during the launch of the National Dialogue committee in Juba, South Sudan, May 2017.  Jok Solomun / REUTERS

Following months of political drama, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will be sworn in for his second term in office tomorrow, November 28. Citing procedural failures, the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified results from the first round of presidential elections in August, a decision hailed as a sign of Kenya’s growing democratic maturity. The narrative changed, however, when opposition leader Raila Odinga boycotted the subsequent election by announcing the withdrawal of his candidacy. Kenyatta won the second-round election with 98 percent of the vote amid low turnout and threats to the judiciary and civil society. Kenya now stands at a precarious juncture, with the possibility of a deep political rift further fragmenting the country.

What makes Kenya’s backsliding particularly worrisome is that it’s part of a disturbing regional trend. Democratic progress across Africa has been mixed—Central Africa has always struggled, but in East and West Africa, there have been important gains in recent years. Although West Africa appears to be consolidating those gains, East Africa is in the midst of a democratic decline that is reversible in its early stages but threatens to gather momentum.

Political and media space in parts of East Africa is closing as presidents and prime ministers flaunt their security credentials. Several leaders, such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, are altering their constitutions in order to prolong already lengthy terms in office. No country in East Africa is rated “free” in U.S. non-governmental organization (NGO) Freedom House’s most recent rankings, and only two are deemed “partly free.” Many are in fact electoral authoritarian regimes that superficially adhere to democratic rules of the game but in reality employ authoritarian tactics. There is little precedent for change through the ballot box: outside of Somalia, no leader in East Africa has ever left office by losing an election.


The democratic decline is gripping a region of genuine strategic importance. East Africa can be an engine of continental economic growth, has made important gains

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