Newspapers cover them on the front pages. Deputies fret about them in caucuses. Heads of government worry about them at night.
I am not speaking about political scandals. I am speaking about public opinion polls. And while politicians sometimes get too excited about them – depending on whether the polls are good or bad – polls help us build better democracies. By involving citizens, by providing information about what is going well in a society – as well as what isn’t – they hold governments accountable.
That’s why public opinion research is also a good place to start this conference on democracy in Africa and the G7. Of course, our countries in the G7 and also in Africa have different politics and cultures, our democracies are all unique and differ greatly. But opinion polls show two common trends across all our nations:
On the one hand, large majorities of our citizens support democracy. According to an Afrobarometer survey – and Professor Gyimah-Boadi will tell us more in a moment – around 70 percent of Africans say that “democracy is preferable to any other form of government”. In the G7, numbers are quite similar.
On the other hand, polls also indicate that citizens are less and less satisfied with how democracies work and perform.
This shows: The democratic progress that’s been achieved over the last decades is real and is desired – from Europe to Africa. But at the same time, there can be no doubt that democracy has come under pressure.
In difficult situations, citizens feel their governments don’t deliver quickly enough – I think we saw this during the pandemic and most recently now with rising energy prices. In some countries, state leaders themselves disregard election results and mock the legitimacy of democratic institutions.
Democracies are also under pressure because, at first sight, they do not seem to provide the tools that might produce the quickest solutions: in contrast to leaders of authoritarian regimes, leaders in democracies – thank god – have to form majorities in parliament and in their governments. That takes time – and it takes more time than when you have an autocratic regime, where a so-called “strong leader” can slam down on the table and say, “This is how we’ll do it”. We need time for decision-making, and to convince parliamentarians to make radical reforms.
And contrary to autocratic regimes, in democracies populists and autocratic forces have the opportunity to spread fake news, narratives and disinformation about their actions – as well as, like we saw during the pandemic, about democratic decisions. This is an instrument that aims to undermine the trust in our open societies.
So the challenges to democracy are real. And they are not isolated. They concern all of us. That’s why I am convinced that, as democracies, we should join forces and see how we can best deal with these challenges together – across countries and continents.
But before getting into that, let me make some important points.
First of all: There is no one perfect form of democracy. There are different types and kinds, in so many places – some have coalition governments, others have presidential systems. What unites us all is our belief in the rule of law, in the division of power, in human rights and in fundamental freedoms. In democracies, you may be able to win an election through populist measures, as we have also seen recently. But to succeed in government, in a democracy you have to govern responsibly.
Moreover, democracies’ job is never “finished” – it’s more like a process: They are constantly evolving and changing – because people are evolving and changing.
And, finally, I am well aware that we, as the G7 and as Europeans in particular, should be very conscious of where we are coming from when we speak about democracy in Africa. If democracy has prevailed in several African countries, it has done so against often overwhelming odds. After all, the legacy of colonialism placed a heavy burden on newly independent African states: Colonial powers split communities with “divide-and-rule” tactics and drew borders as they pleased. That made it difficult for democracy to take root. And even after formal independence, external powers bolstered non-democratic strongmen in Africa, in order to safeguard their interests and what they regarded as stability. We are well aware of all this.
Today, it is therefore very important to me, in opening this conference, that our most important goal is to listen to each other: Not to preach, but to listen, to be open regarding others’ views. To address the wounds of the past, but also to deal with the challenges we jointly face here and now.
That’s the aim of this conference: To listen, to exchange ideas, and to learn – so that, in a turbulent world, we can improve and strengthen democracy – and our democracies.
And I would like to suggest that we start by looking at three areas:
First, there’s growing disregard for basic democratic rules and principles:
We all watched in disbelief when, on the 6th of January last year, a violent crowd at the US Capitol tried to overturn the result of a democratic election. In the European Union, we see with concern that some governments are undermining the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the rights of minorities. In Africa, we see presidents bending constitutions to extend their term limits.
And in Russia, President Putin, even before starting his ruthless war of aggression against Ukraine, for years and as one of his central strategies proceeded to attack democracy and to make his country more and more autocratic – by stifling free and independent media, by putting the opposition into jail, and by attacking civil society. This development should be a warning sign to all our democracies.
Our response to all this needs to be resolute. When rights are curtailed, that is often a first sign of where we are headed: the rights and freedoms, especially of women and girls, of NGOs and journalists, are a yardstick for the state of a democracy. The same is true of the independence of courts, prosecutors and investigators.
We are seeing, on the other hand, good examples of what independent institutions can achieve: in South Africa, with the judicial probe into the period now referred to as “state capture” – as well as the cancellation of the flawed election of 2019 by the constitutional court of Malawi. Such positive developments would not be possible without the backing of resilient societies and independent institutions.
Similarly, beyond the national level, regional organisations can play a crucial role in upholding democratic principles. I’m thinking of the importance of ECOWAS to ensure democratic transitions in West Africa, and of the work of the European Union to strengthen the rule of law on our continent: for example, there is our rule-of-law mechanism that can lead to the cutting of EU funds if fundamental rights in an EU member state are under pressure.
And internationally, we all have an interest in strong international courts and an effective Human Rights Council as a forum for open and honest debates.
My second point is that democracies have to deliver to their citizens. When I visited Mali three months ago, I met three women who told me: “Yes, elections are very important. But what we actually also crucially need is security. We want to go to the market without fear of being raped or abducted on the way. Now, we are most of the time staying at home out of fear – so how can we go to elections?.
These women are right: democracy is about much more than holding elections every four or five years. Democracy is about governments serving their citizens – and about everyone being able to participate in society without fear: young people, minorities, women and girls in particular. That’s why I’m glad to see so many representatives of civil society here today – because it’s your work that makes peoples’ voices heard – and governments answerable to all citizens.
In Germany, we are pursuing a feminist foreign policy aimed at exactly this: to include everyone in society. Because no country in the world, no economy, no society can afford to exclude half its population from public life. And as I said before: women’s rights are an indicator for the state of a society. We currently see this again in Iran: if women are not safe, no one in that country is safe.
And the political participation of women leads to better democracies: A study of the US Senate found that women senators were more likely to work with colleagues from the opposing party and passed more legislation than their male counterparts. And speaking of women in parliament: there is much G7 countries can learn from African partners in this regard. The share of women in some African parliaments is higher than in Europe or in America. Some 44 percent of members of the newly elected Parliament of Senegal are women, In Germany, when I look at my parliament, we only have 34 percent female members in the German Bundestag.
Our parliaments are there to represent the people – therefore, they must reflect the diversity of our societies. But that alone is not enough: our citizens also expect security, healthcare, economic progress. Ms Ezekwesili, you were right when you said some time ago: ”The way out for our youth is education and: job, jobs, jobs“.
Over the last decades, African democracies made much progress in responding to such demands. One of the most prominent examples is of course Ghana, Minister Botchwey, you will probably speak about it. Through democracy and good governance, your country has transformed itself into a middle-income country and a regional centre of stability.
But today, you and many other African countries are facing a storm of crises: the pandemic and rising energy and food prices have hit your economies hard. The climate crisis, with droughts and burning heat, is taking away the livelihoods of many farmers, while elsewhere floods are wiping away everything people have built. And some of the continent’s most violent conflicts happen just across the border from comparably free and stable societies, threatening to spill over.
As partners, this is the moment when we have to find solutions together to these different challenges. This means economic and financial support in acute crises. It means industrialised nations living up to their commitments – through climate financing, through energy transition partnerships such as the one Germany and its partners are currently setting up with South Africa. And it means working together on security, as we are doing in the G7 ”Friends of the Gulf of Guinea“ group, which we are chairing jointly with Côte d’Ivoire this year, working on better maritime security. Solidarity and a recognition of where our partners are coming from – that’s the way forward.
That’s also true for the third challenge to democracy that I want to speak about: attacks from internal and external actors. Populists and extremists are spreading lies and hate, racism and religious radicalism. Authoritarian states are seeking to undermine our democracy with disinformation campaigns.
But we are not standing idly by. We’re getting better at understanding how our adversaries work. African and European civil society groups are doing impressive work in mapping how Russia is setting up troll factories and propaganda television networks, how it buys journalists to influence articles on news websites. And, in a second step, we are pushing back: by providing fact-based information ourselves, by debunking lies with quick tweets – but also by adapting our laws to counter criminal content online.
Minister Botchwey, you spoke in the Security Council about how to counter extremist groups who are using hate speech and disinformation to sow mistrust between peacekeepers and local communities in Africa – for example, with local projects to inform people about the peacekeepers’ work. And I thank you very much for this important speech – because it showed the world how disinformation can divide our united nations.
That is why at today’s conference we are also here to learn from your example – and to learn from each other about different ideas and initiatives to grow stronger together.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The challenges to democracy are real – bigger than during the last decades. Also, but not only, because of social media – which has on the other hand also given us so much more freedom.
I know that democracies are complicated. That they are often hard work, that they rarely produce quick results and need engagement with many people.
But I’m convinced: democracy is worth fighting for every day, and it is stronger than we think.
Because it’s the only form of government which allows all citizens to make their voices heard – and to be free. And because democracies allow for creative debate, they can adapt, advance and modernise.
For this, democracies need one thing in particular: They need you, they need us, they need all of us together as diverse and at the same time as united we are; they need the many representatives of civil society who have joined us here today, researchers, election observers, activists, politicians, citizens, families – everyone.
Your work makes a difference every day – be it in Europe, in Africa or beyond.