Africa's Failing Democracies

When human rights Watch criticized the results of Ethiopia's May elections, in which the ruling coalition "won" an improbable 545 out of 547 seats, leaders in Addis Ababa didn't ignore the influential NGO. Instead, they paid tens of thousands of demonstrators to gather in the capital and denounce the report.

Ethiopia's political shenanigans are emblematic of a growing trend away from democracy in Africa. The swing includes not only pariah states like Eritrea and Sudan, but also U.S. allies like Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame is up for reelection and seems set to duplicate the improbable 95 percent victory he posted seven years ago. Rights groups have already cried foul: a general who criticized Kagame was shot, charges have been brought against a top opposition leader, and a dissident journalist was killed. In Gabon and Togo, the deaths of long-serving autocrats have meant elections in which power was smoothly -transferred—to their sons, that is. Mauritania, Guinea, Madagascar, and Niger have all suffered coups in the past two years. Freedom House, a nonprofit that tracks democratic trends, dropped three African countries from its list of "electoral democracies" last year, and reported declines in political freedom in 10 others. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation—which offers a lucrative prize to African leaders who both help their countries and peacefully leave office—decided not to offer an award last year.

Why the backsliding? It's partly thanks to the rise of China, which provides cheap loans and investment to resource-rich countries while asking no hard questions about human rights, thus strengthening the hold of authoritarian governments. The West is to blame, too. The Obama administration and its European allies have turned a blind eye to autocratic trends in -places like Uganda, Burundi, and Ethiopia because of those countries' role in -battling Islamists.

There's no easy solution. Making aid conditional on meeting democratic or human-rights standards would mean a halt to programs that help the poor. Criticizing military allies risks disrupting the war against radical Islamists. But as long as Western countries stay the course, more Africans will grow skeptical of the West's declared support for the rule of law. "If this is their representation of democracy and human rights, they shouldn't talk about it anymore," says Hailu Shawel, an Ethiopian opposition leader. "They should shut up." The Obama administration and its allies could win back credibility by taking a tougher line on Kagame and his fellow leaders—but they seem more likely to keep looking away.