Democracy and Security May Be in Retreat, But Not for Millions in Africa | Opinion

When the recent election in Zambia defied expectations of violence and contestation with a peaceful transfer of power, few noticed it. In a world beset by COVID-19, climate change, fear and crisis, it is all too easy to see darkness and miss the light.

In a sense, it is no surprise for millions across my continent that an African contest did not make for breaking news when passing the reins of government from one party to another without rage or regret. It is becoming more normal. But this milestone is important when it challenges the afro-pessimism that expects our political contests to be marred by violence and fraud.

Africans are hardly short of elections. Most of us have been pulping trees for ballot papers every four years since independence. It has taught us that votes cast and counted, even in multi-party contests, alone make no country democratic. If they did, east Germany would have been a champion. Rather, democracy is a choice anchored by the rule of law, upheld by free and independent courts and delivered by elected officials with the support of an impartial public service.

We are steadily gaining each one of the latter. Freedom House might have declared "democracy [is] under siege" globally. But here in Africa, democratic backsliding is being reversed when votes for change in Zambia are respected and elections found fraudulent are rejected by the courts and re-run—as they were in Kenya in 2017 and my own Malawi last year.

What is most important is that this steady democratic growth is African watered and fed. No foreign power pressured the courts of Malawi to overturn the result of our so-called "Tipp-ex" election—when results were brazenly doctored to favor the then incumbent. Rather, it was the Malawian people who peacefully protested, and the national courts who ruled independently that the announced results were illegitimate, and the vote be held once more. The re-run poll was arguably the best run in our history, despite the absence of international observers.

Lazarus Chakwera casts his ballo
Lazarus Chakwera casts his ballot during the presidential elections at the Malembo polling station in his home village at the traditional Authority Khongoni in Lilongwe on June 23, 2020. AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP via Getty Images

In Zambia, such observers were once again plentiful and western embassies made their dutiful calls for a free and fair contest. But in the end, it was the incumbent president who addressed the nation of his own volition and swiftly conceded—as was his duty to do so—as it was equally for his opposition successor to be gracious in his acceptance. This is the correct order of things. There should be no second thought that it should not be.

The same can be seen with our security challenges, where reliance on Western intervention is lessening. Instead, Africa countries partner and protect each other as neighbors and through collective strength.

I recently assumed the chairmanship of the Southern African Development Community (SADC)—which includes Zambia—when many members of the 16-nation regional alliance have been deploying troops to aid Mozambique in the fight against Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado province. Others, like Malawi, are providing technical and logistical support. Beyond SADC, continental partners, including Rwanda and Uganda, have also deployed troops—creating a multi-national but uniquely African military operation against terrorism. Recently, a key port on the Mozambiquan coast was liberated. Residents are returning; jihadists have fled.

These trends show what we can achieve by our own hands. Even though improvements in democracy and security are clearly very far from continent-wide—where they are undeniable, they should steadily challenge perceptions that Africa and Africans are merely recipients of aid, lacking in agency. Whatever immense challenges we face as a continent, they are best addressed by building on this foundation and strengthening our own capacity to resolve them.

Our idea of self-sufficiency is not one that envisions an Africa that is autonomous and isolated from the world, but rather a continent strong and prosperous enough to be a reliable partner in addressing global challenges. After all, there are some things no nation or continent can solve on its own. Africa needs strong partnerships with other regions to build capacity in the fields of science and technology—the kind that can compete in the invention of vaccines against pandemics such as COVID-19.

As manufacturing agreements in Senegal and South Africa demonstrate, we already have the capacity to produce them. The World Health Organization's proposal of a temporary intellectual property waiver and a technology transfer hub is a welcome mechanism in further bolstering African manufacturing—the only viable bridge across vast disparities in vaccination rates—while offering the continent another shield beyond economically ruinous lockdowns.

For this we need international cooperation, but of a new kind that assumes that Africa is a trusted partner with her own capacities to offer. International assistance is no longer the only story to be told about Africa—and nor should it be the most important part of the story we are writing for ourselves.

Lazarus Chakwera is president of Malawi and chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.