Democratic governance and civil liberties are losing ground in Africa. Yet last week brought some good news for democratic leadership on the continent. Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba received the 2014 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.
The Ibrahim Prize was created in 2007 to encourage and celebrate democratic African leaders committed to improving and consolidating good governance for their people. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation selects winners based on five criteria. The prize itself is quite substantive: a $5 million award. But democracy in Africa is in so fragile a condition that the foundation had gone four straight years without naming a winner - there were simply no suitable candidates.
Pohamba joins an unfortunately small group of impressive African leaders. Previous prize winners include South African President Nelson Mandela, Botswanan President Festus Gontebanye Mogae, Mozambique's Joaquim Alberto Chissano, and Cabo Verdean President Pedro De Verona Rodrigues Pires. For a continent of 54 nations, this woefully short list is indicative of the widespread failure to live up to the "Africa rising" narrative.
The reality is not uplifting. Freedom House's 2015 Freedom in the World report classifies only 12 percent of sub-Saharan Africa as "free." According to the Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU's) Democracy Index, Mauritius, a small island-nation, is the only country in Africa classified as a "full" democracy (the EIU's highest classification of democratic governance). The Foundation's own 2014 Ibrahim Index of African Governance found overall improvements in Africa, but in the categories of Sustainable Economic Opportunity and Safety and Rule of Law, negative trends exposed deeper challenges across much of the continent.
Poor economic management and corruption remain endemic across much of Africa. According to the Heritage Foundation's 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, sub-Saharan Africa remains home to the largest number of "repressed" economies in the world. South and Central America is the only worse-ranked region.
Some African countries have attempted to pursue economic freedom while simultaneously undermining democratic institutions or neglecting political freedom. Yet, as the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom notes, there is an important positive relationship between increased levels of economic freedom and those of democratic governance. When people are empowered to acquire economic resources, those resources may be used to challenge deep-seated interests and compete for political power. Broad-based economic freedom therefore, ultimately encourages pluralistic political participation.
Dictatorial regimes in Africa, such as those controlling Zimbabwe and Sudan, actively undermine economic freedom precisely because it serves to empower the people, who then tend inconveniently to demand a voice in their own governance. To grasp the connection, one need only to look at the dictatorships' record on rule of law and property rights, not to mention their use of security forces to threaten and intimidate dissenters.
Despite a grim picture for the region, 2015 offers significant opportunity for democratic consolidation and broad-based economic reform in a significant number of African nations. Presidential elections, parliamentary elections, and/or constitutional referendums are scheduled in more than 20 countries. Included in that group are countries of great regional significance, such as Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ethiopia. Also included are countries on the brink of collapse. Democrats around the world are hoping for peaceful polls in the Central African Republic, South Sudan (where a shaky peace agreement still holds), Burkina Faso, and Guinea, which is still reeling from the effects of the Ebola outbreak.
The Mo Ibrahim Award shows leaders that greater legacies are built by those who leave office peacefully and help establish institutions that allow for the peaceful transition of power. This vital message still eludes far too many African leaders. As powerful states such as China and Russia model undesirable governance - expanding governmental control and stifling their own citizens' freedoms - it is imperative that voices promoting democracy and economic freedom remain strong around the world. Nowhere is such strength needed more than in Africa.
Leaders such as Hifikepunye Pohamba must remain vocal proponents of the progress they oversaw while in power and of the leaders still fighting to create the foundations for liberal democratic rule elsewhere on the continent. If African leaders are serious about "Africa rising," it is time they start supporting the voiceless and the repressed, not entrenched interests.
Originally appeared in Real Clear World