Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

Table of contents

The Challenges of Fighting Authoritarianism in Africa

, by Survie , AMEGANVI Brigitte, DUARTE Laurent

From the 1990s onwards, national conferences were held in many African countries which led to the establishment of multiparty systems. As a result, civil society organisations (human rights NGOs, faith-based organisations, humanitarian organisations and trade unions) have become key players in the political and social game. However, authoritarian or dictatorial regimes are attempting to quell civil society’s new role and are undermining its capacity for political participation. New, informal civic movements are thus choosing to join forces with more traditional organisations and are building alliances regionally and internationally in order to ensure the voices of its citizens are heard. While democracy is undergoing a noticeable decline throughout the world, particularly in Africa, these new movements are playing a major role in the fight for democracy, while actively working to implement public policies that could lift their countries out of poverty and international dependence. How can citizens renew their interest in collective life and become politically involved when they are living in such violence and under dictatorships that have, in some cases, been in place for over 50 years? This is the challenge facing Tournons La Page (TLP).

An international network defending dignity and fighting fatalism

Tournons La Page is a transcontinental citizens’ movement which brings together civil society representatives from Africa and Europe to promote democracy on the African continent. It is active in Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Guinea, Niger, and Togo, and brings together at least 240 civil society organisations and coalitions. It is estimated that there are nearly 3,000 activists involved in the movement. Tournons La Page, like other citizens’ movements, dreams of an Africa, and of a world, where democracy (not only in its institutional form, but as an ongoing civic engagement) is effective for all.

A Togolese protester wears a t-shirt stating : “In no way, no one can serve more than two terms in office”. The struggle to limit presidential mandate is common to several sub-Saharan countries. Credit : Pascal.van (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Multipartyism, and by that I mean democracy, is a luxury for Africa,” Jacques Chirac said in the early 1990s. It is exactly this kind of condescending and fatalistic postulation that the pro-democracy activists of Tournons La Page and many other platforms are fighting against. For them, it is a matter of regaining national and regional pride, and of debunking old clichés about the continent as an Eldorado to explore (emergent Africa) or, alternatively, a cursed land (an Africa of endless conflict and misery). The people of many African countries feel they are being held hostage by ruling powers. 90% of the Gabonese, Togolese or Equatorial Guineans have only ever seen one family at the helm of their countries! Since 2015, many presidents in office who had reached term or age limits, have tried to change the constitution in order to stay in power (Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Togo, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, to name a few). Since 2000, thirteen heads of state have had the constitution changed to stay in power. As a result, tens or even hundreds of citizens died during protests against these “constitutional coups” – which are not just a legal matter; they are a cause of instability and violence. They contribute to quashing any hopes among citizens of a change in the ruling political class. A 2015 Afrobarometer poll, conducted in 30 countries, found that the vast majority of Africans support a two-term presidential limit. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, in the 21 African countries that have set term limits in their constitution, heads of state have only been in power for an average of four years. However, the ten African leaders who have evaded term limits have been in power for an average of 22 years. The removal of term limits undermines public confidence, increases concentration of power in the hands of one or a few, and shrinks political space. This trend, generally enforced with the support of an army that has been turned into a Praetorian guard, ultimately leads to increased risks of tension, political violence and even civil conflict.

The core mission of Tournons La Page is to assist in organising and developing national and regional collectives. It aims to build an expansive alliance that stands against dictatorships and advocates a democratic model, moving gradually towards an alternative model. Partners or member organisations in Europe, many of which belong to the African diaspora, work to support and publicise African initiatives, and push political leaders to make human rights and democracy the focus of their foreign policy. We need to work together, both in Africa and in Europe, to open up democratic space and ensure civil society plays a key role in the development of public policies.

Driving TLP’s work is the desire to break the foundations of authoritarian power: political power (elections, institutions and political leadership), economic power (corruption, nepotism, international enablers, etc.) and repressive power (army, police, intelligence services, denunciation and self-censorship). This comprehensive approach to fighting dictatorships requires using the many forms of non-violent action available to activists: boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins, awareness-raising, legal action, etc. Blowing the whistle on the collusion between authoritarian leaders and transnational corporations, resulting in massive tax evasion, requires legal action (i.e., the case involving Orano [ex-Areva] and political leaders in Niger, or the case against collusion in the mining market in Guinea). Refusing repression means bringing those responsible for human rights violations before national or international courts. Fighting for election transparency and working towards a change of power through the ballot box requires a multifaceted citizen mobilisation throughout the electoral process. It may involve, for example, actions aimed at establishing a fair and truly independent National Electoral Commission, or encouraging citizens, especially young adults, to register on the electoral roll. Developing apps to facilitate an alternative vote count, or setting up tents offering free snacks in front of polling stations as a way to encourage citizens to stay and watch the count, are other ideas to add to the political tool-box. Given that electoral fraud is how the autocrats manage to stay in power, they generally see these approaches as hostile.

A new pan-Africanism

Social movements in Burkina Faso in 2015, during the Arab Spring or, more recently, in Algeria and Sudan have been a source of inspiration for the members of Tournons La Page. When the citizens of a country – which has been under the grip of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes for decades – peacefully make their voices heard and pave the way for a shift towards democracy, it reverberates throughout the network. People take part in lively discussions, share their experiences and form a collective analysis. There is no silver bullet, but the increasing number of peaceful protests on the continent in recent years has given hope to activists who are subjected to various forms of state violence on a daily basis.

In the ten countries where Tournons la Page is present, activists share the same experience of violence. There is, however, a growing sense of solidarity and coordination. A new pan-Africanism is being built up, with the support of European organisations that want to see the rise of a new democratic international on the continent. TLP is the very incarnation of the new pan-African slogan coined by Amzat Boukari-Yabara in his History of Pan-Africanism: “Don’t agonize, organize!”

Building coalitions between civil society groups has become imperative, especially since African political leaders themselves are seeking to take advantage of existing sub-regional and regional organisations. The politicised African youth now see these organisations as mere cartels of rulers, and are taking action to make this widely known. They demonstrated, for example, that the ECOWAS’ (Economic Community of West African States) additional protocol on democracy and good governance is only put to use against popular insurrections, presented as civil or military coups d’état. Yet these cartel members offer warm congratulations when one of them successfully pulls off a constitutional coup and then fraudulently claims victory in the first round of the ensuing elections – a technique now referred to as a “knockout coup”. This is how presidents for life end up padlocking the chain that ties them to power, at the cost of dozens of lives which no one seems to care about. The same regional and sub-regional organisations never come to the rescue of the people when rights, democracy and good governance are being trampled upon, even though they recognise these values in their own official declarations as necessary conditions for stability, inclusive development and economic integration. As for election observation, which involves a few dozen observers commissioned by regional or sub-regional bodies at great expense, observers systematically conclude at the end of their observation missions that, in accordance with the established methodology, “some minor irregularities were observed here and there, but nothing that might cast doubt on the credibility of the vote.”

The idea, therefore, of uniting African civil society coalitions and fusing their actions is gaining ground. The severe sanctions initially imposed on the Malian people before ECOWAS backed down, as well as the constitutional coups followed by electoral coups in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire have made people aware of the urgent need to work collectively to establish an ECOWAS or an African Union of the people.

An articulation between the old and the new

Tournons La Page brings together 242 organisations and movements – a myriad of church-based organisations, trade unions, rappers, diaspora organisations, to name just a few. And the members of these various organisations and movements manage to hear each other out, although this isn’t always easy. There’s a marked generational divide within the TLP movement and between its member organisations. Some leaders, particularly in Central Africa, are at the end of their activist careers while others are seen as early pioneers. Other leaders, particularly in West Africa and the Great Lakes region, represent a new generation of civil society. On the world’s youngest continent, yet which has the world’s oldest leaders, there is a section of young people – primarily (although not limited to) the urban educated youth – that are claiming their role as political players independent of political parties, which are often perceived as vehicles of clientelism and personal enrichment. As the sociologist Richard Banégas often reminds us, particularly in his studies on Côte d’Ivoire, this younger generation is declaring that its time has come. [1]

With very few resources but an overabundance of energy, these younger activists are increasingly vocal in the public arena. Their organisations are often more fragile institutionally speaking (accounting, sources of funding, governance), but their actions are more innovative and more attuned to the needs of the most deprived (“les bas des en-bas” [the low of the lowest]). More established NGOs and activists, who joined the fight for democracy in the 1990s with Citizens’ Conferences, have greater stability and easier access to international funding and political support. These two types of organisations complement each other perfectly, although their approaches are not always easy to reconcile. The movement’s International Secretariat and the shared governance mechanisms within TLP have been set up to enable complementarity between members. By supporting and empowering members and collectives, the International Secretariat contributes to mitigating the risks associated with the financial insecurity of activists and the challenge of developing long-term strategies. Mobilisation is highest during election periods and social protests, so strategies are also needed to bring people on board outside of these periods.

Confronting repression

There have been frequent attempts to clamp down on the Tournons La Page movement due to its focus on protecting rights and defending democracy. In Guinea, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and the DRC, activists have been jailed repeatedly. In just three and a half years of activism, the coordinator of TLP Niger has been jailed three times and spent thirteen months in a prison cell. Each time, the police report was blank, and he was eventually released without charges. Solidarity among members is the first protection. Collectives of lawyers have been set up in each country, ready to take legal action whenever a member’s rights are violated. At international level, rapid response networks exist in each country, which allow TLP to garner the support of well-known NGOs such as Amnesty International, FIDH or ACAT-France to defend activists’ rights. Unfortunately, African state authorities are finding increasingly diverse and sophisticated ways of silencing dissent, particularly through the digital route. Le Monde and The Guardian have revealed that in Togo, for instance, well-known dissident figures, including the coordinator of TLP Togo, were spied upon using Israeli software Pegasus. Again in Togo, police prevented three West African nationals and members of our movement from entering the country for the launch of TLP Togo, stating that the organisation has no legal existence. Aside from the grotesque justification given by the Minister of National Security, the decision was in complete violation of the ECOWAS Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons. Similarly, under the guise of terrorism-related insecurity, demonstrations organised by TLP Niger were banned at least 24 times between January 2018 and December 2019.

The Togolese diaspora in Paris protest the current regime in their country. Credit : Pascal.van (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A dictator’s chosen method of repression may be borrowed from elsewhere and used in a radically different context. In recent years, restrictive laws on the rights of civil society, cybercrime and counter-terrorism have been passed throughout Africa in an attempt to curb dissident voices. There is an unbreakable solidarity between heads of state, who are able to use regional institutions such as ECOWAS to their advantage despite the fact that these organisations have some of the most pro-democratic founding texts in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures have played a key role in shrinking civic space everywhere. Although the consequences of the pandemic were not as disastrous as expected in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, a public health state of emergency has been used as a pretext to put restrictions on freedoms: freedom of demonstration, of assembly, of information and of movement. The health crisis has been a boon for many governments eager to silence dissenting voices, and jailing pro-democracy activists has been one way it has chosen to do this.

Today, more than ever, one of the key challenges for pro-democracy activists who wish to both defend themselves and shake the foundations of authoritarian regimes – is to rally sections of the police force that share the same frustration. This was what was done in Sudan. But African leaders are learning from the mistakes of others, and are unleashing a relentless onslaught of repressive measures, supported by the international community’s silence. Obsessed with fighting terrorism and reducing “migration flows”, Western governments are ready to support any autocrat whom they perceive as an ally.

Expanding what’s possible and unleashing creative imagination

It is up to each population to define its own path, according to its history, its culture and its creative imagination. This is why the TLP movement gives each national coalition a great deal of autonomy to develop a political vision and carry out actions appropriate to the context they operate in. Yet, since the beginning, TLP has agreed on a set of key measures to move towards a real change in power, conducive to a genuine democracy:

  • 1) Economic justice: demand transparency on the state’s budget, on the contracts signed with transnational corporations and the revenues derived from the exploitation of natural resources; fight against all forms of nepotism, clientelism and corruption. This is central to the actions undertaken by certain coalitions, following a long process of documenting violations of the economic and social rights of the population (and even, in Niger, the fundamental rights of the military, whether it be in the so-called “uraniumgate” affair, or in scandals involving the misappropriation of funds allocated to fight terrorism). Other examples include the involvement of TLP-DRC in assisting Mbobero residents in South Kivu, victims of violent expropriation.
  • 2) Enforce republican standards: particularly when it comes to appointing military and police command posts and to appointing judges, ensuring they observe judicial independence.
  • 3) Protect and expand civic and democratic space: promote and defend freedom of opinion, freedom of the press and freedom of demonstration without any preconditions other than notifying the relevant administrative authority. Protect oneself from restrictive legislation that reduces freedom of association or assembly, even in private spaces. The aim is both to loosen the grip of centralised powers and to enable those working in isolated areas to develop more initiatives, so as to work closely with citizens and adapt our work to their needs. This is why, for the past two years, our priorities have been to extend TLP’s network, to build as many national, regional and international alliances as possible, and to enhance the skills and capacity for action of member organisations.
  • 4) Consolidate counter-powers such as Independent Electoral Commissions, Constitutional Courts and National Human Rights Institutions. We shouldn’t think twice about initiating proceedings using ratified international instruments when national channels of advocacy, dialogue and protest have been unsuccessful. Admittedly, the action initiated by civil society organisations in Côte d’Ivoire did not succeed in forcing Ivorian authorities to change the composition of the National Electoral Commission in accordance with the decision of the Court of Justice of the African Union. But initiatives such as this one will certainly set precedents and help demonstrate, should the electoral crisis worsen, where the responsibility lies.

Democracy in retreat. Can a new solidarity be forged between peoples?

In many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the prevailing sentiment is that of a return to the era of single-party rule and lifelong presidencies. After three decades of pressure from local and international organisations, which forced them to accept some degree of citizen control over public action, particularly in regards to mining resources, African despots may think they have taken over the reins for good. But we now live in an interconnected world, and tomorrow cannot be like yesterday. Many of these countries have also been weakened by terrorism, which they unwillingly enabled by depriving their youth of education and perspectives.

Admittedly, Western countries are less willing to impose conditions on development aid with the rise of new challengers (Russia, China, Turkey) that are making their influence felt in sub-Saharan Africa and are unbothered by issues of democracy, human rights, and environmental protection. We should, however, be wary of these leaders that belong to a bygone age. They are trying to hold on to power by leveraging an image of stability. But beneath the calm, a storm is brewing.

Europe would be betraying its own interests and values if it were to condone, through its silence, the perpetuation of archaic political regimes south of the Sahara. But we need to rally European citizens and raise their awareness if we wish to change things. It’s undeniable that Africa and Europe share a common future. But for many Europeans, what goes on under African dictatorships is remote and has no impact on their daily lives. Democracy is currently in retreat in Europe. This will perhaps open the eyes of those who think that democracy is a given, not something that we must continuously fight for. This turnaround in history may also serve as a wake-up call to those eager to export their political model, who often fetishise elections and confuse democracy with representation.

Ultimately, in Africa, as elsewhere, there can be “no democracy without change in power”, “no development without democracy”, and “no sustainable development without social justice”; three slogans that summarise the work of Tournons la Page, in both Africa and the rest of the world.


[1Richard Banégas and Jean Merckaert “Mobilisations citoyennes, répression et contre-révolution en Afrique”, Revue Projet 2016/2 (N° 351), pp. 6 -11.


Laurent Duarte has been the international coordinator of the Tournons La Page movement since 2016 (within Secours Catholique), tasked with providing technical and international support to the network’s 250 member organisations. Brigitte Améganvi has been involved for several decades in African diaspora organisations active in human rights, democracy and inclusive development issues.