Democracy in Africa: one step forward, two steps back

EMERGING from the throes of colonialism in the 1960s, many analysts theorised that the nascent African states, as opposed to their Asian counterparts, were most likely to record substantial political and economic achievements.

This optimism was underlined by both economic and political factors. The huge deposits of mineral resources, the steep increase in the price of cash crops and the pedigree of the new leaders all provided the basis for a positive forecast. Judging by the rhetoric of the inclusive nature of governance in pre-colonial Africa, especially in the face of the arbitrary colonial machinery, the expectation was that the new leaders would put in place structures to accentuate good governance, which would in turn bolster economic growth.
However, such expectations quickly dissolved as some of the new leaders adopted the much despised colonial laws for suppressing all forms of dissent. Life-long presidency, looting of the national treasury, flawed electoral processes, assassination and jailing of opposition members and civil war gradually became the hallmark of the post-colonial state in Africa.
The dynamics of providing an effective answer to the vexing state of democratic development in Africa is the subject of this article. The nexus between adherence to good governance standards and economic development provides the justification for seeking credible avenues for enhancing the ethos of democratic values on the continent.
Any discussion of the state of governance in Africa would be incomplete without the consideration of the role that independence elites played in shaping the political trajectory of the post-colonial state. Put differently, it is imperative to understand how the actions of African leaders in the 1960s provided a veritable foundation for the prevalent tendency to stymie genuine efforts at democratisation.
Largely buoyed by the ideological cleavage of a post-1945 global order and the multi-ethnic configuration of the post-colonial states, independence elites became preoccupied with political survival, rather than building critical institutions. All across Africa, independence elites embarked on the task of decimating democratic institutions. This was primarily done through the systematic introduction of ideologies that fostered the monopolisation and consolidation of all power structures. One such was the one-party state ideology. The enthronement of a one-party state was commonly justified by references to a “romantic” pre-colonial era, devoid of political parties and dissensions.
In addition, many of the independence elites argued that a one-party state would enhance national unity in the multi-ethnic post-colonial state. With the centralisation of power under the one-party state ideology, the stage was set for the assault on all forms of opposition, the personalisation of the national patrimony, entrenchment of tribalism and crass nepotism. Some of the new leaders expressly and/or implicitly encouraged personality cults and declared themselves “president for life”, with Kamuzu Banda (Malawi), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Houphouet-Boigny (Ivory Coast) and Sekou Touré (Guinea) being typical examples. The assault on democratic standards had become so entrenched that by the late 1980s, an overwhelming majority of African states were classified as one-party states.
The negative impact of the debasement of democratic ethos on development cannot be understated. The obsession with the centralisation of power ensured that the task of development only remained in the realm of rhetoric. As Claude Ake famously surmised, “the problem is not so much that development has failed as that it was not really on the agenda in the first place”. Having either scrapped or reduced critical national institutions into channels for dishing out favours or experimenting with utopian ideologies, African states began to experience economic decline and the impoverishment of the general populace. This was a double blow as African states could neither boast of robust democratic development nor vibrant economic growth. The rhetoric of an Afro-centric model of political and economic development remained theoretical in the face of an entrenched suppression of real and perceived opposition.
In contradiction to Asia, during this same period, the hitherto poor Asian nations began to put in place mechanisms for sustained economic growth and industrialisation. Like Africa, the independence elites in some of the Asian states were dictators, but the difference was the keen sense of dedication to development-oriented goals on the part of Asian leaders, a factor which aided the subsequent move towards democratisation.
The changing dynamics of global politics, especially the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, meant that the independence elites and their heirs had to adjust to a democratic political configuration. The so-called “democratic revolution” of the 1990s thus phased out the one-party system, replacing it with a flurry of multi-party elections across the continent. In countries like Benin, Zambia, Malawi, Congo (Brazzaville), South Africa and Cape Verde, opposition parties successfully ousted ruling parties, while in other places such as Ghana, Kenya, Togo, Ivory Coast and Cameroon, the ruling elites were able to manipulate the electoral system.
While the post-1990 political development in Africa has been largely characterised by waves of multi-party elections, an objective assessment cannot ignore how the politics of the 1960s has influenced the democratisation process. In other words, it is important to consider the adaptive nature of the political elites, especially as it relates how the facade of democratisation is used to sustain an autocratic format. It is impossible to overlook the successful advances at consolidating democracy in some African countries. Countries such as Botswana, South Africa, Mauritius, Ghana, Sao Tome & Principe have made substantial progression in building democratic institutions and achieving relative economic success. Post-war reconstruction efforts in places like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mozambique are equally commendable.
However, a survey of the nature of multi-party democracy in some African countries reveals a worrying state of affairs. The reality is that most African countries subscribe to the formal attributes of “multi-partyism” rather than its content or substance. The potency of an enhanced participatory process is usually diminished by widespread rigging of election results, intimidation of opposition parties and the monopolisation of mass media. As such, the ritual of periodic elections only serves to maintain the status quo. The so-called new generation of African leaders such as Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia), and Isaias Afwerki (Eritrea) have all reverted to the autocratic mode of their predecessors. The political correctness of the term “president for life” may have diminished, but manufactured electoral victories continue to sustain the perpetual reign of leaders in Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Gambia and Equatorial Guinea. In the same vein, sons of former presidents have either replaced their fathers (Togo, Congo DR and Gabon) or are being groomed to ascend the presidency (Senegal, Egypt, Libya and Equatorial Guinea).
The democratisation project in Africa is indeed at a crossroads. The hope of independence and subsequently, the democracy wave of the 1990s, have largely been eroded by the prevalent tendency to manipulate and monopolise the political space. The narrative of one step forward, two steps backwards, best describes the state of democracy in Africa. In this respect, every progress made in countries such as South Africa, Mauritius and Ghana is continuously overshadowed by dictatorship in states like Zimbabwe, Libya and Equatorial Guinea.  The constant relapse into autocracy remains a primary obstacle to development on the continent.
Granted that there is no perfect democratic state, it is still important to appreciate the values that highlight the dignity and the free will of individuals to make choices on how they are governed. The debate on the relativism or the contextual nature of democracy cannot be used as a justification for reducing or eliminating the minimum standards of democracy. Without any empirical proof, African dictators continue to mouth the worn-out logic that Africans are more concerned with economic needs than abstract political rights. Apart from the fact that this statement exposes the desperation to suppress opposing voices, it posits that Africans lack the capacity to desire freedom.
Democratisation in Africa thus requires a serious focus. The departure point is the acceptance that the balance sheet of democracy on the continent leaves much to be desired.  It is against the backdrop of this realisation that the task of advancing democratic standards on the continent should be configured.
Enhancing democratic development in Africa requires some tough choices. The obstinacy of African autocrats, even in the face of the negative consequences of their actions, can only be countered by a well-devised strategy to enhance compliance or in extreme cases, ostracise errant regimes. In this regard, it is essential that a group of democratic states establish a coalition to monitor the level of democratisation. Either within a sub-regional or continental framework, such axis of democratic states should also be at the forefront of applying sanctions to undemocratic regimes. Such effort should complement already existing frameworks at the sub-regional and continental levels aimed at enhancing governance. These include the African Peer Review Mechanism, New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.                                                                           
A clear obstacle to the realisation of this goal is that all the regional powerhouses in Africa, except for South Africa, are either outright autocracies or semi-democratic societies. Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria, compared to smaller states within their regions, all have weak democratic cultures. The political, military and economic clouts of these regional hegemons are necessary ingredients for advancing democracy. Through economic sanctions and in extreme cases, military interventions, regional powerhouses can help shape the course of democracy. In addition, they can also help develop the capacity (human and financial) of fellow states to adhere to democratic standards.
The fact that the state of democracy in regional hegemons is below par should, however, not deter the above suggested activist course. Instead, it should present a challenge to existing democratic states, the civil society and the international community to confront the malaise of dictatorship on the continent. Deviating from the “wisdom” of African solidarity, it is imperative that democratic states distance themselves from the rationalisation of impunity. Through outright condemnation of anti-democratic measures, boycott of regional summits aimed at condoning dictatorial regimes, imposition of sanctions and support to pro-democracy groupings, the axis of democratic states can make a useful contribution to the advancement of democracy on the continent.


Babatunde Fagbayibo is executive director at the Centre for African Integration and Development in Johannesburg.

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