Musings on African Democracy on International Day of Democracy

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15th September is United Nations’ International Day of Democracy. The theme for this year is Strengthening Voices for Democracy. In the last decade or so, democracy has become a buzzword in Africa. In the late 1980s to mid 1990s a quest by Africans to free themselves form dictatorships, combined with pressure from the West following the fall of Soviet Union piled pressure on authoritarian regimes in African to open up political spaces and accept pluralism – shorthand for democracy.

Satellite image of Africa, showing the ecological break that defines the sub-Saharan area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today the notion is that any African country that wants to be taken seriously by the so called ‘international community’ ought to be seen as democratic. There is a reward for African governments that are considered as good democracies. These governments get a good ticking from financial institution, which means easier access to loan and endless aid flow. And, as an endorsement, Barak Obama turns up those countries when he happens to be on the continent.

In fact the West and donor organisations are happy to offer financial incentives for countries that hold ‘free and fair’ elections, or anything that resembles it. Mali is a recent example: through financial incentives, money that Mali badly needed, the country was coerced into holding an ill-prepared elections (by all accounts) following a 2012 military coup that never really materialised and the country disintegrated into civil conflict and insecurity.

This approach has inadvertently resulted into a dangerous phenomenon whereby African democracies have been reduced to a ballot box. Lack of economic independence has led African countries to accept that no democracy is credible unless the West has endorsed it. This is proving detrimental to entrenchment of democracy on the continent – it is making African sceptical about suitability of democracy to Africa, especially that there people that equate democracy to a Western import and not universal decree founded on principle of equality, fairness and justice.

Perhaps tired of characterising Africa as a ‘dark’ and ‘backward’ continent, the ‘international community’, has come up with something seemingly more positive: ‘Africa rising’. Spearheaded by The Economist, a prominent London based news magazine, this is apparently to show that there is now hope on the continent The Economist once called ‘hopeless’. Figures suggest that at the moment Africa has some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Yet GDP figures like these do not explain distribution of that wealth. On average 72% of youth in Africa live on less than US$2 a day, they are unemployed or underemployed. The more educated one is, the harder is it to make a living.

African continent failed to realised its potential under dictators, many of whom lived lavish lifestyles, mimicking colonial masters they had replaced, instead of using the continent’s vast resources for a common good. Dictators are paranoid folks. They are always in fear of the unknown. Consequently, African dictators spent a lot of public resources trying to fend of any possible rebellion and, importantly, keeping their inner-circle happy. This was especially important, as of these autocrats ruled during a period when Africa had more military coups then elections.

The turn of democracy in many African countries gave people hope; people believed that some of the practices seen under authoritarian regimes was finally over. Extravagance and self enrichment still looms has not ended. Elected leaders are only interested in re-election. If not themselves, then they are trying to secure presidency for their, son, brother, wife or any preferred successor that would guarantee them retention of some form of control. Malawi, Zambia, Senegal, Kenya and Zimbabwe have witnessed this. Now there are strong rumours that Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who once identified the problem of African leaders as overstaying in power, is try to handpick a family member as his successor.

The story here is that African democracies are not judged for what really matters. Voting is a crucial part of democracy, yet democracy does not begin and end at the ballot. African democracies need to strengthen institutions democracy as a way of enforcing checks and balances. Where checks and balances exist, elections are often free, fair and peaceful, and unscrupulous ruling party politicians are prevented from taking advantage of their incumbency to abuse public resources for party campaigns, which is detrimental to national development as public resources are diverted from issues of national importance. A recent IMF working paper (June 2013) affirms this:

“The results indicate that during election years, government consumption significantly increases and leads to higher fiscal deficits. During the two years following elections, the fiscal adjustment takes the form of increased revenue mobilization in trade taxes and cuts to government investment, with no significant cuts in government consumption… We conclude that elections not only imply a macroeconomic cost when they take place but also trigger a painful fiscal adjustment in which public investment is largely sacrificed. “

It is easy to conclude from these findings that the fears that democracy has failed in Africa are well founded. This is not necessarily correct; the problem is that democracy in African countries is not entrenched enough, due in part, to deliberate efforts by those in power who are happy to frustrate the process, as they fear public scrutiny. Absence of public scrutiny paves way for abuse of public resources. Democracy is a means to an end, not an end itself. African democracies must be judged by efforts to meet that end; that is the entire democratic process, not just the ballot.

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