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Mapping the path for democratisation of Africa

Can Africa's history of undemocratic and authoritarian states be overcome? Wafula Okumu says hard work and commitment lie ahead, but that there is cause for optimism.


22 April 2005 - Wafula Okumu
Source: Pambazuka news

The awarding of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize to Professor Wangari Mathai, has widely been considered as an acknowledgement, in part, of the role the civil society has played in the democratization of Africa. Presently there are at least 12 retired presidents in Africa who had completed their constitutional terms and handed over power peacefully after elections. Last year witnessed elections in Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia in which long-serving presidents were replaced in elections won by candidates from the ruling parties.

Although some commentators have noted a trend towards incumbent presidents being replaced by their chosen heirs, this has not meant a step back in the democratization process in Africa. Interestingly, as the cases of Zambia and Malawi have proven, the preferred candidates of the departing presidents have turned against them after ascending to the high offices. In democratic terms, over the years Africa has witnessed the birth of political parties, active involvement in politics by civil and religious sectors and the opening-up of some democratic spaces.

However, factors such as lack of protection of political and civil rights, prevalence of authoritarian tendencies, tampering of electoral processes, and structural inhibitions strongly supported by the ruling elite indicate that democracy is far from being consolidated on the continent. Other factors that are undermining democratic consolidation are ethnicization of politics and the decay of the State, corrupt and egoistical leaders who have an addiction to power and patronage that only undemocratic governments can guarantee, lack of national ideologies and a national platform of democratization, disunity and disorganization of opposition parties and "pro-democracy" forces, popular lethargy to democratization, and other factors that comprise an enabling environment.

Political realities from countries such as Kenya have proven that multipartism does not automatically ensure democratic consolidation, nor does the holding of multiparty elections bring about development and political stability.

Democracy, sometimes used as a euphemism for "good governance," is now seen as a key ingredient for economic development, a guarantor for peace, and a value that is crucial for the integration of the continent. However, the building of democratic societies depends on the existence of a leadership that understands and embraces democratic ideals, political institutions that will be repository and guarantor of democratic values, and civil society and international actors playing specific and clearly defined roles. Furthermore, a certain enabling environment must prevail.

The Role of Leadership in Democratic Transitions

In order for genuine democracy to flourish in Africa, there must be leaders who are committed to democratic ideals and practices. A daunting challenge facing Africa is how it can get "good leaders" who are committed democrats.

Poor leadership is also exhibited by how badly opposition political parties in Africa are led - an indication of the lack of leadership qualities among those vying to assume the reigns of State power. In view of poor leadership among opposition parties and the unwillingness of the ruling elites to open up the political space for all the major contestants for State power the success of democratic transitions will have to be placed in the hands of a new generation of political leaders.

These leaders must have a clear understanding of democracy, make commitments to its ideals, and acquire experience in practicing it through political processes such as party politics. This in essence is a call for leadership training. The future of Africa will depend on leadership with training, integrity, honesty and high moral character.

These leaders will be dissimilar to the present crop that desperately seeks to feel intellectually superior to the masses, believe that they alone have access to ideas that will make the world a perfect place for the masses if they sheepishly follow their ideas, yearn to be makers of history, and have a tendency to substitute their ambitions for leadership, their wishes for ideas and their ideas for truths which others must live by.

The Role of Civil Society

Civil society is regarded in many countries as the foundation of liberty, agents for promoting political values, and advocates for social justice, democratic participation and good governance. Civil society can play an important role in both democratic transition and consolidation if they remain voluntary, self-regulating, autonomous of the State, and subscribe to sets of common rules that guide and regulate their activities.

In its advocacy role, civil society can act as channels through which citizens articulate their interests, particularly in situations where political parties are weak, disorganized and "represent factional politics rather than competing ideologies" (Dicklitch 1998). Besides being advocates for alternative policy agenda, civil society can also advocate for social change by exerting pressure on the State to make structural changes and to produce policy outputs that enhance societal interests.

However, the role of civil society, like that of political parties, in the democratization process can be impeded by dependence on external funding, hostile governments, and cleavages such as ethnicity, religion and gender bias that characterizes African politics.

The Role of International actors

Although international actors, particularly the donor community, have played a significant role by putting pressure on recalcitrant national elite to make "democratic" concessions, it is also noticeable that foreigners have had their own agendas. The heavy reliance of opposition parties and civil society on foreign support does not augur well for the introduction and consolidation of democracy. This is particularly so because this relationship is creating a dependency syndrome that is detrimental in the long-term, as the democratic values and practices that will eventually be introduced and consolidated will be reflective of those of the foreign interests that supported them.

In terms of promoting their own agenda, western donors and patrons seem to be obsessed with elections and adoption of capitalism as conditions for continued financial hand outs. This concern is reflected in how democracy has been used as a "Trojan Horse" for international capitalism, by including "free enterprise" in the package of demands for "pluralism."

The international donor community, mainly influenced by neo-liberalism, has linked democracy to capitalism on the assumption that only capitalism can limit State power and enhance democratic values (see World Bank, 1996). There are other specific concerns on capitalism's relevance to, and prospects in, Africa.

First, history has shown that the perversion of the African State has not been confined only to government but also to the market, which is heavily regulated by the government and where formerly highly placed government officials have used their positions to gain footholds. Second, capitalism in Africa, and in other parts of the Third World, has a history of supporting and being tolerant of dictatorship. Third, on a continent like Africa where capitalism is a parody, it is inconceivable to leave key economic decisions to the market forces.

Corruption has perverted the market to the extent that graft, intimidation, misuse of public offices for economic gains, and manipulation of market rules for political expediency ensures that a few powerful individuals dominate the market and owe no accountability to the public at large. Lastly, capitalism has a history of allowing a few powerful individuals to control and reap maximum benefits from the market.

The importance of an enabling environment

The poor enabling environment that has hamstrung the introduction and consolidation of democracy in Africa has historical roots. Colonialism, and later neo colonialism, not only failed to cultivate a political culture which can sustain democracy but also installed inhibitions in the political structures that have been reinforced by power hungry ruling elite. Capitalizing on the poor understanding of their citizens' political and civil rights, and eager to please western donors and patrons, African leaders have shown no genuine commitment to engaging in substantive democratic practices.

Furthermore, no effort has been made to define a type of democracy that fits in the African context and reflects the people's realities. This means that before we prescribe the societal conditions that need to exist for democracy to be introduced and consolidated, we must first clarify the type of democracy that is appropriate and can survive in the African context.

Creating an enabling environment for democracy to flourish will partly entail political education of the leaders and the masses on the meaning and the practice of democracy. A commonly and universally accepted definition of democracy must be arrived at so that the people know what to expect from the ruling and opposition parties, civil society, the international well-wishers/supporters and others involved in the promotion of democratic ideals. Likewise, leaders should also know what to expect from the ruled and the standards they are being held under.

The people in Africa must first agree on the types of societies they desire and, more importantly, agree on their national political values; in the process deciding whether democracy is one of them. It should be noted further that establishing a lasting democracy requires a civic virtue - a civic education of a kind that brings people to understand both the rights and the obligations of citizenship.

State restructuring

Kwesi Prah (1996) points out that despite the existence of "the will for democratic dispensation . . . in Africa," there is also "the need for adequate and appropriate institutions, established and respected procedures, accepted conventions and forms of social conduct through which democratic practice can be consistently implemented in the running of the country." The present African States are colonial creations that are by nature totalitarian, oppressive and undemocratic. Colonial States in Africa were inherited and strengthened by the African leaderships that took over power at the end of European colonialism.

By the late 1980s, the States in Africa had not only become more repressive but also burdensome to the people. It is absolutely necessary that African societies that seek to transform themselves into democratic ones must abandon the existing colonial/neo-colonial State structures and practices that are still intact.

Prah argues that "the best institutions and operational rules of democratic organization will amount to little if politicians do not use them in good faith. While the field for the exercise of democracy needs to be kept level at all times, the ground also would need to be (accessible,) accepted and respected by all parties." In particular, African bureaucracies, that have become mere appendages of the ruling parties that are used to frustrate and harass the opposition and promote the interests of the ruling parties and elite, must be immunized from politics and transformed to serve democracy.

However, it is not only the colonial institutions that need to be eliminated or transformed. Prah notes that throughout the history of colonialism, there was a steady erosion of traditional African institutions by colonial institutions. While some of these traditional institutions and practices were not "totally annihilated," most were "severely weakened." Some of these surviving traditional practices have proven to be obstacles to the democratization and modernization of the African State. According to Prah, democracy cannot flourish in Africa "where vested interests, possibly legitimized by corrupted notions of 'tradition,' still control key instruments of the state."

Building the capacities of political parties

In promoting democracy in Africa, there has been little emphasis on building the capacities of political parties, particularly those in the opposition. Instead, the focus has mostly been on multiparty elections and in particular the number of political parties, how regularly elections are held, and voter turnouts. This in turn has resulted in electoral politics becoming the central focus for the opposition parties, foreign interests and political analysts. By overstocking on the elections, little investment has been made to strengthen the institutional capacities of opposition parties to enable them to be viable contenders for power or to be effective agents for installation of democratic societies.

Prospects for Democracy in Africa

All things considered, what is the prospect for democracy? In assessing the prospects for the consolidation of democracy in Africa, Christopher Clapham and John Wiseman prescribed a "minimalist end of the (democratic) spectrum" which essentially entails "political contestation for public power (invariably between political parties)." I do not subscribe to this view as it calls for giving Africans half-baked bread because it is better than nothing. Despite the pitfalls for introducing and consolidating democracy highlighted in this essay and elsewhere by other scholars of African politics, I am optimistic, like Joel Barkan, that democratic transitions in Africa will continue moving forward rather than backward.

Barkan points out the following as factors that are assisting the transition in moving forward. Firstly, the legalization of opposition parties and the holding of multiparty elections have guaranteed a stake for the opposition and signaled the end of one-party states and monopolization of power. Secondly, the civil society, free press and the opposition have opened up considerable political spaces that are only bound to grow. And thirdly, there is a growth of "anti-regime hardliners" and "transition-seekers" among the national political elites who are still predominantly "patronage-seekers."

However, the prospects for democratic transitions are dimmer in some African countries because political spaces are limited by ruling parties that are dominant political organizations. Furthermore, the 'transitions' are being orchestrated "from above" and supported by civil society that is relatively weak and urban based.

While acknowledging the high prospects for democratic transition and consolidation in Africa, we must also point out that it is a daunting challenge not only to develop and to preserve full democracy but also to introduce it. It is an uphill effort that will require enormous political will, national discipline and sacrifice, and vast financial expenses. But with good planning and careful introduction, full and genuine democracy will definitely flourish in Africa in the near future. With a rich enabling environment, proper political leadership and institutions, a vibrant civil society, and a well-meaning and appropriate international support, it would be just a matter of time before the people of Africa start reaping the fruits of democracy.

* Wafula Okumu is the co-editor, with Paul Kaiser, of 'Democratic Transitions in East Africa' (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishers, 2004)

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