Where Next for Africa?

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What Huntington called the ‘Third Wave’ saw a host of countries from Europe to Latin America, begin to democratise in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the 1990’s Africa began to follow suit, with the end of apartheid in South Africa precipitating a new dawn of democracy on a continent renowned for cronyism, heavy-handed dictatorships and civil war. Fifteen to twenty years later however, has this proved to be more of a false dawn than anything else? Despite more countries offering their citizens a democratic vote than previously, many have relapsed from their initial openness or failed to consolidate their democracy to the extent that was hoped for. Instead of full democratic states having emerged, the experience of the new African countries has given rise to a number of new terms to explain their partial democratisation: semi-democracy; pseudo-democracy; illiberal democracy and many more.The question is, what hope is there for democratic consolidation to get back on track, or are African citizens to be stuck permanently in the chasm between dictatorship and democracy?

Lipset’s seminar work in 1959 stated that democracy was essentially linked to wealth; he therefore thought that economic development would affect a country’s receptivity to democracy (S. Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”, The American Political Science Review 53; 1 (Mar., 1959)). Later theorists highlighted the importance of elite agency, arguing that they have the potential to persuade an authoritarian leader to reform. Yet others argue that in the globalised world international factors are often significant, especially in poorer countries. They point to two types of international factors; leverage and linkage. Leverage suggests an attempt by international forces, either states or global institutions, to force an authoritarian government to democratise, whilst linkage refers to the ability of international actors to support local civil society forces which promote democratisation. Examples of this include the American assistance in the Ukrainian democratisation movement before the Orange Revolution in 2004. Also important is the process of snowballing; essentially the opposite of America’s Cold War ‘Domino Theory’ which suggests that once a country begins to democratise those that neighbour become more prone to democratisation also.

In Africa, a mixture of these factors was significant in beginning the wave of democracy that unfolded. Perhaps of least significance is the modernisation thesis of Lipset. Given how poor a number of the countries which democratised were, such a theory would not have predicted that they would have democratised at all. International factors were definitely important, with aid donors having considerable influence in promoting democracy in the immediate post-Soviet period. The snowballing affect supplemented this, with democratisation in a few countries leading others to fear falling foul of the international donor community and in turn beginning to reform. Local agential factors, involving local elites putting pressure of authoritarian governments existed, but in the case of Africa, probably did not have the power to force change on their own; civil society was not ubiquitous enough to play this role.

Democratisation was therefore a process that was generally begun from above. Indeed in many countries previous dictators became the country’s first democratic leaders. This poses a number problems relating to democratic consolidation today; with authoritarian leaders staying in power, albeit under a different system, the problem that African countries have traditionally faced in its leaders being unwilling to relinquish power naturally remains. When the people have voted for change therefore, many have chosen simply to ignore the result, such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Mwai Kibaki in Kenya. Democratic traditions have therefore clearly not yet been embedded in many countries, something that inevitably takes time but who’s progress remains stubbornly slow continent-wide.

Other signs of democratic consolidation have similarly failed to develop. Many African leaders, and indeed many donors, saw elections as the important focus point of democratisation efforts, and as such other factors have been neglected. In a continent with as much history of corruption as Africa, the development of a strong civil society capable of ensuring accountability has unfortunately been neglected. This in turn will have an effect on future elections, as the lack of an independent media gives incumbents a natural advantage. Similarly electoral commissions have failed to become independent and assertive, allowing electoral anomalies to go unpunished and allowing ruling parties to set electoral laws to their own advantage.
There are some success stories, however. Post-apartheid South Africa has been able to build on the white-only civil society to become a stable beacon of democracy on the continent. Botswana too, has impressively tackled corruption and managed to imbed democratic values nationwide. The juxtaposition of both countries and Namibia to that of their neighbour Zimbabwe shows the best and the worst of the continents’ governments. Freedom house currently classes only 7 mainland African countries as free; those mentioned above and Lesotho, Mali, Ghana and Benin. A further 21 are stuck in the partial democracy phase, classed as ‘partly free’. 18 are classed as ‘not free’, although even these generally hold elections (Libya being a notably example).

What is of greater concern, however, is how this dynamic has regressed over the last decade. In 2004 and 2005 there were 8 ‘free’ countries, and even within this category there has been considerable change, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo having covered all 3 categories. Many countries are therefore stuck in ‘partly free’ territory, and those that do move towards freedom are by no means guaranteed to stay there. When African countries first moved into the sphere of partial-democracy, it was assumed that it would simply be a transition zone before moving on to fuller reform. However, fifteen years on it is pertinent to ask whether a transition, something implicitly dynamic, is still in place or whether African semi-democracies have got stuck.

The question of the chances of Africa once again moving towards full democratic government warrants a return to the theoretical approaches to democratisation mentioned above. Modernisation may benefit democratic forces through the empowering of a capitalist elite and an expansion of market forces which undermines the hegemonic power of the state in African countries. But the international community is important too, firstly in allowing this development to happen by cancelling the crippling debt that many African countries still have to burden. Secondly by limiting protectionist trade barriers, and thirdly by using global forces such as the IMF and WTO to re-write trade laws to make them more fair for poorer countries. The sponsorship of local civil society agents must continue too, working alongside more overt diplomatic pressure to democratise. As such it is possible to start a new wave, a new snowballing momentum to allow African citizens to gain fully from the benefits of democracy. It may not be successful everywhere, but given our own role as former colonisers in the causes of African ‘backwardness’, it is something the west must again return to. The power must be in local hands, but it is the responsibility of western states to let the pre-conditions exist for such agents to act. As the west becomes less inclined to get involved in other country’s domestic affairs in the post-Iraq war and post-recession world, this will require some courage and indeed conflict, but nonetheless is a moral obligation which a continent’s future depends on.

Article by Will Vittery. Edited by Kate Banks.

  • sugarntasty

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