Is democracy working in Africa ?

01 Nov

This analysis was done by the Africa Conflict Prevention Programme (ACPP) of the Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, during the Daily Briefing of 01 November 2011 and appears on their website:

I have found the analysis very relevant and thought I should share:


Is democracy working in Africa?

The advent of the ‘wave of democracy’ in the early 1990s brought renewed hope that Africa was on the threshold of institutional change and improved governance. Tyrannies in countries such as Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Liberia, and Mali among others were ousted as pro-democracy activists stepped up campaigns to secure the ‘benefits’ of democracy. By the end of the 1990s, virtually the whole of Sub Saharan Africa had held one form of elections or another, including cases where former dictators turned themselves into ‘democrats’ at the ballot box. Various African leaders were then touted as beacons of hope. Olesegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Melez Zenawi of Ethiopia, all basked in glory of prospects for an African renaissance. Others like Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, Bakili Muluzi of Malawi and Mwai Kibaki of Kenya came to power on a wave of democracy and the promise of political and economic reform. But the euphoria was short lived as several countries including Somalia, DRC, Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Uganda and Sudan among others, relapsed into civil war and political instability.

Several years down the line, the hopes of a reformed and democratic Africa seem to be dissipating as electoral democracy unravels past structural problems in countries such as Kenya (2007/08), Zimbabwe (2008) and Cote d’voire (2011). While there has been appreciable progress in moving away from armed conflict in countries such as Angola, the DRC, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan, Africa’s governments still remain largely inefficient, less than transparent and characterised by weak institutions. Many people still remain stuck in poverty, among other basic socio-political and economic ills. Even in South Africa, the euphoria of 1994 seems to be giving way to worries about the African National Congress’ (ANC) dominance, the continued structural inequalities and crime, whilst in other countries seemingly at peace, such as Ghana, there are unresolved areas of ethnic tensions. With incumbents increasingly becoming adept at winning polls through manipulation and assault on constitutionalism, the question being asked by many people is, what are the prospects for real democracy, in its various forms, in Africa?

There is no doubt that the introduction of multiparty democracy in Africa has helped to reduce the number of absolute authoritarian and statist regimes, including the most recent cases in North Africa. It is, however, debatable whether it has helped to nurture the ‘democratic delegation chain’ that adds value between elections. Considering the available evidence, many of the ‘democratic’ regimes in Africa remain fragile. Analysts such as Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle argue that the process of consolidating democracy in Africa has remained more illusory than fundamental. While this argument may be contested, there is no doubt that much of the political changes that occurred in the 1990s in Africa were characterised by perfunctory and superficial changes that allowed for multiparty politics but retained the single party structures and culture. Subsequently, the political system in many countries continued to act in favour of the incumbent and perpetuated the same elite in power. In other places like Algeria, 2008, Burkina Faso, 2005, Cameroon, 2008, Chad, 2005, Gabon, 2003, Namibia, 1999, Niger, 1999, Nigeria, 2006, Togo, 2002, Tunisia, 1988, Uganda, 2005, Zimbabwe, 2000 and Zambia, 2001, witnessed attempts by incumbents, some successfully, to review the constitutions in order to extend their stay in power, despite a number of them having come to power on a platform of democracy and good governance.

Africa’s general outlook has, without doubt, improved since the 1990s, with once unstable and authoritarian regimes having held what have, generally, been termed free and fair elections, the democratic project on the continent still faces serious challenges. Despite the superficial trappings of political pluralism, most African governments still subscribe to the principle of absolute rule and tolerate democratic processes only if they serve the interests of the leader and party in power. Often, there are no visible distinctions between the state and the incumbent party and its leader. Consequently most if not all institutions of government are perceived to be instruments at the service of those in power.  As such the independence, impartiality and credibility of national institutions, particularly those that are linked to electoral processes are suspect. The ‘winner takes all’ type of democracy is also often misused to distance those who loose and their communities from political processes and access to national resources. The consequence is the polarization of society and the sowing of seeds of discord.

While democracy is promoted as the ideal instrument for producing the socio-economic and political conditions necessary for development, the process of consolidating democracy on the continent remains a difficult and daunting task. Peter Burnell has argued that not all democracies are stable and attempts to build a democracy cannot guarantee political stability, especially in least developed countries. He also observes that there are democracies where governments have persistently mismanaged the nation’s financial and economic affairs, where rapacious profit-seekers have wreaked havoc, and where sizeable inequalities of income and wealth increased further during periods of sustained economic growth. So while some might envisage a democratic dispensation as the ideal instrument to produce the economic conditions for durable peace, it is conceivable that democracy can also contain the seeds of decay. There are those who argue that the democratic approach of exposing important issues to competing processes can also aggravate or burst the deep cultural and social antagonisms.

The main challenge facing Africa is how to evolve a political culture, particularly the way representation in national political and economic processes is cultivated to respond to the diversity of society and ensure inclusiveness and fairness. There is need to go beyond mere forms and institutions of democracy to make it meaningful to the ordinary people. Democracy on the continent needs to be valued for its outcome rather than for its intrinsic features.

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Posted by on November 1, 2011 in Stephen Twinoburyo's blogs


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