ANALYSIS: Democracy in Africa —Ralph Shaw - Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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Lack of civilian control of the army in many African countries was also an obstacle to the development of democracy. Politicisation of the army was more pronounced in countries most directly affected by the Cold War

In the 1990s, the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa — a region that comprises more than 40 states — attempted to shake off autocratic rulers, some of whom had been in power since the former European colonies gained independence in the 1960s. However, representative democracy remained an elusive goal for most countries because of historical, social and cultural, i.e. structural problems. The entrenched autocracies and dictatorships were only outward manifestations of a much deeper ailment that pertained, primarily, to the way African society was organised. Trying to impose democratic institutions on pre-modern, economically backward and multicultural societies failed because the obstacles to empowerment of the people were structural. Structural problems have no quick fixes; they can only be remedied through long-term reforms.

In What Went Wrong with Africa, Roel Van Der Veen focuses on the causes of poverty, bad governance, dictatorship, corruption and disintegration of the sub-Saharan African states but his analysis is relevant to most underdeveloped former colonial states.

Thirty sub-Saharan African countries gained independence around 1960. Since World War II, colonial powers had allowed political parties to exist in the hope that it would mitigate the growing resentment against colonial rule. Political parties soon became ardent voices of nationalism and most African states achieved independence by 1960. The new political elite that came into power in the African countries “lacked any real power base within African society and owed their position purely to their links with former colonial powers”. Moreover, the new African military and bureaucratic elite had no independent sources of income other than from the positions acquired in the bureaucracies. This new and immature ruling class used state power to enrich themselves. In order to perpetuate their rule, the new African aristocracy created patron-client networks. Patrons were always in possession of state resources and could grant favours to clients who became their staunch supporters. Others, constituting the majority in fact, who could not be brought under patronage, were forced into acquiescence of the rule of the few through oppression.

The biggest structural hurdle in the development of representative democracy was the patron-client network. Clientelism by its nature is antithetical to the development of democracy because it sustains a corrupt elite in power. Clients tend to ignore the corruption and misrule of their patrons, thus rendering the rulers unaccountable and without accountability there can be no democracy. In fact, accountability of the rulers to the governed is the foundation of not only democracy but also any form of just government. Clientelism also encourages conformity, which means that individuals cannot think for themselves and fail to form independent opinions.

The extended family is a major pillar of clientelism. Family members who occupy senior government positions commit the most invidious form of corruption by placing incompetent kin in responsible positions. Such favours granted mostly along ethnic lines result in certain ethnicities becoming entrenched in public and private institutions. In Africa, such conduct was widely accepted and became difficult to eradicate.

Ethnicisation of politics was another impediment in the way of democracy. Most African states were composed of a patchwork of ethnicities. Lacking homogeneous populations and uniformity in terms of language, culture and religion, African politics came to be characterised by ethnic political parties. Political parties were organised around individuals and supported by specific ethnic groups. Given the limited economic diversification of the countries, the ideological differences between the parties were small. Party leaders were supposed to use their political power to take care of their own. Such parties often fuelled ethnic tensions and brought group differences into sharp relief. A few countries prohibited formation of political parties along ethnic lines so as to promote emergence of national parties while other parties that started their political life as national parties splintered along ethnic lines. However, ethnicised political parties are not necessarily an impediment to democratic progress. Such is the case when power-sharing agreements can be reached through compromise.

Lack of civilian control of the army in many African countries was also an obstacle to the development of democracy. Politicisation of the army was more pronounced in countries most directly affected by the Cold War. In such countries, national security became the overriding concern and military intervention in politics often started initially to secure sufficient funds but later extended to almost all facets of national politics. However, legitimacy — of sorts — was always on the side of the politicians and they often used it as a bargaining chip “to reach some kind of settlement with the armed forces, a settlement that offered both groups the advantages of exploiting the state”.

Low levels of socio-economic development in most African countries were a major structural problem in the way of stable democracies. At a minimum, a modest level of education, income and tax collection is a prerequisite for democracy. With low levels of economic development and taxation, governments often had to resort to foreign loans to cover budget deficits with the result that large donors often became “external parliaments”. In relatively healthy economies, where opportunities were available to make money outside of the state bureaucracies, grabbing state power for personal benefit was less prevalent but the opposite was true in the weaker economies and weak economies were the rule rather than the exception in Africa. Moreover, democracy works best if society as a whole is above survival mode economically. Better socio-economic conditions also help by making populations less dependent on patrons.

Low levels and low standards of education often meant an inadequate understanding of development issues, an inability to choose representatives responsibly, and little respect for human rights. In some cases the people handed over power to dictators of their own free will and in many others corrupt politicians were re-elected again and again because corruption was so pervasive that it became acceptable and institutionalised. Since education emancipates and enables people to think independently, a link possibly, though not definitely, exists between education and democracy.

Although the above does not constitute a comprehensive list of the structural factors that foiled the drive toward greater democratisation in Africa, it is nonetheless instructive because it does delineate the major factors that caused the failure and led to state collapse and disintegration in some cases.

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be reached at

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