What type of democracy does Africa need?

These findings show that democracy continues to gain ground in people’s hearts and minds despite the insufficiencies and failings of democratisation experiences in a number of countries over the past decade, and despite uneven performances bydemocratic regimes in the areas of economic and social development, and even political stability and human security. 

April 8th, 2015

The findings of the latest survey conducted by Afrobarometer in 34 African countries, published in April 2014, are clear: Seven out of ten Africans (71%) prefer democracy over any other form of political regime. 

However, the survey also shows a considerable gap between the popular demand for democracy and its actu al implementation, which depends on the elite in power: less than half of citizens (43%) consider their country to be a democracy and state that they are happy with the way democracy works in their country. The findings vary widely from one country to another, both in terms of the degree of popular support for democracy and the people’s assessment of its actual implementation. Less than half of all adults prefer democracy in Madagascar (39%) and Swaziland (46%), and just over half in Sudan, Algeria and Egypt, whereas nearly everyone (more than 80%) supports democracy in Liberia, Cape Verde, Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal and Zambia. As for the percentage of people satisfied with the implementation of democracy in their country, it ranges from 75%, 74%, 72% and 71% respectively in Tanzania, Ghana, Mauritius and Botswana, to 50% in Burkina Faso, to 31% in Mali and 21% in Togo. 

The study findings, based on serious surveys conducted in various countries on the continent, are quite reassuring for fervent advocates of democracy. The index of demand for democracy measured by Afrobarometer in sixteen countries in 2002 and 2012, including both citizens’ expression of support for democracy and their rejection of all forms of autocratic regimes (military regimes, single-party systems or personal dictatorships), has risen significantly (by fifteen points) in a decade. These findings show that democracy continues to gain ground in people’s hearts and minds despite the insufficiencies and failings of democratisation experiences in a number of countries over the past decade, and despite uneven performances bydemocratic regimes in the areas of economic and social development, and even political stability and human security. 

However, we should avoid being overly hasty in declaring a definitive victory for democratic aspiration in Africa. Although, according to Afrobarometer surveys, virtually all Africans (93%) reject at least one form of autocratic government, less than half (46%) systematically consider democracy to be the only form of government to which they aspire. Rejection of military regimes, in particular, is not absolute everywhere. The days when people believed in the ability of countries to undergo rapid political change culminating in the establishment of democratic governments worthy of the name are past. The excitement surrounding the start of the “Arab revolutions” in 2011 has quickly fallen flat. The aftermath of the toppling of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt has been very difficult, although to differing degrees. Although Tunisia, over the medium term, has a good chance of restoring a political balance compatible with the exercise of democracy and respect for the fundamental liberties of the citizen, post-Mubarak and post-Morsi Egypt has become more militarised than democratised, while post-Gaddafi Libya is falling apart in the midst of civil war. 

In North Africa, as in the other regions of the continent, discussions of the obstacles and constraints linked to democratisation and analyses of the choice of types of democratic regimes cannot ignore the countries’ individual political trajectories and the nature of their actual politics. Virtually all African countries today officially have democratic governments and the texts of the African Union and the speeches of its leaders never fail to promote democracy, good governance, and the protection of human rights and freedoms. However, as we mentioned above, less than half of all Africans consider that they live in a democratic country. If our sole criterion for describing democratic government is the real possibility for its citizens to choose their leadership and remove it from office by voting, which presupposes at the very least the organisation of regular, free elections that effectively reflect the voters’ choice and in which the election results are not always known in advance, then the list of truly democratic countries would include barely a third of Africa’s 54 countries. However, it is hoped that the list of “real” African democracies is far from immutable, on a continent in constant flux, where the States formed within their present borders have only existed for five or six decades. 

Africa needs democratic regimes that aspire to true democracy 

The top priority of the majority of African countries is to work towards a minimum of reconciliation between the democratic aspirations and respect for the rule of law proclaimed in their constitutions and the reality of political and institutional practices imposed – with a greater or lesser degree of sensitivity and refinement – by the elite on the bulk of the population. There is no need to resort to Western democracies as examples. The lead has been taken by a core group of African countries that sit at the top of the established rankings in terms of democracy and good governance: Cape Verde, Mauritius, Botswana, South Africa, Seychelles, Ghana, Namibia, Lesotho, Zambia, Senegal… While the list may be an approximation and subject to flux, in every region of the continent, everyone knows which are the countries where the sovereignty of the people is regularly expressed and concretely imposed, and which are the countries where it is a fiction entrenched in the constitution and which are the ones where it only episodically dares to stand up to the sovereignty of the most powerful, at the risk and peril of the most earnest believers. 

The countries mentioned above are far from being perfect democracies, where actual practice systematically espouses constitutional values, principles and dictates. The political actors in those countries are not all virtuous and deeply attached to a sacred notion of democracy. Nor are the people they represent. However, at important times in their contemporary history, they all have had elites who, whatever their motivations, have endowed their countries with democratic rules and believed in them sufficiently to give a significant number of their compatriots the feeling that these rules should be taken seriously and effectively govern the political, economic and social life of the national community. It was a similar process, over a much longer period and in keeping with the changing circumstances of the different eras, that forged the older, more established democracies of the West. These latter are also quite imperfect. However, limits have been set by the democratic culture that has progressively been anchored there, which are very difficult to overstep in terms of men and women circumventing the rules in the conquest of power. In too many African countries that are officially democratic, there are no limits to the falsification of democracy. This is the first change that needs to be made. 

The fundamental problem of fake democratic regimes is not the fact that they are not democracies, but the fact that they claim to be democracies when they are not and do not even aspire to become democracies. They are not developing democracies but rather undemocratic regimes that dare not speak their name. Their constitutions, modelled on or inspired by those of Western democracies, proclaim respect for human rights and freedoms, the primacy of the sovereignty of the people exercised through regular elections, the separation of the executive, legislative and judiciary powers, independent justice, respect for the freedom of the press and so on, while in reality, these principles and values are systematically or regularly flouted. It is at election time that the betrayal of the democratic spirit by those who claim to represent the people is most flagrant. By repeating crude or sophisticated manipulation of the electoral process, especially during presidential elections with universal suffrage, they have ended up impressing on the minds of the people that such practices are entirely acceptable in democracy. Ever since many countries have voluntarily adopted constitutions limiting the number of consecutive presidential terms in office, tricks have been multiplied to overcome these provisions with fallacious legal arguments. 

Adopting rules and then devoting all one’s energy and creativity to getting around them or manipulating them for personal profit is the fundamental characteristic of actual practices in fake democracies. It is founded de facto on constant lying to the citizens by the elite, which soon develops into a fusional lie between political society and civil society. Fake democracies send everyone, including the younger generations, the message that a democracy can be run without ethics, and that the role models they should follow are those of political entrepreneurs who stop at nothing to achieve their goals of grabbing power and wealth. By liberating politics – and thereby the management of the State at the highest level – from the limits established by ethics, these regimes can only encourage the whole of society to minimise the importance of following rules, in every area and at every level of responsibility. Finally, because the benefits expected from democracy are only materialised when democracy is real and sound, while its disadvantages and costs are apparent even when it is merely an artificial facade, the establishment of false democracies in Africa is a threat to the survival of the ideal of authentic democracy and to the continued existence of the most credible democratic regimes on the continent.  

Africa needs democratic regimes that can solve the crucial issues countries face 

Some people support democracy based on their belief that it is the political regime most compatible with humanistic values, such as respect for a certain number of fundamental individual rights and freedoms. This means supporting democracy for its underlying values and thus for itself. However, others support democracy, and prefer it to all other options, because they think that democratic regimes are more effective than others in producing security, peace, stability, economic development or some other form of progress appreciated by humankind. This vision, which is more utilitarian than idealistic, makes democracy more of a means than an end in itself. In the real world, idealistic arguments are rarely enough to secure popular support for a political regime that is particularly demanding of both its elite and the common citizen. In countries and societies where a significant proportion of the population lives in a permanent state of extreme physical and material vulnerability, in which human needs that are elsewhere considered elementary are not satisfied, it is not enough to defend democracy by brandishing its theoretical content of freedom. We do not do democracy any favours by avoiding embarrassing questions and claiming without credible evidence that it is always, everywhere, and under all circumstances, the best immediate response to people’s needs. 

Many Africans have excellent reasons to doubt the usefulness of the “democracy” that was so enthusiastically touted to them at the turn of the 1990s. Threatened by a wide variety of violent conflicts in their countries or at their borders, Africans have been kept in poverty by unproductive and unfair economic systems. They have been left in the hands of fate (and their God) by elites that privatise the State and monopolise the lion’s share of economic resources and opportunities. They have been delivered up as ideal recruits to purveyors of religious or ethnic intolerance, taken in by promises of instant wealth through criminal activities of all kinds and thrown into confusion by an unceasing flood of information, fake models and illusions from all over the globalised world. More times than not, citizens do not have the tools to interpret or put into perspective. So what good does it do if it does not bring their countries greater peace, security, economic prosperity, or social cohesion? It is all very well to have freedom of expression and the vote, but what is that worth when you are in physical danger or food insecure? The list of African countries that have fallen prey to armed conflicts, violent political crises, or situations of government collapse or breakdown continues to grow, despite the spread of the democratisation process. Under such conditions, it is impossible to continue to make people believe that democratisation necessarily leads to greater peace, security and happiness. 

Theoretical analysis, and the political experience of numerous countries on every continent, shows that there is no simple nor systematic causal link between democracy, political stability and the prevalence of peace, or between democracy and economic progress. The temporal variable, as well as the characteristics of actual political practices (whether or not the regime is officially democratic), are decisive. In contemporary history, we can point to as many countries that have experienced long periods of peace and stability under patently authoritarian regimes as democratic regimes incapable of ensuring stability and security for their populations. We also know that some authoritarian regimes have been capable of achieving significant economic, social, educational and technological progress in their countries while other democratic regimes and official democracies have kept their populations in material, moral and cultural distress. 

The two great Asian powers, China and India, have achieved remarkable, long-term economic and social progress, the first under a highly organised and openly authoritarian regime, the second as the most populous democratic country in the world, which always organises elections on schedule despite the formidable logistical and financial challenges involved. The case of India serves as a reminder that it is possible to run a functional democracy in a context of great poverty, extreme ethnic and religious diversity and even social stratification anchored in tradition. It also shows that the democratic option does not solve every problem. Democracy does not always protect a country from high levels of corruption or inefficiency in the provision of services by the State and social injustice. 

If it is reduced to the reality of exercising the sovereignty of the people, the democratic option will not enable African countries to resolve the pressing major issues faced by their societies. It is only when democracy is sound and solidly established in the minds of the elite and a critical mass of citizens that it can give the full measure of its benefits, its ability to resolve conflicts peacefully and to impose rules on the different groups with their contradictory interests which safeguard the essential: a certain idea of the public good. African democracies, whether they are advanced or merely facades, are very young and will have to wait some time before they can benefit from the advantages of consolidated democracies. Meanwhile, they have no protection from authoritarian reflux, from hijacking by the elite and foreign powers that do not truly wish for anchoring of democracy or from self-destruction if they do not bring concrete and positive results in terms of well-being for the people. 

Meanwhile, what Africa needs are regimes that are both democratic and efficient in producing and consolidating effective and efficient States. Because many people confuse the democratisation process and the State consolidation process, and the failures of the latter are often ascribed to the former. For African countries that currently only have States with no real capacity for action on their own territory in terms of security and the economy, organising democratic elections is less of a priority than restoring a minimum of State authority. In every country on the continent, the consolidation of States in their capacity to act continues to pose a major challenge that is not to be confused with democratic ambition. Present-day Rwanda is an interesting example. Everyone knows that the regime embodied by President Paul Kagame fails to meet the criteria of an advanced democratic regime that makes respect for human rights a priority. However, no one who has set foot in the country in recent years can deny the reality of the progress achieved in a few years in numerous areas that are vital for the day-to-day lives of Rwanda’s people, thanks to public authorities with a proven ability to transform a real political vision, even if it is hardly democratic, into concrete action. 

The progress achieved by Rwanda remains fragile, since it is not known whether the changes in the country launched under Kagame will live on beyond his presidency… and whether his will be able to escape the trap into which non democratic regimes so often fall, that of being unable to adjust to a new environment in time, by releasing their authoritarian stranglehold on the population. Certain African elites are tempted to view the Rwandan example as a demonstration that “enlightened” authoritarian regimes are better able to bring security, stability and economic development to their countries, or at least better than democratic regimes. This hypothesis, and the logical recommendation that entails, are both facile and risky. There is no known recipe for making sure that an autocrat will be “enlightened”, will always remain so and will be able to create the conditions to ensure that the good work done for the country is sustainable. The superiority of democratic regimes resides in their ability to create the conditions for their own renewal over the long term. The Rwanda example, whose initial tragic and highly unusual circumstances should not be forgotten, should instead motivate Africans to design and set in place regimes that fully safeguard democratic values while ensuring that the State has the means to exist and take effective action for the public good. This path is surely much more demanding than pursuing illusory enlightened autocracies.

Africa needs democratic regimes that are innovative, demanding and designed with future generations in mind

How many times have we heard African personalities, including Heads of State, answer criticisms of departures from democratic practices in their country by evoking the “foreign and imposed” nature of Western democracy? How many times have we heard African political actors, and also intellectuals and experts in seminars, explaining that the Western democratic model cannot be anchored in African countries because it is purportedly not suited to African social, cultural and economic realities? These views are justifiable. All the more so since nowhere has the emergence and establishment of democracy as a standard political regime followed a linear process, and nowhere have major political changes taken place independently of economic and social evolution and interest struggles between national social and political groups, generally backed by competing external supporters. 

Western democracies themselves are not as old as they would have us believe, and for many decades they exported or encouraged in Africa and elsewhere the most authoritarian forms of government and those least respectful of human rights in the framework of colonisation or implicit domination. The call for democratisation by the major powers, with the exception of China, is very recent and continues to vary according to circumstances, depending on the strategic interests of the different parties. But can we and should we continue to hide behind our denunciation of foreign powers’ hypocritical promotion of democracy, which masks an actual opposition to democratic values or, at best, the inability of the elites to develop democratic regimes that are “tailored” to African realities? As long as what is meant by African realities remains unexplained, the call for the “Africanisation” of democracy is suspicious. 

Is it the general idea of sovereignty of the people that would seem to be incompatible with African realities? Is it the dictate that society must be run based on laws that protect individual freedoms? Is it the primacy of individual rights over the collective rights of the community? Is it the principle of the separation of executive, legislative and judiciary powers? Or the principle of independent justice? Must the fundamental values and principles underlying democracy be adapted to African realities, or the rules and procedures supposed to organise the democratic running of a country, as duly enshrined in their constitutions? If the African elites believe that these fundamental values are ill-suited to the status and aspirations of their societies, then there is a real problem that should lead to a responsible decision to renounce the democratic option rather than accepting schizophrenic seclusion in the register of fake democracies. If our doubts are not about values, but rather the specific choice of a democratic constitutional model, then the problem is much less serious and the requirement of adaptation to African realities is not only justifiable but even indispensable. 

The reality that must be particularly taken into account is the great internal diversity of African countries, societies and populations, including ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, cultural and educational diversity. In many African countries, this diversity, which ought to be an asset and certainly is not unique to Africa, takes the form of a polarised society, which soon leads to intolerance, exclusion and violence. Countless violent conflicts have been tragically aggravated by political mobilisation of ethnicity or religion. The democratic regimes that Africans need should enable them to discourage these dangerous approaches to politics, by explicitly including sanctions and incentives in their constitutions aimed at setting clear limits on the means that can be mobilised by political actors in the conquest or conservation of power. 

The enshrinement in most African constitutions of the great principles of equality between citizens, respect for diversity, protection of ethnic and religious minorities, non-discrimination in access to political and administrative positions, etc., is not enough. Actual practice will remain totally independent of those principles as long as there are no credible sanction mechanisms or judicial institutions that are independent from the political authorities and strictly enforce the law. By combining incentives with ethical behaviour and sanctioning practices that sully the exercise of democracy, the powerful and noxious influence of dirty money over political life can be mitigated in African countries. Truly enforceable regulation of the financing of political activities is an urgent need in African countries, in a context of growing criminalisation in many States. 

As we can see, Africa needs very complex democratic regimes designed to handle the complexity of its countries and the security, economic, social and cultural challenges they must meet. It does not need “kpayo” democracies – a term used in Benin to describe the purportedly poor-quality petrol massively smuggled in from neighbouring Nigeria, where petroleum products are subsidised. The continent has no chance of experiencing greater peace, stability, economic prosperity or social cohesion unless it renounces the choice of facility that is always a choice of poor quality, short-sightedness and renunciation of ethics. 

The democratic regimes that African countries need must be designed to promote the emergence of a type of society that is both what we want for future generations and suited to today’s realities. The future is what counts. The fundamental requirement for African political regimes is that they send very clear messages regarding the values we want African societies to be identified with in the future, even though we know very well that actual practice will never be in total conformity. African countries in their diversity can and must draw inspiration from existing models of democracy in their great variety to design, test and implement their own models – ones which will be resolutely modern because they are turned towards the future and free from all complexes inherited from History. 


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