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Opinions of Saturday, 14 May 2011

Columnist: Dei, Godwin

Can Democracy Win in Africa?

The need for a conceptual stretch

Godwin Dei, Toronto-Canada

In recent times, many observers like Larry Diamond (The Spirit of Democracy. 2009) and Thomas Friedman (“The Democratic Recession”. 2008) have chronicled the global ‘democratic recession’ spanning the past decade. They cite Freedom House data which indicates that since 1999, the percentage of democracies in the world has been static, oscillating between 60 and 62.5 percent. But at the same time, the number of democratic breakdowns has increased – of the 23 democratic breakdowns since 1974, 15 (two-thirds) have occurred since 1999. These have come in strategic states like Russia, Pakistan, and Nigeria (Diamond. “The Democratic Rollback: The Resurgence of the Predatory State”. 2008). Africa however represents a mixed picture where countries like Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Congo, either struggle to oust indefatigable autocrats or are convulsed by civil unrest, thus impeding the process of democratization. Conversely, countries like Ghana, Mauritius, and South Africa have gradually made progress by strengthening their commitment to democratic institutions. Therefore, as Achille Mbembe aptly asserts, Africa is ‘going in multiple directions simultaneously’ (“Africa’s Place-in- the World”. 2008).
My objective is to examine the possibility for a single directionality in favour of democracy in Africa. I therefore ask the question: ‘Can Democracy Win in Africa?’ In order to answer this question, I will recount the views of three erudite Political Scientists from the University of Toronto who formed the panel for a discussion I moderated and organized in collaboration with the African Students Advancement Project (ASAP), the African Studies Course Union (ASCU), and the African Students Association (ASA) on March 3, 2011. The panelists were Richard Sandbrook, Lucan Way, and Dickson Eyoh.
To acknowledge and yet dispel the notion of democracy as a Western phenomenon, Sandbrook clarifies that democracy in the institutional sense is western, but participatory governance, a tenet of democracy, is found in all parts of the world. He notes the history and traditions of the Akan people in Ghana as an example. The western institutional view of democracy, he illustrates, is confined to the protection of rights, adherence to the rule of law, periodic free and fair elections, and the establishment of two or more parties. Many African countries are meeting this standard and by this, he continues, democracy is winning in Africa. Sandbrook however maintains that this description of democracy is rather parochial and we therefore need to broaden our understanding by conceiving democracy in two ways – Liberal Democracy and Social Democracy. The former only pertains to the political sphere, while the latter extends democracy beyond the political to the economic and social spheres. Sandbrook advocates for social democracy in Africa because it is in the best interest of ordinary citizens, most of who complain that “you cannot eat democracy”. Social democracy then with its emphasis on social justice and welfare is better equipped to make democracy edible. But for social democracy to be effective, Sandbrook concludes that there needs to be a robust civil society, a strong and effective state that is able to execute policy, and an economic product.
Way agrees with Sandbrook on the need to broaden our understanding of democracy, however the emphasis need not be on social democracy but on the uneven playing field that characterizes elections in many parts of the developing world. For Way, an uneven playing field is conspicuous when incumbents abuse state institutions for partisan ends. The control over state resources, media, and the law, systematically favour incumbents and handicap the ability of oppositions to win elections. This disparity makes elections neither free nor fair and also explains the little or no incumbent turnovers. Surprisingly, Way labels Botswana, among the countries that others would consider democratic, as ‘competitive authoritarian’ – a term used to describe situations where an uneven playing field exists (Competitive Authoritarianism. Levitsky, Stephen. Way, Lucan. 2010). To substantiate this claim, Way continues that a skewed playing field is what precisely explains the overwhelming victories by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) in all of the elections held since independence. Way concludes that such countries require a dispersion of resources for an even playing field to materialize and development in the social and economic spheres for democracy to win in Africa.
According to Eyoh, democracy is an unending continuum marked by struggles for human freedoms. The struggles make the process one of regression and forward movement. Since the process is dynamic and not unidirectional it involves a complex set of circumstances which defines possibilities and limitations – and in effect whether democracy wins or loses. Moreover, Eyoh reminds us that democracy, being political, is ultimately about power. The wave of democratization which swept over much of Africa during the mid-1990s opened up political space. However, the result is that fundamental issues, which can now be voiced by newly empowered citizens, must be addressed by a legitimate and effective state. Eyoh concludes that strong states in Africa cannot be reconstructed without popular participation, which is an essential feature of democracy. He therefore resolves the dilemma reverberated through the work of scholars like Marina Ottaway who create a false dichotomy by separating the process of state reconstruction and democracy, with the former preceding the latter (Africa’s New Leaders: Democracy or State Reconstruction? 2000). Eyoh resolves the dilemma by expounding that the two processes can occur simultaneously and must for optimal results.
As could be surmised from the three narratives, democracy can win in Africa but a conceptual stretch is required within the lexicon of political science to deepen our understanding, which should help foster and sustain democracies. This is because democracy, especially in western discourse, is often restricted in definition to liberal democracy. For instance, much of the literature on democracy relies on the annual assessments of Freedom House, which assesses countries that are liberal democracies based on levels of freedoms on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being most free and 7 being most repressive. However, as Sandbrook and Way demonstrate, such narrow definitions dissemble problems like social and economic inequality and an uneven playing field. These are among the central issues that galvanize crowds varying in age, ethnicity, locality, and profession, yet unified in their challenge to the power and legitimacy of the state in Africa.
This inelastic view of democracy also creates the illusion that the process of democracy has an endpoint. For example, countries with Freedom House scores of 1 in both civil and political liberties are presumed to have perfected democracy or what Francis Fukuyama calls the ‘final form of human government’ (see ‘The End of History?’1989). This perspective counters Eyoh’s claim that ‘democracy is an unending continuum’. After laying bare these obfuscations, I would be remiss not to recall Way’s admonition that countries with high levels of freedoms can still be undemocratic or ‘competitive authoritarian’ due to the presence of issues like a skewed playing field (e.g. Botswana). Therefore the issues of social and economic inequality and an uneven playing field that were noted by Sandbrook and Way, can be seen as euphemisms for what Eyoh calls ‘the struggles’ that mark the undending process of democratization which involves regression and forward movement.