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Africa doesn't need democracy, it requires something else, urgent

By Gilbert Muyumbu | Published Wed, August 30th 2017 at 00:00, Updated August 29th 2017 at 23:11 GMT +3

Democracy became the dominant system of governance across the globe in the early 1990s at the height of the 'Third Wave' of democracy.

Among the most assertive proponents of the system was the US author, Francis Fukuyama, who proclaimed it the final, superior system of government invented by man.

In Africa, the ascendancy of democracy brought with it some quick changes. A number of presidents fell, notably Kaunda in Zambia and Banda in Malawi. A majority of presidents however quickly learnt to live with it. By the year 2000, most African governments claimed to be democratic, largely because they had instituted regular elections.

But African democracy has since evolved. Whereas elections are held regularly, the outcomes are almost always guaranteed to favour incumbents enjoying state power. Scholars have identified different variants of what is emerging in Africa's experiment with democracy. In a majority of African countries, elections have merely been patched onto extant authoritarian systems, leading to electoral authoritarianism.

In yet some other African countries, political competition has unleashed an all-out quest for resources to buy votes, leading to corrupt elected governments presiding over a system of government labelled competitive clientelism.

All this indicates serious problems with democracy in Africa. Indeed, in recent times, elections in some African countries have produced majorities of up to 98 per cent for incumbents, a figure that even the most totalitarian governments of the past would be embarrassed to proclaim.

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Democracy has not fundamentally changed the way Africans are ruled. Sons of former presidents are inheriting their fathers and old men are clinging on to re-emerging life presidencies in ways that would not happen in genuinely competitive processes.

But perhaps, the biggest problem with the concept of democracy as currently conceptualised in Africa is that it is too wide to have any meaningful change in African governance. Emphasis under democratisation has run from one end insisting on market-oriented reforms aimed at opening up Africa for trade, to the other end that has emphasised political reforms marked by periodic elections.

Given that it means different things to different people, democracy is too imprecise. To dominant institutions from the West such as the World Bank, the most important aspect of democracy has often been reducing the scope of the state within the market and its replacement with the private sector.

To African strongmen, democracy has mostly meant the barest minimum involving regular elections aimed at buying acceptability within the international community.

In between the meanings of democracy pushed by the West and those pushed by African strongmen, there is a wide array of expectations of what democracy should bring to African people. Looking at the social forces that fought for the restoration of democracy in Africa in the late 80s, one uniting factor amongst them was the way the state had behaved and the need to change that behaviour.

The state was almost always the biggest villain, unrestrained and behaving in ways that were injurious to the welfare of individuals, markets, nations and the state itself. In the market, for instance, the state had arrogated itself the roles of the market. On individual liberties, the state abolished these, arrogating itself a more elevated position than the individual.

In short, it was a rogue state that needed taming. Democracy was perceived as the best antidote in taming it.

Yet more than two decades of democracy in Africa, the state has not become less fearsome. The market is still subservient to the neo-patrimonial state across Africa. Few Africans can claim to enjoy individual liberties, particularly the liberty to openly disagree with the state. African jails and graveyards are home to those who disagree with the African state.

In short, democracy has failed to do the thing for which social forces fought for it, that is, taming the state. Part of the reason for this is that in adopting democracy, Africans allowed a very elastic interpretation of the term, such that it accommodated every interest.

Mr Muyumbu is Governance Advisor, CARE International UK

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