Opinion: Strongman economics are no substitute for democracy anywhere

It has been said that too much democracy is crowding out economic growth and development in Kenya, and that countries that have seemingly “more assertive” leadership are taking over Kenya’s position as the poster boy of Africa’s economic growth.

While there have been several stories of “economic allure of the strongman” as Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma puts it, proponents of this theory conveniently 'forget' about the many cases whose economies have been brought to their knees by the strongman at the helm. Millennials only read of Jean Bedel Bokassa, who literally converted the Central Africa Republic’s coffers into his personal wallet.

While Kenya remains a leader in sub-Saharan Africa in the economic growth race, Rwanda and Ethiopia are openly discussed as some of the nations that have registered economic success, thanks to their not-so-big democratic space. Globally, the single-party politics of the Communist Party of China have been lauded for making China the second largest economy in the world. Even when Xi Jingpin had the Congress legislate the elongation of his rule past the two-term precedence set by Deng Xiaoping, his claim to fame is China’s economic miracle.

THE FALLACY

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A common fraud card by strongmen is that they consider themselves ephemeral, never mind the transition period may last decades, as in the case of Uganda's Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who has been “guiding his country from the bush” for 32 years now. At this rate, Ugandans are about to beat the 40-year record the children of Israel took to get to the Promised Land.

Ethiopia has maintained a steady growth with almost double digit numbers; Ethiopia is also a dictatorship, which holds probably the largest number of journalists and dissidents in its jails in Africa.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has in the past received an absurd 100 per cent of the vote, as has Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front-Inkontayi, which garnered 98 per cent of the vote in the 2017 polls. This is in shape and form similar to Vladimir Putin’s All Russia People’s Front, which got 76 per cent last month.

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These are the few cases where democracy is a rare commodity, but the economies are said be doing better than their democratic contemporaries. However, for every one 'good strongman' there are several bad ones. Eritrea, Zimbabwe and North Korea tie at the top where the strongmen have unapologetically strangled the life out of their economies.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Chad and Yemen are also basket cases under the firm grip of strongmen. We have to give credit to these despotic regimes because unlike the Rwanda-Ethiopia types, they never attempt to conceal their repressive habits or camouflage them with 'development'” What you see is what you get.

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That is why we must be wary about the success stories told by authoritarian regimes. Anyone who has been in Ethiopia and Rwanda knows there is nothing much to talk about outside Addis Ababa and Kigali respectively. People are still very hungry and poor in rural Ethiopia, despite their 'cheaper than Kenya’s' SGR and their metro trains.

FALSE PATRIOTISM

The numbers brandished by the EPRDF rarely speak of the absolute poor outside Addis Ababa, who are 25 per cent of the population and have remained largely unchanged over the past 15 years, according to UNDP. But the allure of the strongman has gained ground in the world, with examples being given of the Asian Tigers that became poster boys of accelerated development under authoritarian regimes.

We are living in times when populist nationalism has replaced ideology. The fallacy that benevolent dictatorship is both a necessary and sufficient condition for economic growth has attained gospel truth status. Strongmen project a veiled sense of nationalism that either sweeps public opinion or is forced down the people’s throats.

There is a hypothesis that it is the strongman predisposition of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaigns that made him appeal to the American voter. Many will remember he was fond of saying he was “going to be tough on China” but without being specific, amidst raucous applause during public rallies. 

Closer home, Tanzania is hatching a strongman who is being hailed as a “hard worker” but is scaring foreign investment and expatriate labour in an undefined protectionism. I will wager that it is John Magufuli who will break Tanzania’s two-term precedence set by Ali Hassan Mwinyi because “the people would like him to continue” making impromptu checks in ports and chasing away foreigners taking jobs from locals.

Kenya is a leading democracy, and should not covet the short-termism of the illusionary benefits of dictatorship. Our prospects are better off with a democracy.

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