True democracy impossible in Africa

Its often been asked whether multiparty, competitive yet patriotic democracy is practical in the African context. Afro-pessimists, including many Africans themselves, believe that pure democracy is impossible. On the other hand, human rights campaigners believe that Africans are just as human as the Swiss, the Americans and the Scandinavians. Therefore, if democracy can work in Switzerland, then it can work equally well in Swaziland.

Africa is a difficult land, much more complex than people imagine. There are social, political and economic currents cutting through and across nations. There are the forces of modernity versus traditionalism. Forces of rural against the urban, rich against poor, ethnicities against each other. At the national level, you have competition between different factions and alliances for control over instruments of state.

At the continental level, world powers use Africa as a chessboard for geo-political strategy. The United States, France, China, Libya and the Arab world are competing for influence in Africa.

Perfect democracies of this world are not subjected to the same tensions that continuously threaten the existence of the African state.

Look at Switzerland as an example. Switzerland has just about four ethnic groups: the Germans, French, Italians and maybe one other obscure grouping that has survived the turmoils of European history. Most of Switzerland’s population is very much 21st century and urbanized. They do not have ethnic warlords using the state’s power to crush rivals.

At the international level, few foreign powers are fighting for control of Switzerland. If anything, the fact that all countries on earth have money in Swiss bank accounts means that everybody has a stake in a peaceful Switzerland. Not so with Africa. Competition for oil, gold, diamonds, timber and fisheries is the cause of an unrestricted struggle where human life means nothing to the protagonists.

Between 2002 and the present day, war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has killed over 2 million people. The war is fed by global commerce, as foreign elements sponsor rebel groups to take over territory rich in minerals. Rebel forces take a cut of the profits for their services in keeping out rivals, usually sponsored by other foreigners. Many of the countries that intervened in the Congo war, such as Uganda, Rwanda, Angola and Namibia did so on behalf of external interests.

Multipartyism has been hijacked by world powers vying for influence in the continent. Major political parties within African countries are supported by foreign countries, either secretly or openly. When a party gets into power, it must reciprocate by assigning mineral rights, defense contracts and construction tenders to its benefactor. That explains why battles between political parties can assume such antagonistic levels beyond what would be expected from purely domestic competition. The stakes are usually much higher than what is visible to ordinary people.

Lets take another democracy: Japan. This is a mono-ethnic, mono-religious island state. Of course, you are going to say that Somalia is a mono-ethnic, mono-religious state that has succumbed to the worst of Africa’s failings. Unlike Somalia, Japan has been under occupation very few times, most notably after World War 2. In contrast, Somalia suffered the divide and conquer ravages of colonialism. To this day, the major reason why Somalia cannot get peace is because the respective warloads are sponsored by foreign powers.

When the United States occupied Japan after World War 2, the Americans left behind a solid foundation for a capitalist economy that propelled Japan into becoming the world’s second largest economy – after America. Which European colonialists empowered the African into achieving industrialized status? African countries were mere producers of food, minerals and cheap labor. By independence in the 1960s, some African countries had just a dozen graduates.

Without putting too much blame on foreigners, Africa is still a continent caught up in two worlds: the modern and the traditional. Majority of Africans do not know where to belong, and therefore try to fit into both worlds. That explains why politicians clamor for multiparty democracy but run the parties like a tribal fiefdom. A leader will encourage people to speak freely but when the criticism comes, condemns it, saying that it is disrespectful to challenge an elder. People talk about gender equality but refuse to elect a woman as village elder, let alone as president.

Africa is urbanizing very fast, but rural influences permeate the environment. The late Julius Nyerere of Tanzania said that multiparty democracy is useless because, “everybody in Africa is a peasant.” According to Nyerere, multipartyism developed in the West in order to reconcile the interests of aristocrats, industrialists, industrial workers and peasants. In Africa though, the fact that most people are peasants means that multipartyism can only exist by exploiting ethnic differences. Nyerere made this statement in the 1960s but it carries relevance to this day. Perhaps more so, in the case of Kenya.

The quest to survive in a hostile environment does not help democratic development. Africa is the world’s poorest continent, yet its expected to practice the same political systems as the world’s richest countries. The economy of Belgium is bigger than the combined output of black Africa. A typical Belgian voter can afford to vote on the basis of principles. An African voter will use the vote as a tool for getting basic needs and many actually go ahead to sell voter identification cards.

In Kenya’s 2007 elections, large numbers of people voted out of the influence of cash handouts. Very promising political candidates failed to get into parliament because they could not afford to spend lavishly. Handouts of Shs50 (US$0.75) were enough to do the trick. For a rural family, Shs50 is the difference between getting dinner or sleeping hungry.

Compare this with a country like Sweden, where the average annual income is in the tens of thousands of dollars. How do you give 75 cents to someone like that? If you want to bribe Swedish voters, you had better be a billionaire!

To summarize, lack of democracy in Africa can be blamed on:
– competition by foreign powers for influence in Africa,
– ethnic rivalries,
– colonialism,
– traditional belief system in a 21st century world,
– rural upbringing versus urbanized reality,
– poverty

Does it mean that African democracy is an elusive dream? Not at all. Democracy is a viable form of governance for Africa but it should be adapted to prevailing circumstances. It will need time and patience to nurture. It requires the strengthening of institutions. It also requires for international powers to stop taking Africa as a global chessboard. Africans must be entrusted with the making of crucial decisions affecting the continent.

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Written by Stanley M. Mjomba, Coast Affairs correspondent for the Nairobi Chronicle.
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3 Responses

  1. Very interesting article. Dictatorships get a bad rap these days, but, in reality, they are quite efficient in smaller nations with lower education levels. America was very lucky, both in terms of physical geography and the education levels of its early inhabitants. Thanks for providing an interesting twist on a continent that is far too neglected in America today.

  2. Okay, so true democracy can’t work in Africa. What’s the alternative?

  3. It is sad to realize, throught this article, that there is no hope for stability in Africa. All that african can wish for may be maintaining the state they are currently in because with no democracy there will be no development, economic, social or political. I hope someone can prove you wrong because the only way out of poverty for africans is to unite and have everyone contribute to the leadership of their respective countries. Without that, the country would serve only a few while others struggle with life.

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