The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome
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Democracy in Africa: An Experiment in Progress
Toussaint Kafarhire Murhula, SJ
The recent crises of military coups in Mali and Guinea Bissau, the fraudulent presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the unconstitutional third term candidacy of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, and the 2007 post-electoral violence in Kenya, are disturbing developments that posit a profound institutional crisis of democracy. Other circumstances that provoke concern are the seeming life terms of heads of states such as Paul Biya in Cameroon, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, as well as Soviet-style landslide re-election victories, as that of Rwanda in 2010. Although up to 27 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa held crucial elections in 2011 alone, it is increasingly acknowledged that elections alone do not make democracy. The current trend of democratic decline suggests the need for an analysis that goes beyond the superficial reading of Africa's political landscape. Is democracy really on decline in Africa and, if so, why? What triggered, in the first place, the democratization process in Africa in the early 1990s? Was the phenomenon a mere post-Cold War fad that is now entering into recession after the keen interest for change has passed? Perhaps, as some have suggested, democracy is failing in Africa because it is essentially a Western project lacking in universal significance. (Held 1987: 12; Monga 1996:68) To understand the African democratic experiment, it is crucial to establish the concept's ontology first and, then, to determine the conditions under which democracy emerges and consolidates.
Africans' democratic expectations
Until the early 1990s, most African nations were still dominated by dictatorships, one-party and patrimonial states, lack of transparency and accountability of the leaders, social inequalities and injustices, all of which led to internal instability and civil wars along ethnic lines. The democratization process in Africa coincided with the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. And while the last twenty years of democratic experience have been rather sloppy and haphazard, many observers blame it on Africa's cultural backwardness. They claim the multiplicity of ethnic groups does not make it easy for the continent to adopt principles of democratic governance. Some have measured the experience within the time frame between Benin's first democratic elections in 1991 and Sierra Leone and Liberia end of civil war in 2006. During this period, they claim, only three of the forty-eight states in Sub-Saharan Africa "attempted nominal transitions by holding multiparty elections for the first time in twenty years." (Barkan 2009:4) Other measurements such as the Freedom House distinguish between electoral and liberal democracies only to recognize decline in number of democracies in Sub-Saharan Africa - from 24 in 2005 to 19 in 2012. The Mo Ibrahim Index is even harsher and shows a decline of 5% in political participation since 2007 while only one country - Mauritius - qualifies as a full democracy. (The Economist, Issue of March 31, 2012, p.57).
This shows how difficult it is to speak of democracy in Africa. Despite the cunning ways in which post-Cold War African leaders cling to power in a manner reminiscent of post-independence dictators, Africa does not have a monopoly over corruption or resistance to good governance. (Monga 1996, 2009) Yet Africa represents a mosaic of cultures, political systems, historical trajectories, economic networks, and its democratic experience could not be reduced under one such encompassing explanatory variable as cultural backwardness. While I will purposely linger on African democratic paradoxes, I still contend that all of Africa is not made of failed democracies. Much could be learned from many good examples of democratic transition and consolidation, political stability and alternation in power. Ghana, Botswana, Benin, Senegal, or Zambia is such good illustrations that should not be overlooked. Our presumption of democratic failure may come from what Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, once highlighted, namely, the negative image of Africa as a place where nothing has ever worked. But, first, let us look at the African democratic expectation and what might explain the democratic phenomenon of the early 1990s.
The global emergence of liberal democracy after the Cold War had an appeal to all nations, especially in the developing world, since every single citizen could claim equal right or, at least, felt entitled to it. On the political plane, it symbolized the best alternative possible to the totalitarian regimes that characterized most of the twentieth century, be it Nazism, Fascism, and Communism or Africa's postcolonial autocracies. On the socioeconomic plane, it was viewed almost as a panacea to corruption, inequalities, and social injustices that plagued the continent since its accession to independence. Hence, electoral processes came to represent the best way to punish bad political leaders and to replace them by more promising ones. As such, it restored participation of the people to choosing leaders whose decisions affect their everyday lives. A functioning democratic system, however, requires more than just elections. Besides fair and regular elections, it is important to have an empowered and empowering civil society, robust institutions that will help maintain an uncompromising respect of the constitution and the protection for the fundamental human dignity and rights, a multi-party system, the freedom of expression, and a political culture that balances the interests of the state, the majorities and the minorities against different forms of political perversion. For Africans, democratic changes implied a break up with and liberation from military dictatorships, freedom from all kinds of oppression, and the rule by righteous principles that will guarantee a lasting peace and a just distribution of resources.
Conceptual considerations are necessary not merely for the sake of academic debates but also for practical bearings since no one can long for or embrace what he or she neither knows nor understands. As Horowitz (2006:114) puts it, it was a mistake of the post-Cold War global policy that the world's only superpower (the United States) has committed to, rhetorically and militarily, promote a political system that remained undefined. Before democracy could achieve the kind of universal and ponderable normativity it now enjoys, it had traversed millennia of conceptual refinements and transformations. However, the polarization in the democratic theory debate, as well as the divergence in measurement outcomes, as reflected in the few statistics above, demonstrates a lack of consensus on how democracy should best be conceptualized. As scholars contend, the very definition of democracy as "the rule of the people" is already problematic. David Held claims it comes with many underlying implications and wonders, "rule?" - "rule by?" - "the people?" To begin with the people: "Who are to be considered the people? What kind of participation is envisaged from them? What conditions are assumed to be conducive to participation? Can the disincentives and incentives, or costs and benefits, of participation be equal?" (quoted by Monga 1996:19)
The assumption that democracy is the best of regimes has been unequivocally is not warranted. In fact, the notion of the rule of the people has been disputed from democracy's Greek inception. Plato and Aristotle, for instance, looked at it with contempt while for the sake of political order they favored aristocracy since the "rule of the people" is inherently corrupt and unstable. By purporting to dispense equality to naturally unequal beings, democracy is a perversion of polity and a recipe for the lower strata of society to advance their self-interest, which is, to expropriate the wealth of the better-off and property owner citizens. This disdain for democracy led Guy Donnay (2009) to suggest that Socrates' death sentence was a revenge of Athenians against Socrates who betrayed democracy to support the Spartan aristocracy. It is a legacy of modernity, whence it came to be associated with the notions of justice and equality - although at the outset the conception of justice excluded gender and race. The moderns bestowed on the concept of democracy the notion of equality. However, it should be borne in mind that the liberal perspective of democratic equality originally included in the concept "the people" only property owners who represented approximately ten percent of the population. The difference with the ancient perception is that in modern times, democracy "is no longer foreign, in its historical manifestation, to the ideology of progress" and is based on the universal rights of individuals while it was based on citizen participation in public affairs for the ancients. (Benoist 2011:11) Thus, democracy represented rather a theoretical proposal for balancing the might of sovereign states with the rights of individuals to own property.
Today, democracy may not yet be universally practiced nor uniformly accepted but democratic governance has achieved the status of being taken to be generally right in the general climate of world opinion. Democracy focuses on political arrangements and participation, that is, institutions and processes that guarantee the rights and freedoms to choose and replace leaders through regular and free elections, equality of opportunity and access, and a just distribution of social benefits and burdens are maintained. (Sorensen 1993:10) While contempt for democratic virtues of popular participation was preserved through the Enlightenment framework, as seen in J.S. Mill was concern about the mediocrity of the masses in so far as they no longer needed to take their opinions from the dignitaries of Church or State leaders, the blessing (or curse) of the modern conceptual transformation was its coupling with liberalism as though these terms were natural mates. In fact, liberalism derives its legitimacy from authority of the state to protect individual freedoms - implying the right of private property owners - not the rights of the masses. (Fukuyama 2012:54)
The inherent paradoxes of liberal democracy
There is a persistent confusion about the causal factors of the democratization process in Africa. The historical coincidence with the end of the Cold War has prompted many to interpret the phenomenon as being coterminous with economic liberalism. Indeed, the end of communist meant also the triumph of capitalism. And the fact that requirements to democratize were delivered in the same package with global capitalism makes believe that the democratization process in Africa was only a part of a worldwide movement; that African countries were just following a trend in East Europe; and the Western institutions (World Bank, IMF) were pushing to liberalize the political economic system. (Mohamed and Ndubme 2006) Failure or variation in democratic implementation would, thus, be related to the role of the military that continues to intervene in African politics; incumbent who are not willing to step down or to alternate power, and warlords who create armed conflicts to control natural resources.
While liberal capitalism was introduced as an alternative to development quandary, democracy sought to control the squandering of public resources by African dictators. Nonetheless, many have underscored the logic of capitalism that produces inequalities in social and economic resources "so great as to bring about severe violations of political equalities and hence, of democratic process." (Dahl 1985:60; Monga 1996; Sorensen 2008: 10) That is why the globalization process has also epitomized the "third wave of democratization. However, in most developing countries, economic globalization is one factor that undermines the people's political control and sovereignty. It not only pits domestic claims against multinational interests but also reduces the state's capacity to protect local interests against corporation-dominant form of economic production. (Denault 2008; 2010) This contradiction between undemocratic market forces and democratic participation lies at the heart of the current form of liberal democracy that seeks to reduce the government to its bare minimum, making it incapable of mitigating socioeconomic inequalities while protecting the interests of a new global aristocracy. As the multinational corporations shape the available knowledge and categories with which we think of ourselves, they have come to monopolize the power of representation and have succeeded in concealing the unprecedented forms of social and environmental injustices they engender. (Landefeld and Whichard 2006; Munck 2007; Mahler 2004; Rodrik 1997) Because, in many cases, the globalization has undermined democracy in poor nations, let us hope that the current ongoing "Occupy" movement will provoke further reflection about the worldwide indignation against a prevailing capitalist financial dictatorship that has yet to welcome democratic rules and principles.
A second paradox concerns the distribution of power and the very nature of African state. While the modern state has undergone profound changes in the recent globalization times, the fragility of the typical African polity exposes a contradiction of principles entailed both in the nature of the state and the notion of "liberal democracy." Sociologist Weber has argued that it is to misread history as to interpret "the welfare state as the teleological completion of liberalism. [It is the] state's absolute end to safeguard (or to change) the external and internal distribution of power." (Weber 1946:334, quoted by Wolin 1989:151) Equally, let us not lose sight of the history of the state formation in Africa of which the goal was not the welfare of the people but the opposite, to constrain them toward colonial production interests. Throughout the decades that followed independence, the struggle of Africans consisted of converting the existing structures to accommodate local and domestic interests. However, the post-Cold War blurring of domestic demands for democracy and international trends toward globalization obfuscates this structural tension in African states. There is confusion between the necessity of development and the people's welfare expectations to which the state has abdicated in favor of non-governmental organizations.
This suggests a third paradox, which I call the distribution of worth or dignity. While it is now clear that democracy and capitalism are not natural mates, and that the current crisis of democracy is global and not peculiar to Africa, it should be acknowledged that Africa's rush toward democracy was a statement against abuse of power and wealth by dictators, but even more, the claim for human rights and dignity. The sluggishness of Africa's democratic progress could possibly find an alternative explanation in the very nature of liberalism. This is not to insinuate that democracy and economic liberalization are incompatible. It is however true that the terms "liberal" and "democracy" are in contradiction, not in complementarity, with each other instead. While democracy seeks to maintain people's sovereignty as a people, liberalism undermines such democratic claims for the simple reason that it invests a minority of property owners with extravagant powers that hamper the people's demands for social justice. In other words, liberalism is in contradiction of principles with democracy when selfishness overtakes the common good; and individuals overlook the community for the sake of material wealth creation. Hence, liberalism constitutes the very source of the democratic crisis both in Africa and elsewhere. (Benoist 2011:10) Besides, although some have extolled globalization's potential to boost economic growth in Africa, it is obvious that countries with weaker institutions have rather suffered more marginalization, the unfairness of labor practices, environmental depletion, and further erosion of the state's capacity to provide welfare programs. By the same token, if the middle-class that composes the basis for effective civil society is neglected and sacrificed for the sake of corporations and the handful of people who control them, the risk is greater to confuse democracy with populism. In Africa, people's protests are usually met with police brutality whereas the civil society participation in policymaking process is swept over by lobbyists with more power to bribe politicians. (Landefeld and Whichard 2006:128)
Prospects of Democracy in Africa
The current model of political organization, however, has only succeeded in skewing individual successes against collective projects. That is, there is a paradox inherent to the very democratization process. The reality of democracy in Africa may look bleak; democracy is nonetheless becoming the rule of the game. Nigerians descended into the streets to protests the government's cutting of social funds from oil revenues. Meanwhile, after going through a hysterical moment of ethnic violence, Kenyans agreed to a power sharing between their two contending leaders. The legitimacy of Mali's government may require it to negotiate with the Touareg people, overcome the terrorist presence of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, and protecting the rights of the internally displaced people. The Senegalese people refused to have their democracy stolen by anti-constitutional fraud; instead, its civil society mobilized to organize parallel monitoring and computing centers of electoral votes. Ivory Cost has yet a long way to go before democracy is engraved in its institutional processes, while Gabon, Togo, and the D.R. of Congo all need to prove they effect regime change without violence. Hence, any measuring activity begs for nuances and historical contextualization. It is not only difficult to speak of Africa's complexities as though the continent were a monolithic political unit.
These few examples lead us to return briefly to the crucial problem of competing priorities of economic fulfillment and civil and political freedoms. A focus on external causal mechanisms alone has obscured the more profound yearning and demand for democracy as the best political expression of the quest for self-fulfillment. In the developing countries, however, leaders have contested priority of democratization, instead maintaining that the poor need to fulfill their economic needs first before they can claim political rights. In other words, given that political freedoms and rights can hamper economic growth and development, democracy should not be the priority of governments in poor developing countries. Why, indeed, bother about the luxury of political freedoms in the face of the overpowering grossness of poverty? Known as the Lee thesis - according to Singapore former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew - this view is often complemented by the cultural relativism that posits democracy as an exception of the West. Thus, the democratization process in Africa seems but another form of Western imperialism, one that fails to respect the reality of diversity by promoting the rights of individuals over those of communities. (Sen 1999:147ff; Sorensen 2008: 100)
The importance of democracy is not well served when the urgency of economic needs is pitted against the guaranteeing of civil and political liberties. It is now high time to measure the democratization process outcomes in Africa and, by the same token, to revisit the meaning, the principles, and the exceptionalism of African democracy. This apparent paradox is the heart of the current global crisis of democracy in general. Since democracy is about protecting the basic rights and freedoms of the citizens, the consensus that liberal democracy makes the best form of government could be misleading. The liberal tradition has established that political legitimacy is founded on representative and procedural decision-making processes that include competing interests of citizens regarded as equal bearers of rights and duties. Since all political institutions are about justice, "laws and institutions must be reformed or abolished no matter how efficient and well-arranged if they are unjust." (Rawls 1971:3) Disagreements over causal mechanisms may prevail but there is a tacit acknowledgement that nations should embrace liberal democracy in response to the widespread demand for justice, equality and peace.
A question worthy asking at this point is to learn what makes Africa exceptional and resistant to good governance. In other words, what is the democratic future of Africa? Do cultural reasons explain Africa's regression into authoritarianism and the failure of democratic consolidation? By valuing community rights over individual rights and by showing unlimited respect to authority are African cultures maintaining a hierarchical order over against the idea of equality and accountability, thus showing cultural incompatibility with the very idea of democracy? What should be the proper role of the state when liberal individualism remains unchecked and a matter of undemocratic decisions? How can globalization be used to the welfare of Africans? What kind of democracy does Africa need?
In sum, democratic expectations in Africa revolved around three major areas: the distribution of wealth, power, and worth or dignity. Have these expectations been met? It is hard to tell. However, as a form of participation, African democracy is en route even though the experience is often met with the paradoxes inherent to the current form of liberal democracy. It is thus important, by way of conclusion, to be reminded that democracy is a dynamic and ongoing activity, not a stasis. That is, although some aspects of it seem on decline in Africa, the political awareness and civic education after two decades of democratic experiments are on the rise. One of democracy's important features, indeed, is political participation of the citizens in voting for the leaders and in controlling the decision-making process. The ballot participation will obviously make no sense if elections are not a channel for the people to create a community of meaning and a shared destiny. Democracy is about political meaning, not atomized individuals with separate goals and selfish achievements. Elections can make a difference only if they come to restore the political sovereignty of the people against new forms of dictatorship.
Unless Africa learns to listen to her people's needs, experiences, values and interests, that is, to understand her historical trajectories, the wounds of her memories, the hunger for justice, the imperative for structures that protect basic rights, the need to overcome past humiliations and to empower local communities for self-determination and meaning provision, she will miss every historical momentum to properly use either the vibrant and youthful talent of her people or her natural resources that make an good asset for international clout, political leverage, and economic liberation. Also, to say for instance that natural resources can constitute a curse is an aberration. Instead, it is better to ask the question who is profiting from those resources, and from crises resulting from resources' misappropriation.
The non-governmental and international organizations and the multinational corporations may continue obfuscating rejection of the current liberal order, and the mimetic form of African postcolonial institutions, but since the democratization process has been set in motion, it will continue to grow at its own pace. Today, democratic aspirations are not a luxury that countries mired in historical contradictions should not demand. The process of democratization will be bolstered only where states can ensure the basic human rights, because democracy is about the very fundamental quest of self-fulfillment and happiness, which in African contexts has been identified by theologians as the longing for "abundant life." (Mulago 1972; Nyamiti 1993; Bujo 2003, 2008) That is, in Africa, the distance that still separates theory from practice.
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