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Is Democracy Necessary for Africa’s Development?


The Asian experience suggests that democracy is not necessary to engineer an economic miracle. However, the Africa’s postcolonial experience suggests ineluctably that democracy is vital to sustain economic success.

During the Cold War, the World Bank, the IMF and the West so did not pay much attention to democracy, focusing only on economic liberalization. It was argued that if only the leaders in the Third World could get their economies right, it would unleash powerful forces of change. As people grew wealthier, they would demand greater say in how to spend their money and how their country is run, which would force political change. But this did not happen in Africa and many parts of the Third World. China, in particular, became wealthy but remained politically oppressive and non-democratic.

Economics liberalization can indeed produce prosperity but all successful economic liberalization under dictatorships eventually hits a political ceiling. This stage is often reached or triggered by a crisis: falling copper prices in Chile in the late 1980s, falling cocoa prices in the case of Ivory Coast in the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis in the case of Indonesia in 1998, among others. Investors or people who lost money during these crises demanded explanations or accountability. When the leadership was “sanguine” enough to flee or open up the political space and addressed the grievances of the people, the economic prosperity continued without any political tumult. Such was the case in Chile under Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s. By contrast, Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 32 years with an iron fist, did not open up the political space. Indonesia imploded in 1999.

Like Indonesia, Ivory Coast was for decades held up as an “economic success story” and a bastion of stability by the World Bank, the IMF and international donors. From independence in 1960 to 1993, the country was ruled by the autocratic Felix Houphouet-Boigny. It imploded and descended into civil war in 2005 and 2010 for election shenanigans and lack of democracy. Ditto for Madagascar – an economic success story in 2004 descended into civil war for lack of democracy.

In summary, two facts must be noted. First, no dictator has brought lasting prosperity to any post-colonial African country. There is no such thing as a benevolent dictator. The only good dictator is a dead one! Rwanda is often trotted out as an exception to the rule in Africa but exceptions don’t make the rule. More importantly, Rwanda’s economic miracle is not sustainable. See this link

Second, democracy does not guarantee prosperity but the lack of democracy can destroy a country. So many African countries would have been saved had they been democratic: Liberia, 1990; Somalia, 1991; Rwanda, 1994; Zaire, 1996; Serra Leone, 1997; Ivory Coast, 2005 and 2010; Libya, 2011, etc.

After more than two decade of “democratization,” the process has stalled through vexatious chicanery, vaunted acrobatics and strong-arm tactics. In 1990, three decades after independence, only 4 African countries were democratic: Botswana, The Gambia, Mauritius and Senegal. After the collapse of communism in 1989, the number grew to 15 in 1995, it has rocked back and forth since. It slid back to 13 in 1998 and inched back to 16 in 2003 and has remained there: In 2005, the 16 out of the 54 African countries were: Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde Islands, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Sao Tome & Principe, Senegal, Seychelles Island, South Africa and Zambia. By January 2017, this pitiful number of democracies had increased to 17 out of 54 countries. Two countries – Madagascar and Mali – were plucked off the list and three new ones added –Gambia, Mozambique and Tanzania. At this rate – 13 democracies in 27 years – it will take Africa exactly 76.84 years to become fully democratic, other things being equal.

Political tyranny is still the order of the day. In most countries, the parties that ruled under the old system are still in power and the opposition groups, lacking the ruling parties’ fund-raising powers and patronage, seem powerless to dislodge them. According to Delphine Djiraibe, president of the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights: “With few exceptions, the problems are the same across Africa: leaders are not committed to genuine democracy. They organize electoral masquerades to stay in power. They oppress the African people” (The New York Times, July 12, 2001; p.A3).

The prognosis is not very good. MORE African countries will implode because they are not democratic. Watch CAR, Cameroon, Sudan, Sudan and other countries as well. We have already lost Zimbabwe. The prognosis for Zimbabwe is bleak.

Protests started over steep hikes in fuel prices. This is how revolutions start, innocently beginning with protests over increases in food prices, fuel prices, high cost of living, etc. These are ECONOMIC, non-political issues but paranoid and autocratic governments see them as threats to their legitimacy or to destabilize their grip on power and brutally clamp down. People are killed, provoking more protests, which then morph into POLITICAL demands for the president to resign. That was how the Arab Spring started in 2010 – over lack of jobs, dignity, etc. – non-political issues.

Currently, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Sudan and Zimbabwe appear to be following this trajectory. But rah-rah street protests, chanting “Maduro Must Go!” alone are not enough to remove an entrenched dictator from power. Protesters must also have control of at least one or more of the following key state institutions – the media, the judiciary, the civil service, security forces or Parliament. The revolution in Georgia was called the Rose Revolution because protesters charmed the security forces with roses. Shut down the civil service and any military regime will collapse – don’t have enough soldiers to run the civil service. I wrote about these and modalities of revolutions in my book, Defeating Dictators. Now and then, street protests may produce a free and democratic society – South Africa in 1994; Ghana in 2000; Tunisia in 2011. [I was one of the architects of the revolution in Ghana in 2000.] But more often than not, street protests, uprisings or revolutions do not produce desired outcomes. They may:

1. Degenerate into Civil War – Libya in 2011; Syria in 2011.

2. Produce a Stillborn Revolution. The protests may initially oust the dictator from power but would eventually claw his way back to power again – Kerekou in Benin in 1996; Sassou-Nguesso in Congo (Brazzaville) in 2002.

3. Egyptian Scenario – Revolution Reversed. Protests initially ousted Egyptian military dictator, Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 but eventually another military strongman, Abdel al-Sisi retook power in 2013. Military still in charge; it runs a third of Egypt’s economy.

4. Liberian Scenario – Revolution Hijacked by Crocodile Liberator. Protests initially oust the dictator but is replaced by another despot worse than the one ousted – Ethiopia in 1977; Uganda in 1986; Liberia in 1990; Ethiopia in 1991; Congo DR in 1996; Sierra Leone in 1997; Ivory Coast in 2005. This scenario has been a frequent occurrence in Africa and elsewhere. I wrote about this eventuality. Check this link

5. South African Scenario. Here an autocrat is replaced with some thug from the same corrupt cabal that ruined the country in the first place – Angola (replacing dos Santos with Lourencos), South Africa (Zuma with Ramaphosa) and Zimbabwe (Mugabe with Mnangagwa).

The South African scenario has become all too frequent since in Africa government has metastasized into a criminal enterprise. Anyone chosen from the ruling elites to succeed a failed president would himself be a crook. Such was the case in Zimbabwe, where the anti-corruption czar, Ngonidzashe Gumbo, was himself a bandit, jailed for 10 years for defrauding the commission of $435,000.

In Zimbabwe, there is an additional obstacle that dims the country’s future. That is the military generals who installed Mnangagwa. Mugabe used them to militarize his regime and strengthen his grip on power. He inserted them in the administration of strategic ministries, corporations and agencies. They came to be known as “securitocrats.” Mugabe gave them free reign and cast a blind eye to their naked plunder of Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth – for example, they are alleged to have looted $15 billion of revenue from Marange diamond fields. Eventually they found themselves in an untenable situation. Mugabe was 91 years old and his younger wife Grace, was rearing to succeed him. Finding that unacceptable, the Generals eased Mugabe aside and installed Mnangagwa – Mugabe’s right-hand man and former security chief who was responsible for the slaughter of at least 20,000 Ndebele in Matabeleland (opposition stronghold) in 1982.

So genuine reform in Zimbabwe is impossible. The military generals won’t let that happen because they know what they have done. Their hands are dripping with blood and their pockets full of booty. Even if the protests force them to act, they would replace Mnangagwa with another crocodile – revolution hijacked.

To have a brighter future, Zimbabwe needs to make a clean break with the past but the military generals won’t let that happen. So the country will muddle through or spin its wheels in a quicksand. Other countries – such as Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria and South Africa – are also stuck in a state of perpetual reform without accomplishing much. Only Aby Ahmed of Ethiopia may provide an exception to the rule that a despotic Marxist regime cannot reform itself but the jury still out on that one.

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