African democracy’s long and winding road

Since the collapse of communism, the West has kept urging countries in Africa to establish democracy, which is a complex institution that does not always adapt well to multiethnic and impoverished societies. It has often been used to legitimize “elected autocrats,” yet there are signs the import will take if grafted onto native roots.

Cameroon’s President Paul Biya casts his ballot in October 2018 elections
Oct. 7, 2018: If winning elections equaled democracy, Cameroon President Paul Biya’s seven victories since 1982 would make him Africa’s most democratic ruler. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Democracy is an import that often fails to thrive in poor, multinational states
  • Western powers often equate elections with democracy or use them as window-dressing
  • Yet there are signs that democratic institutions are starting to take in Africa

For more than a year, the French government has been insisting that Libya should hold general elections by December 2018. Yet local politicians as well as other foreign powers, especially Italy, have kept saying that the country is not ready yet. Even the United Nations Security Council has been evasive as to when Libya would be ready for a nationwide ballot, implying a disagreement with France’s position.

In October, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya won reelection to a seventh term with 71 percent of the vote, according to official tallies. While the result in a quasi-authoritarian state can hardly be called a surprise, it is nevertheless startling when one considers Mr. Biya’s job performance. Since taking power in November 1982, he has placed his country at 148th in the world in terms of economic output per capita and 163rd in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings. That raises the question: is holding elections a viable mechanism for enforcing accountability in Africa?

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Western powers have been pressing countries in Africa to organize elections and establish democracies. Yet while democracy is certainly preferable as a form of government to autocracy or dictatorship, and while Africans deserve democracy, foreign demands to hold elections more often produce a facsimile than the real thing. To believe otherwise is to risk being either naive or hypocritical. And at times, this fallacy’s unintended consequences can be even worse.

Borrowed institutions

One reason for the disappointment with African democracy is that it is an institutional transplant. Importing social practices that work elsewhere is almost always problematic. As in botany, “grafted” institutions will only take if they function in a roughly similar social context. For example, it is often the case that certain formal (officially codified) institutions can only operate properly in the presence of other formal institutions or in the context of informal cultural norms, such as mutual trust or punctuality. Adopted in isolation, without these complementarities, borrowed institutions may fail.

Elections are just a one-time aspect of a far broader system of regulating power.

Democracy is based on a complex web of institutions, which unfortunately is often reduced to the ballot box when “copy-pasted” into African countries. Elections, however, are just a one-time aspect of a far broader system of regulating power. The necessary complements to electoral systems are the accountability of officials, checks and balances and, more broadly, the rule of law. These norms and practices are what distinguish genuine democracies from the sham variety.

Unfortunately, even the Western countries that were once colonial powers in Africa have had difficulty observing the rules of democracy at home. If democratic institutions and practices are only partially copied in the former colonies, and if the original was not all that great to begin with, then it is no wonder that the transplant all too often fails.

Winners and nations

Democracy works much better when the state represents one nation, whether civic or ethnic. “Civic” nations evolve from a long historical process and presuppose that all citizens agree on a common political project (with some individual differences, of course). They do not refer to any specific ethnic, clan or class identity. “Ethnic” nations, on the other hand, require a relatively high degree of ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

Many African countries do not reach the threshold of ethnic nationhood, in large part because of the way the continent was divided by the European colonial powers in the late 19th century. This “scramble for Africa,” symbolized by the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, set up arbitrary frontiers that abruptly separated peoples with long histories of living together while forcibly joining others that were hostile to each other, for religious or cultural reasons.

Colonial administrators then exploited these tensions by divide and rule strategies, carving out new ethnic territories or splitting up old ones, privileging some groups and discriminating against others, in order to prevent rebellions or independence movements from forming at the national level.

While the struggle for independence sometimes created a sense of national unity, it usually proved fleeting.

While the struggle for independence sometimes created a sense of national unity, it usually proved fleeting as the old ethnic divides rapidly reemerged in newly independent African states. Many ended up choosing autocrats, who served the interests of one clan at the expense of others. When multiparty systems were widely reintroduced to Africa in the 1990s, they were largely installed in multinational states, not ones that had evolved according to the civic nation-state model.

In such a context, national elections usually create a winner and one or more losers among the major ethnic groups. This zero-sum game increases the reluctance of incumbent politicians to accept change and reinforces the resistance of opposition groups, usually national minorities. The result is violent interethnic conflict, both during and after election campaigns, as seen in Kenya in 2007 or Ivory Coast in 2010.

Poverty and access

Democracy is even more dysfunctional in multiethnic states that are poor. Poverty in Africa often means worrying about one’s next meal. In multiethnic societies with an extended family structure, having a clan leader installed in a political post can mean the difference between relative prosperity and hunger. The family bonds and ethnic solidarity so prized in this social context can quickly degenerate into nepotism and corruption. In practice, they make it virtually impossible to adhere to the democratic virtues of transparency, accountability and meritocracy.

In Africa, winning elections is synonymous with gaining access to wealth. State resources are thus privatized and shared within the clan or political clientele (this patron-client relationship is often referred to as “neopatrimonialism”). The costs of relinquishing power are even steeper in countries with significant natural resources, which can provide “rents” to patronage networks in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.

Village elders meet in Sehithwa village, Botswana
An example of homegrown democratic institutions that can be made to in Africa are local councils of elders, like this one in Sehithwa village, Botswana. © dpa

With the stakes this high, multiparty politics cannot work properly and a premium is placed on centralized control. Given the close link between political and economic power, political oppression inevitably deprives most of the population of economic freedom as well. This sets up a vicious cycle, spreading misery and hurting economic development, which in turn prevents the emergence of a vibrant civil society and the civic virtues necessary for a functioning democracy.

Rich democracies suffer from corruption, too, but their politics are usually guided by ideology or personal convictions rather than ethnic interests. Even “class politics” can be related to a general vision. Poverty, while also present, is of a completely different magnitude. There is far less need for ethnic or clan solidarity, and less potential for the dangers that such bonds can bring.

Double standards

Sometimes foreign powers insist on elections while supporting a specific candidate, politely closing their eyes to election rigging. In this context, it is hard to ignore France’s relations with close allies on the continent. Gabon, a centerpiece of French postcolonial influence, has been ruled by the Bongo family since 1966, when President Charles de Gaulle installed Albert-Bernard (later Omar) Bongo. In Congo-Brazzaville, after voters kicked out President Denis Sassou Nguesso in 1992, he resurfaced in 1997 – in a terrible civil war that claimed half a million lives – with the backing of then President Jacques Chirac.

Western skepticism is growing about the wisdom of imposing elections on African countries.

Even well-intended interventions can be self-interested, too. In Ivory Coast, opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara was widely considered to have beaten incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo fair and square in the 2010 elections. Yet when France sent troops to Abidjan in 2011 to oust Mr. Gbagbo, one of the main reasons was his wish to break ties with the former colonial power. It was also no secret that then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Mr. Ouattara had been friends for more than two decades.

Changing attitude

Even with so much going against it, there are still reasons to be hopeful about African democracy in the long term. Three factors could be crucial to its future.

The first, clearly exogenous, factor is a recent shift in Western attitudes. There is increasing skepticism about the wisdom of “imposing” elections on African countries. In the United Kingdom, the Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development (a blue-ribbon panel of international economists and policy experts, including former Prime Minister David Cameron) published an April 2018 report examining how to make foreign aid and reform more effective in poor, institutionally fragile countries. One of its main findings was that “the rush to multiparty elections is often a mistake” and that countries should rather focus on “genuine consensus on power sharing, and putting in place checks and balances.”

Development economist Paul Collier also insists that what matters in fragile states is power sharing, not elections. The West should stop badgering such countries to hold elections and withdraw its support for “elected autocrats” who derive their legitimacy from rigged elections. In short, he calls on Western policymakers to stop being naive or hypocritical.

Not that this would serve everyone’s geostrategic interest. For instance, in fighting terrorism in the Sahel, the Western powers often find it more convenient to rely on a single strongman than to continually renegotiate deals after frequent changes of government. That helps explain why longtime rulers like President Biya of Cameroon are tolerated. And without national elections, it is by no means obvious how to foster power sharing and with whom. Introducing new mechanisms might simply reinforce old conflicts or generate new ones, impeding progress toward democracy.

Local devolution

A second factor that could help this evolution is a new focus on endogenous, local forms of democracy. The point is to bring democratic practice down to a level less prone to generating conflicts, to communities where people genuinely want to live together.

While some critics (including many established rulers) regard such decentralizing policies as the road to “balkanizing” African states as they fragment into smaller entities, African intellectuals such as the Ghanaian economist George Ayittey trust the subsidiarity principle. Their argument is that a bottom-up, federalized model of Swiss-style politics would work wonders to increase accountability, improve efficiency, include minorities and reduce political conflict. Kenya, for example, has recently begun experimenting with devolution programs sponsored by the World Bank and international donors.

Most of precolonial Africa was neither autocratic nor socialist; it resembled a form of participatory democracy.

Interestingly, Mr. Ayittey reminds us that most polities in precolonial Africa were neither autocratic nor socialist. Despite the traditional image of tribal chiefs and “communal land,” they more closely resembled a form of participatory democracy, with much emphasis on power sharing, consensus and accountability. They even fostered economic freedom. Some African theorists, such as the Ivorian economist Mamadou Koulibaly, a former president of his country’s National Assembly, insist that power sharing should be promoted on the central government level, by the adoption of parliamentary rather than presidential systems.

There might be more demand for such political visions if African intellectuals more actively promoted them in the intellectual marketplace. However, the inertia of imported ideas about historical paths of development is very strong, while the resistance of vested interests to power-sharing schemes – especially in the resource-rich countries – can be extremely stubborn.

Power of rules

A third factor not to be overlooked is that imported ideas about democracy have already begun to take root in Africa, at least where the ground is favorable. To some extent, the imposition of formalized democratic institutions (either by Western powers or by pan-African bodies such as the African Union, which adopted the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance in 2007) may have fostered the slow endogenization of authentic democratic practices. Recent studies have shown that, in some places, these norms and constraints have begun to influence the way politicians and bureaucrats behave.

The specific nature of these rules can vary, from the centralized adoption of a common language in school systems to “defragment” society (Zambia), to gender quotas in the national legislature (Rwanda) or liberalization of the banking sector (often a lifesaving source of funding for opposition parties). Elections, when held regularly, do more than encourage competition and strife among ethnic groups – they can also train citizens in democratic norms. Constitutional term limits have already tempered the ambitions of national leaders in Nigeria and Kenya, even if presidents in other countries have freely amended the constitution for their own benefit.

While many African parliaments are little more than rubber stamps for lifelong presidents, others take their representative responsibilities seriously and have become powers to be reckoned with. In countries like Mauritius, Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Tunisia and Botswana, democratic systems of government are progressively taking shape. It is not always an edifying spectacle and the trend cannot yet be regarded as dominant – but it is not negligible, either.

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