Why stalled democratisation in Africa?



By John Harbeson

Freedom House has reported a modest but discernible decline in democracy around the world every year for the past decade.  For forty-three years, Freedom House, based in New York City and Washington, DC, has acted as an independent watchdog, monitoring the extent and quality of essential democratic practices in nearly every country, relying upon on site analysts and country and regional specialists.  With a quarter of the countries included in Freedom House surveys, sub-Saharan Africa influences significantly Freedom House overall findings.

The persistent if generally gradual erosion of democratic practices around the world that Freedom House has observed since about 2005 reverses an arc of remarkable expansion of democracy that Freedom House chronicled it found in sub-Saharan Africa. Sagging democratic practice of the last decade, notably in sub-Saharan Africa is nonetheless worrisome.

Democracy’s trajectory, its rise and the erosion of democratic momentum poses several significant issues and puzzles that have yet to be addressed, let alone resolved, to the extent they deserve. One question is to what extent democratic criteria are at issue.  Freedom House findings of lost democratic momentum are somewhat more dramatic than other reputable surveys but not inconsistent with them. 

Freedom house works with twenty-five criteria which it groups into seven categories: the quality of (1) elections, (2) freedom of citizens to participate in politics without fear or invidious discrimination, (3) governmental transparency and accountability, which it terms political rights, and (4) freedom of expression and belief, (5) freedom of association, (6) rule of law, and (7) personal rights such as the right to travel, gender equality and to hold property, which it terms civil liberties.


A second question, a counterpart to that of the reasons for slowing democratic momentum recently is what explained the emergence of democratic progress at the end of the Twentieth Century. Whole libraries have been written about when democracy should be expected or should be deferred, but explanations for why it actually did emerge have appeared to be less deeply explored. The late political scientist Samuel Huntington famously coined the term democracy’s third wave, noting that democratic movements have occurred in great bunches, suggesting that democracy has tended to be “contagious” once it emerges in a few countries. This explanation, of course, begs the question of what has actually prompted democratisation movements in the first countries and why in these countries rather than in others.  

One of the key differentiating factors in the emergence of democracy has appeared to be the relative impact of factors internal to the countries and those coming from outside.  For eastern and central Europe, the evident decay of the Soviet empire and the bankruptcy of its development model in its then satellite countries were centrally important.  External factors seemed to be somewhat less prominent in the case of Latin America.   

For sub-Saharan Africa, two decades of external pressure for social and economic liberalisation seemed to have strengthened and emboldened emergent middle classes to demand the grant ing of political liberties. A decade of détente in the Cold War alliance rivalries during the 1970s allowed those countries, aided by the international financial institutions, to turn their attention from propping up allied authoritarian regimes to circumventing them by working around governments rather than through them, to reach what they termed the previously overlooked poor majority in most developing countries. World Bank-International Monetary Fund crusades beginning in the 1980s demanding that sub-Saharan African governments retreat from managing their economies in favour of letting the private sector manage itself helped to create further potential space for civil society advocacy.

My hypothesis, however, is that democratising sub-Saharan African states have not yet built their capacities to sustain the end of the ephemeral halcyon 1990s era when the international community single-mindedly embraced democratisation after the Cold War. At the same time, the emergence of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) has been a boon to sub-Saharan African economies and a factor in their sustained economic growth.  


However, a number of the countries from whence these investors come are not democracies.  Here, again, it would appear to be a dimension of still weak democratising states that democratisation has not yet led to clear publicly supported policy consensus to shape external investment in ways calculated both to advance and to undergird economic foundations for democratic state strengthening and sustainability. 



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