On institutional fragility

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By Prof John Harbeson

There has been growing recognition that democratisation in developing countries has receded since about 2005, for reasons still insufficiently explored, after having made steady progress to that point since the end of the Cold War.

More recently, however, that trajectory has been superseded by larger events of greater consequence. It is now apparent that democratic institutions are under unprecedented stress even in the world’s oldest standing democracies, long presumed to be “mature.”

Indeed, as fragile, weak, and corrupted as democratic institutions may appear to be in some sub-Saharan African democracies, one must acknowledge that some of those countries, in some respects, including in Kenya, may be less affected by some manifestations of democratic institutional corrosion that threaten some of the world’s supposedly model democracies, including the US.

There are two clear examples where at least new African democracies, for all their shortcomings, appear to be suffering less from increasingly serious threats to their viability than are older democracies in the West.

On the one hand, as imperfect as are their democracies internally, at least African countries appear to be forging ahead with economic integration, however haltingly and incompletely.

Meanwhile European integration, long sustained by democratic political and economic solidarity of North American and Western European countries, appears under threat as never before, not just by Brexit but by economic nationalism in the US, as well elsewhere in Europe. In this respect, ironically, they have seemed to be following the current Chinese model of untrammelled mercantilism.

On the other hand, while executive abuse of individual liberties is a weakness of most new African democracies, it does appear that they may not suffer as much from a particularly virulent, if poorly defined, form and self-serving rationale for these abuses called “populism.”

Justified in the view of aspiring, generally right-leaning politicians as “democratic” because they purport to “represent” previously oppressed populations, these would-be leaders have tended, as a point of ideological purity, to de-emphasize if not undermine institutions.

Thus, these populist movements have generally opted to be no more democratic than those allegedly elitist regimes they have sought to replace. Populism has prominently asserted itself in a number of European countries and the US.

By contrast, populism of this sort appears not to have surfaced in African countries where democratic institutions have at least a foothold, notwithstanding the still pervasive poverty of majorities and serious inequality in many of them.

For Kenya – and others in Africa and elsewhere – the key question has become, how can democratic institutions be strengthened so that they truly serve the tens of millions still in poverty while they retain their current prevalent belief in the efficacy of democracy?

The ever rapidly increasing pace of change that has truly left millions behind in well-established democracies and that has given rise to institutionally destructive populism in Africa and elsewhere. However, since the demise of African socialism philosophies of the early 1960s, systematic and viable publicly designed strategies for ending poverty have been largely missing.   

In Kenya, for example, Agenda Four, a critically important component of the multiparty agreement that ended the 2007-2008 election crisis, has appeared to remain substantially unaddressed. How long until demagogues under the false flag of populism arise to turn poor, displaced, and marginalised against ruling and opposition elites and, in the process, undermine already fragile, partially established democratic institutions?

At the same time, the lesson of African experience with economic reform and development has been that they can only be achieved through institutions strong enough to deliver these results comprehensively. That means that somehow countries, like Kenya, with still new and fragile democratic institutions, must undertake to strengthen democratic processes and address poverty and underdevelopment simultaneously.

In the academy, developmental state theorists who have pointed to Ethiopia and Rwanda as exemplars have naively assumed that somehow what they have termed “political settlements” have already been consummated so as to permit subsequent rapid growth. Current developments in Ethiopia have shown how wrong that assumption can be: a constitutional culture sustained by real development from below. 

— Writer is professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University

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