Dilemmas of democracy and state power in Africa

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By Richard Joseph

A quarter-century after sub-Saharan Africa experienced an upsurge of democracy, a different and more complicated political era has dawned: the expansion of liberal democracy has slowed in the continent just as it has globally. Several forces are responsible for this dénouement: the rise of China; the entrenchment of illiberal systems; intensified and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East; authoritarian nationalism in Russia and other countries; the harmonizing of market economies with non-democratic governance; and jihadist and other intractable wars.

The advance and retreat of democracy in Africa since the end of the Cold War have resulted in a new mosaic of political systems. Popular uprisings can still sweep away autocracies, such as that of Blaise Campaoré in Burkina Faso, or block their consolidation, as under Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal.

However, such movements can also be thwarted by determined autocrats as exemplified by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. Some of the most enduring systems of personal rule in the world can now be found in Africa, as the cases of Cameroon, Gabon, and Togo attest. Regimes that came to power by armed force, and have permitted restricted electoral competition, can crush political opponents with little harm to their external relationships. Such systems can be seen in Angola, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. It is pertinent to reread arguments advanced by African historian and social theorist, Achille Mbembe, at the very start of the abertura in 1990: “We are stymied in evaluating the prospects for African capitalism and democracy that are not simply acquisitions, or impositions, of elements drawn from western societies. 

In brief, Africa’s failures reflect also the failure of our theories and prescriptions… We risk reducing democracy to mimicry, or worse, to a convenient way of becoming more “presentable” in the world… Regimes which long relied on modes of authoritarian governance are making an about-turn and verbally espousing democratic ideals … There is a danger that multipartysim will reflect, in the end, merely a new consensus among the elites on the reallocation of prebends.”

It is important during the current era of heightened global conflict and uncertainty to revisit earlier prognoses about Africa’s democratic prospects. What have been key factors and forces, in retrospect, that critically influenced these processes? What adjustments should be made to “our theories and prescriptions”? Finally, is democratic and constitutional governance likely to withstand the resurgence of authoritarianism?

Waning democratic wave

Decades of political oscillation in Nigeria have contributed to the slowing of democratic momentum in the continent. In 1975, Nigeria embarked on one of the most systematic transitions to constitutional democracy ever attempted in a large and complex nation. Well ahead of the global democratic upsurge, a transition to multi-party democracy was carried out in Nigeria after almost 14 years of military rule. On December 31, 1983, however, an elected government led by Shehu Shagari was overthrown in a military coup just months after being returned to power in highly flawed elections.

For the next decade, the most populous country in Africa was kept on the side-lines of democratic progress in the continent. When the vacillating military ruler, Ibrahim Babangida, finally allowed presidential elections to proceed in June 1993—one of the best the country had ever known—it was abruptly annulled by his regime. Nigeria then succumbed to the tyrannical rule of General Sani Abacha, 1993-1998. Altogether, it took 15 years before military rule was terminated in 1999, a longer period than the first military era, 1966-1979.

Domestic and external coalitions can work creatively to help build state systems that are authoritative, effective, and accountable

The former military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo, who had overseen the 1976-79 democratic transition, returned as an elected president in 1999. However, he governed in an often arbitrary and unpredictable manner. He even tried to have constitutional term limits to his presidency removed. Instead of pursuing what Francis Fukuyama has called “the long, costly, laborious and difficult process of institution building,” Obasanjo entrenched feckless democracy by manipulating state financial, judicial, electoral, and anti-corruption institutions.

The transfer of power to an elected government in South Africa via non-racial elections in April 1994 was one of the great triumphs of global democracy in the late 20th century. After decades of arduous effort, during which a broad international movement bolstered the domestic struggle for non-racial democracy, the elimination of the apartheid system was accomplished without massive loss of life.

Yet, the emergence of a “rainbow nation” under President Nelson Mandela and his successors did not translate into active support for democratic progress in the continent. For example, when Mandela wanted to support the struggle against Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, he was pulled back from doing so by his ANC colleagues, and especially his vice-president, Thabo Mbeki. South Africa has steadily assumed a more nationalist than pro-democratic posture vis-à-vis several African conflict situations, from Côte d’Ivoire to Sudan.

I have written elsewhere about other factors and forces that have impeded democratic progress in Africa, such as authoritarian modernization in Ethiopia and Rwanda. When, for example, prominent authoritarian governments produce better socio-economic outcomes than democracies, the climb to establish and strengthen the latter grows ever steeper.

The primacy of political order

Two key questions in early 21st century Africa arise. First, can constitutional democracies be developmental, that is, represent more than “a new consensus among the elites on the reallocation of prebends,” to use Mbembe’s formulation? And second, can competitive democratic systems yield authoritative and effective government? The work of several scholars is pertinent here. I wish to signal here that of Richard Sklar. Sklar put forward nuanced understandings of African politics that deserve renewed attention. His notion of Africa as a “workshop of democracy” captures the importance of democratization being more than institutional mimicry. 

In the case of Africa, the configurations of governing majorities, even in electoral democracies such as Kenya and Nigeria, cannot be understood without reference to what Sklar, in another of his insights, call “dual majesty”, embedded in culturally based socio-political structures. Nigerian scholar, Adigun Agbaje, contends, echoing Sklar and others, of the need for “more dialogue and debate on traditional perceptions of the history and contemporary work-a-day meanings of democratization and democracy among the divergent cultures, peoples and countries of Africa.” 

The primacy of political order, or the capacity to project force domestically and externally, is evident in the prominence achieved by authoritarian governments in Chad, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda. Within their respective regions, in continental fora, and in the global arena, attitudes towards these regimes are influenced by the fear of disorder and terrorist violence. Their failings in democracy, the rule of law, and observance of human rights, while acknowledged, are more tolerated and even excused. On the one hand, therefore, democracy advocates must confront the low thresholds for “democratic presentability” in Africa. On the other hand, the building of effective political orders seems to require more sensitivity to “work-a-day meanings of democratization and democracy.”

In Burkina Faso, a long period of post-colonial instability ended with the seizure of power in August 1983 by a group of radically minded military officers led by Thomas Sankara. Blaise Compaoré, a senior member of the junta, subsequently overthrew Sankara in an operation that led to the latter’s death in October 1987. After 27 years, the Burkinabe people chased Campaoré from power in October 2014. They rose again when his presidential guard tried to remove a transitional government in September 2015.

Popular uprisings can dislodge autocratic regimes in Africa as occurred in the early 1990s. Côte d’Ivoire cycled through several usurpations of power after the death of its long-time ruler, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, in 1993. The last of these usurpers, Laurent Gbagbo, was dislodged by a coalition of domestic and external forces that included the former colonial power, France. In Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade did not mount a resistance to the same extent as Gbagbo, but his removal from power after elections in February and March 2012, similarly involved collaborative action by domestic opponents and external countries and agencies.

Alone among the countries discussed here, Ghana and Zambia have not veered from the core constitutional provisions since their transitions to multiparty rule in 1991 and 1992, respectively. Ghana can be further distinguished from Zambia in that no overt attempt was made, although feared in 2000 and 2012, to override such constitutional provisions. 

The resurgence of authoritarianism did follow the democratic upsurge in Africa of the 1990s, and pluralist democracy has proven resilient in sub-Saharan Africa.

The reconfiguration of power in Africa, while usually favourable to authoritarianism, is not necessarily so. As seen in several cases, domestic and external coalitions can work creatively to help build state systems that are authoritative, effective, and accountable. The blending of order, democracy, and inclusive development is a path still available, with appropriate external assistance, to Africa.(

— This piece was originally published in Spanish in a series of essays for the La Vanguardia

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