Democracy in Africa: Looking Beyond Elections

In 2016, several African states had elections with vastly differing and mostly interesting results. Globally, it could almost be said that 2016 was the year of voting and an illustration of the limitations of democracy, if evidenced by voting alone. Cape Verde, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, CAR, Chad, Comoros both Congos, Rwanda, Senegal, Niger, the Gambia and São Tomé & Príncipe are among the states that had elections. In all 29 African states/nations had elections, but Gambia’s elections were the most reported. I will return to Jammeh in a moment. A disturbing trend across several of the elections was the governments creating a media blackout, shutting down all access to the internet just before and during voting. Yahya Jammeh of Gambia conceded defeat by telephone and then deconceded a few days later. Constructively, carrying out a palace coup – probably the only person who has organised two coups for the same prize. Anglophone African leaders rushed to Banjul to sort him out. We await the outcome of all the ‘diplomacy’. One could suggest that the above is a testament to how well democracy works in Africa. I contest that one two grounds. One, we tend to confuse, good elections with good democracy – they are not the same thing. Two, we need an understanding of democracy and its limits, before we can lay claim to our systems as democracies. A fundamental problem with democracy as a concept, is the part it plays in international relations and the consolidation of international community.

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What is Democracy and Why is it Important?

According to Buchan, for states to be considered part of international community, they have to exhibit traits of liberal democracy, even if their internal political culture is not one of liberal democracy. Basically, to join the club you have to wear the tie, the other items of clothing are not as important. This articulation of the international community is reflected in the US foreign policy, that is, democracy and market economy includes states and international organisations in the international community – allying them to the US – accords them legitimacy and protects them from multilateral intervention from the US.

Democracy can be considered as an international human right enshrined in Article 25 (the right to vote and be voted for) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or a means of implementing the human rights codified in international human rights law. Democracy is encouraged because ‘good governance is a crucial element for peace and development, while autocracy has been shown to fuel conflict, and human rights violations in a number of cases.’  Autocracy retards development, however, the economic rise of China questions the conventional accepted link between liberal democracy, market economy and development. The requirement for democracy presupposes that democracy is the only form of ‘good governance’. Furthermore, democracy is seen as a means of ensuring human rights protection or the shared values of the international community such as freedom, equality, tolerance and dignity are reflected in national life. And because Article 25 does not define democracy but almost mandates elections our ideas of democracy and good governance are tied to periodic elections.

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The Problem with African ‘Democracies’

In Africa, ‘Democracy’ has been used as a tool for opposition politicians to deceptively garner the support of the international community.  Democracy in Africa is purposively appropriated by the political elite and used to empower politicians and not populations.  This is facilitated by the nature of the international system. The results of implementing democracy through elections in Africa have in many cases been counterproductive, causing conflict, human rights violations and further departure from democratic principles.  Furthermore, an entitlement to democracy within a state exhibiting institutional and operational failure is largely a redundant right.  The implementation of democracy in Africa is hampered by the lack of modification of Western style democracy when applied to Africa and emphasis on civil and political rights at the expense of economic, social and cultural rights.  Democracy and market-economy do not reflect the needs, aspirations and characteristics of the populations of Africa, this is to the advantage of corrupt African leaders.  Further, democratic requirements take into consideration, the almost non-existent state in Africa.

Africa postcolonial states due to their origin and structure have peculiar and similar characteristics. They exist as postscripts at the end of colonialism, where transitions were marked by incomplete adoption of the Westphalian nature which decolonisation merely alluded to.  This is compounded by internal and inflexible adherence to precolonial theories of primordial concepts of community.  Democracy as characterised by elections and practised by post-colonial Africa states involve a system of reward before election rather entry into government via election to carry out favoured policies.  The desire and impetus to operate liberal democracies are not evident in the populace, as Africa has more patrimonial systems that seek messianic figures rather than accountable human representatives.

Because the political culture in Africa is neo-patrimonial in nature; the government is seen as a source of personal enrichment and not national development; national development remains the function of the community and is restricted to communal or ethno-linguistic development. Thus achieving democratization in Africa, especially through regular elections ignores the social and political nature of the constituent communities and the ideologies of the people of Africa.  Therefore state failure is endemic, inherent and systemic due to the nature of African states, rather than specific events.

If you want to read more (and you should really..) see:

Ipinyomi, Foluke Ifejola. “The Impact of African Philosophy on the Realisation of International Community and the Observance of International Law.” International Community Law Review 18, no. 1 (2016): 3-33.

And

This other post by me

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