Challenges of Democracy & Development in Africa

Published on 5th December 2017

Our continent Africa, like many other parts of the world, has gone through leadership experiments, and has been struggling to find the best solution for advancing the hopes and aspirations of our people. This quest has been fraught with various setbacks and reversals, sometimes dimming all hope that this high natural resource-endowed region will ever find the right governance mix to actualize the dreams of our people for a better life.

I will endeavour to highlight a few of the challenges confronting Africa’s governance and development with the hope that it will add to the ever-raging debate on a myriad of perspectives and solutions. In my view, this continent’s challenges are focused around a few issues:  Our quest for a better leadership structure in our countries, Formulation and management of strategic interests,  The need for new paradigms of economic development, Threats to democratic consolidation and       Challenges of Intra-Africa Trade

Leadership Structure

If you follow the evolution of human society per the theory of the early philosophers: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau; it is posited that when humans decided to move from a state of survival of the fittest in which they roamed in the bush mainly in small family groups and decided to settle in larger societal groups, they needed rules and regulations to order society.

This need came with the requirement for a system of governance to enforce compliance with the rules and regulations. This led mainly to the evolution of leaders who were considered to be monarchs.

Every nation, every ethnic group or clan needs one form of governance or another to ensure the survival of its people, safeguard society’s interests, ensure security and peaceful coexistence. Although there are various variants of governance, two main broad governance systems are recognized widely across the world: you are either a dictatorship or a democracy.

While democratic and open governments are held up as the best system and dictatorships are frowned upon, I wish to state with emphasis, that there is no “one size fits all” system of governance.

Democracies are generally preferred because of the protection of human rights, transparent and accountable governance, open government, free speech and stability. But democratic systems also have the downside of high cost of periodic elections, the influence of special interests on elected leaders and the general lack of a sharp national focus, in some cases, because of the frequent changing of leadership and change of national development plans anytime such changes happen, and also the generally slow nature of the decision- making process.

Dictatorships will generally be led by a single political party, a military junta, a military or armed forces council or whatever the leaders might wish to call it. Dictatorships would normally be established after a military or civil putsch. This results in a usurpation of power from the existing system, a civilian administration or in some cases a monarchy. In Africa, the era of military coups seems to be fading into distant memory with the upsurge of democratically-elected leaders.

While democracy has, generally taken hold in Africa with elections being held regularly, there are still several situations in which elected leaders continue to cling to power either by modifying their Constitutions to remove term limits, age limits, or institute mechanisms that ensure that they stay in power as lifetime leaders of their nations.

Democracy is a desirable ideal and in today’s world is more politically correct. It is therefore fashionable to put systems in place to legitimize even the most authoritarian regimes. If such systems of legitimacy are difficult to implement, at least you can insert the word ‘‘democratic’’ in your country’s name. For example, the People’s Democratic Republic of Gondwanaland.

But while democratic societies are desirable, the question we ask is: are dictatorships all negative?

As I said earlier there is no “one size fits all” solution when it comes to what governance system is more appropriate for which nation.

Democracy evolves and countries are at different stages of evolution in democratic governance. Democracy must not be imposed by external pressure. There are several examples that illustrate what happens when there is an attempt to democratise a country in advance of the stage of development that it has reached. We can cite the example of Iraq and the war that has gone on there and the suffering their people have gone through.

We can come home to Africa and talk about Libya. I believe whatever the government of Muammar Gadhafi was, it was still better than the situation in which Libya finds itself today. We also have the example of Syria to learn from. It is going through a long Civil War.

But let’s also look at some other countries that have seen rapid development. Let’s take the example of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) which today is different separate states, including Russia.

After Mikhail Gorbachev took over, there was a general push to transform the Soviet system. When Mikhail Gorbachev retired from office in December 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved the next day. When Boris Yeltsin took over, there was an attempt to fast-track the democratization of Russia and open up the society as quickly as possible.

Now, we all know what happened. The Soviet Union broke up and Soviet Union which had been the second ‘world power’ because we lived in a bi-polar world with US and Soviet Union being the world’s strongest power, after a while, Soviet Union became a second-class power.

We started talking of a unipolar world where only the United States was considered to be the most powerful nation in the world. Be that as it may, several years later, enter a former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. With restrictions of some democratic rights; restrictions of freedom of expression, and geo-political maneuvering, he has managed to place Russia again as a major player, and as a counter force to the United States when it comes to the world’s most powerful nations.

You can also look at the example of China. China is a dictatorship because it is a one-party state. China at the same time has used market rules, opened up and deregulation, to move the mass of its people out of poverty and move to the second place as the world’s second richest country. And yet the people have given up some rights. You don’t have, exactly, free expression in China. There are some things you cannot do in China that you will be able to do elsewhere.

Governance systems are based on the peculiarities of the nation; they are based on the cultures of the people. And even though democratic governance is the ideal, like I said, it evolves and every country moves toward that ideal at its own pace, and so it must not be imposed as a necessity that people should adopt democratic governance.

History abounds with further examples of authoritarian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, Suharto of Indonesia, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Park Chung-hee, all from East Asia, who ruled their countries from the 1960s to the early 2000 in some cases.

Now, these people I mentioned are credited with using their dictatorial powers to put in place strategies and firm systems that ensured, among others, policy consistency and the accelerated development of their countries, before transiting into western style democracies. Today, we see Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and how rapidly they have progressed. In the period when that acceleration took place, they were under authoritarian governments.

If you come closer home, the fastest growing economies in Africa today are Ethiopia and Rwanda. We probably would not say these are the most democratic or open societies in Africa, and yet they are growing and moving faster than several other countries that have strong democratic governance and creating a better life for their people.

These examples have led some researchers to even posit that because democracy finds it difficult to bloom in areas with high numbers of illiteracy and weak institutions that abound in under-developed or developing countries, it is somehow beneficial not to make an early incursion into democracy.

These examples have triggered the debate as to whether a nation should democratize first before development, or develop before opening up the democratic space, or even achieve the two in parallel, democratize while developing.

It is worth noting however, that the period of dictatorships in East Asia, was during the Cold War when western allies were busy forming alliances as opposed to the situation now where they act as global watchdogs for human rights and respect for the rule of law.

In Africa, parallel to the rapid progress being made in Singapore, Korea and Malaysia at the time, Africa also had its breed of dictators. Instead of their unchallenged rule becoming an instrument of progress for their countries, their rule saw their nations decline to abysmal depths. Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko and Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa readily come to mind.

So, yes, dictatorships, in some circumstances, are unique in increasing the efficiency of governance by reducing delays in the formulation and implementation of policies due to the absence of the need for consensus and endless debates to implement projects or policy and the unique ability to calibrate complete legal systems by decree and even an ability to stay focused over long periods, accelerating economic development. But, at what price?

Democracy is expensive, talking of the four-yearly ritual of election-related costs. Ghana’s National Electoral Commission earmarked about $200 million for the 2016 exercise, whereas Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission budgeted well over $550m dollars for the 2015 elections.

But the benefit of political stability and its returns far outstrips the expense of these exercises. The cost of transitions may be high, but the guarantees of political freedom, inclusion, respect for the rule of law, equality, protection of human rights etc. cannot be over-estimated in democracies.

Apart from providing protective limits, these guarantees send a loud message to investors and other development partners as well. Any attempt to understate the benefits of democratically held elections is respectfully, therefore, a myopic perspective.

Democratic elections also reduce the tensions in opposition elements to try to usurp power. This is because they are guaranteed an opportunity to compete with the ruling party for the general mandate of the people come elections. Democratic governments also provide checks and balances against abuse of power and state resources. Even though I must hasten to say, that from what is happening in many countries, this guarantee is not always assured.

Progress made under democracies are more sustainable because they are achieved by consensus and the participation of all stakeholders. In dictatorships, progress made can unravel when the object of fear, the ruler, is removed.

Therefore, for the safeguarding of rights and freedoms, for the protection of the public purse and the general reduction in the number of insurrections, Africa is better off operating an imperfect but highly effective leadership structure of democracy than to accept the high risk of dictatorial rule.

Formulation and Management of Strategic Interests

Africa is like a beautiful virgin with many suitors, we are told. Strategic interests relate to natural complementary interests in the long term, defence and geopolitical concerns. These interests are either overt or covert and materialise during classified bilateral or multilateral talks or what in the intelligence and security environment you describe as sinister operations of foreign agents in diplomatic missions. For every portion of Africa’s gold, uranium, timber and oil, there is a foreign country that believes that it is their strategic interest and will ensure that those interests are protected.

African leaders have had to navigate these dangerous waters for several years, sometimes leading to the overthrow of a leader who strongly believes that he cannot allow his country’s resources to be raped by foreign countries at the expense of his people. For a long time these foreign interests have largely succeeded because many African countries have not been able to entrench their national interest within their democratic institutions.

They have succeeded because the quest for power often trumps the safeguarding of our national interests. I recall the decision to fight galamsey (illegal, small scale mining) in my country, Ghana and my decision to approve the deportation of some foreign nationals that were neck deep in the brazen destruction of our forest reserves and environment. I experienced a strong push back from foreign interests. But it’s a story for another day!

I therefore propose that African leaders must make efforts to define their own national interest and ensure that, just like the western countries, we take collective and entrenched positions that do not vary irrespective of who is at the helm of affairs.

The national interests of African countries must also reign above all other issues! This will not only guarantee our socioeconomic development but will also curtail the intrusion of foreign agents in our democratic space.

New Paradigms of Economic Development and Cooperation

The current world view of economic relations is one that pits one nation against another in what has come to be known as the zero-sum game. The world environment has kept changing. We had the post war era after the Second World War. Then we slid into the Cold War era. After the Cold War era, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Fall of the Iron Curtain and dismemberment of the USSR, we entered an era called the Era of Globalisation.

It appears we are entering into a new era. There has been no proper definition or description of this era, but it is obvious that the Era of Globalisation is transforming into something else. This new era is characterized by the rise of populism; the rise of far-right extremist parties into governments. It is characterized by an increase in Xenophobia in many countries. So, when US President Donald Trump says ‘America First’, it characterizes a new era.

The era of Globalisation had seen consensus building and joint decision taking among countries and international bodies like the United Nations. This is why we were able to, together, sign an agreement for ameliorating Climate Change in the world.

But currently, for instance, America is withdrawing from the Climate Change Agreement and reversing several agreements that it had become a party to with the rest of the world. Everywhere you go, far right extremist parties that are anti-migration are becoming popular and attempting to take power in those countries.

We are therefore in a situation where one country’s gain is another country’s loss, instead of a win-win. This has led to the formulation of various strategies to protect each country’s interest from being undermined by the operations of others.

As has been well elaborated by Ha-Joon Chang, a professor of economics at Cambridge University, in his book, ‘Kicking away the ladder’, the very methods applied by the developed countries to get to the heights they have attained in their socioeconomic development is being denied developing African countries due to various regulations.

In the development of these advanced countries, they used things like subsidies, protection of infant industries from unfair competition by external forces, the non-enforcement of patent rights and fair credit terms or the availability of credit to develop industries that directly compete with foreign interests.

But like the book says, once they reached that height, they kick away the ladder so that nobody has the ladder to climb and reach where they are, and that is what they are doing to Africa. Their economists and experts come and tell us we must not subsidise our farmers, yet they subsidized their farmers before they could reach where they are. They use phytosanitary and all kinds of non-tax measures to prevent us from being able to export into their markets.

This problem is not insurmountable if we determine to work together towards a solution. This is the time for us, as Africans to commit towards finding solutions that are in our interest and in the interest of the economic expansion of our countries.

It is time for us to truly start finding solutions that present what game theorists call a ‘win-win’ outcome. Because in the absence of better opportunities for mutual benefit, the industrialisation drive we are pursuing will always be obstructed by those who have always used our raw materials as inputs for their industries to create prosperity for their citizens.

For instance, Ghana has produced cocoa since colonial times. Currently, we still process barely 30% of the total cocoa that we produce. However, if you look at the price of cocoa beans, it has the tendency to fluctuate. A year ago, it was at $2900 per ton; today it is selling at barely $2000 per ton.

Yet, the price of finished goods that are processed out of cocoa maintain a stable price.

That is why I outlined a policy, by 2020, to process at least 50% of the total cocoa beans we produce in Ghana, and it is my hope that the current administration will continue to put in the means so that we can add more value to the things that we export.

The same should go for Nigeria. I know that very positive work is taking place to make Nigeria the hub for petroleum production in Africa – and I think Nigeria can do it. As a major oil producer, involving the private sector – and I am aware that Dangote is building some refineries and tank storage capacities – it should be possible to process Nigerian oil locally into finished petroleum products and export them to West Africa and the rest of Africa without us having to import petroleum products from outside. Speaking as a former leader of an African country, I can tell you that our quest to build our countries into industralised economies that can begin refining our own raw materials and manufacturing what we need, is not a development paradigm that the rich nations are enthused about.

Threats to Democratic Consolidation in Africa

It is also important to look at what the growing threats to democratic consolidation in Africa are. These include lack of jobs for a fast-growing population, inequality, election fatigue and mistrust of the political elite, and lately, the effects of election disputes.

Africa currently has the fastest growing population in the world. It is said that persons under 35 constitute about 70% of the African population. With improved educational outcomes, the challenge of finding jobs in our economies to absorb these teeming numbers of young people is a dire threat to the stability of the continent.

In Ghana, the entire public service is made up of 600,000 people out of a population of 27 million. We have 50,000 graduates every year coming out of the universities and other tertiary institutions and hoping to find work in the public service. This is difficult. But that is why we need to equip these young people with entrepreneurial skills to see themselves not only as employees but potential employers, and to give them the skills that make able to go out into the world and set up their own businesses.

Transformational thinking is therefore required here. Accelerating the growth of African economies, promotion of entrepreneurial spirit, creation of more opportunities for the private sector especially in the agriculture and agribusiness space are all urgently needed to address this burgeoning threat.

We need to address the threat of the ever-increasing African population   or, it will become our time bomb. The rate of our population growth is outstripping and outpacing the rate at which our economies are expanding and growing. We have to find more resources to build schools to accommodate more number of children we are having.

We have to build more hospitals to accommodate the ever-increasing population. But if we had a slower growing population, the resources would be able to outpace it and create a better quality of life for the people in any nation.

We must accelerate our economies and at the same time ensure that we slow the growth of the African population. We can do this if we educate our people. In all the surveys done, between educated women and illiterate women, educated women have the tendency to have fewer children than illiterate women. Therefore, putting all girls in school and keeping them in school, and not taking them out early and marrying them off is something that will assist in controlling birth rates.

African leaders must act fast to address geographical inequalities in order for their people to feel that they have a stake in the preservation of the nation state.

There are still many countries in Africa where infrastructure and development is limited to the capital and a few urban centres, while the rest of the population lives in squalor without adequate access to essential social services. One of the commitments we must make as African leaders is to spread the fruits of growth geographically so that every part of our country experiences that spread.

Other threats to democratic consolidation include election fatigue and a sense of cynicism amongst the voting population in democratic African states. Every four or five years, they turn out in numbers to vote every four or five years in the hope that they will experience visible improvement in their circumstances.

Unfortunately, in many cases, this is becoming a mirage. Slow growth of the economy and a fast-growing population is creating a situation where people feel that it is pointless to continue voting the political elite into power with no direct benefit for themselves.

This is spawning election fatigue and mistrust for the political leadership, especially in circumstances when we as leaders make our promises go over the top and remain unfulfilled. Sometimes we make promises that are high in the sky and not achievable in the short term. When that happens, people get disappointed that those promises were not fulfilled and it makes them lose trust in the democratic system.

Intra-Africa Trade

With all the strategic interests of foreign partners and the various socioeconomic impediments from foreign interests, why is it that Africa still puts even more impediments in our own way by preventing trade between ourselves?

Countries become the key drivers for the general develop of the entire region and I believe that Nigeria has a responsibility to the West African region. You cannot shirk that responsibility because it is not only the largest economy in West Africa; it is the second largest in Africa.

If Nigeria gets its acts right, accelerates its economy and impacts on economic development and trade in the West African sub-region, it will drag all the other 14 West African countries with it. I have said before that Nigeria has nothing to fear from any of the other 14 countries. That is why, when I was President, we used to have discussions about Nigeria’s Prohibition List… that an exemption should be made for the West African sub-region.

West Africa was the first sub-region in Africa to allow Visa-Free travel of our people across our sub-region. But we have been slow in the other aspects – allowing free movement of goods and services across our borders. Regions like East and South Africa have overtaken us. They have more trade among themselves and they move more goods among themselves than we do here in West Africa.

For example, the latest figures from the UN Statistics Division (2015) show that Ghana’s imports from other African countries as a share of its GDP is only 3.8%. Nigeria does not feature at all, while that of the Central African Republic is 1.2%. Other economies are however doing well. Zimbabwe imports the most from other countries on the continent, at 43.4%.

Before you say Zimbabwe cannot do any less, please note as well that Zimbabwe is the country with the highest volume of exports to other African countries at 30.5%. Swaziland is next at 30.3% Ghana exports only 1%. It starts with removing barriers to trade such as unnecessary customs checks along our roads, tariffs, impediments to migration and operating businesses outside one’s country of origin.


Africa’s destiny lies in the hands of Africans and the earlier we work towards our national and continental security and placing those imperatives above the interests of external forces, no matter the consequences, the sooner we will realise our inherent greatness as a continent.

It is time we expand the purview of national security to cover not only the protection of state actors, but also the research, development and implementation of elements that border on national advancement and institutionalisation of national interest within the public service of our countries.

Personalisation of power may have an allure of its own, but no one rules forever.  The best way to guarantee development for your generation and descendants is to institutionalise national values and interest.

By John Dramani Mahama

Former President of Ghana.

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