Democracy: Why isn’t it working in Africa?

Published on 31st December 2011

Ivory Coast citizens protest foreign manipulation in governance. Photo courtesy

A Chinese Daily editorial recently argued that “Western democracy” is not only unsuitable for Africa, but is also “tyrannically imposed” by colonial powers that ignore traditional forms of governance. In light of this view that has gained currency in political conversation, does such a thing as ‘Western democracy’ versus ‘African democracy’ exist? This debate is important for Africa at such a time as this when economic miracles of authoritarian regimes are used to corroborate this propaganda. Does authoritarianism work well? For instance, is China’s case a definitive proof that authoritarianism does better in promoting economic growth than we can draw the opposite conclusion on the basis of Botswana, the fastest growing African democracy?

I have never met an ordinary African who agrees that police brutality, torture, extra judicial killings or accessing power through violence are African values, yet in many African countries, fundamental freedoms, political liberties and civil rights are routinely limited. Is there a connection between democracy and development? What does democracy mean? What is the instrumental role of democracy?

Although many African countries are termed ‘emerging democracies,’  the absurdity of “democracy” in Africa is that the majority, including “democratically elected” leaders, do not really understand how democracy works. In Africa, democracy is generally equated to the right to vote. This is where the misconception begins. The election process that is often confused to personify and signify democracy is routinely compromised by factors such as negative ethnicity, violence, bribery, rigging and illiteracy. Isn’t this really a problem of our bad politics as opposed to the un-workability of democracy in Africa? The fact that citizens don’t fully comprehend their role in the period between elections has not made things better. The citizens often disengage from public affairs, complain passively and wait for another election time.

Democracy doesn’t work unless it is worked. Democracy works at the initiative of citizens. Therefore, citizen disengagement  leads to irresponsive leadership. When the citizens don’t get the fruits of democracy which include among others good governance, development and security, they attribute the failure to “Western democracy.”

To use opportunistic dysfunctions resulting from the misunderstanding of the working of democracy to disparage democracy as a western concept that has failed in Africa is unfortunate, preposterous and unacceptable. To use selective and limited information on Chinese economic successes to swallow the anti-democracy misinformation is laziness. In my view, while democracy as practiced in the West has evolved over many centuries, in Africa, it is in its infancy.

To contextualize the significance of understanding how democracy works, let us examine the connection between political and civil rights, which are aspects of democracy on one hand, and the prevention of major disasters such as famine that characterize Africa on the other. Political and civil rights are essential in mobilizing citizens around their general needs to forcefully demand appropriate government action. Anywhere in the world, a government’s response to the acute suffering of people often depends on the active pressure that is put on it. This is where rights such as criticizing, open debates, participation in politics and protesting, among others, make a difference. As a matter of fact, no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a functional democracy, a robust opposition and a relatively free press. In case of disaster, respective governments respond swiftly to ensure that the affected have adequate relief and can resume normal life. The leadership responds quickly because they know that delayed action or faltering response can quickly turn the disaster into a protest and referendum on the leadership. In my opinion, this type of active and forceful citizen engagement with the leadership is lacking in Africa’s emerging democracies.     

To use Armatya Sen's words, democracy does not serve as an automatic remedy of ailment as quinine works to remedy malaria. Democracy should become an everyday instrument for our people to engage each other and their leaders. It provides opportunity that citizens must take advantage of in order to achieve the desired effect. This is the right perspective for emerging democracies in Africa. More important, for democracy to work as it should, African citizens must take on a new attitude, become more responsible, be informed and get involved in public affairs. Africans must reclaim the culture of coming together regularly to discuss community welfare. They must shun criminal activities that cheat democracy such as election manipulations, voter bribery, tribalism and election related violence.

There is power in people coming together and organizing around their felt collective issues. The rulers have incentive to listen to what people want if they have to face their criticism and seek their support in elections. Initiatives such as public debates can work wonders in assessing a leader’s competence in articulation of issues, vision and clear policies. Open discussion, debate, criticism and dissent are essential to generating informed and reflected choices. This makes politics issue-based, easens voters’ decision on who to vote for and spurs accountability. Once we get it right with our politics and work on democracy, there is no doubt that we shall experience the fruit of democracy - development. Of course to get a transparent and responsive government, citizens’ consciousness must be backed up by attendant reforms in institutions such as judiciary, parliament, police and electoral system. It is time we put our democracy train on the rail.

By George Nyongesa.

The author is a political activist, blogger, community organizer and editor of

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