Africa Struggles For “Democratic Deepening”

Published on 9th April 2012

“If our political parties fail, our democracy will suffer.” - Michael J.K. Bokor, Ghanaian assistant professor of English at Long Island University, USA.

Forget about the democratic hiccup in Mali, once one of Africa’s emerging democracies; Mauritius is the only African country ranked a “full” democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual democracy index; or the Economist Intelligence Unit’s portrayal of Botswana’s democracy as “flawed.”

While democracy is rapidly breaking out across Africa, albeit in different tempos, the attempts to deepen democracy in Africa are a complicated enterprise. Whether in Sierra Leone People’s Party; Ghana’s ruling National Democratic Party; Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Revolutionary State Party) or South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, Africa’s democratic struggle is seen both in the public domain and internal corners of its vast political parties. 

This is what Craig Johnson of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute describes as moving past the territory of “procedural democracy” to “substantive” or “deep” democracy. That’s internal democracies of the political parties become the key drivers of the larger national democratic processes. In a recent development policy review entitled Local Democracy, Democratic Decentralization and Rural Development, Craig Johnson argues that while elections are inadequate - yet vital, effective governance depends on three essential variables: political campaigns based on substantive issues; the kind of information voters have at their disposal; and strong civil society organizations.

Craig Johnson’s deep democracy variables are at play in Africa’s democracies. In the case of Senegal, substantive issues and information flow to voters were profoundly at work, informed by President Abdoulaye Wade’s changing of the constitution saying it did not apply to his first mandate as it came into effect after he was first elected. Wade faced stiff resistance from his PDS, paving the way for Sall’s democratic emergence.

In Sierra Leone, President Ernest Koroma revealed to renowned journalist and academic Dr. Lansana Gberie the “opposing forces” within his ruling All Peoples Congress that have aided the party’s governance systems: “In fact let me tell you this. I have faced the fiercest opposition from within my own party. When I became leader of the APC [All Peoples Congress party] I almost immediately faced legal challenges. I was burdened in all with 13 court cases from my colleagues in the party. Yes, thirteen. Before I entered politics, I had not faced a single court case. But when I became President, I brought many of these people into my government, and I told them that if you fall, it would be as a result of your own missteps. I won’t push you out at whim.”

Nowhere in Africa is the internal “opposing forces” of African political parties more intense, sometimes bordering on explosion, than Ghana’s ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC). Out of the NDC has emerged “recognisable groups,” that are “stimulating public criticism and debate” on development and democracy issues.

With the founder of NDC, ex-President jerry Rawlings, breathing heavily on the presidency of John Atta Mills, internal criticisms within the NDC have seen groups emerging that have been taking aims at the performance of the party. Against tradition, the former First Lady Mrs. Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings contested for the NDC flagbearership slot against the incumbent President John Atta Mills. Mrs. Rawlings, saying the NDC’s internal structure is impotent; lost the contest and later accused President Mills of rigging the elections.

Craig Johnson says these intra-party activities will “articulate interest and stimulate debate in no small way on the internal dynamics and debate that exist within political parties.”

African political parties can address basic development issues through the emerging decentralization programme. In Ghana, the 24-year-old decentralization programme, as means of tackling rural poverty and bringing Ghanaians into the development process, is still entangled with the central government. Traditional institutions, as the core values of Ghanaians, have still not been integrated into the decentralization programme fully.

Characteristic of other African democracies, the idea in Ghana is that “all by-laws are approved by the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development … The President has the power to dissolve defaulting or non-performing DAs without consulting the electorate …The Minister of Local Government and Rural Development has power to issue guidelines, in respect of fees to be charged by the DAs for the service and facilities provided, licenses and permits issued or rates levied by DAs” make local voices minimal in the very affairs that are to affect their welfare. This is not “entirely democratic in character,” as Craig Johnson explains, “reiterating the tension that often exists between coherent policy and popular democracy.”

As Africa’s democracy scrimmages to deepen, the struggle between its civil society and the African state is bumpy. While democratic norms have opened up the civil society, Africa is yet to experience “strong and vibrant civil society,” especially in organizing to demand better government, issues, policies, and programmes. Helge Ronning, a professor of media and communications at the University of Oslo, Norway, argues that the tussle between African “civil society organisations and the state often take the form of an attempt by the state to overpower non-governmental organisations (NGOs) by bringing them under government control.”

This is “linked to fear by government of the potential NGOs have for organising people outside the state structures.” This fear isn’t healthy. Craig Johnson argues that “the development of a strong and vibrant civil society is also inextricably linked to the political opportunities the state makes available, and the ways in which poor and marginal groups in society exploit these opportunities.”

History isn’t on the good side of Africa’s democracy. From the dark experiences of autocratic one-party systems to authoritarian military juntas, Africa’s political parties have to work hard to deepen democracy. Mali’s coup d’état, the sham democracy in the Central African Republic, and the on and off violent political drama in Guinea Bissau shows that there is yet to be real “transition from authoritarianism” to real democracy brewed in African sensibilities.  Crucial to real African democracy is what Craig Johnson calls ““delegitimisation” of the mindset of “authoritarian regimes” of yesteryears.

With Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad and others still mired in authoritarian regimes, it is clear that democratic institutions do not automatically lead to democratic politics. No doubt, Elizabeth Ohene, the veteran Ghanaian journalist, has observed that “It has been my misfortune to have lived long enough to see so many people who were fighting for democracy, attain power and turn out to be like the tyrants they fought to overthrow.”

For Africa’s development, the understandable challenge, as Craig Johnson suggests, is “encouraging or laying the foundations for democratic development in the short- to medium-term.” You cannot encourage democratic development when in places like oil-rich but poverty-ridden Equatorial Guinea, as the London, UK-based Economist reported, “President Teodoro Obiang was “elected” with 95% of the vote. His party “won” 99% of seats in parliament.”

Fundamentally, the Equatorial Guinea experience reveals that Africa’s political parties are still weak in the face of overwhelming autocrats. Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh and the country’s opposition parties is a case in point. With such experiences, African political parties have to help in the distribution of information, especially on development issues, policies and programmes that relate to government performance.

Beyond the more popular calls by such international institutions like the World Bank for good governance and transparency in Africa, Craig Johnson offers that “activities of this nature would entail the development of networks and media that are not exclusively dependent upon the achievement of basic literacy. One obvious example is the electronic media,” where “local news, talk shows, and question-and-answer programs are all excellent  ways to spread political news widely … radio, especially the AM band, is cheap to operate, does not require line-of-sight transmission like TV, and has great audience potential.”

Another key source of empowering Africans in their democratic evolution by African political parties is interactive communication technology.  Craig Johnson suggests that “the development of accessible and inexpensive forms of telecommunications (such as landline telephones, satellite networks, fibre optic systems) can facilitate the transmission of politically and economically relevant information.”

Mass communication tools, sound political parties and strong civil societies have a big role to play in the overall democratic development of the continent.

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