Africa: Does Democracy Guarantee Development?

Published on 23rd September 2014

Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “The government of the people by the people for the people.” By this, Lincoln emphasizes the need for people to take charge of matters that determine their destiny and suggests a direct link between government and the people. In the book, The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs articulates that Democracy is a prerequisite for economic development. This is because a regime that is despotic, arbitrary, and lawless can easily destroy development.

In the African context, while democracy remains a crucial aspect for development, it is not only democracy that will guarantee development. Well-organized and technically skilled authoritarian governments—such as South Korea or Chile—could generate more rapid economic growth than democracies. Authoritarian governments in China, Cuba, and Singapore have provided better healthcare and greater educational opportunities, especially for the poor than their democratic counterparts, to use Howard Handelman words. Adeolu Oyekan generally observes that “Although no society truly desirous of development can ignore democracy, the democratic experiences in many of the third world countries leaves a huge gulf between the anticipated gains of democracy and the reality on ground.”

While countries such as Botswana, Mauritius, Ghana, and Senegal, among others, seem to be epitomes of democracy in Africa—they exhibit uneven and mixed results. For example, while Botswana and Mauritius seem to be doing well, in Ghana and Senegal—corruption and government inefficiencies have been enormous. In countries such as Cameroon, The Gambia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and so forth—political elites have blocked real democratization process and thus flawed elections, weak political parties, cosmetic judicial and legislature organs, lack of independent electoral commission and weak civil society organizations cannot induce any changes.

Africa has a long way to go for democracy to guarantee development. African citizens should enjoy their fundamental rights of making their rulers accountable and answerable for their actions and policies. Such leaders will pursue popular development policies in favour of their citizens. 

Most political elites (particularly presidents) see power as their birthright. This is why it is improbable for African leaders who loose in polls to accept the outcome and peacefully relinquish power. This takes us back during a monarch system when King Louis XIV of French declared what Paul Biya at one a point is said to have declared ‘Je suis l’Etat et l’Etat c’est moi’ (I am the state and the state is me). Popular acceptance makes the government strong. Leaders should remember Zahir Fares advice that “Democracy is not the exercise of power, it is rather its limitation.”

How democracy can guarantee development
First, citizens should be allowed to hold the final power to make and implement policies that affect their lives through their representatives. This is why Claude Ake in his book Feasibility of Democracy in Africa rightly pointed out “In as much as development is democratized so that the people become its agents, its means and end, then development will be construed.”

Second, good governance should accompany democracy. This will ensure existence of democratic norms accepted and nurtured by citizens and their government. The government has to be close to its people by involving citizens in the development and implementation of policies and programmes that affect them. Therefore the rule of law, inclusivity, accountability, transparency, meritocracy, protection of human rights and freedoms and end of corruption should be the norms.

Third, since development is multi-dimensional and starts from the individual, communities and the nation, then we need “A social democracy that places emphasis on concrete political, social and economic rights, as opposed to a liberal democracy that emphasizes abstract political rights” to use Ake’s words. This kind of democracy will not take people as they ought to be but as they are and try to find how people can forge ahead by their own efforts, in accordance with their own values.

Fourth, clear separation of powers between government organs. Power concentration and centralization is a commonplace in Africa and thus it is difficult to categorically state the difference between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Consequently the government must not only mean “the executive.”  Checks and balance should be institutionalized within the ruling class and between rulers and ruled to ensure sharing of the costs and benefits of development.

Fifth, democracy should be accompanied by all its essentials—plurality, regular, free and fair elections, checks and balances, independence judiciary, rule of law, accountability, transparency, among others that provide a high possibility of guaranteeing development. This is because, such democracy creates multiple power centers—where power is shared for the interest of the masses. Thus everyone in position is likely to rule in accordance with the law hence development can easily prevails.

Why democracy may not guarantee development

Democracy needs to be part of a culture that allows people to have their own self-determination in accordance with their values. However, the current democracy in Africa has been imposed from outside. Therefore no matter its good intentions, some leaders see liberal democracy as an extension of western superiority over Africans. If democracy is imported, it disregards local realities and is partial and disjointed. That is why the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere argued that “Pre-packaged, Coca-Cola democracy cannot help Africa.” Once democracy lacks ownership, it is difficult to guarantee development. In developing countries, democracy is a rubber stamp of the political elites to manipulate whatever they can in their favour.

Samuel Makinda in Democracy and Multi-Party Politics in Africa concludes that “Most attempts to introduce Western-style democracy have created problems for both leaders and voters with no experience of operating in open and competitive political systems.” He laments that this “Has exposed the weaknesses in the structures and performance of the public institutions of many states, and shown the connection between authoritarian rule and political tensions.” Taking a look at how parties perform in elections reveals more problems than progress. Most developing countries suffer from weak political parties, civil societies and private sectors. These cannot promote development as they are weak, poorly institutionalized and discredited by political elites.

Democracy and development are inseparable and dynamic items. There can be no development in its holistic approach if democracy is blocked and vice versa. Therefore if democracy is to guarantee development, we must pursue the policy of “new democracy” which in essence means giving power to the people. People have to take the driver’s seat when it comes to consider matters that determine their destiny. The new democracy must be supplemented with, and strengthened by popular institutions, popular participation, civil society, private sector, local governments, trade unions, media, and religious groups, among others. These should act to unify the people while forging for social, political and economic development. International community efforts should be to support new democracy as what people opt to and not imposing what they think and want.

By Marobe Wama

The author [email protected]  is Postgraduate student at the Pan African University- Institute for Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences, Yaounde-Cameroon.

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