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Democracy and its African discontents

By G. Pascal Zachary

Democracy has taken root in Africa,’ says Princeton Lyman, an analyst with the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington DC. And from the perspective of history, it does seem that the people of sub-Saharan Africa have entered a robust period of democracy. The trend toward multi-party democracies and intensely contested elections appears irreversible.

Yet in an Africa long associated with military coups, one-party states and repressive dictatorships, the new hegemony of electoral politics should not be mistaken for the end of history. Democracy is fragile in Africa.

Just as political pluralism sinks deeper roots in African soil, paradoxically, disenchantment with democracy is growing. Scepticism abounds about the relationship between democracy and development, fuelled partly by the enormous economic success of an authoritarian China and the financial crises in the liberal US and Europe.

In Africa, discourse on political economy is rightly guided by a concern for the belly. One question dominates: what manner of government can deliver the stability, rule of law and economic growth that Africa so desperately needs?

The answer is elusive. As the case of Kenya illustrates, pluralistic democracy does not automatically deliver material benefits. A year ago, a national election resulted in a stalemate between incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, an ethnic Kikiyu, and a popular insurgent, Rail Odinga, from the Luo tribe. When Kibaki declared himself victor, riots occurred, and quickly transformed into ethnic violence.

With Kenya teetering on the verge of civil war, the economy ground to a halt. Foreign investment ceased. So did tourism, a main economic driver in a country famous for its scenic beauty and wildlife. With the loss of visitors came a sharp fall in aeroplane flights, which disrupted exports of Kenya’s high-value fruits and vegetables.

The Kenyan crisis ended when Kibaki and Odinga agreed to share power. The country’s economy is once again growing. But the rupture over the election casts a pall over the country’s future ‘” and has Kenyans asking whether democratic politics invariably means a struggle for power between ethnic groups.

The question has long roots. In the 1960s, in the aftermath of de-colonisation, the first generation of elected African leaders cited the dangers of ethnic strife as pretext for imposing one-party rule. In Zambia and Ghana, for instance, the reality of tribal differences provided an excuse for presidents Kuanda and Nkrumah to ban most political activity.

The idea that African democracy represents the triumph of tribe over nation is closely linked to a second democratic dysfunction: patronage. While politics everywhere supports patronage networks, the cost of patronage is perhaps proportionately greater in Africa than anywhere else because here the means of achieving wealth through private enterprise is probably smaller than anywhere else.

The relative narrowness of economic opportunities in Africa ‘” while nowhere near as narrow today as even ten years ago ‘” injects a certain desperation into the contest for political office. The stakes are high. Winners gorge on the public trough, while losers starve.

The logic of patronage dictates that incumbents expand public payrolls, raise the cost of government and undercut private initiatives that may well have delivered services to citizens more effectively. African politicians justify certain kinds of patronage as necessary to resolve conflicts, promote a sense of inclusion, especially among people from disadvantaged regions ‘” to pay for new, local government bureaucracies that, at least in theory, push power down, closer to the people.

The trouble, cynics insist, is that all of these moves can be viewed as naked bribes to an electorate eager to feed on the public till. In candid moments, African political leaders concede as much. ‘We’ve been criticised for increasing the cost of administration, but we see it as a cost of democracy,’ I was once told by Moses Byaruhanga, a special assistant for political affairs to President Museveni.

The case of Uganda vividly exposes these usually hidden costs of democracy, because Museveni, after yielding to pressure by foreign donors to end his ‘no party’ political system, adapted to pluralism by expanding local government, embracing new bureaucracies and sharply raising spending on administrative activities.

Between 2004 and 2008, Uganda upped its spending on government employees by about one third. The number of local districts rose from 44 in 1997 to 78 in 2006. Each of them required a myriad of bureaucrats and elected officials ‘” and gave Museveni fresh options to reward supporters and woo opponents.

Decentralised government structures are similarly proliferating in many African countries, along with opportunities for corruption, patronage and waste ‘” all under the rubric of democratic expansion. The trend reprises an older pathology of a far less democratic period in Africa’s history, the 1960s and 1970s. In those decades, Basil Davidson has written, ‘authoritarian state power went together with expanding bureaucracies ‘” that is, with hugely increasing quantities of persons who in one way or another looked to the state for patronage.’

Africa is far freer politically today, yet patronage remains a critical tool for retaining power.


G.Pascal Zachary is the author, most recently, of ‘Married to Africa.’

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