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The trouble with democracy in Africa

By Andrew Mwenda

Last Saturday, October 16, I was a guest on Capital Radio’s Capital Gang programme and our debate settled down to the subject of democracy in Africa ‘ specifically on Uganda and Rwanda. Like most debate on anything in Africa, the discussion did not use the facts of a case i.e. the actual dynamics driving a country. Rather, it relied on a set of assumptions drawn from the experience of others which were super-imposed on our reality.

Debate on governance in Africa is frustrating because we focus on the procedures of democracy instead of its substance. For example, Freedom House has a check-list of indicators for democracy: Press freedom, multiple political parties, regular elections etc. Although these are important aspects of democracy, their mere presence does not mean that a country is democratic. Many African countries go through all the motions of democracy yet these rituals serve little or no democratic function.

If the mere practice of these rituals means a country is democratic, then it is a democracy like one that existed in the US in 1900 ‘ where only propertied white males participated. The rest of the people ‘ poor white men, all women, blacks and Native Americans were not part of this democratic experiment. The African story is more nuanced.

On the face of it Ghana, Mali, Kenya, Senegal and Mozambique have universal adult suffrage; all the citizens are free to use the mass media and political parties to participate in the political process. Yet most Africans are ordinary uneducated peasants living in rural areas. They are not part of civil society; they belong to ‘traditional’ society.

The ‘masses’ are not excluded from the political process as women and ethnic minorities were in the US. Rather, they are integrated into it; not as rights-bearing citizens but as clients of powerful individuals; and this is how the majority of Africans are actually disenfranchised. The ‘capture’ of the masses by powerful elites is done largely but not entirely through ethnic politics. Ethnicity is used to blur the situational differences between elites and their poor co-ethnics; and thus allows the latter to use the former to bargain for positions of power and privilege.

The most illuminating example of this is a conversation I had with Rwanda’s former chief of security, Patrick Karegyeya. Together with three other colleagues, they issued a document in which they accused Paul Kagame of ‘marginalising the Hutu.’ I sent Karegyeya an SMS asking what this meant. He answered: ‘Can you tell me of any single Hutu since 1994 who had ever had any say in any decision making (political or otherwise) in Rwanda?’ Meaning if there were a few Hutu elites with power and influence around Kagame that would mean that the Hutu in Rwanda are not marginalised.

Now Rwanda has the highest primary school enrolment in Africa ‘ at 97 percent; the highest level of medical insurance coverage of all its citizens at 92 percent, better than the world’s biggest economy, the United States. The World Bank has just nominated Rwanda for an award as the most successful country in combating child and infant mortality. Malaria morbidity and mortality have reduced by over 80 percent and the HIV/AIDS prevalence is less than 3 percent, down from 11 percent in 2000. Maternal mortality, average life expectancy and doctor-to-patient ratio are all growing impressively.

These achievements have only been possible because Rwanda has decentralised power and given ordinary citizens voice in the management of their affairs. At the lowest level of the village Rwandans draw up checklists of the things they want done in their communities. These inform government policies. District leaders enter a contract with the president on achieving the goals set by people themselves. A performance assessment is done every year evaluating promises against realised goals. The beneficiaries of these programmes are largely ordinary Hutu; integrated into power from the lowest level.

Yet many African elites would share Karegyeya’s sentiment. But look: The second most influential man in Uganda after President Yoweri Museveni is Amama Mbabazi from Kanungu district. Many people would conclude that the people of Kanungu are in power. Yet Kanungu has the highest levels of child malnutrition in Uganda after IDP camps in war-torn Acholi. I know that identity has strong emotive appeal ‘ people see in their powerful co-ethnics a promise of their own future. But ethnicity is not everything. Mbabazi and a few elites are not ‘the people of Kanungu.’

Yet Mbabazi is not an oddity; his is the story of Africa’s democratic experiment. If President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya wants to win the vote of the Akamba, he does not do so by addressing their existential needs ‘ over land, jobs and taxes. He makes a deal with a powerful Akamba politician, Kalonzo Musyoka and a few elites. These mobilise their co-ethnics for Kibaki. His opponent, Raila Odinga, does the same to win the Kalenjin: rather than address their existential needs, he does a deal with William Ruto.

If Museveni wants to win the Bairu vote in Ankole, he does little to address their concerns over healthcare, education and transportation. He appoints Amanya Mushega, Kahinda Otafiire and Ephraim Kamuntu into his cabinet. These will rally Bairu masses to vote for him. His opponent, Kizza Besigye, in trying to win over the Baganda does not address their concerns over land and agricultural policy. He strikes a deal with two former Katikkiros ‘ Ssemwogerere Mulwanyamuli and Daniel Muliika.

We all know this! What is frustrating is the apparent failure of African intellectuals to use it as part of their analysis of how democracy is evolving in our countries. This deal making among elites has powerful implications on the evolution of functional states. Because if a politician can win votes by appeasing a few elites, that is certainly a more cost-effective strategy than building strong institutions and implementing sound policies to serve the public good.

Institutions take a lot of time and money to build and extraordinary discipline to make them functional. So through a genuinely democratic process, politicians find it profitable to offer private goods (jobs, cars, contracts, etc for elites and envelops stuffed with cash, alcohol, sugar and salt for the poor) than to deliver public goods and services. Across Africa, the more democracy has spread the less effective the state has become as an instrument for serving the public good and the higher corruption has grown.

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