HomeOpinion & AnalysisDemocracy: Africa's elusive dream?

Democracy: Africa’s elusive dream?

By Alex Magaisa

THE year 2007 has passed on and with it the hopes and dreams of a continent. Like the relentless waves of the sea, each year comes and goes, eating away

the coastline, each time taking off a piece of the fragile land.

For Africa, the annual passage of time seems to subtract the dreams and expectations of a people who have known little peace.

For the best part of a decade now, there has been much preoccupation with Zimbabwe and its escalating failures, as the antithesis of the democratic movement seemingly sweeping across Africa.

Yet, right across the continent, the script remains familiar: disappointment and despair at the apparent failures to measure up to the democratic standards and descent into chaos and violence following such failures. When all is considered, it would appear that the year 2007 was no more than the harbinger of pain, misery and despair for the continent.

Last year witnessed a number of elections but four earned the greatest attention. First, March saw chaotic national elections in Nigeria. Though condemned for the violence and alleged cheating, the new President Yar Adua appears now to be firmly in place. Second, as the year drew to a close, Kenya held national elections — equally chaotic, very violent and more allegations of cheating. The third was the smaller but equally significant election for the leadership of the ANC, the major political party in South Africa. The other was the election that never was — the (non) contest for the leadership of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu PF.

All four countries matter greatly to Africa. Until now Kenya has been regarded as a relatively peaceful nation with the biggest economy in East Africa. The 2002 election, which displaced Kanu, then the ruling party, appeared to have ushered a new wave of democratic spirit. If that was a symbol of hope, the 2007 election represents despair. Hundreds of people have perished from the violence unleashed in response in the wake of a hotly-disputed election. The erstwhile messengers of democracy, feted in 2002, have become the ultimate villains merely five years later — an indication, if any was needed, that democracy is not signified by the mere event of the election but is a process whose success must be measured over time. Too much celebration too soon over the event of the election as the signal of democracy is a grave error that often leads to great despair.

Nigeria is a major economic power, being the biggest oil producer in Africa housing Africa’s largest population. The previous eight years, commencing with a major election that ushered transition from military dictatorship to civilian rule had seemingly brought much hope for democracy. But the disputed election in Africa’s most populous country has blighted its democratic credentials. Yet, perhaps, because this is a great source of oil, electoral irregularities have not affected the “international community’s” view on the legitimacy of Nigeria’s new government. It is these inconsistencies that blight the West’s interventions in African politics when it attempts to lecture on democracy and human rights.

South Africa is the continent’s economic superpower. Touted optimistically as the “Rainbow Nation”, it has represented enormous hope both politically and economically. President Mbeki has presided over what is regarded as a successful economy. His presidential term does not run out until 2009 but in December 2007 he, humiliatingly, lost the presidency of the ruling ANC party, to his political nemesis, Jacob Zuma. Zuma is a man who faces criminal charges centring on corruption and more recently, faced the ignominy of being tried on charges of rape, during which he testified that, in order to prevent HIV-infection, he had taken the unlikely precaution of having a shower after intercourse.

On the one hand, the election demonstrates some measure of internal democracy within the ANC. On the other hand, for sceptics who are suspicious of Zuma’s credentials and capabilities, notwithstanding the favour he enjoys among the ordinary people, it confirms their fears that, sometimes, even the “right” democratic structures can produce the “wrong” result.

Zimbabwe is Africa’s formerly golden child, rich in promise but more recently fallen on severely hard times. The year 2007 is memorable for stubborn continuity, for an election that never was. This year represents an election that may only be significant to the extent that it represents yet another wave that eats away the dream of democracy. Unlike his South African counterpart, President Mugabe has presided over the demise of an economic power. His presidential term runs out in 2008 and it was hoped by most neutrals that he would pass on the baton for another to try to revive the fortunes of an ailing nation. But in December 2007, he was endorsed as the ruling Zanu PF party’s sole presidential candidate in the 2008 national elections.

Such is the nature of political structures and electoral politics — booting out a president who has carried a successful economy in SA’s ANC but retaining another who has presided over the downfall of an economy in Zimbabwe’s Zanu PF.

The trouble is that democracy in Africa has centred squarely on the event of the election. Elections matter, of course, because they represent the legitimate forum of succession in political governance. But it is this very event that has caused great despair because of the way it is managed, which invariably tends to favour the incumbent and disadvantage the challenger, so that in almost every election, the challenger cries foul over allegations of rigging and cheating. No election on the continent has passed without allegations of cheating.

The truth is that elections can and do produce unlikely results, depending on the persons responsible for their management. A hundred years ago, very few countries could boast of universal suffrage. By contrast, there are many more countries today that subscribe to the notion of universal suffrage. But that is no guarantee that it advances or has advanced the notion and values of democracy. If anything, there is evidence, especially in Africa, of elections being used as means of legitimating the power of certain sections of society, mainly those that are already in power. Notwithstanding that they lack any democratic values, they claim, on the basis of holding regular elections, as in Zimbabwe, that they are democratically elected and therefore legitimate governments.

As a measure of democracy, elections in Africa are flawed. An election alone is no signifier of democracy. More than that, it is important to develop and uphold the liberal values that make up democracy. One here refers to the values of fairness, equality, respect, freedom, justice, transparency, free enterprise and liberal economic policy, etc. These values are dependent on the development of a particular culture that is informed by the history of the people, certain levels of education, economic wherewithal and aspirations. It follows that there are many other factors beyond the event of an election that are necessary for the success of democracy as it is understood in most of the Western polities.

Indeed, in the West itself, the type of democracy that exists there emerged from centuries of political development characterised by conflict and blood-letting. That history is essential to the way people react and respond to particular phenomena and their approach to politics. The election is simply a part of a much bigger process, informed by values nurtured over time. Yet, when transposed into new territory, democracy is measured by ticking boxes — free elections, existence of certain institutions, etc. Because of the fixation with elections, the result sometimes is what might be referred to as “illiberal democracy” — an apparently democratic system but without the liberal values and problems arise when the so-called “right” structures produce the wrong “result”.

There is a fundamental need to devise ways of dealing with such aspects of democracy as elections. One great problem in African politics is the “winner takes all” approach to electoral processes. Most African countries have particular histories that influence the demographic make-up of voters. Tribe is clearly still an important feature in most countries. Regionalism is often allied to the tribal factor.

Even if the disaffection with a particular political party cuts across tribe and regions, when problems arise, tribe is always a sensitive fault-line that is easily exploited. It is necessary therefore to create an electoral system, whose outcomes can more closely represent the wishes of the diverse peoples who make up the electorate. The winners take all approach favours the majority whilst unfairly marginalising the minority, even if, as is often the case, the minority is a large minority. Africans must seriously consider such systems as proportional representation and consensus-building in politics.

The other key feature is the general poverty of the ordinary members of the public, so that in times of trouble, they have little or nothing to protect and instead find opportunities in the ensuing chaos to grab property from those that have it. It follows therefore, that people must have property to protect from violence and disorder, property here encompassing aspirations. Because where the majority lack an incentive to protect property, they are often driven to violent acts to express their anger and dismay at the electoral system — such approaches affect, not just the opponents but the country as a whole. It is therefore important, if the values that underpin democracy are to flourish, to enhance individual economic development.

There is the need here for those with an interest in advancing the African cause, to develop such models of individual economic emancipation. Perhaps when the ordinary African has some form of economic capacity to safeguard and promote, he will be an agent for the advancement and protection of values that can sustain a democracy. This might well take time but it has to be done.

*  Dr Magaisa can be contacted at

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