The Failure of African Democracy

From the April 2008 Trumpet Print Edition

Kenya’s struggles to implement a functional democracy are nothing new on the African continent.

In Nigeria, national elections in April 2007 were plagued by fraud. It was hoped that elections in 1991, the first in 16 years, would introduce a new democratic era. That optimistic idea suffered a bad bruising in last year’s elections. Human Rights Watch observers reported widespread problems including intimidation of voters, vote-rigging and -buying, and bloodshed. European Union observers said the election process “cannot be considered to have been credible.”

While the election for leadership of South Africa’s African National Congress in December ousted a man who failed to deliver on his promises to his people, it brought to power a man with questionable character who faces criminal charges. And though some may laud this leadership change as democratic progress, South Africa itself is more or less a one-party state, with the anc elites quickly running the country into the ground.

The ruling party in Zimbabwe, which has been in power for 28 years, also had a congress in December, in which Robert Mugabe’s candidacy for this year’s presidential election was endorsed, making an utter mockery of democracy. The Zimbabwe Independent reported, “Mugabe secured his endorsement after distributing cars and farming equipment to traditional chiefs and party members and used war veterans through their leader Jabulani Sibanda last month to organize the so-called million-man march to garner support for him” (Dec. 21, 2007).

In theory, democracy should protect against such political strong-arming. In Africa, though, democracy—or the trappings of it—generally only protects the flow of foreign aid into government coffers. And it also spins nice new invisible robes of legitimacy for the continent’s emperors.

The picture that Aidan Hartley portrays of political campaigning in Kenya is depressing in its continuing repetition elsewhere across Africa. “In the election campaign rallies I attended there were no debates about policies, despite the huge health, education, security and poverty problems. The Big Men arrived in helicopters hired at £1,000 an hour to address voters in slums and forest clearings …. Praise singers kowtowed to the Big Men, who dozed, talked on their mobile phones and then waddled back to their helicopters, which blew dust into the faces of the poor on take-off” (Spectator, January 9).

Examples of free and fair elections facilitating the peaceful transition of authority from one leader to the next—the basic promise of a functional democracy—are simply dwarfed by examples of this fragile process being thwarted by various forms of corruption. Many are the ways in which those hungry for power—particularly those determined to retain power—can vigorously manipulate and exploit this system in their own self-interest.

Little wonder, then, that a brief stint of democracy in Kenya did not bring the freedom people wanted. That is why, in Nigeria, just 35 percent of the people support democracy. It is also why, out of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa—although all but five had at least one multi-party election in the decade leading up to 2004—not one could inarguably be considered a successful, functioning democracy.

The most common form of governmental change among these nations, in fact, has been the coup. Only one—Côte d’Ivoire—has been free of a coup attempt. In the post-colonial generation between 1957 to 1990, Blaine Harden reported in Africa: Dispatches From a Fragile Continent, “Not one African head of state, even in nations that tolerate a measure of democracy, has permitted voters to end his reign. … Excepting four civilian presidents who chose to retire and a handful who were lucky enough to die in office of noncoup causes, all the others have been assassinated, jailed or exiled.”

Democracy is simply a concept that no African nation has been able to effectively embrace. In essence, post-colonialism has failed in Africa.