Liberal democracy was sold to Africa as a cure-all against its turbulent decades of post colonial misrule, a magic wand that that would, in tandem with economic liberalization, also serve as an antidote to poverty. With competitive multi-partysm, Africans got elections but not good leaders. Economic liberalization saw them privatize their economies but most people remained unemployed and poor. It turns out that the promoters of liberalism in both the economic and political spheres overpromised and underdelivered. Yet, they have lacked the humility to come clean and confess that in fact, the scheme which carried the promise of catalysing conditions for thriving was dubious. It is now clear that its objective was to ensure necessary political stability in the context of continued exploitation of Africa.
The first sign of this scam was the promotion of democracy that was primarily responsive to markets rather than to people. Democracy was defined in ways that achieved two objectives. One was the privatization of public parastatals, which entailed flogging them off to those with capital, often foreigners. The other one was to promote stability which would in turn ensure that capital introduced in the form of foreign direct investment (FDI) was protected.
The pursuit of these objectives is also the reason why there has been no willingness in Western quarters to reflect on the violent nature of adversarial politics and promote an alternative steeped in cooperation among would-be rival political forces. Whenever elections are disputed and violent, the solution is to bring external actors to mediate among mutually hostile parties, threaten sanctions (including the arraignment of key actors before the ICC), and impose solutions that never address the root causes of the violence. These, as we know, include the zero sum logic underpinning adversarial politics and the economic disenfranchisement of Africans. The priority of such interventions is to prevent the disruption of foreign businesses and international markets. In other words, the protection of foreign investments is what really counts, not preserving African lives or getting to the root of their grievances and addressing them. Most recently, the same concerns were again visible in the promptness with which Western diplomatic missions called for dialogue between Kenya’s President Ruto and opposition figure Raila Odinga who still refuses to recognize his electoral defeat.
Consider this. When President Jacob Zuma rose to power in South Africa, after his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, was ousted, he embarked on a tour of major European capitals to reassure “markets” that he would not undertake structural changes in South Africa’s economy. Apparently, Zuma’s past links to the South African Communist Party and the Black Consciousness Movement had made the markets nervous as it became clear that he would rise to the top of the ANC at the end of 2008.
More pointedly, when disputes and violence broke out following the presidential elections in Kenya in 2007, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was quickly dispatched to Nairobi to mediate. The sense of urgency behind the intervention was uncommon, as it had not been witnessed before in countries experiencing similar post electoral crises. Nairobi’s status as a hub for multinational corporations and international organizations meant that such disruptions were unacceptable. “We can’t let this happen to Kenya,” Annan said. Mediation efforts for the settlement between Raila and Kibaki, and the invocation of the ICC threat to the other protagonists, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, signaled serious interest in securing investments in that country, and the cost of failure to do so for whoever might prolong the instability. The fact that pleas by Kenyans for justice for victims of the violence that claimed around 1,300 lives have fallen on deaf ears since the restoration of stability, points to the real objectives of the intervention.
In the ECOWAS economic block, elections come and go without much improvement in people’s life conditions. There, too, the priorities remain the same: to ensure that Western corporations continue their business as usual, even as former colonial powers (France and the UK) and their allies enjoy undue influence in the politics of member countries, particularly their economic policies.
Further, when the push for liberal democracy in Ethiopia led to civil war, the humanitarian catastrophe was allowed to fester for as long as the warring parties understood that they would not be allowed to fight in Addis Ababa, the capital which, like Kenya’s Nairobi, is a hub for international investment and other activities. This realization served as the broader context for the protagonists responding to the pressure for a negotiated outcome to the conflict that had already claimed thousands of innocent lives.
Democracy or stability?
From the foregoing, one could conclude that the quest for stability that allows foreign capital to thrive has come at great cost for efforts to promote democratization that are not blind to local peculiarities, in which Africans are not treated as pawns, rather than as the actual beneficiaries. The result has been widespread disenchantment with politics and political leadership, precisely because what was promised is not what was delivered.
The solution to all these problems was always that Africans should define democracy for themselves. Had they done so, it would likely have been the kind that delivers both stability and good government, not simply stability that allows their exploitation to continue unabated. In other words, meaningful democracy is what Africans have sacrificed in order to experience stability. The frustration arising from this is what has driven many Africans to look to exchange their votes for immediate rewards in the form of bribes. They know that electoral periods are the only time for them to get something from politics.
In the end, the liberal democracy they were promised has been excellent at providing stability that protects foreign private capital in their countries. However, the marginalization of local economic actors and the capital flight and repatriation of profits it facilitates means that it has failed, even minimally, to address Africa’s economic challenges. Meanwhile, the consolation of aid has failed to fill the void and hopelessness resulting from what Africa has had to give up in this bargain. And so, under the liberal democracy they were gifted with, Africans can at best survive; they cannot thrive.