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The consequences of Africa’s distorted conception of democracy

Competitive adversarial politics, and its proclivity for creating or entrenching divisions in society, contains elements that are disruptive

A friend from Tanzania with whom I had been exchanging observations about the electoral process in Kenya prior to the election of William Ruto as the country’s new President, made an observation on the day the results were declared: “Now the country is on edge. Where else are countries wished well as they go into elections, except in Africa? Why is that? Why should we be wished well? It implies something is very wrong with us”. Emmanuel and I have something in common: we are sceptics of the common understanding of what democracy means in Africa. What the average African, including those who should know better calls democracy, is defined simply by periodic elections in which several groups which claim to be political parties front candidates who engage in do-or-die contests for power and position. This distorted conception of democracy imposed on Africans has had many negative effects on their lives.

Many times, these contests happen amidst violence among supporters of the different political groupings. They create or exacerbate divisions within society, which in the end undermine societal cohesion and social harmony. These contests are almost never driven by considerations of what a particular political grouping stands for or what it offers the voters in terms of plans for country and society. Rather, drivers include the ethnic or regional origins of the leaders underlain by longstanding inter-group, geographically determined rivalries, and what gifts or amounts of money they distribute to or promise to give to would-be voters. Given all this, why the indulgence in these exercises with near religious fervour? What purpose do multi-party competitive elections serve besides perpetuating the demonstrably false idea that they produce accountable leaders and governments?

The most obvious answers are, first, that staging these contests amounts to falling in line with much of the rest of the world, specifically the Western world where these sorts of things are taken as ‘best practice’, the very definition of how civilised societies make decisions about who should govern and ensure that those who are chosen to do so do not exercise power in their own narrow interest. Using global institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and the UN, supported by media, academia, NGOs and pressure groups of various kinds, Western societies via their governments have managed to impose their thinking about politics and governance on the rest of us. So, we now imitate them in order to be seen as part of the community of civilised nations, never mind that our leaders who spearhead these imitation drives do not believe that this is the only way of organising ourselves politically that will serve us better. They know that there are other ways that would preserve societal cohesion and social harmony. Second, Africa has a critical mass of its intellectual elite that subscribes very strongly to the idea that countries that do not embrace competitive multi-party politics and where “there is no opposition” to governments in power are, de facto, dictatorships, which must not be entertained. So powerful and entrenched is this idea that it permeates politics, media, academia, civil society, and the professions. It is a given that once an idea has been embraced by actors in these domains, it is impossible to challenge it successfully, not least because dissenting voices are easily drown in the sea of unanimity.

One thing cannot be disputed, however: competitive multi-party politics, despite all the hype that surrounds and accompanies it, rarely measures up to the expectations created around it with regard to fulfilling or responding to the needs of the ordinary citizen. Which poses the question: what do citizens need in order for them to live relatively dignified lives? Lest we forget, the first generation of leaders of African countries after they became independent aspired to free their fellow citizens from disease, poverty and ignorance. Freedom from disease was to be achieved by the development of functioning health systems boasting high-quality preventive and curative services. Freedom from poverty was to be achieved through job creation. For the most part, African governments of the time saw industrialisation and large-scale agriculture as the most promising avenues through which prosperity could be pursued and achieved. Freedom from ignorance was to be achieved through the development of education sectors that would not only impart knowledge but equip learners with practical skills which would make them creators rather than seekers of employment.

A close look at how present-day African governments perform in these domains reveals two interesting phenomena. At the level of statistics, almost in all cases, one can see that clear gains have been made in poverty reduction. In health, too, we see figures showing improvement in life expectancy and reduction in infant and maternal mortality rates, and deaths attributed to preventable diseases. These statistics exist despite evidence that physical facilities in the form of hospitals, health centres, clinics and dispensaries tend to be inadequate, with people in some places having to trek for miles to access services. And where they are found, they tend to be in poor condition, some having been built decades ago, with little or no effort to maintain them in good repair. The same facilities often lack the most basic equipment, rendering them unable to provide the most basic of services to all those that need them. Further, medicines and supplies tend to be in short supply, having run out shortly after delivery, because demand exceeds supply by far. When it comes to referral systems, these have long broken down in many countries, leading to avoidable congestion in hospitals which were intended to treat only serious ailments that cannot be treated at lower-level facilities, when patients referred for specialised handling.

In the education sectors, there are many countries where educational facilities, as with health facilities, are in advanced stages of decay. This includes universities where infrastructure has not been upgraded or maintained in good repair ever since it was first built, sometimes during colonial rule, several decades ago. Out in the rural areas, physical facilities in the form of classrooms are so inadequate. Some learners still study under tree shade, the same way their grandparents and parents did before and soon after independence. In many cases, teachers lack housing on school premises and must fend for themselves, sometimes living at considerable distance from the schools where they teach, which leads to significant degrees of absenteeism or reporting late for work. These same schools suffer from acute lack of teaching materials of which, even the most basic of textbooks and stationery. To make matters worse, many are understaffed, with a few teachers having to carry the burden of heavy teaching loads, which undermine the effectiveness of the actual business of teaching. This undermines prospects for eradication of ignorance. Ignorance can only be eliminated through effective teaching. Then there is the issue of wanton neglect of technical and vocational training, which in many countries is no longer a major component of education. This means that for most learners, being at school is about acquiring theoretical knowledge which is difficult to apply to challenging real-life situations such as joblessness. This creates and perpetuates major skills gaps which, if filled would enhance prospects for learners becoming creators rather than seekers of employment after graduation.

When it comes to poverty eradication, elected governments are not performing better. For instance, it is not unusual to hear or read that agriculture employs well over 50 percent of the populations of large numbers of countries in Africa. What this information does not reveal, is that most of the people engaged in agriculture are left to their own devices by elected governments which are incapable of providing farmers with the support they need to enhance their productivity and raise the quality of their produce, which in turn would increase their incomes and, in that way, contribute to efforts to reduce and eradicate poverty. Support for both smallholders who tend to produce more for their own consumption than for sale, and for commercial farmers who produce for the market, tends to be limited, in some countries so meagre as to be non-existent. If countries experience hunger from time to time, it is the result of both the vagaries of weather, as it is of gross neglect of agriculture by governments.

My point is that if one disregards the statistics and focuses on how education and health systems function and how neglected agricultural sectors are, one begins to see how badly competitive politics serves the ordinary citizen. Clearly, the result of all this is that the governments we elect through competitive, adversarial, multi-party elections do not necessarily measure up to the task of freeing their citizens from ignorance, disease, and poverty, let alone meeting popular expectations that they will provide services of reasonable quality.

At this point, one could ask if this article is advancing the argument that unelected governments, even better, dictatorships, could or would do a better job when it comes to living up to the expectations of their citizens. There is no evidence that this would be the case. The article is therefore not advancing that argument. The intended message is that competitive adversarial politics and its proclivity for creating or entrenching divisions in society contains elements that are disruptive. These undermine the capacity or inclination of leaders and the governments they preside over to prioritise those things that contribute in practical ways to the grand ambition of providing high quality services, which facilitate the elimination of ignorance, disease and poverty. What does this mean?

Let us consider the impact of 5-year electoral cycles. Once they have been elected, leaders spend at most only about two years working. The rest of the time is spent on preparing to run in subsequent elections and actually running for re-election. During this time, resources, time and energy are devoted more to pursuing re-election than attending to people’s needs. In countries where raising money for campaign financing is not regulated and subjected to strict oversight, often ruling parties dip their fingers into government coffers and divert resources away from addressing people’s needs, to funding election campaigns, rewarding allies, bribing voters, paying off political opponents, and harassing those who won’t be bought. Another question arises: is there a better alternative?

There is certainly a less costly and less disruptive alternative, which would still include elections: politics that is built around seeking the widest consensus possible. This would entail managing political competition so as to minimise adversarial contestation and its creation and perpetuation of divisions that prevent intra-elite collaboration. In this case, the need for spending (or wasting) large sums of money on election campaigns is obviated. What this approach produces is a cohesive political class that is more likely to focus on common aspirations and interests that call for collective efforts to pursue and achieve them, than on issues that are likely to cause and perpetuate divisions and conflict. The capacity of governments to respond to the aspirations of their citizens by way of high-quality delivery of services and development would stand high chances of being enhanced. This requires thinking outside the proverbial box on matters of governance, and is likely to provoke hostility from democracy merchandisers who are driven by the ambition to imposie the one-size-fits-all model, and their local supporters who have bought into the idea that it is the very definition of democracy. It is a prison from which we should free ourselves and try out models that take context seriously.


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