Democracy in Africa: Why It’s Complicated

photo credit: Geraint Rowland
Photograph: Geraint Rowland

Nic Cheeseman has just produced a book called ‘Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggle for Political Reform” with Cambridge University Press. It’s clear, readable and for a book with such a grand title admirably short. I liked the way it has a separate website for the references (and a bunch of other resources too), so the text is uncluttered and readable – and no footnotes, hooray!

The basic argument is that there are no perfect solutions to the challenge of generating democracy and a release from authoritarian rule in Africa. There are instead multiple pathways that must create a balance between inclusion (and avoid ethnic or other division and conflict) and competition (to generate accountable institutions and reduce corruption).

Well that’s no surprise I hear you say. True to some extent, but you’d be surprised how (still) there are those who prescribe democratic arrangements for Africa – competitive (often winner takes all) elections, particular forms of institution modelled on western values; private property and ‘the rule of law’. You know the ‘good governance’ list. There are dozens of programmes of this sort funded by western donors, particularly the US and the UK, that usually fail to understand the complex histories, geographies and socio-cultural settings of Africa that make particular forms of democracy possible, while other unviable. No I am not caricaturing. For example, a consultant for large western aid agency rang me up not long ago, and asked me a whole string of questions about democracy building in Zimbabwe, premised on wholly false assumptions about the context. When challenged, he just got confused and continued with his list of pre-set questions. The conversation in the end was rather short, as we were speaking at cross-purposes. But this was supposed to help inform a major investment.

So sometimes rather obvious arguments are important to say – again, and again. What is good about this book is that it covers a huge terrain. Zimbabwe is of course mentioned, but Cheeseman draws in particular on his work in Kenya to look at the fraught issues of ethnic divisions and electoral politics, the dangers of presidentialism, the challenges of power-sharing ‘inclusive’ governments and more. There are important lessons for Zimbabwe on all these fronts of course. But he goes wider to look at the successes of Senegal and Ghana in democratic transition, the balancing act of federalism in Nigeria, and the ‘model’ democracies of Botswana and Mauritius, which seem (in admittedly non-replicable situations) to have managed to get the balance between inclusion and competition broadly right.

The book also doesn’t fall into the trap of buying the simplistic arguments that democracy creates economic growth – it does for some, not for others, but overall, according to a UNU-WIDER report by Takaaki Masaki and Nicolas van de Walle, the relationship is positive, especially when democratic consolidation occurs (but I suspect with quite a few confounding variables). The book also doesn’t adopt the argument that patrimonialism (older forms of ‘big man’ network based politics) can be transformed into ‘developmental patrimonialism’, where central control keeps a lid on corruption. This is the argument of David Booth, Tim Kelsall and others, with the prime cases always being Rwanda (under Kagame) and Ethiopia (under Meles and subsequently). Cheeseman argues that such arrangements are always fragile, and while temporary gains may be realised, without an opening up beyond authoritarian control economies will falter, incipient corrupt practice take hold despite party discipline, and people will resist. The global case of this scenario is China, a theme also taken up in the book.

In a summary article, Cheeseman concludes:

“There is no ideal constitutional template that can be deployed across the continent…. Different countries may require different degrees of inclusion in order to achieve political stability. Judging whether a political system can bear the strains associated with greater competition requires an intimate knowledge of a country’s demography, geography and political history… Given this, it is remarkable – and worrying – just how few African countries feature inclusive political mechanisms that prevent certain communities from losing out systematically.”

Support for democratisation (in its broadest sense) is important. But to get beyond the mechanical, pre-cooked lists, as repeated by the aid consultant, will require much more nuance and sophistication. This book, while offering no answers (there are none), provides a useful primer for anyone interested and engaged in these debates – and that should be everyone!


This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland


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