Monday, December 05, 2005

Democracy: The Answer or the Disaster?

By Matt. G.

It is not surprising that there are many who feel that democracy will never work in Africa. There is a lot of evidence to support this claim. Look at the countless countries who, after independence from the west, set forth with such high democratic or socialist goals just to meet severe disappointment less than a decade later. There are some who feel Africa is just not ready for successful sustainable democracy. Some place the blame on the fact that western, or liberal democracy, was not developed to suit the conditions of Africa. Noted Nigerian born sociologist said that Western style liberal democracy could not work in Africa because it is a, “society which is still pre-industrial and communal and whose cultural idiom is radically different [from the West].”(Ake 239) While I agree that it would be foolish to simply take western models of democracy and paste them over African countries, I believe that some type of democracy is in the best interest of African people in the present and in the future.
I do not buy the argument that democracy will not work in Africa because the society is not ready. First, democracy does seem to be at least burgeoning in several Sub-Saharan African states like Ghana or South Africa. While possibly an oversimplification, I agree in spirit with the claim, “A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy.”(Sen 4) It is true, some states are more resistant than others to successful democracy, but failures in the past and difficulty in the future should not be a legitimate cause to drop the entire movement. It was not democracy that has failed in Africa, but the states that claimed to be reaching for it. A combination of inept leadership and poor structure has, “turned the high expectations of the independence movement into painful disappointment.”(Ake 240)
One of the other arguments against democracy in Africa is that the people would have to pay too high an economic price for the eventual promise of a more free and open society. This is the argument leaders like Yoweri Museveni have used to defend against those who believe that governments need to further democratize. Unfortunately this is a relatively common belief among Africa’s “New Leaders.” Though not as visibly autocratic and ruthless as earlier post-independence leaders like Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, this new breed of African leadership seems no less interested in long term democratic reform that does anything but support their own bid for power.(Richburg 131)
These “New Leaders” appear to, “all subscribe to the notion that economic development precedes democracy, and reject the view that democratization and development are mutually supportive processes that occur at roughly the same time.”(Gordon 123) This is a false belief being put forward by rulers only interested in maintaining their own power. The actual truth is that “In Africa, the return to economic growth has been inextricably linked to political reform.”(Gordon 125) While this can not be claimed true in all situations, like that of Museveni’s economically successful “no-party” Uganda, it is an overall trend.
I do not doubt that Museveni has pursued successful economic policies during his tenure as the leader of Uganda, but what is to stop him from reversing his policies at whim? It was not so long ago that the Robert Mugabe sent a relatively successful Zimbabwe into economic free fall. Museveni’s recent arrest of his strongest political adversary does not convince me that his liberal economic policies truly reflect a support for Western ideals of a free and open society.(Lacey)
While I understand that opening the democratic process to more free and fair competition brings with it the fear of greater instability, lack of openness eliminates the protective qualities of democracy. It is clear that, “political and civil rights give people the opportunity to draw attention forcefully to general needs and to demands appropriate public actions.“(Sen 7) One compelling fact is that, “in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.”(Sen 7) Where else in the world would the ability to resist famine be more applicable than Africa with the long going famine in Sudan and the recent famine in Niger.
Democracy does not only protect against famine or promote economic growth, but protects human rights as well. While human rights may mean different things to Africans it is not some Western ideal, human rights are an international goal. While democracy does not automatically mean there will be a respect for human rights, there are some long democratic countries in Africa with poor human rights records, it would seem that human rights are a goal only reached through democracy.(Aidoo 705) Akwasi Aidoo states it clearly when she says, “the full range of human rights cannot be guaranteed unless they are specifically promoted and protected in law and by popular organizations.“(707)
While I know that there are further criticisms of the viability of democracy in Africa, they are all of the same ilk. While democracy may have been born in the West, it is not limited in scope to Western civilization. African states need accountable, law based, and free states if they ever hope to improve not just the economy, but the lives of their peoples. But these governments can not be manufactured from the outside. Africa needs domestically created democratic governments better fit to the social and economic needs specific to African nations. Hard times are probably ahead for Africa, but letting go of democracy will only maintain the status quo of underdevelopment, famine, and human rights abuse in Africa.

Works Cited
Ake, Claude. “The Unique Case of African Democracy.” International Affairs. Vol. 69, No.2 (1993): 239-244.
Sen, Amartya. “Democracy as a Universal Value.” The Global Divergence of Democracies. Eds. Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 3-17.
Richburg, Keith B. “Africa’s Rulers Do Not Support Democracy.” Africa: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. William Dudley. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000. 130-136.
Gordon, David. “Africa is Moving Toward Democracy.” Africa: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. William Dudley. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000. 119-129.
Aidoo, Akwasi. “Africa: Democracy Without Human Rights?” Human Rights Quarterly. Vol. 15, No. 4 (1993): 703-715.
Lacey, Marc. “Uganda: Opposition Leader Sent to Court-Martial.” The New York Times. November 26, 2005. (December 1, 2005).