What are the main impediments to democracy in Africa

Essay, 2002

9 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)


What are the main impediments to democracy in Africa

Democracy in Africa has been shaped by the colonial powers that ran Africa until the period of decolonisation that began in the 1960’s. Thereafter Africa has attempted to follow the European model of democratic governance. However, whilst African democracy has shown some improvement, it is still having legitimacy problems and African states are characterised by corruption and autocracy.

This report will highlight the impediments to the furthering of democracy in Africa and what can be done to increase the role of democracy in African States. There will be a focus on the role played by colonialism and the ethnic divides that exist in Africa. We will then examine how corruption and the economic problems of African States are restraining democratic legitimacy and the effect these problems have on human rights. Lastly, we will concentrate on the role that other state and non-state actors have on democracy in Africa.

However, before looking at these aspects of the debate, it is important to understand democracy and its basis. Democracy is not a single approach but rather a commitment to certain institutions such as the rule of law, civil society and political accountability through free and fair elections by an electorate based on universal suffrage. It also includes (to a varying degree) freedom of speech, the development of a civic culture and the acceptance of a social contract.

For democracy to emerge there must first be liberalisation of the state, for example, the release of political prisoners, followed by a transitional period that sets the groundwork for a democratic constitution. Finally, there is a consolidation period that is characterised by regular elections and the development of civic culture and society.

1. Ethnic fragmentation

At the Berlin Conference, European powers carved up the map of Africa without regard for the integrity of existing cultural groups and state systems. As a consequence, some large ethnic groups were split up, while others with little in common or a history of warfare and enmity, were forced to be part of a single new state. With it, the colonial powers also created a class system based on race, laying a foundation for even more social tensions. These ethnic divisions can be a huge challenge to political stability because the clash of diverse cultural traditions foster political tensions between groups in Africa, threatening the democratic system. Problems created by such fragmented societies may even result in civil wars like in Somalia, creating social and political chaos and making democratic governance impossible. Ethnicity was furthermore the major characteristic by which the various emerging parties could differentiate themselves, after the discrediting of socialism left no chance of ideological contrast. Competitive political parties and open elections mobilised ethnic, religious and racial solidarities intensifying disintegrative pressures on fragile states. Quite often ethnic groups hold power at the expense of other ethnic tribes, neglecting the democratic principle of participation. This has led to dramatic cases of increased ethnic hatred directly linked to multiparty elections. Burundi is a telling example. The country has a history of open ethnic conflict and had been dominated since independence by the Tutsi minority. Multiparty democratic elections inevitably handed power to a Hutu party. Tutsi officers who controlled the army did not accept the defeat. They staged a military coup that led to the massacre of the elected President, many cabinet officers and thousands of civilians, leaving the country on the verge of genocidal conflict. However, in some countries, greater decentralisation or a fairer distribution of power helped in dealing with ethnic rivalries. As a matter of fact, it would be a mistake to conclude that the mere presence of deep ethnic divisions doomed Africa to democratic failure.

2. Legitimacy deficit / Weak states

The colonial powers imposed a political system on the African states which is directly copied from the Western model of democracy but alien to African people. The lack of articulation between modern democratic systems and ancient cultural traditions may help to explain the failure to embrace democracy. Cultural traditions of ethnic tribes driven by patronage were completely ignored. Pre-colonial Africa existed with a political system where each leader ruled his ‘nation’ through the use of well established patron – client relationships, an informal system for the conveyance of influence to and from the ruling elite. Each faction had representatives at government level, conveying the wishes of their community or sub-group of the tribe. To some extent this system continues to operate, creating weak states with a lack of legitimacy for the central governments. The system of patronage is above all based on inequity and a patron’s arbitrary control of the distribution of political resources. It is at odds with the democratic principles of universal rights and political competition in the public sphere. Another impediment to democracy is the fact that political beliefs and values may be seen as ademocratic in Africa, democracy being a very western concept. It has been argued that most nationalist leaders found democratic elections were simply a condition for independence and continuing Western support. So after the first wave of independence there came a rapid decay from democracy into single party dominance, mirroring the strong leadership of the colonial period and the traditional African patriarchal society. The democratic arrangements quickly devised by the colonial powers, soon appeared superfluous to the new leaders, and democracy was destroyed from above in many countries like Ghana, Uganda or Nigeria. Without democracy being a valuable concept for the majority of the African people, democratic governments can not be granted legitimacy. Not only that the idea of Western democracy was unfamiliar to African states but above all, the example set by European powers during the period of colonial rule was not that of democracy. The colonial empires were authoritarian regimes, kept in power through the use of violence and repression. Intolerant and antidemocratic behaviour of post independence politics can be, in part, traced back to the repression and lack of democratic preparation during final years of colonial rule. Similarly, in the countries where independence was the result of armed struggle, violence was perceived as a legitimate method of political action, which was unfavourable to the establishment of a moderate democracy. Consequently the values as well as the system of governance linked to democracy were alien to African people, giving little legitimacy to the “ democratic” state imposed. Representatives of the government, have little authority[1] because there is little experience and trust in the democratic process and the representation of ethnic interests. This has created a crisis of legitimacy within government. There is a lack of trust and no feeling of societal security, especially in areas populated by smaller minorities. The break up of effective patron – client relationships has had the effect of reducing the old source of stability. In place of the older system we see elected but illegitimate governments. Constitutionalism and democratic processes have not been a priority in Africa. There are many examples of liberal constitutions that are simply not adhered to. We find that many nations will adopt a carrot and stick approach to the legislature and the judiciary. In Zimbabwe the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was attacked when he proclaimed that a executive action was unconstitutional. These clashes reduce the legitimacy of fragile government. Recently the UN has focussed on elections rather than the democratic process as a whole. Deeper analysis shows that even for the international community the manner of the election is obviously more important (because easier to supervise), although accountability, rule of law and separation of powers is what democracy is really about. The illegitimacy and the weakness of African states do not only stem from the lack of democratic culture and the fact that the system imposed was alien to African population but also from their incapacity to protect their citizens. The democratic relationship between a state and its society is usually based on a social contract: obedience of society in exchange for protection (social as well as physical) from the state. In Africa, however, most do not feel loyalty to often inefficient and weak governments, which provide a minimum level of security and a low standard of living. The model of the modern state which was imposed on the African continent, lacks the necessary legitimacy for democratic progress, as for the reasons reviewed.

3. Lack of economic development

The future political development of a country depends on the trust of the population in an honest and efficient government and in the economic success of their state. Two obstacles to obtaining the trust of the citizenry and security for democracy are inefficient economic performance and corruption. Severe economic problems play a central part in political instability, restraining the transition towards democracy and the progress of democratic structures. In South Africa only around 47 % of the population consider democracy to be the best form of government, while 43 % favour strong, non-elected leader[2], suggesting the absence of a critical mass of democrats. Currently, social problems such as refugee migration, debt, poverty, illiteracy, crime, unemployment, diseases, inflation and missing infrastructure seem to be more pressing than the transformation to democracy. Where resources are scarce, the priority of political contestation is to secure economic consumption, not democratic structures. According to Bratton, “ordinary Africans do not separate political democracy from economic democracy or for that matter from economic well-being”[3]. In their eyes democratic reforms must be accompanied by growth resulting in employment and redistribution. The example of Botswana, however, shows that an upturn in economic activity is not necessarily the outcome of an increase in employment. While performing an acceptable GDP real growth rate of 6% (2000) and relative moderate inflation of 8.6% (2000), it nevertheless resulted in a tremendous unemployment rate of 40% (2000)[4]. Also even South Africa, which shifted towards democracy relatively easily, because of its `substantial economy´, remains with 50% (2000)[5] of its population below poverty line. Another problem linked to the lack of economic development is illiteracy. 76% of the South Africans cannot afford to learn how to read and write. Illiteracy is responsible for the dislocation, lack of participation and understanding that the African people have for politics and democracy. More public education would increase political understanding and with it, the possibility to play an active role in a democratic system. In countries like Somalia even 76% (1997) of the population were illiterate and the means of political communication were rare, only 135,000 (1997) television sets and 470,000 (1997) radios for 7,488,800 people. These realities represent practical hurdles for the democratisation process because well-informed, educated people are better able to face problems that emerge from democracy. It may be true that there is a need for economic development before there can be sustainable democracy, as resources and material requirements will remain a priority over civil liberties. Yet the problem is that economic reforms produce new fundamental bias for democracy like deepening social inequalities. Many authors view democracy and liberal economic reform as incompatible because neoliberalism “bring about severe violations of political quality and hence of the democratic process”[6] and therefore “require non-democratic forms of repression to sustain itself”[7]. Consequently severe economic problems restrain Africa’s present capacity to adopt democratic institutions. The issue of corruption also prevents Africa from developing democratic structures. Many African governments can be described as extractive, withdrawing social wealth from the population and exploiting the country’s social and mineral endowment for the benefit of a the elite and foreign corporations. Zaire with its `kleptocratic´ regime under President Mobutu is a typical example. Mobutu came to power in 1965, he and his bureaucracy seized property, collected bribes from entrepreneurs to be able to import goods, charged enormous official and unofficial taxes while local officials even stole the livestock of peasants[8]. The Zairian government also mobilised and controlled national resources with personal political rather than national intentions. For instance, the revenues of the state mining company where used to buy opposition figures instead of being spent on community goods like transportation, communication, education or health care. Mobutu himself was able to accumulate a fortune of $5 - $8 billion without being charged. Authorities show extraordinary agility in order to stay in power, unwilling to lose privileges through more democratic structures. These patron-client relationships and nepotism serve a small group of family members, high functionaries, political advisers and military officers but not the majority of the population. The widespread nature of corruption constitutes therefore a real impediment to African democracy. Instead of developing the necessary level of trust towards its governors to establish real democratic structures, the African people feel frustrated and betrayed by its authorities and their arrangements of power.


[1] who could be seen as carpetbaggers: politicians who move into an area with few or no local links, and become the representatives for that area

[2] Deegan H., p. 154

[3] Bratton M., p. 35

[4] http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/

[5] http://www.ibge.gov.br/poverty/santiago.htm

[6] How Africa p. 22

[7] Bratton M., p. 36

[8] Villalón L., p. 119

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What are the main impediments to democracy in Africa
University of Southampton  (Department of Politics)
Africa - Culture and Political Systems
2,0 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
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398 KB
What, Africa, Culture, Political, Systems
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Lucia Schuster (Author), 2002, What are the main impediments to democracy in Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/13831


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