Multipartyism and constitutional governance in Africa. How they have failed to address the post-independence governance crisis

Term Paper, 2018

11 Pages, Grade: 85.0


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Since independence, African countries have been confronted with myriads of costly political, economic and security crises, with many deleterious effects on the region’s progress (Mbondenyi, & Ojienda, 2013). At independence, most if not all African leaders committed themselves to the path of democracy and good governance but would soon shy away from it. The constitutions of most of the emerging states were therefore, sooner than later, subjected to numerous amendments carried out in a manner that undermined the essence of constitutional rule and principles of multiparty democratic governance. What would follow is emergence of both civilian and military authoritarian regimes and concomitant governance, development and human rights crises (Ibid). However, demise of the Cold War and concomitant collapse of the Communist Block in 1989 would return the euphoria for democracy and departure from authoritarianism (both military and civilian) by many African countries (see Frimpong, 2012; 2017). The early 1990s saw an adoption or a return of multiparty democracy in several African countries and promulgation of new constitutions to help consolidate the new systems of government (Gyimah-Boadi 2004; Frempong 2008; 2012). The so-called third wave of democratization (Huntington, 1990) brought to bear, great pressure on African authoritarian leaders (mostly military regimes) to adopt freer multiparty democratic political systems - an era Lucian Pye (1990), referred to as “the global crisis of authoritarianism” (Frempong, 2012: 21). The continent witnessed, more than ever, agitation for comprehensive constitutional reforms and good governance during this era (Mbondenyi, & Ojienda, 2013).

This was to help promote good governance and promote rule of law by limiting powers of leaders on the continent as well as to guarantee liberties, freedoms and human rights of the people. However, notwithstanding the euphoria that greeted this new phase of constitutional governance and multiparty democracy, a cursory look at events in the 21st century Africa shows that countries on the continent are not out of the woes of bad governance, human rights abuses and constitutional crises yet (Mbondenyi, & Ojienda, 2013). Against this backdrop, some contemporary African academics have made compelling case against the utility of multiparty democracy as practiced in Africa (see Wiredu 1997, 2001, 2012; Gyekye 1997; Ajei 2017). For example, Wiredu (2012) observed that “experience of many African countries in majoritarian or multiparty democracy has been characterized by competitive power struggles that are too adversarial, aggressive and divisive to the point of being harmful” (see Ani, 2018: 2). On the contrary, for mostly western academics, democracy is the best political system that puts in place appropriate and effective mechanisms to guarantee proper and effective accountability and cooperation between rulers and the ruled, promote rule of law and check corruption, and abuse of public offices. This paper presents a brief overview of experiences of multipartyism and constitutional democracy in Africa. It also examines how multipartyism and constitutional rule has failed to address the post-independence governance crisis in Africa. The main position advanced by this paper is that, while constitutional governance and multipartyism have been widely but reluctantly accepted by many African leaders, they have failed to build and allow democratic institutions to work in Africa.


According to Diamond and Plattner (1999), democracy is “a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realms of citizens, acting indirectly through competition and cooperation of their elected representatives” (Frempong, 2008: 184; Ayee, 1998). This implies extensive competition for power; inclusive citizenry participation and extensive civil and political liberties. For Schumpeter, democracy is “a system for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote. They argued, for any democracy to take root, thrive and endure, certain minimal procedural and institutional conditions must be met; and civil and political rights must be recognized and observed by the masses” (Frempong, 2012: 7). These include, achieving a balance between competing values; and political actors must cooperate in order to compete. More importantly, for the stability of any democracy to be guaranteed, they further argued, there must be a belief in legitimacy of the system, tolerance of opposition, willingness to compromise with political opponents, pragmatism and flexibility, trust in the political environment, cooperation among political competitors, moderation in partisan positions and identifications, civility of political discourse and efficacy and participation based on the principles of political equality (see Frempong 2008: 184). Democracy is built on the idea that government’s power flows from the people. As Frempong (2012: 21) observes: “…what constitutes democracy ultimately lies in the expression of the will of the people”.

Wayne (2004) has identified three main criteria for measuring effectiveness of any democratic systems: the extent of representativeness and responsiveness of the government to public demands; resilience of the institutions of democratic governance and how government operates and makes policy decisions; and the quality of government policies made and impacts on society as a whole. A government is considered effective if it is more representative and responsive to demands of the public, and if social needs, public inputs, and policy responses are well-coordinated. Further, democratic governments exist to protect certain basic values including, rights to life, liberty, self-fulfilment and political equality. To realise these values, rule of law must be ensured and government must provide equal opportunity for the citizenry to express themselves through words, actions and votes. What is often referred to as the ‘collective good’, which Wayne (2004) deems the third pillar of democratic governance (cited in Zink, 2015: 75). More importantly, all these values must be enshrined in a good constitution to safeguard them and avoid their abuse for capricious ends of leaders.


The concept, constitutionalism, means governments must act within constraints of a known constitution: be it written or unwritten. In generic terms, a constitution serves as bases for all decisions and actions of government or public officials; and thus constitutes basic rules and principles, often considered superior to all other laws of the state (Petal & Raman, 2013; Hedling, 2017). Often, stricter rules are required for amending constitutional provisions as compared to requirements for amending ordinary laws. Yet, it is essential for constitutions to make room for amendments in order to meet and respond to emerging circumstances where necessary (Petal & Raman, 2013; Hedling, 2017; International IDEA, 2014).

Although the content and nature of any constitution as well as how it relates to rest of the legal and political order varies considerably among countries. Nonetheless, any working definition of constitution must include the following features: 1) it is binding on everyone in the state, including primary law-makers; 2) concern with the structure and operation of institutions of state, political principles and the rights of citizens; 3) based on widespread public legitimacy; 4) harder to change than ordinary laws (e.g. may require a two-thirds majority vote or a referendum); 5) supposed to, at the barest minimum, meet the internationally recognized criteria for a democratic system in terms of representation and human rights (International IDEA, 2014). The main purpose of any constitution is to bring about stability, predictability and order to actions of governments. Constitutionalism is an on-going process, other than a static one, whereby each new generation engages and which necessarily alters in the process of such engagement. Although all governments have constitutions, but it must be said, they are not necessarily constitutional governments. This, thus explains why it has been so easy for many African governments to massage and use constitutions to legitimise authoritarian rules (Ibid; Mbondenyi, & Ojienda, 2013).


At independence, majority of African countries were ostensibly committed to liberal democracy, with regimes coming to power by means of competitive multiparty elections. In countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania, nationalist movements institutionalised themselves into political parties, and assumed commanding positions in their respective national politics following departure of the colonial regime. However, these multiparty democratic experiences in post-independent Africa was short-lived. Within few years of independence, the trend would shift in favour of authoritarianism, with elimination of political competition and creation of one-party states either by constitutional fiat or military takeover. Mostly, elected governments were responsible for eliminating democracy through what Larry Diamond (1988) calls executive coups (Diamond, 2008).

For example, in Ghana, a highly centralised presidential system was legitimised by a national referendum in 1960, which endorsed the repressive one-party state headed by Kwame Nkrumah. Again, Milton Obote of Uganda succeeded in transitioning to authoritarian rule by changing the constitution and crushing the political opposition through the use of force. The literature shows that, three main mechanisms were used to disarm the opposition in order to secure co-operation from ethnic and regional interest groups: co-optation and consultation; patronage by exchanging state resources for political support; and agreement to perform or desist from performing particular activities such as organising public rallies against the regime. Autocratic rulers tended to resort to coercive methods to enforce compliance, while in the more open oligarchies, a combination of these measures was employed (Healey & Robinson, 1994; Diamond, 2008 Fombad, 2011).

Moreover, in other countries constitutional governance and democratic rules were abrupt and bloody as the military intervene to supposedly redeem the people from the mess of civilian autocratic regimes. For instance, in Nigeria, civilian rule ended with a military coup in 1966 and the assassination of the prime minister and a number of regional politicians and senior military officers. Since then several successive coups were executed, with only four years of democratic government. But in Ghana, military intervention in 1966 had effect of reversing the authoritarian tendency already present in the First Republic, although a subsequent coup in 1972 led to the installation of a repressive military regime. Many other countries followed a similar path, with military intervention becoming an institutionalised mechanism for political succession. Several countries experienced a series of coups, with military regimes characterised by conflicting ideological orientations or differing ethnic composition coming to power. By 1984 half the countries in Africa were ruled by military governments, with another one-third by one-party or hereditary monarchies (Fombad, 2011).


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Multipartyism and constitutional governance in Africa. How they have failed to address the post-independence governance crisis
University of Ghana, Legon
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multipartyism, africa
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Gilbert Aidoo Arhinful (Author), 2018, Multipartyism and constitutional governance in Africa. How they have failed to address the post-independence governance crisis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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