5 Generalizations About African Democracy That Should Be Questioned

Category : Politics/Government
Posted By : Ambrose Onyango
Posted Date : 16 Dec 2018 05:22 hrs

African-DemocracyReading the reports in the international media can leave one thinking that there is hardly any democracy anywhere on the African continent, yet nothing could be further from the truth. The tendency to bunch all African countries together and form generalizations about the continent’s democratization needs to be revisited. This article discusses 5 generalizations about African democracy that should be questioned.

Generalization 1: Democracy Has Stagnated in Africa

What is democracy? The forms that democracy takes in any society are as varied as the unique factors that make that society distinct from any other society on the continent or elsewhere. For example, many would be shocked that President Trump, the leader of the world’s “beacon of democracy” can openly say that the US cannot jeopardize its economic interests in Saudi Arabia just because one man, Jamal Khashoggi, was killed in an extrajudicial way.

Similarly, the forms that democracy takes in Africa vary, but one cannot make a sweeping statement that democracy has stagnated. For example, one would be hard-pressed to name half a dozen African countries where regular elections aren’t held. Remember, regular elections are one of the hallmarks of democracy, so some good may come from those elections over time. After all, that increased citizen participation in choosing leaders eventually results in demands for accountability once those leaders don’t live up to the expectations of those they purport to lead.

Generalization 2: “Big Men” Dominate Africa

It is true that some authoritarian leaders have entrenched themselves at the helm of some African countries, and these individuals do everything that they can to maintain a strong grip on power. Several examples immediately come to mind, such as Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, Dos Santos in Angola and a few others.

However, Africa isn’t alone in this. Hun Sen has been in power in Cambodia for more than 30 years, Singapore’s founding father was also in power for more than 30 years. Kazakhstan has had one leader since “forever”.

Thus, the few “big men” in Africa should not be used to form generalizations about the continent. After all, some women have also held the reins of national leadership in Sierra Leone (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf), Joyce Banda in Malawi and in Mauritius (Ameenah Gurib-Fatim). This year, Ethiopia got its first ever female president (Sahle-Work Zewdi). Surely, these cannot be bunched alongside the African big men, can they?

Apart from the handful of big men, the rest of the continent is governed by a huge array of leaders that come quietly into office and leave when their terms of office are up.

Generalization 3: Elections are Sufficient Indicators of Democracy

As already mentioned, regular elections are one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. However, elections alone don’t make a country democratic. Actually, it is what happens in-between elections that provides a true indicator of democracy.

The Mo Ibrahim Index regularly ranks African countries on the basis of different indicators that are removed from elections, such as human development and the respect for human rights. Most African countries fall woefully short of the acceptable standards despite holding elections every four or five years.

It is therefore a little naïve for people in the West to assume that there is democracy just because national elections are held every so often. Scratch the surface of those elections, and the truth of what happens in those societies will emerge.

Generalization 4: High Voter Turnout Is Proof of Electoral Fraud

Western countries have been notorious for the high levels of voter apathy. Consequently, it is normal to take about 50 percent of voter participation as acceptable in an election.

Conversely, many countries in Africa register a voter turnout which is short of unbelievable in the eyes of people watching from the West. For example, Ghana had an 82 percent voter turnout in its most recent national election while Sierra Leone registered an 88 percent voter turnout in the latest presidential elections.

Can anyone be justified to claim that ballot stuffing took place in those two elections? Remember, those examples cited are taken from countries that rank high when democratic nations on the continent are listed.

Contrast those figures with the 89 percent voter participation in the voting process that saw Paul Kagame win another term after Rwanda’s constitution was amended to allow him to stand for a third term. Would you say there was some tinkering with the ballots, or voters were simply enthusiastic about the election?

In short, each situation should be judged on its own merits since no two elections or countries are the same. Enough of the assertion that high turnout for elections means ballot stuffing has taken place.

Generalization 5: The Transfer of Power is Usually Violent

Another of the 5 generalizations about African democracy that should be questioned rotates around post-electoral violence. The international press often goes into overdrive with screaming headlines whenever violence erupts anywhere in Africa after national elections. The easiest example in this case is what transpired in Kenya after the disputed 2007 elections.

Admittedly, thousands of lives were lost and millions were displaced. But that notwithstanding, the events in Kenya at that time cannot be used as representative of what happens on the continent after elections. In fact, most elections pass quietly and citizens go about their lives after the winners are announced.

A case in point is Nigeria where an opposition leader defeated the incumbent in the 2015 polls and the nation didn’t grind to a halt. Thus, cases of violence should be regarded as isolated events independent of events elsewhere on the continent. 

As you can see, the worst mistake that anyone can make is to generalize Africa as one on any aspect of democracy. The manifestation of democracy is as diverse as is the case anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, the growth of social media and the information age in general has further complicated the factors on the ground while simultaneously making each country a part of the global community. How each country reacts to the force that social media has become ultimately depends on the factors pertaining within that country. Uganda, for example, regularly restricts access to social media whenever controversy is expected during and after elections, but this habit is yet to be copied in many other countries largely due to the dynamics at play in each country. Think deeply about the 5 generalizations about African democracy that should be questioned and apply the same thinking process to anything ‘African”. You will make better conclusions when you question everything.

By Ambros O. for Ezega Blogs

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