Africa Struggles For “Democratic Deepening” and Why Democracy Suffers


If our political parties fail, our democracy will suffer.” – Michael J.K. Bokor, Ghanaian assistant professor of English at Long Island University, USA



Forget about the democratic hiccup in Mali, once of one of Africa’s emerging democracies. Or the fact that Mauritius is the only African country ranked as being “full” democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual democracy index. Or the Economist Intelligence Unit also saying the shiny Botswana democracy is “flawed.”


Democracy is rapidly breaking out across Africa, albeit in different tempos. But the real attempts to deepen democracy in Africa are a complicated enterprise. Whether in the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party or Ghana’s ruling National Democratic Party or Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Revolutionary State Party) or South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, Africa’s struggles for democratic deepening is seen not only in the public domain but more seriously in the internal corners of its vast political parties, where intense democratic growth is occurring.


This is what Craig Johnson, of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, describes as moving past the territory of “procedural democracy” to “substantive” or “deep” democracy. That’s internal democracies of the political parties become the key drivers of the larger national democratic processes. In a recent development policy review entitled Local Democracy, Democratic Decentralization and Rural Development, Craig Johnson argues that elections are inadequate yet vital part of democratic system but effective receptive governance depends on three essential variables: 1. how far politicians campaign on substantive issues, 2. the kind of information voters have at their disposal, and 3. how strong civil society organizations are.


Whether in the then ruling Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) that was defeated by the  Alliance for the Republic, led by Mackey Sall, who won the 25 March second round presidential election, all of Craig Johnson’s deep democracy variables are at play in Africa’s democracies as the internal democracies of Africa’s political parties shape the continent’s emerging democracy. In the Senegal case substantive issues and information flow to voters were profoundly at work, informed by President Abdoulaye Wade giddy changing of the constitution, adopted in 2001, that sets a limit of two presidential terms, saying it did not apply to his first mandate as it came into effect after he was first elected. Wade faced stiff resistance from within his PDS for his attempts to weaken internal democracy, and in the subsequent struggles paved the way for Sall’s democratic emergence.


In Sierra Leone, President Ernest Koroma revealed the “opposing forces” within his ruling All Peoples Congress that has aided the party’s governance systems to the renowned journalist and academic Dr. Lansana Gberie: “In fact let me tell you this. I have faced the fiercest opposition from within my own party. When I became leader of the APC [All Peoples Congress party] I almost immediately faced legal challenges. I was burdened in all with 13 court cases from my colleagues in the party. Yes, thirteen. Before I entered politics, I had not faced a single court case. But when I became President, I brought many these people into my government, and I told them that if you fall, it would be as a result of your own missteps. I won’t push you out at whim.”


Nowhere in Africa is the internal “opposing forces” of African political parties more intense, sometimes bordering on explosion, than Ghana’s ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC).Out of the NDC has emerged “recognisable groups,” that are “stimulating public criticism and debate” on development and democracy issues. With the founder of NDC, ex-President jerry Rawlings, breathing heavily on the presidency of John Atta Mills, internal criticisms within the NDC has seen groups emerging that have been taking aims at the performance of the party. Against tradition, the former First Lady Mrs. Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings contested for the NDC flagbearership slot against the incumbent President John Atta Mills. Mrs. Rawlings, saying the NDC’s internal structures is impotent; she lost the contest and later accused President Mills of rigging the elections.


Craig Johnson says these intra-party activities will “articulated interest and stimulated debate in no small way on the internal dynamics and debate that exist within political parties.”


Whether in Ghana’s NDC or Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the view is that African political parties can address basic development issues, through the emerging decentralization programmes, with deep democracy ideals. In Ghana, the 24-year-old decentralization programme, as means of tackling rural poverty and bringing Ghanaians into the development process, is still entangled with the central government. Traditional institutions, as the core values of Ghanaians, have still not been integrated into the decentralization programme fully.


Characteristic of other African democracies, the idea in Ghana is that “all by-laws are approved by the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development … The President has the power to dissolve defaulting or non-performing DAs without consulting the electorate …The Minister of Local Government and Rural Development has power to issue guidelines, in respect of fees to be charged by the DAs for the service and facilities provided, licenses and permits issued or rates levied by DAs make local voices minimal in the very affairs that are to affect their welfare. This is not “entirely democratic in character,” as Craig Johnson explains, “reiterating the tension that often exists between coherent policy and popular democracy.”


As Africa’s democracy scrimmages to deepen, the struggle between its civil society and the African state is on bumpy moves. While democratic norms have opened up the civil society, Africa is yet to experience “strong and vibrant civil society,” especially in organizing to demand better government, issues, policies, and programmes. Helge Ronning, a professor of media and communications at the University of Oslo, Norway, argues that the tussle between African “civil society organisations and the state often take the form of an attempt by the state to overpower non-governmental organisations (NGOs) by bringing them under government control.”


This is “linked to a fear by government of the potential NGOs have for organising people outside the state structures.” This isn’t healthy for deepening democratization in Africa, yet like the campaigns for freedom from colonial rule some 50 years ago there is no other way than for Africans to campaign for robust and energetic civil society as part of deepening their democracy. Primarily, with the African political parties on the vanguard, Craig Johnson argues that “the development of a strong and vibrant civil society is also inextricably linked to the political opportunities the state makes available, and the ways in which poor and marginal groups in society exploit these opportunities.”


History isn’t on the good side of Africa’s democracy. From the dark experiences of autocratic one-party systems to authoritarian military juntas, Africa’s political parties have to work really hard to deepen democracy. Mali’s coup d’état, the sham democracy in the Central African Republic, and the on-again, off-again violent political drama in Guinea Bissau shows that there is yet to be real “transitions from authoritarianism” to real democracy brewed in African sensibilities. Crucial to real African democracy is what Craig Johnson calls ““delegitimisation”of the mindset of “authoritarian regimes” of yesteryears.


With Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad and others still mired in authoritarian regimes but masking as democracies, Africa’s different democratic capabilities indicate that real or full democracy in the continent is a “very slow process.” This supports the argument that introducing democratic institutions do not automatically lead to democratic politics. No doubt, Elizabeth Ohene, the veteran Ghanaian journalist, has observed that “It has been my misfortune to have lived long enough to see so many people who were fighting for democracy, attain power and turn out to be like the tyrants they fought to overthrow.”


For Africa’s development, the understandable challenge, as Craig Johnson suggests, is “encouraging or laying the foundations for democratic development in the short- to medium-term.” You cannot encourage democratic development when in places like oil-rich but poverty-ridden Equatorial Guinea, as the London, UK-based Economist reported, “President Teodoro Obiang was “elected” with 95% of the vote. His party “won” 99% of seats in parliament.”


Fundamentally, the Equatorial Guinea experience reveals that Africa’s political parties are still weak in the face of overwhelming autocrats. The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh and the country’s opposition parties is a case in point. With such experiences, African political parties have to help in the distribution of information, especially on development issues, policies and programmes, that relate to government performance.


Beyond the more popular calls by such international institutions like the World Bank for good governance and transparency in Africa, Craig Johnson offers that “activities of this nature would entail the development of networks and media that are not exclusively dependent upon the achievement of basic literacy. One obvious example is the electronic media,” where “local news, talk shows, and question-and-answer programs are all excellent  ways to spread political news widely … radio, especially the AM band, is cheap to operate, does not require line-of-sight transmission like TV, and has great audience potential.”


Whether in Senegal, Nigeria, Mauritius or Cape Verde, another key source of empowering Africans in their democratic evolution by African political parties is interactive communication technology. Craig Johnson suggests that “the development of accessible and inexpensive forms of telecommunications (e.g. landline telephones, satellite networks, fibre optic systems) can facilitate the transmission of politically and economically relevant information.”


Driven by mass communication tools, Africa’s fights for democratic deepening fundamentally rests with its political parties which activities are expected to augment Africa’s shaky civil societies in the overall democratic development of the continent. And so, as Michael J.K. Bokor, assistant professor of English at Long Island University, USA, commented, if African political parties fail, African democracy will suffer.


By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong


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