Democracy is Critical for National Development – Alex Njeru


I have travelled to several African countries, three to be exact. All of them supposedly democratic, yes all of them hold general elections periodically, presidents, governments and ruling parties are determined this way. In the real sense of the word these countries are democratic. These allegedly democratic countries share one thing in common; they have swathes of populations living in absolute poverty.

What really is the nexus between democracy and poverty, or at least the African version of Democracy and poverty? The folly of African democracy is that it ends at the elections, democracy in Africa is more often than not reduced to electioneering and elections, not to mention that in most cases elections in Africa are neither free nor fair. Reducing democratization to the electoral process has one key impediment to the achievement of real progress and development in Africa. Africa has never really comprehended democracy, and perhaps that is why Africa has somewhat never enjoyed the fruits of democratization. The meaning of the term democracy it seems was lost in translation.

We need to go back to the basics, what are the basic tenets of a functional democracy and do we live by those tenets? Democracy in its entirety should have an axis that revolves around; political systems for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections, active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life, protection of the human rights of all citizens,  rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. Generally African countries give lip service and regurgitate around elections. The other tenets of democracy, noticeably; rule of law, civic participation and human rights generally receive short shrift in most African societies. The result is a window dress phenomena where countries appear democratic above the surface but a little scratching below surface uncovers the contradictions that exist in societies that consider themselves democratic.

The nexus between democracy and economic is not development, however it is worth noting that of all rights and freedoms generally constricted in Africa, the freedom to escape from poverty is most conspicuously repressed. Successive regimes have never realized that equity before the law is perquisite of addressing social, political and economic inequality.

African societies have never had faith in the, ‘African Man’ in his ability to make rational decisions, in his ability to escape from poverty, in his ability to make decisions that are favourable for himself. There in lies the problem with African democracy brethren, it has never taken flight because the African society has never had faith in its people. Left to their own devices, African people will come up with formulas to escape from poverty and progress society, they seldom have the opportunity and the right to do so.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, on the continent at least, social, political and economic liberalism is the panacea not the bane to African problems. For years the political elite have pushed down our gullets a queer form of democracy, they have sold us the watered down version of democracy, the version that provides for no oversight, for elections and governance without integrity. The political elite have sold us the version of democracy that says they can be parochial, whereas us the masses cannot, they have sold us the version of democracy that says it is okay for them to allocate resources and opportunities through cronyism but equity and equality for those not members of the political class are values to uphold.

Well we the people, want it all, we want democracy as it should have been, without no adulterations or alterations. We want a democracy that promotes equality and equity, which knows no colour, class or being. We (the people) want a democracy that provides for  equity in opportunity, that upholds rule of law, because in our hearts we believe that such a democracy delivers for enterprise and that which delivers for enterprise delivers for society.

Alex Njeru Ndungu is with the Eastern African Policy Centre

Democracy and democratic realities in Africa