How Economic Liberalization Can Strengthen Africa’s Fragile Democracies

Some call it Africa’s second liberation. After freedom from European colonisers came freedom from African despots. Since the end of the cold war multi-party democracy has spread far and wide across the continent, often with impressive and moving intensity. Remember 1994, when South Africans queued for hours to bury apartheid and elect Nelson Mandela as president in their country’s first all-race vote.

Many of Africa’s worst Big Men were swept away. Mengistu Haile Mariam fled Ethiopia in 1991; Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) decamped in 1997; a year later Sani Abacha of Nigeria died in office (or, as rumour has it, in the arms of prostitutes). In parts of Africa autocrats are still in power and wars still rage. But most leaders now seek at least a veneer of respectability; elections have become more frequent and more regular; economies have opened up.

And yet, as our reporting makes clear (see article), African democracy has stalled—or even gone into reverse. Too often, it is an illiberal sort of pseudo-democracy in which the incumbent demonises the opposition, exploits the power of the state to stack the electoral contest in his favour and removes constraints on his power. That bodes ill for a continent where institutions are still fragile, corruption rife and economies weakened by the fall of commodity prices (one of the fastest-growing regions of the world has become one of the slowest). For Africa to fulfil its promise, the young, dynamic continent must rediscover its zeal for democracy.

Lost In Democratic Transition

The latest worrying example is Zambia. It was one of the first African countries to undergo a democratic transition, when Kenneth Kaunda stepped down after losing an election in 1991. This week Edgar Lungu was re-elected president with a paper-thin majority in a campaign marred by the harassment of the opposition, the closure of the country’s leading independent newspaper, accusations of vote-rigging and street protests.

Especially in central Africa, incumbent leaders are changing or sidestepping constitutional term limits to extend their time in office, often provoking unrest. Kenya, where political tension is rising, faces worries about violence in next year’s general election. Freedom House, an American think-tank, reckons that in 1973 only about 30% of sub-Saharan countries were “free” or “partly free”. In its latest report the share stands at 59%. That is a big improvement, obviously, but it is down from 71% in 2008. Countries that are “not free” still outnumber those that are. A big chunk in the middle is made up of flawed and fragile states that are only “partly free”.

The people of Africa deserve better. For democracy to work, winners must not be greedy, losers must accept defeat and both need trusted institutions to act as arbiters and stabilisers. Yet, in many places, some or all of these elements are missing.

The best way for democracy to flourish would be to expand and strengthen Africa’s emerging middle class. Increasingly connected to the world, Africans know better than anyone the shortcomings of their leaders. Take South Africa. Despite its model constitution, vibrant press and diverse economy, it has been tarnished under its president, Jacob Zuma. He has hollowed out institutions, among them bodies tasked with fighting corruption. And yet South Africa also demonstrates the power of voters. In municipal elections this month, the mighty African National Congress lost control of major cities. For the first time, a plausible alternative party of power is emerging in the liberal, business-friendly Democratic Alliance.

Free societies and free economies reinforce each other. African countries need to diversify away from dependence on exporting commodities, which in turn means liberalising markets and bolstering independent institutions. The rest of the world can help by expanding access to rich-world markets for African goods, particularly in agriculture.

To The Victor The Spoils

As well as promoting a middle class, diversification mitigates the curse of winner-take-all politics. When a country’s wealth is concentrated in natural resources, controlling the state gives a leader access to the cash needed to maintain power. The problem is aggravated by the complex, multi-ethnic form of many African states, whose borders may have been created by colonial whim. Voting patterns often follow tribe or clan rather than class or ideology, so tend to lock in the advantage of one or other group. Losing an election can mean being cut out of the spoils permanently. Dealing with variegated polities requires doses of decentralisation (as in Kenya), federalism (as in Nigeria) and requirements for parties or leaders to demonstrate a degree of cross-country or cross-ethnic support.

Where democracies are fragile, the two-term rule for heads of government is invaluable, as it forces change. Mandela set the example by stepping down after just one term. The two-term rule should be enshrined as a norm by Africa’s regional bodies, just as the African Union forbids coups.

Can the outside world do more than provide African countries with markets? China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, supplying aid and investment with few or no strings attached in terms of the rule of law and human rights. But even China, especially now that its own economy has slowed, is not in the business of propping up bankrupt African autocrats.

This means that Western influence, though diminished, remains considerable—for historical reasons, and because many African countries still look to the West for aid, investment and sympathy in international lending bodies. With the end of the commodity boom, growing numbers of countries face a balance-of-payments crisis. Any fresh loans should be conditional on strengthening independent institutions.

But the West has flagged in its efforts to promote democracy, especially in places, such as around the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, where the priority is to defeat jihadists. That is short-sighted. Decades of counter-terrorism teaches that the best bulwarks against extremism are states that are prosperous and just. And that is most likely to come about when rulers serve at the will of their people.

via Economist