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How China’s Grand Entry Into Africa Has Weakened Democracy

In an uncharacteristic about-face, in 2013 the Economist led with a story titled ‘Africa Rising’, a mea culpa for its May 2000 lead ‘Hopeless Africa.’ In 2000, the newspaper was too slow to notice much that had happened in Africa since 1990. In 2013 it was too quick to celebrate the little that had happened since 2000. Africa’s democracy is alive but not well. Skepticism about elections and democracy is high. Neither factor calls for exuberant shouting or grumpy afro-skepticism. There are three factors behind Africa’s seemingly troubled experience with democracy.

One, the political reforms of the early 1990s conflicted with the economic policies that donors imposed on governments at the same time. That left newly-elected leaders with no means to satisfy voters.
Two, reformers put too much faith in constitutions as restraints on power. They invested less effort on making the constitutions work. Africans are now discouraged that constitutions have not delivered on their promise.

Three, China’s entry into Africa —with its value-neutral ‘natural resources’ diplomacy’—has outflanked the West and forced a donor retreat from democracy. Democracy is now a domestic good not an international one.
Let us look closely at each of these three points.
Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s had both economic and political roots. By the 1980s, coup politics had impoverished the continent. Everywhere, the State was in a deep crisis of legitimacy. The fall of one-party communist regimes in East and Central Europe spurred two simultaneous transitions: A political shift to democracy and an economic shift to free markets. Both gave a real fillip to pro-democracy groups and pro-market forces in Africa. That Eastern European ossified regimes could open up so quickly led to a naïve belief that free economies and plural democracies would evolve together in a virtuous cycle of prosperity and freedom.

In politics, Africans trooped to the polls to vote in the first free elections in a generation. Soon, dictators were being forced out of office across the continent, some through protests and others through elections. The World Bank and the IMF led the efforts to repair public finances. They cajoled reluctant presidents to privatise State-owned entreprises, reduce social spending — especially in education and health — free prices and interest rates and reform tariffs. Though economies did not recover immediately, the new political freedoms fostered optimism and a belief that people had finally reclaimed their destiny.
However, by the time the second and third multiparty elections came in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a malaise had crept in. Incumbents no longer lost elections, a sharp reversal of what was expected given the optimism of 1990s. Economies had stagnated or shrank, impoverishing the poor and disappointing enthusiasts of market reforms.

Some explained the low turnover of presidents in terms their growing smarts: Experience had taught incumbents how to play the electoral game better. They allowed elections but constrained choice, spawning Thandika Mkandawire’s “choice-less democracies”. The World Bank explained the poor growth by blaming African governments for either lack of ‘political will’ or populist policies that made them recoil from painful reforms.
Mkandawire has the better view on the matter. There was, he explains, a deep irreconcilable tension between the democratic reforms of the early 1990s and the economic policies donors foisted on newly-elected governments in those years. Democracy brings transparency and empowers the poor. Newly-empowered voters make more demands on leaders and transparency makes it harder for leaders to lie or hide failures.

But the new politics was in tension with the economic policies being pursued. To repair the fiscal stress of the 1980s, donors advised African governments to be more frugal, cut back on spending and shrink the public sector. The world over, the poor—exactly those empowered by democracy—are most dependent on public services. So African governments were cutting back on social services, especially in education and health, precisely when voters were demanding not just more but also better services. Soon, it became clear that Africa’s new democracies could not fix the economic problems that had created the pro-democracy protests in the first place. People grew disillusioned.

African leaders then argued, appropriating arguments the World Bank had made, that economic failure came from the inefficiencies and conflicts that democracy created. Effective government was the antidote. South East Asian autocrats — Park Chung Hee in South Korea and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore — were paraded. South Korea and Singapore proved that autocratic discipline fostered growth. Africa needed less democracy and more order to grow.


Thandika says African democrats should have responded by pointing out that it is good policies, not democracy, that eliminates poverty. Governments that pursue bad economic policies cannot fight poverty, whether they are democratic or autocratic. Democracy trumps autocracy because it gives governments legitimacy. Legitimate governments can persuade the public to bear the pain of difficult reforms and to do so without violent protest and instability, a disease all too common in ‘prosperous’ autocracies. See the unfolding crisis in Ethiopia.
As Thandika shows, democratic governments in India and Brazil were able to implement painful reforms in the 1990s and 2000s, no less effectively than autocrats. This supports Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s point that “a country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy.”

If democracy has had a bad rap in the continent, it is because elected leaders have been incompetent, not because autocracy is better.
A second problem is that Africans placed too much faith in the new constitutions, believing them a panacea for all the unrealistic expectations that people had in the 1990s. Most of the political energy invested in constitutional reform went into institutional design, especially ratchets to rein in the bad guys.

Little effort went into norms and incentives and even less to the problems of making constitutions work. Constitutions do not guarantee democracy: The people’s commitment to fight off usurpers is what does. Consider. By the end of this year, Nigeria will have been a democracy for only 29 of the 59 years it has been independent. Nigeria made eight constitutions under civilian rule, none of which stopped the country’s slide back to military rule.

Every constitution rests on some simple ideas: That everyone accepts its commands; that people believe they are better when they obey than when they seek self-help; that the government knows repression is costly and unworthy of a civilised State and that consultation with and the consent of the governed may slow down change but it also guarantees that when change comes it is lasting because it is legitimate.
Unfortunately, governments use constitutions as flags of convenience. How else to explain the many paradoxes of constitutional practice in the continent? Leaders show amazing faith in constitution-making and then practice politics that deeply subverts those constitutions. They fight for independent judges but in Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere presidents regularly disobey court orders. They want independent electoral commissions but they recoil if these show any independence.

The point is that constitutions won’t make African countries democratic. However, these countries won’t be democracies if constitutions are not obeyed and enforced.
There is a third factor in play: China’s ‘morally indifferent’ commercial diplomacy which has flatfooted the West and eroded its commitment to Tony Blair’s ‘ethical foreign policy’.

China does not have a democracy agenda: Its investments in Africa and its flexible, apolitical diplomacy have allowed Africa’s Chinese clients to resist the political terms that the West once imposed for aid to the continent. Since 2009, China is Africa’s largest trade partner. Fearing that it would lose out if it stuck to ethical foreign policy in the face of Chinese incursion, the West has changed its posture. Its diplomats now talk stability, not democracy. Elections are okay if they are peaceful rather than free and fair. Quiet diplomacy is increasingly favoured over the ‘visible’ ‘public’ and ‘frank’ approach of the 1990s. With China in the foreground, the West bargains from a weak position.

Lately, China is marrying its commercial diplomacy to security. This will grow its influence, again. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, by last year China had contributed more than 2,500 troops, police and military experts to six UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. In Africa, anyone who invests in security and counter-terrorism invariably makes the State stronger. And anyone that makes a partially-legitimate State strong eventually undermines democracy.
Democracy then is on the back foot, assailed by many forces. A fatal reversal seems unlikely but hard times lie ahead. Africa’s old friends — the West — and its new one — China — do not care for the fate of African democracy.


Written by How Africa

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