Democracy Versus Dictatorship As Africa’s Best Model of Governance

Photo credit: Ndimby Andriantsoavina

For the proponents of dictatorship as the best fashion of governance for Africa, most African countries are not yet matured for democracy. To them, democratic governance is expensive and economic development is a proviso for political freedom. They fortify their argument through mentioning the governance models and tantivy developmental progress of the United Arab Emirates and China (pseudo dictatorship). For the detractors of dictatorship, development that is not inclusive and a product of repression can never be sustainable.

Africa’s persistent developmental and leadership challenges have continued to accentuate a raging debate, over the best form of governance, for the continent’s political and socio-economic development. Regardless the low economic development indicators, the continent have continued its predominant dependence on primary exports.

In addition, most African leaders have been linked with acute prebendalism, corruption, human rights abuse, developmental-strategies-deficit and exiguous political will to develop their countries. Most of them have assumed their leadership roles with limited training in the art and science of directing and effectively instituting policies of economic development, despite their resource-base muscle. As such, Africa’s poor development indicators have been primarily attributed to leadership crisis.

The democracy versus dictatorship debate is rooted on several paradoxical factors both for their proponents and detractors. First is the actuality that some East Asian countries and a considerable number of other countries, in other regions, that were once considered Africa’s economic comparators in the 1960s and 1970s were developed by leaders that used the elements of benevolent dictatorship.

These leaders were in office between 1960 and 2000; and encompass Yew, Suharto, Mahathir and Park, amongst others. They stayed for few decades in office, which ensured policy consistency and an elongated time for them to operationalize their development ideologies, tactics and strategies. They also made use of strict maximalist strategies to enclose trade unions in a container to ensure predictable labour practices; ensure political stability; and institute birth control regimes to ensure that population explosion didn’t overburden development. For the latter, China and Singapore are shining examples.

These leaders played significant roles in the socio-economic development and political emancipation of their countries through harnessing resources and ingenuity of their people for national development. However, a counter argument to this is that whereas East Asian countries made use of such governance fashion to develop or become industrialising/industrialised economies, Africa had an assortment of dictators/military rulers at the same time that failed to use arbitrary power to develop their countries.

Examples encompass Obote, Sese Seko, Banda, Bokassa etc. Similarly, for the proponents of dictatorship, as a vehicle, for the continent’s development, contemporary counter case studies include Mugabe, Museveni and Nguema, amongst others. These leaders, under pseudo democracies can be classified as dictators but have not used their peremptory powers to develop their countries while scoring high in several branches of bad leadership.

Secondly is the actuality that while democracy ensures political freedom, inclusion, equality, respect for the rule of law and protection of human rights, most African leaders have abused it. Most of these leaders, such as Deby, Dos Santos, under pseudo democracies, have been amending constitutions to stay longer in power. As such, political power has become concentrated in one political party and finally in the hand of one leader, leading to power personalisation and repression of all forms of opposition.

Africa’s democracy is also being characterised by weak electoral institutions, voting along ethnic lines, post-election crisis, rigging, thuggery, god fatherism, as well as other extremely reprehensible practices such as distributing moneys at polling booths during elections. In furtherance, campaigns have been heavily monetised as politicians share all manner of food items and transport/domestic equipment to lure voters.

As a result of this, politicians enter office to embezzle in order to prepare for subsequent electoral cycles. There still lack mechanisms by the citizens to ensure accountability and transparency in the practices of political office holders or even hold them to account, with respect to their campaign promises. By weighing the arguments and counter arguments for and against the both models of governance, one gets tired of the one that can actually work for the continent.

Most African countries have indeed highlighted that democracy finds it difficult to thrive where illiteracy level is high, institutions are weak, the civil society is not organized and in underdeveloped/developing countries. East Asian leaders used benevolent dictatorial power to put these elements in order before they transitioned to democracies. This was during the Cold War era, when the West was a busy courting ally as against being a global watchdog for human rights and respect for the rule of law.

Africa has lost such window. At the same time, the world has changed and there is little space for absolute national dictatorships in the current world order. Africa has the only option of democracy in today’s world. In this respect, it is extremely imperative that the continent strengthens electoral institutions and demonetise politics through gross reduction of campaign costs and monetary benefits of political office holders.

The latter will usher in disincentive for the wrong people to go into politics. The civil society has to be strengthened so as to expose governmental corruption, hold leaders to account on their promises, conduct civic education to enlighten the populace, campaign for the respect of rule of law, help to ensure accountability and transparency and monitor the government on the execution of public policies.

Ultimately, to reduce the cost of governance on the continent, African countries should consider collapsing bicameral legislatures. Then for improved political inclusion following societal fractionalisation, it is imperative that inexpensive devolution systems are established.

Chambers Umezulike,
Development Expert, Researcher and Writer

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One thought on “Democracy Versus Dictatorship As Africa’s Best Model of Governance

  • November 3, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    The cost of democracy in African States even today seems to be too much to pay. It would mean free and fair elections, change in leadership etc. We begin with a notion of wanting democracy but we insert other non-democratic elements into it and then we end up where we are today. Most, if not all African countries have gone through some form of liberation movement, either from colonial masters or other early African leaders. The way many African countries are set up today (I think) has a lot to do with the nature of their liberation movements, the transition to power and the leadership of the movements. For example if we take a look at Uganda following Idi Amin, Museveni’s NRA wanted to politicise the army, educate the public and defend the population. Tito Okello eventually came into power but the NRA still had not met its goals comprising democratic principles and a peace accord signed in Nairobi under Kenyan President Daniel Moi fell apart. Museveni eventually took power by force in a moment of chaos in Jan 1986 inheriting a country ravaged by political and economic crisis. When you inherit such a country and become it’s saviour, its hard to have the balls to agree that other people can effectively run the country. Museveni has for years run under the banner of the farmer and Uganda his banana plantation which only he can nurture. He feels entitled to that power after taking NRM through triumph. We all know how he has managed to lift term limits and what not, effectively making him president for…maybe until he dies. Yet somehow, the country runs. Perhaps not as well as how we would imagine a real democratic country would run, but it runs. Our hybrid regimes (semi-democratic or semi-authoritarian if you would like) somehow are still standing, even if on one leg.
    The question is, for how long? We thought the Arab Spring in North Africa would usher in a new way of doing things but if anything, it has shown just how deeply entrenched the old ways of nepotism and totalitarian rule are in society. In addition, the youth are being blamed for not stepping up while being locked out of key conversations. The price of democracy is too expensive and we aren’t willing to pay it fully. We have elections that look like they are free and fair, yet their outcome is pre-determined (virtually most African nations). We have puppet presidents while real power lies elsewhere. Rwanda’s Kagame had for years been the ‘man with the power’ while Bizimungu was president. Now on the one hand we are hailing Rwanda as such an example to follow while on the other hand human rights are being violated and one could say Rwanda is a state run by an army. Heck we even have regimes allegedly run on witchcraft such as Biya’s Cameroon. If it was possible to go back in time, we would because we need a do over. But since that’s impossible, the ways to emerge from dictatorship to democracy remain many because in as much as we face similar problems, we have different histories. For now though, we survive on our one legged democracies with their corrupt and weak institutions. Until that leg is chopped off, we will never reach that now-or-never place. That place where we either have to change or perish. But others argue, does Africa really need democracy?

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