[Overseas view]Democracy and the economy in Africa

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[Overseas view]Democracy and the economy in Africa

Africa’s democratic honeymoon is ending. Kenya’s jump into chaos is a portentous wake-up call across the continent for a more concerted investment in context-specific governance programs. After a decade or so of democratic gains, Africa is entering a democratic marshland. Nigeria, Kenya and even South Africa find themselves engulfed in a defining moment. The next five years will be a critical watershed in Africa’s democratic consolidation.
The spiral of political discontent into ethnic discontent in Kenya brings into sharp focus the challenges of democracy in Africa and the exigent need for heterodoxy in political governance among African governments and institutions working to promote democracy in Africa. The dire situation in Kenya ― a promising economy ― exposes the fragile nature of Kenya’s democracy at the system level and points to the role international communities should play in civilizing African politics.
Africa’s politics, like its music, moves in sweeping continental waves. The 1960s brought independence. The ’90s brought democratic transition and the vanquishing of African strongmen. In the 2000s, Africa is going through another defining period ― a moment of democratic disillusion. Between 2004 and 2009, many African states will be commemorating a decade of democracy. Following the defeat, death or overthrow of many African strongmen in the 1990s, many African countries have had a decade of fairly good participatory democracies.
In the 2000s however, Africans are questioning the functional utility of democracy beyond participation. There is a simmering frustration about the ineptitudes of democracy, particularly in spurring economic growth and mending Africa’s ethnic rifts. Across Africa, democracy is plagued by three major challenges.
First, African political parties lack any distinct and abiding policy orientation. In the ’90s, a lot of development cooperation funds from international organizations, foundations and Western states’ development agencies went into funding the development of opposition parties with the myopic intention of deposing African dictators. Emerging African leaders of the ’90s were intoxicated on the virtues of multiparty democracy. Yet political parties have not evolved as mature, clear and distinct cleavages in matters of policy and ideology. Thus, they lack mobilizational abilities. In this absence, ethnocentricism has become the clearest cleavage. Beyond acquisition of government power, political parties lack any abiding and unifying vision.
Second, African leaders have been slow to recognize the vacillating relationship between democratic expansion and economic growth. In the 1990s, liberal democracy and orthodox neoclassical economics were cast as the ultimate and inseparable solutions to social-economic development. While African economies are growing, largely propelled by rising commodity prices, African politics is shaky, stymied by low social-economic development and high unemployment. The notion of attainment of a higher GNI as a gauge to democratic feasibility has been trashed. It is insightful to note that three of Africa’s small and most economically progressive states ― Uganda, Gabon and Rwanda ― are ruled by soft authoritarian regimes. Africa’s democratic march has been unresponsive to the exigencies of economic growth and those countries whose leaders have appreciated the exigent trade-offs between economic growth and democratic consolidation are doing better.
Thirdly, Africa faces a huge challenge in the reconciliation of national identities and ethnic identities, national interests and ethnic interests. Unlike such homogenous countries as Korea or Japan, African states are multi-ethnic, with weak and fluid national identities. Genuine ethnic interests are difficult to tell and irrational ethnic loyalties are difficult to break. Presidential elections tend to ruffle incendiary ethnic grievances.
Democratic disillusion has produced two major trends in African politics which will complicate African democratic development in the next decade ― the ethnic appeal and the socialist appeal.
These trends reflect responses to a sense of economic exclusion where ordinary individuals feel that existing political institutions are not responding to their problems. These trends are best demonstrated by events in the three African “pillar” countries ― South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.
In South Africa a section of the ruling party, the African National Congress, is making a socialist appeal before the 2009 election. Kenya’s and Nigeria’s recent elections highlight ethnic appeal.
The immediate role of international intergovernmental institutions and state development agencies in Africa should be to concentrate on institutionalizing policy differences as the centerpiece of choice during elections. Political parties should be guided with a set of incentives and disincentives to build an abiding policy orientation that cuts across regional or ethnic classifications.
The violence witnessed in Kenya is perpetrated by mostly young, poor, jobless, urban males. Urban job creation should be supported.
Widespread economic upliftment is the surest way of civilizing crude provincial ethnocentricism.

*The writer is an associate researcher for African economies, Korea Institute for Development Strategy.


by Elijah N. Munyi
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