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e triumph of the Allies in World War II and reached its zenith in 1962 (when 36 countries became democracies), was followed by a reverse wave from 1960 to 1975, which brought the number of democracies down to 30. In essence, it can be argued that liberal democracy oscillates between surge and reversals, in accordance with the boom and bust cycles of capitalism. Even within national governments in the contemporary Western world, we often see an oscillation between right-wing authoritarians (Trump, for example) and those on the left of the political spectrum (Joe Biden, for instance). This raises a fundamental question of whether the current surge in military coups in Africa is the normal ‘reversal wave’ that follows a period of democratic surge.
Two, it must be pointed out that military coup – a forceful seizure of political power by the armed forces of a country – is not the only threat to liberal democracies in Africa. We also have constitutional coup-making, whereby those elected to office change the constitutions of their countries to elongate their tenures. Although 33 out of about 48 new constitutions in Africa, which were enacted in the 1990s, provided for limits of two terms for the office of the president, nearly 30 countries have contemplated the removal of term limits since 1998, with many succeeding. Electoral manipulations and rigging, such that electoral outcomes are not believed to represent the wishes of the electorate, also alienate voters from electoral processes and thus equally constitute a threat to democracy. In several French African countries, anti-French sentiments and the inability of governments to deal with some developmental challenges (such as defeating Jihadism) is yet another source of disillusionment, which provides an ammunition for the military to strike.
Three, a major difference between the practice of democracy in the advanced states of Europe and the USA and its practice in Africa is that while the basis of nationhood is already settled in the former, in the latter, even the basis of statehood remains contested in many countries. This poses severe challenges to especially two key components of democracy – freedom of speech and conduct of elections. Precisely because most of the states in the continent are just emerging from prolonged periods of dictatorship, the free speech guarantees of liberal democracy tend to facilitate the unleashing of bottled up feelings from the authoritarian era. This aggravates the structures of conflict in society, exacerbates inter-ethnic tensions and suspicions and complicates nation-building processes. In essence, while democratic reversals in the West do not, strictly speaking, threaten democracy or the nation-state, in Africa, military coups could threaten the state system because it could be construed as an attempt by one or more ethnicities (which share primordial identities with the coup leaders) to gain undue advantage for their groups. The consequent resentment is bottled up but unleashed in several ways, including separatist agitations, whenever an opportunity presents itself.
There is a similar challenge with the conduct of elections. In virtually all parts of Africa, politicians take literally the injunction of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and president, to “seek first the political kingdom and every other thing will be added unto you”. There are two major explanations for this: the first is that political power is seen as a veritable instrument of wealth accumulation. The second is a pervasive fear that any group that captures state power will use it to privilege its in-group, to the disadvantage of others. Elections therefore tend to be very anarchic, and almost warfare. Losing the presidential election could mean your ethnic group will be excluded from the dining table by the triumphant group or coalition. This alienates the others from both the democratic process and the state system they feel marginalises them.
Four, democracy in the continent suffers from an expectation crisis. Take, for instance, what Nigerians call the ‘democracy dividend’. There is a presupposition that democracy will lead to economic development and an improvement in the standard of living of the people. The truth, however, is that there is no conclusive evidence in the literature that liberal democracy could offer such. On the contrary, many of the countries in Asia whose economies grew exponentially, including China, Malaysia and Singapore, did so under benevolent dictatorships. People are also frustrated about the quality of leaders they get under democracy. Again democracy only promises to allow people to choose from those who present themselves to be elected. Given that it is mostly those who have the financial wherewithal and the necessary rough edges to compete that present themselves for election, people often do not feel that the leaders they get are the best available. This, coupled with the manipulation of the electoral system, and generalised feeling that the costs of running democracy is not worth it, lead to a further aggravation of the disillusionment with democracy.
Five, what will be the option for Africa? In the immediate post-independence period, many African leaders – Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Nyerere in Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and a host of others – instituted one party states. Their basic argument was that political parties signified the institution of divisions, and therefore were un-African. They also argued that Africa was in a state of emergency and therefore could not afford the luxury of institutionalising divisions. Others like Museveni, who came to power in 1986, claimed he was running a ‘no party democracy’.
Then came the period of military rule in which the military was extolled as a modernising institution that hated the corruption, indiscipline and politicisation of primordial identities by the politicians.
Unfortunately, unlike in some Asian countries where benevolent dictatorship led to economic development and improvement in general welfare, African autocracy of various hues proved incapable of being the engines of economic development or nation-building. Frustrations with governance were in some cases transferred to frustrations with the state, with some groups clamouring to de-link from the state system, while others seem to be in perpetual search for a political messiah to turn things around. It seems a more realistic option open to Africans is to engage in robust conversations about how to adapt liberal democracy to their unique environments because it seems obvious that while Africans cherish the freedoms that democracy offers, they are generally disappointed by the governance systems in the continent.
Jideofor Adibe is a professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nasarawa State University, Keffi and Extraordinary Professor of Government Studies at North Western University, Mafikeng South Africa. He is also the founder of Adonis & Abbey Publishers and can be reached at 0705 807 8841 (Text or WhatsApp only).
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