Africa's democratic cloak

Multi-party democracy has scored few successes since it swept through sub-Saharan Africa five years ago. Imposed by western aid donors, it has failed to alleviate corruption, tribalism and civil war. Can Africa grow its own democratic culture? Nelson Mandela's denunciation of the Nigerian regime is a first step. Mark Huband reports
January 20, 1996

Late one evening in November 1989 a confidential telex message arrived on the desk of the national assembly president in the Atlantic Ocean port city of Cotonou. Two pages of instructions laid out the future of the country to which the message had been sent-the tiny African state of Benin.

The telex had been tapped out in the heart of Paris, in the wing of the Elysée Palace reserved for the cellule Africaine, the bureau attached to the French presidency, not the French foreign ministry. From there, most important decisions regarding France's Africa policy are made-at that time by former President François Mitterrand's son, the then director of the cellule, Jean-Christophe.

The inspiration for the message was the political upheaval sweeping through eastern Europe. The reverberations for Africa would be enormous. Benin's government, until then ruled by the pseudo-Marxist military dictator Mattheiu Kerekou, had been instructed to end one-party rule, allow opposition groups to form, and finally to hold multi-party presidential and general elections. By May 1990 these instructions had been carried out to the letter. Kerekou had retired to a villa on the outskirts of Cotonou and a former World Bank economist, Nicéphore Soglo, had been elected president.

Soon afterwards, mass protests in favour of multi-party democracy erupted throughout west and central Africa. Within six months of the Cotonou telex, much of the rest of French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa had lifted the ban on multi-party politics, which from the early 1960s until mid-1990 had allowed France's dictator friends total freedom in running their states. Congo, Mali, Niger and the Central African Republic all followed this pattern, as did several states in the English-speaking regions in eastern and southern Africa, such as Kenya and Malawi.

It was not outside pressure alone which inspired the democratic wave. Emboldened by the west, internal opposition expressed in "national conferences" brought change to Niger, Mali, and even Benin itself. But the west strongly reinforced the shift by making multi-party democracy a condition of securing more foreign aid. In the late 1980s, before the reforms, Africa south of the Sahara was said to have only three functioning multi-party democracies: Senegal, Botswana, and arguably Gambia. After the reforms only a handful of the strongmen remained in place.

But, with few exceptions, democracy and the rule of law have failed to sink roots. For the ordinary African, the arrival of democracy has meant a technical change in the apparatus of government which has done little to ameliorate the continent's economic ills-or resolve its civil wars. It is premature to pronounce the wholesale failure of a democratic movement which is scarcely five years old; it is also impossible to tell what the effect could be in the longer run of a prosperous, democratic, black-ruled South Africa. But those who have observed that Africa's tribal traditions do not blend easily with western multi-party democracy have found plenty of evidence to corroborate their case.


The notion that a change to the system of government could solve Africa's economic ills always stretched credulity. At a lecture in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, in December 1994, the World Bank's vice-president for Africa, Edward Jaycox, laid out the well-known and calamitous facts. Five out of ten Africans live below the poverty line, one out of three Africans suffer from chronic undernutrition, and of the 20 countries worldwide which suffer the worst infant mortality rates, 15 are in Africa, four million of whose children die before the age of five.

Jaycox then went on to outline the characteristics of the continent's political systems which have helped perpetuate this dire situation: "Africa's economic crisis has been, in large part, a crisis of management. Africa has been subjected to rule by political authorities that are not accountable, open, predictable and respectful of the rule of law. Wherever we look for examples of economic success-for example in the east Asian miracle-we find good governance at its origins."

He failed to point out that Asian success has rarely been associated with democracy. Nor did he mention how little the World Bank did to reinforce democratic rule during the 1970s and 1980s in its ready assistance to Africa's corrupt regimes in accumulating a foreign public debt now worth $178 billion (38 per cent of the world's total).


Poor-and often corrupt-leadership does lie close to the heart of many of Africa's problems, and for that reason western aid donors (who account for half of all foreign investment in Africa) must share some of the blame. They, after all, have kept those leaders in power. Escaping this responsibility by now making aid conditional upon western-style multi-party democracy may not be an appropriate response. "Trying to force adjustment measures on unwilling and corrupt regimes is counter-productive... To avoid this trap, the World Bank must insist that reform programmes are home-grown rather than imposed from the outside"-thus economics professor Anthony Hawkins of the University of Harare concluded in a recent survey of the continent published in the Financial Times. Although Hawkins did not say the same of political reform, the sentiment was clear: to be appropriate, reform had to be "home-grown" rather than foreign in character. But home-grown reform has been an exceptionally rare phenomenon in Africa.

Rigged, as well as some fair elections, have now taken place in most countries of the continent where war has not stopped them. The rigged elections-in Ivory Coast, Kenya and Cameroon-proved as acceptable to the western donors as the relatively fair ones in Benin, Burundi and Mozambique.

In Ivory Coast, economic crisis lay at the heart of protests which forced the late president, F?x Houphouet-Boigny, to accept legalisation of the opposition Ivorian Popular Front in 1990. Soaring world cocoa prices in the 1970s allowed the country to amass vast wealth and an ever greater debt ($12 billion) as a result of its favourable credit rating. But those prices plunged in the 1980s.

On election night in 1990, officials at the interior ministry sat in a room filled with telephones while officials from other ministeries, sitting in a room next door, telephoned in with imaginary results. Power has remained in the hands of the same clique; decision making is as narrowly based as in the past; parliamentary debates are a farce.

In October this year, Houphouet-Boigny's successor, Henri Konan Bedié led the ruling Democratic party to a second victory. The election was to have been fought between Konan Bedié and the former prime minister, Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara, currently deputy managing director of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, stood a good chance as candidate of the newly-formed Rally of Republicans. To thwart him, Konan Bedié forced through a law banning Ouattara from standing, on the grounds that he had been residing abroad for too long to qualify. Simultaneously, Konan Bedié stoked up—via state television which he controls—a vicious campaign in which Ouattara's Burkina Faso ancestry was highlighted.

Two thousand miles away, in Kenya, exactly the same fanning of prejudice is taking place. The real problems of urban and rural unrest-stemming from unemployment and rising food prices caused by government-controlled monopolies-have remained ignored, despite having sparked the original demands for political change.

Three years after multi-party elections, Kenya is now being torn by tribal strife which the government of President Daniel Arap Moi has intentionally used as a way of intimidating opponents in order to re-allocate land to secure itself votes in key constituencies. To win the 1992 election, Moi's ruling Kenya African National Union party (Kanu) engineered a 35 per cent increase in the money supply as a way of spreading finance around the country through the party machinery. Millions of crisp new 500 shilling notes were printed at state expense and distributed at party meetings. Unofficially, inflation topped 80 per cent. But the gamble paid off, as local officials were sufficiently satisfied with their bribes to ensure that the results showed a Kanu victory.

The Moi government has since bought opposition MPs for as little as 50,000 shillings ($1000) a piece-such is the lack of commitment to democratic principles. Other MPs are threatened that their constituencies will never be developed unless they rejoin Kanu. The threat is real, and the government's parliamentary majority regularly increases. Personal criticism of Moi is effectively illegal. Parliament is a talking shop riddled with police officers who have arrested outspoken opposition MPs even as they leave the debating chamber.

Kenya and Ivory Coast were short-lived economic success stories and very little wealth has trickled down to the ordinary people. But both countries still enjoy a degree of confidence among foreign investors, and both have so far managed to avoid falling out with their creditors. Moi and Konan Bedié are not democrats—they regard themselves as monarchs. Despite their party affiliations, they both demand to be viewed as being above politics; embodiments of the state who must not be criticised.


Dictatorship is much closer to the traditional method of African rule than any other system. Local respect for a village chief or king, kept in power for his lifetime ultimately by popular assent, stems from the community's interest in consistency, provided it is reciprocated by responsible decision making. It is the transposition of this tradition of reciprocity from its tribal heartland to the complexities of the nation state which has not happened since the era of independence in the 1960s.

Millions of Africans continue to support the dictators they have come to know, not always along tribal lines. Moi won 20 per cent of the votes in Kenya's 1992 election (he claimed 36 per cent) though he comes from a tribe which comprises less than 4 per cent of the population. Henri Konan Bedié took over 80 per cent because he banned his real opponents and selected a no-hoper to oppose him. Even the terrible President Joseph-Désiré Mobutu of Zaire will win votes when he finally goes to the ballot box.

There is an attraction in supporting what is familiar. The hierarchical heritage of the tribal relationship does not allow for uncertainty. Ultimately somebody—the "Big Man"—has to be at the top of the political tree, and dictators can provide big personal rewards if you join them.

Meanwhile, the unimpressive performance of opposition parties-for example, in preventing the purchase of their MPs-has shown that democracy is merely a means of spreading corruption more evenly. Nowhere has "democratic" corruption helped to entrench dictatorship more completely than in Zaire. President Mobutu has been able to buy off all but one of his opponents. Since declaring Zaire a multi-party state in 1990, Mobutu has used a small part of his $5 billion fortune to buy three of his main opponents. Only his most obstinate critic, Etienne Tshisekedi, has refused all offers.

Tshisekedi claims that the vigorous pursuit of democratic change has had an impact and has led to the "de-mystification" of the Mobutu myth. The aura of the "Big Man," which Mobutu exemplified par excellence with enthusiastic western backing and arms supplies between 1965 and 1990, has now evaporated, according to Tshisekedi.

The organisation of Zaireans into 350 political parties (many financed by Mobutu as a way of diluting the opposition to him), the explosion of debate, the freedom to organise in the cities, towns and countryside-all these momentous events should have brought Mobutu's violent, thieving reign to an end. But they have not. Mobutu is regarded in the west as essential to maintaining the unity of Zaire while the democratic transition is under way. For this reason, no foreign powers openly support Tshisekedi, regarding him as too dangerously uncompromising in his stance against the man he has described as a "human monster."

Mobutu's international isolation has now been brought to an end-he is able to visit his castles in Europe and his dentist in France, after being denied visas for over a year. His huge fortune remains intact in Swiss bank accounts. He is the only potential election candidate who has the resources to mount a nation-wide campaign. Furthermore, he would probably be the winner. In such circumstances, many Zaireans, irritated by the failure of the democrats, have gradually come round to the implicit western view that what Zaire needs is a dose of dictatorship to prevent yet another bloody civil war.

Evidently, multi-party democracy has done little to stem civil war. Since 1990 as many as 2m Africans have died as a direct or indirect result of armed conflict. Nearly 1m of those deaths came in four years of civil war and genocide in Rwanda between 1990-94. The rebels who took power last year are clear in their view that multi-party democracy is not applicable to a country riven by tribal enmity.


Other wars have been fought for democracy, but in name alone. In Liberia, the civil war which has raged since December 1989 and so far left about 150,000 dead, was ostensibly started to overthrow the vicious dictatorship of Samuel Doe. Now it is a fight to the death between seven armies, all vying for something which, because of their destructiveness, they will probably never enjoy.

At about the same time that the rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (led by Charles Taylor) were plunging into the country's eastern rain forests, Mohammed Farah Aydeed's battalions of Toyota-mounted nomads were speeding across the deserts of Somalia in a battle to overthrow dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. It did not take long for Aydeed's army to fracture, hold the famine-wracked country to ransom and bring on a new civil war which is being fought to this day. The Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi fought, too, under the banner of democracy. But when he lost the generally fair democratic contest he claimed to have spent 17 years fighting for, he returned to the battlefield.

With the exception of relatively unimportant countries such as Benin, Malawi, Madagascar, Congo and a few others, democracy has had little real impact on the structures of power in Africa since 1989. Rebels may be seeking relief from oppression of various kinds, but in the end most have proved to be as unscrupulous in their use of power as the dictators they have sought to overthrow. Tribe, clan and family still form the institutional backdrop for Africa's political elites. This has bequeathed to African society an inherent conservatism, reflected in the outlook of most of the continent's political parties, whether in government or opposition. In many cases the creation of opposition parties-often at western insistence-has merely created more vehicles for disputing local power at national level. These disputes reinforce the inherent weakness of so many African states, dependent on a handful of primary products and the kindness of donors.

By contrast, Nigeria's relative wealth stemming from its well-developed exploitation of oil and gas reserves, has allowed it to forge its own political path ever since independence in 1960. It has remained relatively immune to foreign pressure-as recent events have shown. The army's current determination to resist the democratic experiment reflects this relatively independent history. But Nigeria has been no less susceptible to the greed, tribalism, distrust and despotism which have characterised the transposition of traditional African political life on to the stage of the nation state. Nigeria is the only country in Africa outside South Africa where economic development, sociological variety and strong state power could have combined to build a strong democracy. The evil now stalking Nigeria is a reminder of how difficult that is.


Africa is a continent of ancient societies but young nations. It is not surprising that the five-year African experiment with democracy has not yet provided answers to the difficult questions: how should traditionally hostile groups share out increasingly scarce resources within boundaries set by colonialism? How should the oppressed deal with the dictators who have tortured them?

In the short run, the imposition of multi-party democracy on to Africa's fluid political geography may have exacerbated some of the problems. Amid such growing uncertainty, only the dictator seems to know who he really is—while the democrat is left asking: who am I?

But unreserved pessimism is misplaced. It is now more widely accepted that toleration of heterogeneity is a necessary condition of establishing effective democracies. And there are signs-for example in Uganda's flawed "non-party" democracy-that a distinctly African democratic hybrid may be struggling to be born. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, having learnt from past mistakes, are indirectly helping this process by undermining state patronage and encouraging the growth of rural power at the expense of urban elites.

Finally, there is Nelson Mandela and the new South Africa. Chief among the many weaknesses of opposition politicians in Africa is their past association with the regimes they are trying to replace. This clearly does not apply to Mandela, who has broken the rules in other important ways: his attack on what he described as the "corrupt and illegitimate" Nigerian regime is unique in the history of Africa. The message now coming from Johannesburg is that Africa's problems need African solutions, and that there are good Africans and bad Africans. This new message, we should not forget, is the result of a home-grown democratic revolution.