Jacob Zuma may force Africa to become more democratic. But will this lead to greater prosperity?by / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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Richard Dowden closed his article on African politics ( Prospect, September) with the sentiment: “it could hardly be worse.” Even since he wrote, however, there have been two major changes. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe has made the sort of precarious deal that Dowden favours. In South Africa, which Dowden regards as the only African country to have evolved an appropriate political culture, Jacob Zuma has won the power struggle against Mbeki, who was forced to resign after the courts stopped the Zuma corruption trial. Are these events further setbacks, or is Africa on the turn?
The continent’s deteriorating political fortunes have been at odds with its economic ones. After decades of stagnation, Africa is growing, due to a combination of economic reforms and the booms in the region’s many commodities, such as oil, gold and rhodium. But will the region’s politics scupper this opportunity?
During the 1990s, the spread of democracy in Africa created the chance for citizens to hold their governments accountable. In 1991, Zambia’s gentle autocrat president, Kenneth Kaunda decided to have a fair contested election and was resoundingly defeated. A decade later, the incumbent president of Madagascar, Didier Ratsiraka, was also ousted, albeit more messily. But the June re-election of Robert Mugabe through crude and blatant voter intimidation, following deeply flawed elections in Kenya and Nigeria in 2007, calls into question whether, even with the basic institutions of democracy, these societies are capable of holding their leaders to account. Unlike many African countries, Zimbabwe had the full complement of democratic institutions: courts, legislature, and multi-party elections. What happened there is evidence of a disturbing trend: African presidents have learned how to get re-elected without the need for good governance.
For democracy to deliver any sort of accountability, it needs effective checks and balances. Dowden acknowledges this, but does not suggest how Africa might develop them. Zambia and Madagascar may now have some, thanks to the precedent set by presidential defeats, but it is hard to see how many others will get there. In Angola’s presidential elections in 2009, we can expect the opposition to be allowed to gain around 40 per cent of the vote for the sake of good appearances, but the chance that it might actually win is virtually zero. If genuine democracy in Angola and in other countries is to emerge, the region as a whole must develop some minimum standards of electoral conduct. South Africa’s leadership is critical to this, and President Mbeki’s refusal to promote it has been a major setback. But with Jacob Zuma in power in 2009, there might be a new opportunity.
Zuma owes his power entirely to free and fair elections. (In South Africa, because the ANC is dominant, the key electoral contest is inside the party rather than in a national election. Hence the vital checks and balances are not those at the state level, such as courts, press and legislature, but those internal to the ANC.) Mbeki, as the incumbent leader, sought a further term of office and was routed. As in Zambia and Madagascar, this has probably created a precedent which solidifies the ANC constitution and so defends South African democracy in the future. It is unfortunate that Zuma has faced charges of rape and corruption; not only did this call into question his character, but the issue threatened to pit the ANC against the courts. Since the ANC would surely have won such a struggle, tearing up the rule of law in the process, the courts were right to deflect it. Had Zuma been prosecuted and found guilty, it would have been widely interpreted within South Africa as a victory for Mbeki rather than as a victory for the rule of law—paradoxically, the court’s decision probably strengthens the checks on presidential power.
For the rest of Africa, the election of Zuma as South Africa’s president is potentially beneficial. Coming from the trade union movement, Zuma is an ally of Morgan Tsvangirai rather than Mugabe. He will have both the beliefs and the authority to introduce better standards of electoral conduct across the region. This may well take time, but it offers a credible prospect that African democracy will evolve into a system that makes government answerable to its citizens.
However, accountability alone is not sufficient to ensure prosperity. A sustainable prosperity requires consumption to be deferred in favour of investment—and populist policies like increases in public spending financed by the printing press, negative real interest rates that penalise savers, and asset redistribution by means of confiscation, must be avoided. Jacob Zuma defeated Mbeki with a populist agenda, albeit a hazy one, in place of Mbeki’s more patient economic strategy.
But will Zuma’s election really usher in economic populism? Here, just as Zuma is good news for checking the power of Mugabe and his ilk, so Mugabe’s catastrophic economic performance is good news for checking Zuma’s flirtation with populism. Mugabe has taken all the illusions of economic populism through to their ruinous conclusion. The exodus of starving Zimbabweans into South Africa, though a cause of cruel frictions in South Africa’s slums, is also the best possible learning experience for the new ANC leadership. And Zuma’s forthright opposition to Mugabe’s destruction of democracy is likely to make it easier for the ANC left to renounce Mugabe’s economic policies. The fact that Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s finance minister, has already confirmed that he will continue in office is a good sign.
More generally, the menace of economic populism across Africa has receded. This may not be down to the discipline provided by elections, but rather that the political elites have gradually learned from failure. In conditions of economic ruin, too few can benefit. Presidents Mobutu of Zaire and Amin of Uganda shared the ignominy not only of being ruinous economic populists, but of so weakening their military power that they were successfully invaded and overthrown by neighbours. And Mugabe only accepted power-sharing in Zimbabwe after hyperinflation had irreversibly eroded his authority. By August 2008, prices were doubling every three days and people switched to dollars and the South African rand. His government had no choice but to legalise this use of foreign currency, and so the game was up for printing money. Similarly, it had run out of assets left to grab, which meant that the charmed circle benefiting from patronage was about to shrivel drastically. At that stage, conceding power-sharing, receiving an aid infusion, and hoping to out-manoeuvre the MDC was Mugabe’s best remaining option against the threat of a coup. Mugabe did not agree to power-sharing because of Mbeki’s coaxing—and the deal was far from Mbeki’s finest hour. Instead, it has provided Mugabe with one last lifeline, while luring the MDC into a deal when it might have been wiser to delay for a further few months.
Elections (when they are fair) have both cyclical and structural effects on the quality of economic policies. The cyclical effects are adverse: during the approach to an election, the sense of economic policies tends to deteriorate. But the structural effects are favourable: electoral accountability clearly tends to improve economic policies. (In fact, despite the relentless criticism of the World Bank from NGOs, who claim to be speaking on behalf of ordinary people, voters appear to want the policies the bank regards as good, such as a prudent fiscal stance. It is the dictators who want the status quo.)
The need for good economic policies in Africa has never been as great. The commodity booms present Africa with its best ever opportunity for positive transformation, but policy choices are critical to whether this opportunity is realised. Living standards could double over the next decade, but they could also stall. In the short run, commodity-exporting countries are bound to gain almost regardless of what governments do. But for this increase to be sustainable, a substantial part of the bonanzas must be invested honestly and efficiently. The dilemna is that while the booms increase the importance of good economic management, they are also liable to worsen the already fraught politics of economic policy.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was Nigerian Finance Minister until 2006, managing the task of reforming a corrupt policy regime. She told me that the current oil boom actually made her job much harder. Easy public revenue won without taxing heavily tends to reduce the pressure for accountability. In the vacuum, powerful competing lobbies attack and undermine the checks and balances set up to defend the public interest. This is not only happening in Nigeria now, it also happened across Africa during the commodity boom of the 1970s.
While the ordinary citizens of the continent can be relied upon to demand decent ethical standards, and to eschew populism, when it comes to complex economic decisions they need to be guided by their leaders. Africa has some potentially good leaders, but wherever the winning techniques are bribery, ballot fraud and intimidation, honest politicians are at an acute disadvantage and it will continue to be misruled.
What happened in Zimbabwe is so grotesque that it may provide the impetus for rapid change, and Jacob Zuma may be the leader who seizes the political moment and forces a more decent standard of conduct for elections across Africa. But if this does happen, the new leaders who emerge need to be up to the difficult task of managing shock-prone economies. This is what Levy Mwanawasa, the president of Zambia who died in August 2008, was indeed trying to do: during his country’s ongoing copper boom he faced up to the difficult but necessary task of renegotiating the excessively lenient terms of sale for copper mines.
The sudden opportunity for economic renewal means that now, more than ever, African societies urgently need the political changes which elsewhere have taken decades. Mugabe and Mbeki have long inhibited change behind the mantra of “African solutions to African problems.” Their time is gone. We should see through such self-serving slogans: the courageous Africans leading this struggle will need, and deserve, our active support.
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