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The time has come for democratic Africa

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Victor Hugo’s famous dictum was applied to American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s thesis in early 1989, as pro-democracy movements faced down authoritarian regimes across the world, that history had come to an end.

His argument, spelled out in the National Interest journal, was simple: the left had got it wrong. “History” was not moving inexorably towards a Marxist future, but instead seemed to culminate (“end”) in Western-style liberal democracy: market economies, individual rights, elected governments.

For Africans, it didn’t feel like the end of history. South Africa was still in the grip of apartheid. Only five African countries had held competitive elections in the previous 10 years. Few of the continent’s economies were open for business.

Things changed forever in November 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall appeared to settle the ideological differences that had divided the world for half a century. The superpowers’ proxy wars, which had devastated parts of Africa, came to an end. Some of its worst despots lost their patrons overnight.

Over the next decade, 40 African countries would hold multiparty elections. Many of them would implement economic reforms pushed by the World Bank. Africa would eventually become the fastest-growing region in the world, economically speaking, on the back of high commodity prices, cheap Chinese loans and improved macro-economic management. Progress towards greater capitalism and democracy seemed assured.

Yet 25 years after those seismic events in Berlin, challenges to Fukuyama’s thesis abound. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is increasingly autocratic. Parts of the Middle East are threatened by a militia that believes democracy is for infidels.

Democracy is not under threat in Europe or the United States, but those places’ corrosive politics and wilting dynamism have made them less worthy of emulation.

China’s consistently high growth rates and huge reductions in poverty have enhanced the lure of the “China model”, which mixes authoritarianism with a partially market-based economy.

The recent election of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India suggests another competing paradigm – that of the “development autocrat”. Promoting the idea of “legitimacy through performance”, as made popular in Singapore, Modi ran his home state of Gujarat as a strong-man but also attracted huge amounts of foreign investment and improved its economic indicators.

The two African countries that challenge theories linking development gains to political and civil liberties are Rwanda and Ethiopia. Lauded for their high growth rates and for building their economies without oil or minerals, they maintain centralised systems of rule.

All this leads one to ask: Did Fukuyama get it wrong?

The more you pan out from current crises the more likely your answer will be “no”. Much as the rise of authoritarianism concerns us, it’s worth recalling that a generation ago outright dictatorships were the norm in most of the world. Democratisation is a multigenerational process marked by periods of violence and reversals.

Western governments often decry the slow pace of reforms in developing countries, forgetting their own tortuous pasts. The US nearly tore itself apart almost a century after its founders signed the Declaration of Independence. There was nothing inevitable about American democracy.

Economically, the basic tenets of free markets and competition may have been dented by the global financial crisis, but they are no longer seriously contested. With the exception of North Korea, the world’s few remaining communist countries participate in global commerce and trade much like any other state.

As for alternative development paths, the China model cannot be replicated in any meaningful sense in Africa or elsewhere. The factors that made it successful in China – a combination of adroit leaders, social and political traditions, and sheer demographics – are largely unique to China.

It remains to be seen whether the success of state-led development models in Rwanda and Ethiopia can be sustained. The unspoken assumption of both administrations is that their respective political cultures – still rooted in winner-take-all mentalities – are too immature to cope with the messy compromises intrinsic to democracy. Economically, some of their policies (such as the Ethiopian government’s monopoly on telecoms, the continent’s biggest) will clearly impede future economic growth. In most of Africa there is broad acceptance of free-market principles; socialism is deeply discredited. Yet many leaders still can’t quite call themselves capitalist or champion the role of the private sector in their economies. Capitalism is too freighted with baggage from colonial times. Governments struggle to explain what they are doing. Some, like South Africa’s, just pretend to fight over ideology.

Africa’s authoritarian states lurched into democratisation after 1989, improvising and experimenting, but the basic trajectory is clear. Halting progress is evident across most key indicators, such as rule of law and freedom of the press. Even the few remaining tyrants seek popular legitimacy through multiparty elections.

None of this is to suggest that democracy in Africa can be taken for granted. Africa has many rough neighbourhoods, which incubate different kinds of insecurity (terrorism, transnational crime).

In several states, democracy has also been undermined, somewhat ironically, by elections. Many leaders have found ways to fiddle the system and stay in power. But it’s notable that more and more incumbents are being voted out of office.

More worrying is what happens in between elections. The movement to full democracy in Africa occurs in the context of weak leaders and weak states. Governance is not improving fast enough. Unless principles of accountability and transparency can be enforced, corruption will continue to hobble Africa’s economies.

A poll by Afrobarometer earlier this year revealed that nearly three-quarters of Africans surveyed expressed “commitment to democracy”. Yet an increasingly assertive constituency is questioning why recent gains in the gross domestic product have not translated into greater prosperity for those stuck in crushing poverty – still the vast majority of Africans.

Democracy, in their eyes, has not only failed to deliver more jobs and better services, it has also exacerbated inequality.

Fukuyama did not claim that all societies would eventually evolve into democracies. His theory was never meant to be deterministic: he recognised that turning aspiration into reality could prove immensely difficult.

Africa is passing from the triumphalist phase of democracy to consolidation. Recurrent bouts of pessimism and weariness will need to be overcome as the complex processes – broadening the tax base, building social capital – that help democracies to establish themselves play out.

One of the starkest failings of post-colonial African governments has been their insularity. Africa’s challenges should be understood in the context of universal norms and practices, not as inimitable problems. Not so long ago, many Asian and Latin American countries found themselves at a stage and under circumstances very similar to much of Africa today.

Whether devising industrial policy or trying to achieve equity through growth, Africa does not have to reinvent the wheel: a lot can be learnt from others. And not just from outside Africa. Despite their less palatable sides, Rwanda and Ethiopia illustrate the benefits of having a strong development plan and the discipline to see it through.

One of the inherent strengths of democratic systems is their flexibility and pragmatism. You can borrow good ideas and tailor them to your requirements. Fukuyama recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he understands better now than he did in 1989 that states’ public institutions can look very different from each other and yet work well in their particular context and for their specific stage of development. The Western model in its entirety will not be right for everyone.

Debates over ideology, insofar as they still exist in Africa, are anachronistic. Everyone agrees that aid is no longer a panacea, that regional integration needs to be promoted, that investing in education and skills is essential. What matters are policies and institutions that work.

If the basic ideas of liberal democracy are broadly accepted, as I think they are, then perhaps the only ideology still worth talking about in Africa is the ideology of urgency. It was present in East Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and in parts of Latin America more recently. It is a sense that your turn might only come around once, so the window of opportunity must be seized. It is summed up in maxims such as “export or die”, applied to South Korea’s economic miracle.

The commodity boom will end soon. For most African states, the time to prepare for the coming youth bulge is dwindling fast.

Yet, despite concerns about infrastructure and productivity, high growth rates over many years have inculcated in many African governments a sense of self-satisfaction rather than urgency.

If this does not change, we will look back on “Africa rising” as another false dawn.

When the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago this week, signalling the end of the Cold War, corruption and cronyism were pervasive features of African societies. That they remain so today cautions against getting carried away by enthusiasm for Africa’s democratisation. The task at hand is immense.

Yet, for all the perceived failures of democracy to deliver better institutions and more inclusive economic growth, most Africans still believe it is an idea whose time has come.

Dr Terence McNamee is the deputy director of the Brenthurst Foundation

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