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close this bookThe Courier N 128 July - August 1991 - Dossier : Human Rights- Democracy-Development Country Reports: Benin, Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
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View the documentHuman rights, democracy and development
View the document‘Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside’
View the documentInterview with Dr. Erskine Simmonds, Vice-President of the ACP-EEC Joint Assembly
View the documentInterview with Henry Saby, Chairman of the Development Committee of the European Parliament
View the documentAmnesty International - The international conscience for 30 years
View the documentThe African Charter on Human and People’s Rights
View the documentBuilding democracy with tribalism
View the documentDemocracy in the English speaking Caribbean
View the documentDemocracy and development
View the documentDevelopment and the African political heritage
View the documentSome thoughts on governance and democratisation
View the documentTransition to democracy is there a model?

Development and the African political heritage

by Stephen McCARTHY

Since the end of the Second World War, most peoples of the world have experienced an improvement in human well being. Economic and social progress has come to be taken for granted. Until ten years ago, the 450 million people of sub-Saharan Africa could have been comfortably accommodated in this generalization. Africa was regarded as the least developed of all the continents, if not necessarily as poor as the Indian sub-continent. But with its plentiful resources, its unexploited geography, and supported by financial and technical assistance from wealthier countries, it was certainly moving in the right direction.

These hopes have all been dashed. Observers now view Africa with deeper and deeper pessimism, socially, economically and politically. The rest of the world appears to be pulling away leaving that vast continent standing at the starting gate and increasingly handicapped by the growing weight of its own problems.

Explanations for sub-Saharan Africa’s performance being so much worse than that of other parts of the world fall into two groups. Some have blamed external circumstances, including the colonial past and the structure of international trade relations; others emphasise internal factors.

African apologists have tended to opt for the external causes. The notion of nation states with precisely fixed geographical boundaries, each theoretically being in equal relationship with all the others, is, they would say, not part of African cultural and historical tradition, with its more organic structures of groups and tribes. The colonial powers’ division of Africa completely ignored such traditions. They used geographical features, rivers and hills and lines of latitude and longitude, to divide a continent. In so doing they disregarded the lessons from their own European history, which showed that what makes a nation is a complex web of common cultural, social and economic interests among people leading to a sense that what they share in common is greater than their regional, tribal or other differences. Without such commonality of interests, genuine representational government would be very hard to achieve.

The costs of nation-building

As a result, although independent Africa adopted the European notion of the nation state and of fixed geographical boundaries, an enormous and economically costly nation-building effort has been required to hold these nations together. These costs initially included the essential trappings of a modern sovereign state - legislatures, government machinery, foreign representation, independent currencies, armies - which the national economies, often no bigger than a European municipality, could ill afford. Later they included the abandonment of political pluralism and the emergence of powerful over-centralised systems of government.

Outsiders are more inclined to argue that the roots of Africa’s problems are largely internal. Many Africans themselves would accept this but without accepting that this is a simple explanation amenable to simple solutions. Poor government is both a cause of underdevelopment and a symptom of it. It is partly caused by the lack of human capital, the weak sense of nationhood discussed above, fluctuating foreign earnings, inappropriate political philosophies and so on. In reality there is a whole web of interrelated factors which combine into inter-locking vicious circles (see Figure 1).

But there are a number of patterns and policies which are found throughout the continent. These have their origins in the historical circumstances leading up to independence, in the prevailing rather socialist and dirigiste ideologies at the time, and in a general opinion, shared by both African governments and their advisers, as to what was necessary to cause and sustain ‘development’.

At the time that most African nations were being created, theorists generally believed that industrialisation was the key to economic development. This was partly based on the view that raw material prices were in long term decline. This implied that the situation of developing countries was getting steadily worse. They were dependent on a limited range of export commodities, which were sold at fluctuating prices on world markets open to distortion by the actions of richer countries.

National planning of capital investment was also essential. In poor countries, capital was self evidently in short supply. And African countries needed a great deal of basic infrastructure. There was no choice but to coordinate such decisions and to plan the allocation of capital at a national level. Much of the resources for investment would have to come from outside the country often through external aid programmes. This again required coordination. Finally, since skilled manpower was short it seemed better to concentrate it in small efficient units operating at the national level.

The highly centralised institutions and structures which were created acquired a momentum and political power of their own which has survived ever since. They were essentially urban, modern sector institutions and were favoured at the expense of the rural agricultural sector where, typically, three quarters or more of the population were still to be found. The urban population insisted on ‘modern standards’ end was able, by virtue of its geographical concentration, to exert far more political pressure on the government than the more dispersed rural dwellers. So urban wages and salary levels rose, prompting in turn an accelerated drift of people to the towns. This happened throughout the continent.

Opportunities for corruption

In fact the urban modern sector turned out to be inefficient and corrupt. With few market constraints on the parastatals, and governments increasingly unrepresentative of the people, the centralised structures became bloated and rich sources of patronage. Centralised regulation of so many aspects of economic life offered many opportunities for corruption.

Higher urban living standards were effectively paid for by greater taxation of the rural sector, often achieved by the monopsonistic marketing boards not paying agricultural smallholders a fair price for their products. Real exchange rates were also allowed to appreciate, thereby shifting the internal terms of trade between the rural sector which provided most of the export earnings, except in the few mineral economies, and the urban sector which consumed most of the imports. Smallholders had little choice but to accept this situation. They could sometimes smuggle exports into a neighbouring country, if the economic environment there was more favourable, and such informal inter-country trade continues on an enormous scale. They could also opt out of the monetary economy and revert to subsistence production. Many rural people appear to have done so especially when national foreign exchange shortages became so acute that basic commodities were simply unavailable in the rural areas.

The political system offered rural dwellers no countervailing political control. Although the majority of African states had been set up with democratic constitutions on European lines, in few cases did the democratic element survive more than a few years.

A number of forces contributed to this constitutional disintegration. Traditional structures had not necessarily been undemocratic. But the idea, which is important in a western democracy, of a ‘loyal opposition), loyal to the state and the constitution but not to the government in power, was not easily grafted onto this tradition. Further, as noted earlier, the new African nations were usually artificial creations bearing little relation to previous African geo-political structures, with their intermingling and sometimes interdependent tribal groups. As a result, in most countries government and opposition parties quickly divided along tribal or regional lines. Those who genuinely wanted to promote the new nation state, and no doubt many did, did not see how this could be achieved when the political parties merely seemed to legitimise old traditional and tribal differences. Thus the one party state emerged, attempting to internalise and balance these ancient political forces within a single structure. With a few exceptions, pluralist democracy was discarded on the continent.

Vicious circles

Checks and balances undermined

In most countries the process rapidly went further. Either the single political party became the personal fief of a dictatorial President who then changed or corrupted the constitution to ensure his own survival, or the military took over. Moreover, once the basic checks and balances of the original constitution were undermined other safeguards quickly fell away. Human rights were eroded, freedom of speech was abandoned and political dissenters were imprisoned. Legislative assemblies became rubber-stamping bodies. Judiciaries lost their independence and stopped dispensing justice - at least where affairs of state were concerned.

Meanwhile the traditional rural leaders had either been emasculated in the new national order or had been absorbed into its elite. The generally low standards of rural literacy and education combined with poor internal communications made it difficult for new rural leaders to emerge. The exclusion of the rural poor from the political and economic mainstream - except in so far as they can continue to be induced to grow export crops - has meant that few resources have been allocated to human development of a basic kind - literacy, primary education, preventive and basic medical care, and nutrition. In the long term this perpetuates the low skill level in the population and more indirectly the high population growth rate.

In short, the human dimension affects the economic outlook for Africa in a number of ways. First, the population explosion makes it necessary, like Alice, to run in order just to stay in the same place. Second, the low level of skill and relatively poor health of African people limits their productivity, their income and thus the rate of growth of the economy as a whole. This in turn means that fewer resources are available for improving health or educational standards. Finally, an ill educated population has been more easily manipulated by small groups seeking power for themselves and effectively further denying resources for the rural poor.

The African political establishment has been traumatised by recent calls for political change. Throughout the continent there has been an upswell of popular discontent, with demands for the abandonment of the one party state, the holding of free elections and the restoration of basic human rights and freedoms.

Politicians have responded in different ways. Those with least to fear appear to have acquiesced and agreed to constitutional reform and free elections. Others have set themselves against change, making as few concessions as they can. They may succeed in digging in for a while without making any political adjustment. But they will be more politically isolated, both domestically and internationally, than hitherto.

Raised expectations

Although one cannot see the outcome of these events, something fundamental has clearly changed. Expectations have suddenly been raised, or expressed, and it will not be easy to put the genie back in the bottle. The calls for reform certainly go beyond just multi-party elections, indeed it may prove inappropriate simply to go back to Westminster style democracy. There will also be demands to reform the judicial system, abandon imprisonment without trial, restore freedom of speech and so on.

A pattern for peaceful political change, albeit perhaps utopian, might be on the following lines. The centre, whose importance has often been reinforced by inflows of external aid, would weaken. Power would flow more to small groups and intra-country regions whose natural influence and historical importance has been suppressed for a long time. Such groups and localities are likely to draw strength from their own traditions. The overlay of western institutions and values might begin to be discarded and replaced by increasingly confident African solutions for African problems, not necessarily less representative than what went before.

The earlier analysis suggested that decentralisation of power and democratic advancement in some form or another can be expected to encourage economic and social progress over the medium term. A return to a more organic local and tribal political structure should encourage local economic decision making, more likely to reflect the needs and interests of rural people.

There are indeed signs and hints that rural communities and economies are much more alive than unreliable and incomplete African statistics would suggest. People may not yet have found technical, social or economic solutions to the problems which confront them each day, but they are undoubtedly more aware of the outside world and more open to external influences than they would have been even a generation ago. These then are reasons for optimism, even though political paralysis may, in the short term, slow the pace of economic reform.

The alternative to peaceful political change and economic reform is much more sombre. Civil war, such as has now been continuing in the Horn of Africa for many years, but can also be found on a smaller scale throughout the continent, may lead to national disintegration in a number of countries followed by economic and political anarchy.

So far as the rest of the world is concerned, the failure of aid to raise living standards is widely, if still quietly, acknowledged. Western countries, particularly European ones, will view present developments in Africa with some trepidation. The continent, having once been brought into the ambit of the global economy and polity, initially through colonisation, cannot now simply be ignored.

S. M.