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close this bookThe Courier N 138 - March - April 1993 Dossier: Africa's New Democracies - Country Reports : Jamaica - Zambia (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
close this folderDossier: Africa's new democracies
View the documentAfrica's new democracies
View the documentThe patterns of transition to democracy
View the documentAfrica in search of institutional revival
View the documentThe future for the new democratic regimes
View the documentApplying the solutions of the 21st century to 10th century problems
View the documentDemocracy and structural adjustment in Africa
View the documentCommunity support for setting up and strengthening democracies
View the documentAutopsy of a Transition
View the documentA society full of tensions
View the documentA survival economy

The future for the new democratic regimes

by Peter GAKUNU

Today, in most African countries, there is increasing interest in the establishment of democratic regimes. There is a growing consensus that political leaders should be made accountable to the electorate. There is growing pressure to introduce democracy and restore human rights. In most African countries, autocratic governments have been forced to accept the idea that they should be seen to be safeguarding basic human rights and they are, therefore, releasing political prisoners, liberalising controls on the media, allowing for the establishment of opposition parties, organising and holding elections, tackling corruption and so on.

This rapid shift from autocratic to democratic thinking in the continent raises a number of questions. For example, what future is there for the new democratic regimes in Africa? Are the changes real and sustainable or are they simply another way of ensuring that desperate political leaders continue to cling to power?

The democratic banner in Africa is being raised by the common man, who is protesting and demanding political change, as well as by the press and other groups, including foreign governments, who are advocating good governance and improved government accountability in managing the resources of the country. The African people have shown their willingness to fight for democratic change; many have been tortured and even killed in the process. African rulers are converting to multi-party democracy and fair elections because they are under pressure from their own populations and face the threat that external interest groups and foreign governments will deny them financial and other assistance.

After independence, many African governments continued the autocratic rule which they had inherited from their colonial masters. This was necessary to preserve the nation. Independence and self-determination had, in most cases, to be fought for and won. The new governments, composed in large part of persons incarcerated during the colonial period and, therefore, with no experience in government, were left to fend for themselves as best they could. The new leaders had to concoct ways to hold their states together and thereby remain in power: they declared their party the sole legal political party in the country and either co-opted or banned opposition groups. They arrested and detained their opponents without trial for protracted periods. The new governments took over or disbanded associations that had operated independently. The parliament was relegated to rubber-stamping presidential decrees and cabinet decisions. Cabinet appointments were based on an individual's obsequiousness to the ruling party and its president. The independence of the judiciary was often compromised. The government nationalised the media as a means of enhancing its propaganda and controlling information that was disseminated to the public. Once political power was centralised, economic power became concentrated in the hands of a few ministers, friends and relatives of the president. Africa's autocrats exercised absolute power and ruled by patronage and repression. The concentration of political and economic power provided them with resources (government appointments, lucrative contracts, import and export licenses, detention, imprisonment, forced exile, assassination, harassment, etc.) either to buy supporters or to silence opponents. The armed forces, the police and the rest of the law enforcement apparatus were blended into the ruling party's machinery and were used ruthlessly to crush any dissent.

Government bureaucracies grew incompetent and spawned massive corruption and inefficiency. The productive sector was sacrificed, the education system undermined and the emerging middle class forced into exile in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Foreign governments and investors, realising that the only way they could participate in the economic activity of the country was by having access to those associated with people in power, encouraged and courted the autocrats.

Because political and economic power was concentrated in the hands of a few, foreign governments shied away from their responsibility of ensuring that resources given or lent to these countries were properly utilised. Foreign firms, concerned with protecting their business interests, offered bribes and other kickbacks to the ruling elite. Consequently, these autocratic regimes, realising that they wielded absolute power, legitimised their corrupt practices.

Economic activity either ceased or reverted to the parallel market for quick returns. Economic stagnation at home and a collapse in export prices led to an acute shortage of foreign exchange. Foreign governments and interested groups, realising the depressing effects that the policies pursued by these regimes were having on the people, began to demand minimum safeguards on the utilisation of the financial assistance given. The Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) imposed stabilisation and structural adjustment conditions on most African governments, requiring them to dismantle state-owned enterprises and rationalise government expenditure, forcing them in the process to acknowledge their past mistakes.

As the economic situation of these countries worsened, public discontent mounted. A shortage of government revenue undermined the ability of the regimes to buy support through patronage. Problems of governance and political instability came to the fore. The legitimacy of the 'African dictator' was profoundly undermined.

Perhaps the most dramatic influence for the wind of change now blowing across the African continent has been the realisation that it was 'people pressure' which brought about political change, even in the face of repressive authoritarian regimes, in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Also, the realisation that rulers who had used the army or internal security apparatus violently to repress pressures for political reform had spurred more determined opposition, which had led to their own downfall, may have influenced African autocrats to agree to change.

Entrenched autocrats are struggling to maintain their untenable positions in the face of very stiff domestic and external pressure for change. Opposition groups, even though extremely divided, have considerable support. Popular demand for change has been fuelled by continued economic stagnation and decline, by the failure of government to reverse the situation, and by its failure to accede to the demands of the people for greater accountability.

Like most of their predecessors, the new political parties have formed around an individual, often a former leader who might have fallen from grace with the ruling party. Most of these parties have emerged along ethnic lines and are united only by their determined opposition to the poor record of the ruling party. They are, in most cases, weak because they have no access to the existing media, which are controlled by the ruling party. They are poor because they have no access to government funding and, therefore, depend solely on unpaid volunteers. They are inexperienced in politics, lacking grassroots organisation and leadership-a reflection of the fact that they were banned until very recently.

Interest groups are quite new, without experience or influence. A free and experienced press is also lacking since it had either been nationalised or banned altogether, or because the investment, both human and financial, necessary for setting up viable media organisations can only be undertaken with assistance from the government. An independent judiciary and an effective legislature and civil service will also need to be developed and strengthened. Under autocratic rule, these institutions only served the ruling party. One of the difficulties that has to be resolved now that the democratic process has been established is to define a role for the opposition in parliament and for the existing administration and civil service. A further difficulty is the absence of a political culture tolerant of an effective democracy.

Many of the preconditions necessary for an effective democracy, including widespread literacy, a high level of per capita income, a sizable middle class, a vibrant and organised civil society, strong independent public institutions, nationally-based political parties with viable programmes and a political culture of tolerance, debate and compromise, are lacking in Africa today. Since these conditions are not in place, what is the future for the new democratic regimes?

In cases where fair elections have been allowed to take place, with one of the parties winning a respectable majority and a viable, albeit inexperienced, opposition, it can be reasonably argued that the necessary conditions for stabilising democracy exist. Political institutions should grow in experience and strength. In the African context, a number of countries have just one ethnic grouping but a large number of others comprise a multitude of ethnic groups with different languages and traditions. In a situation where the opposition wins, the sustainability of democracy depends on the quality of political leadership and on the relationship forged with the main grouping that volunteered their support. In this case, political institutions should grow in strength and experience as the new parties are allowed to expand their grassroots membership and the media are allowed to play a more neutral role. The success of the regimes in these scenarios, however, will depend on their ability to develop and present economic programmes acceptable to the electorate and to external financial donors.

Where governments continue to resist reform, domestic and external pressure for change is likely to persist and remain strong.

New democracies in Africa, arising either from old alliances or from newer ones, should avoid confrontation with their supporters. Failure to do so could undermine the foundation on which their coalition is based and thereby result in an entrenchment of old dictators or in their replacement with new autocrats. In other cases, a confrontational approach could result in a proliferation of political parties and render the government totally ineffective.

In recent years, governments of developed countries have decided that aid should be given only in cases where the local regimes have demonstrated good governance, a good record in upholding the protection of basic human rights, improved accountability in managing national resources and greater tolerance of the opposition as well as having embarked upon democratic reforms. The emergence of opposition political parties in Africa and the change towards more tolerant and democratic regimes have come about because western governments have given the impression that once African governments had successfully embarked upon such reforms, restoring basic human rights and undertaking structural reforms, financial and technical assistance previously withheld would start to flow again. Most African governments have, therefore, either been forced, or have willingly agreed, to embark upon the path of democratic change because they expected that they would be generously rewarded or at least compensated for their efforts towards sustained democratic reforms.

Western governments and aid donors in general, including even non-governmental organisations, have tended to use aid as a sword of Damocles, to coerce recalcitrant African governments into introducing political, social and economic change. The impression was created that once democracy and human rights were seen to have been established, there would immediately follow a greater flow of financial resources and an alleviation of the debt burden. It was also supposed that, with democratic reforms, African countries would be transformed overnight. Corruption would be eliminated, and these countries would immediately become magnets, attracting foreign assistance and investment.

Regrettably, the advent of democratic regimes in Africa, while ushering in greater accountability by government, has not been accompanied by increased government revenues, either from in creased foreign assistance or from improved domestic savings. The African peoples, having fought for democratic change, are now called upon again to pay, at times with their lives, as many of them are now faced with natural calamities and human suffering at unprecedented levels.

Faced with growing unpopularity during the transitional period leading to democratic rule, governments have failed to maintain the rule of law. Indeed, in some cases, they fomented social and political unrest, either to avoid further unpopularity or because they felt that this would be one of the ways in which to undermine the credibility and popularity of the opposition. Most African governments, in their zeal to buy political support, overprinted money without the authorisation of the central banks, contrary to defined monetary and fiscal policies and in direct contradiction with existing structural adjustment programmes agreed to with donor institutions and governments. Available resources were diverted away from genuine needs such as health care and education, export support and promotion and from other productive activities of the economy to buying political patronage and blackmailing opposition groups.

During this period of uncertainty, when African autocrats were not sure of their future, a lot of damage was done to the economic and social structures in most countries undergoing democratic change and this has been inherited by the new democratic regimes. In cases where the process of democratic reform took a long time, the damage to the economy and. therefore, to the welfare of the people has been considerable. In short, the economic and social development of these countries has been set back by several decades. In the meantime, foreign investment, both from governments and from other institutions, including private investment, has dried up or remains frozen. Thus, it is now at levels well below those that prevailed during autocratic rule and during the transitional period, and it shows no signs of improving in the foreseeable future. Earnings from commodities, the major source of foreign exchange for most African countries, are at their lowest ever levels as commodity prices plummet and remain depressed. Efforts to renegotiate commodity agreements to boost prices have been frustrated by the reluctance of the governments of developed countries to accept agreements with economic clauses. The problems of indebtedness continue to haunt the new regimes. More conditions are being attached to aid, while stringent and unpopular structural adjustment programmes remain fully in force. Economic and social ruin arising from mismanagement by autocratic regimes thrown out by 'people power' through the ballot box has now become the responsibility of the newly elected democratic regimes.

The new governments, faced with this cruel dilemma and constrained by the inadequacy of resources at their disposal, have now become as unpopular as their predecessors. The success of democracy in Africa will, therefore, depend in large measure on international developments and on the ability of the new democracies to keep the promises that they have made to their electorates. Advocates of democratic reform in Africa (western governments, international financial institutions and pressure groups) must ensure that these fledgling democracies are successful so that they can be cited as examples worthy of emulation for other countries intending to embark on democratic reform. Otherwise, Africa will witness a return, either to autocratic, repressive and corrupt regimes or to military rule. However, to the extent that democracy has brought greater awareness about the rights of the individual and assuming continued external support for change, democratic regimes will survive. P.G.