|The Courier N° 134 - July - Aug 1992 - Dossier A fresh look at Africa? - Country Reports Grenada- Seychelles (EC Courier, 1992, 104 p.)|
|Dossier: A fresh look at Africa?|
by Sven KUHN VON BURGSDORFF
Models of democratic government based on 'good governance' and 'multiparty systems ' do not necessarily provide an appropriate conceptual framework for sub-Saharan African societies. This is the thesis put forward by the author of the following article. From an analysis of the present international environment prevailing socio-cultural values, the traditional socio-political set-up and the respective colonial histories of African societies, he goes on to suggest an alternative model based on 'consociational democracy'.
The end of the East-West conflict and the sudden breakdown of the socialist experiment in Eastern Europe came as a complete surprise to most foreign policy experts, including those involved in development politics. The wind of change has since been felt in Africa as well, with the legitimacy of autocratic rule and the effectiveness of state-controlled national economies being brought into question.
Most observers agree that in a competitive international economic system, and given the existence of global communications networks which require a high degree of mobility and adaptive capacity, authoritarian rule does not offer an appropriate political solution to the problem of economic underdevelopment. Authoritarian and highly centralised political power structures are not able to cope with sophisticated economic production systems which demand an ability to respond to market trends. Indeed imagination, flexibility and private initiative, which are the keys to success in a competitive international economy, can hardly thrive in a repressive atmosphere and one must have a supportive legal, administrative and political framework to stimulate dynamic private entrepreneurship at the domestic level.
The question as to which version of political democracy is appropriate to a particular country clearly depends on a number of factors, both exogenous and endogenous. Yet this is something which seems to have been neglected in the current debate on democracy in Africa. The topics currently under discussion seem to centre on two areas, namely 'good governance' and 'a multi-party system'. While the demand for good governance is essentially concerned with respect for civil rights, political accountability and public transparency, advocates of multi-party systems also point out the comparative advantages of so called 'open societies' in which independent political parties compete for national government.
Both aspects are biased, however, in that they refer to concepts which were of vital importance in making democracy work in Western Europe and North America. As such, they do not necessarily provide an appropriate conceptual framework for the particular situation of sub-Saharan societies. Too much emphasis, for example, is placed on the notion of a functioning 'state' or 'nation state' and very little consideration is given to concepts of community development.
Recent trends in international development cooperation
International support to Third World governments opting for an authoritarian and non-participatory approach to development is subject to increasingly overt criticism in industrialised societies. A general disbelief in the 'development mindedness' of ruling classes in developing countries and the call for the stimulation of private-sector initiatives are but the most prominent arguments indicating a certain shift in international development politics. The fiction of a strong state and firm government, which has been promoted by its supporters in the industrialised world to guarantee both external and internal stability, is increasingly being questioned.
In the first instance, a number of the ruling elites in developing countries are - rightly or wrongly - accused of being corrupt and inefficient. This allows some to conclude that the main responsibility for the apparent failure of world-wide development assistance efforts to alleviate poverty rests with developing country governments themselves.
Secondly, countries in the Southern hemisphere, and especially in Africa, are becoming less and less important to the industrialised world. This trend not only holds true for international trade, where the speed of technological change enables industrialised societies to find substitutes for many raw materials and products coming from developing countries, but also for international politics. In an era where the East-West conflict no longer has a central role in structuring international relations and in defining geopolitical spheres of interest, the international significance of developing country governments is inevitably diminished.
The changing international environment contains promising potential for the elaboration of a new set of strategies governing the relationship between donor and recipient countries. As commercial and geopolitical considerations become less important, development oriented donor governments are likely to be more flexible. Consequently, the role of the government of the recipient country needs to be redefined. In the short run, the focus will still be on poverty relief and the satisfaction of basic needs, but in the longer term it will be centred on institution-building, strengthening of private sector operators, decentralisation of the public sector and promotion of self-help activities.
Socio-political complexity of African societies
Research on the various factors underlying economic development indicates that, as regards such matters as class structure and political organisation, most sub-Saharan societies were traditionally characterised by a relatively low level of socio-cultural complexity. Consequently, the processes leading to political centralisation and the establishment of social hierarchies were very slow-moving in precolonial times, as compared, for example, to East Asian societies.
With independence in the 1950s and 1960s, the socio-political complexity of most African societies did not correspond to the size of the states which had been established, in terms either of space or of population. In other words, most African states were and still are 'too big' in relation to the traditional socio-political development level of their respective dominant ethnic groups.
This conclusion can be explained by reference to two principal factors. The first is Africa's agrarian tradition. Nomadic cattle-rearing and shifting cultivation, which were the two essential elements of agricultural production, suggest that in the pre-colonial period the African continent provided sufficient space for its people. The political evolution of the continent appears to have been influenced by this circumstance. The sophisticated administrative systems and strongly hierarchical political structures which are characteristic of state organisations barely evolved, since the struggle for economic resources or geo-strategic locations did not usually end with one ethnic group dominating the others. Africa was quite simply big enough to permit the 'losers' to go somewhere else. As a result, most African groups were not compelled to live together in clearly defined territorial zones, which would have facilitated, if not necessitated, the emergence of more complex systems akin to states.
Colonialism and ethnicity
The second reason can be traced back to colonial rule, during the course of which national boundaries were drawn without taking into account historical local spheres of influence and existing regional and ethnic relationships. The majority of the state structures which emerged under colonial rule had no traditional roots. When independence was granted, most of these artificially built African nations became subject to authoritarian rule. Given the fact that no conflict-solving mechanisms existed at national level, the struggle for dominance by regional or community-based ethnic group leaders could only finally be resolved by the use of force.
The pattern which usually emerged was that of a powerful, ethnically homogenous interest group dominating the national government and controlling the vital productive and financial sectors of the national economy.
Once the issue was decided in favour of one interest group, the regimes in question adhered to strict authoritarian rule. This was regarded by the national elite as the most effective way of ensuring the accumulation of wealth and the maintenance of social status. In recent years, as one commentator puts it, 'intensified insecurity and conflict over dwindling resources have heightened the need to band together with people one can trust. State resources thus became fair game for ethnic groups and extended families to build their own basis of support, through patronage and, sometimes, through outright graft'.
Clearly, the interests of local and ethnic communities took precedence over whatever the government might declare as national goals. Consequently, it would not be inaccurate to state that neither colonial rule nor the national governments which followed succeeded in developing a new national identity that could transcend ethnicity and the traditional decision-making system. This means that concepts advocating, for instance, Western-style multi-party systems based on the assumption of effective national governments and functioning nation-states are likely to fail in African societies.
What conclusions can be drawn from this analysis in the search for an African path to democracy ? In the first place, it is not the illusion of the nation state which deserves foremost attention. The new focus needs to be placed on the region or the community-in other words, the geographic zone populated by a distinct group of people sharing the same sociocultural values, similar types of economic production and subsistence and adherence to a traditionally embedded system of political self-organisation.
The challenge, therefore, is to promote traditional community structures, private-sector operators and self-help organisations while at the same time strengthening the state in terms of its vital functions such as lawmaking, macroeconomic policy and coordination of sub-systems (such as traffic systems).
As an alternative to the dogmatic proclamation of a multi-party system, there is a different path to democracy available for sub-Saharan Africa which is based on what Canadian political scientists Almond and Verba called the 'consociational democracy' concept. This term applies to a constitutional structure which is canton-based, as in present-day Switzerland. Although it is a concept which has not yet been tried in an African context, this federalist, 'grassroots' approach seems to correspond well to societies characterised by distinct ethnic cleavages and a fragmented socio-economic structure (ie modern versus traditional values, or the formal sector versus the informal one).
The consociational democracy model is based on two important principles. First, a specific ethnic group enjoys maximum autonomy with respect to its day-to-day affairs - administration, management of core services etc. The direct political responsibility of the people living in one distinct region is confined to that particular area. Secondly, as regards representation at the federal (ie national) level, each ethnic group elects its own delegates or representatives. Matters of nationwide concern are decided at the federal level by the community delegates who make up, so to speak, the national government. However, it is important to emphasise that the community representatives depend directly on and are specifically answerable to their respective electorates. It is this type of direct representation which is needed to ensure political accountability and transparency vis-a-vis the grassroots.
This model not only enhances the communities' ability to run their own affairs; its also minimises the risk of interethnic conflicts as each group is in charge of its own political, cultural and economic spheres. Put differently, there is very little horizontal communication between different ethnic groups at the grassroots level, while much emphasis is placed on smooth and effective communication along vertical lines-between the people and their political appointees.
At the federal level, a relationship of trust and mutual understanding and a cooperative working atmosphere are essential if consensus is to be achieved on questions of national significance. Ethnological studies show that in traditional African societies people tend to seek unanimity in legal as well as in political matters and to maintain social harmony and mutual understanding. If this precondition proves to be an unrealistic assumption-in other words, if the political leaders of the country are unwilling to cooperate-then not only will consociational democracy fail, but so too will any other system which might be devised.
To sum up, it can be said that, given the characteristics of most sub-Saharan societies, a consociational democracy model would seem to provide an appropriate framework for democratic development. It is a concept which is more likely to exploit the traditional socio-cultural potential of African communities.
Unlike previous attempts to introduce democratic systems in Africa, whether of the 'Westminister' variety or the highly centralised French system, consociational democracy does not need to be forced on existing socio-cultural structures. It is not a matter of 'modernisation' or 'acculturation' but rather of revitalisation and the mobilisation of long neglected traditional community life, adjusted in the context of today's demands for political stability and accountability.
Lessons for donors
As far as African societies are concerned, accountability of public 'actors' and transparency of public deeds could be more effectively achieved through a consociational set-up since more emphasis is placed on the notion of the community as the focal point of political, economic and social development.
What could the donor countries do to support a process of democratisation based on this model? First of all, they need to understand the politics of reform in African societies. Since the current political arrangements generally suit those in power, the remedy lies in balancing the existing political pressures, the overall goal being to include both the poor and the disfavoured in political and economic activities. In this context, a number of important aspects need to be taken into account if the policy dialogue and concrete project assistance are to succeed. Support for political reforms needs to be secured by making people aware of their common interests. This can be done by using alliances between the rich and the poor, by recruiting the support of influential interest groups and by encouraging public information.
Secondly, donors could provide technical assistance in key areas, especially institution building at the community level, thereby directing support to both local governmental and non-governmental organisations. There should be a particular focus on the promotion of selfhelp activities.
Furthermore, technical assistance is needed, among other things, to help establish decentralised political and administrative structures, to introduce an independent public information system (free press etc), to set up a system of public auditing and control and to provide legal advice on the creation of independent judicial bodies.
Looking at these tasks, the conclusion for donors who support the concept of consociational democracy is that they should be engaged in more decentralised cooperation. This type of cooperation, which figures pronainently in Lomé IV, has yet to be properly elaborated and introduced into the relationships between donor and recipient countries. Thus, the future of democratisation in Africa is inextricably linked to a transformation in the prevailing structure of international development cooperation. S. KvB