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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.