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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

Africa in search of institutional revival

by Frans VAN HOEK

From the independence period in the early 1960s until the mid-1970s, the practicians and theorists of development swore by the theories, models and concepts of central planning and strong, centralised systems of government. Africa is still feeling the disastrous consequences of this blind application of ideas borrowed wholesale from other parts of the world with no concern for the specific realities of the continent itself.

Then, in the late 1970s, came the invasion of structural adjustment, with particular emphasis on reducing State involvement, political and economic liberation reigning supreme and the sacrosanct market economy set up, in the light of the principle of its comparative advantages. And with this movement, which was inspired by external forces in many cases, African politicians and theoreticians woke up to the fact that developing the continent meant completely changing domestic policies and structures to place the emphasis on democracy, good governance and participatory development.

So, internal and external factors set the scene for the sudden awakening of pressure for democracy in Africa today, with a mainly urban population anxious for a new political order. There has been a severe attack on the authoritarian regimes which took over most of the African countries with their single party systems and always attracted strong support at home and abroad by appearing as the means of overcoming ethnic and religious divisions and building up the nation. The present call for a complete overhaul of the organisation of the State and its relations with society can only be applauded by all those concerned with development. No country can achieve lasting development unless it has law and order, responsible, accountable leaders, room for the people to capitalise on their skills and express themselves freely and the right institutions, and strong ones too.

The importance of this last condition, one often lost sight of in the past, was brought home by Jacques Attali, Head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, recently, when he said that 'a democracy without institutions is anarchy and a market economy without institutions is a Mafia'. He was probably talking about the situation in Eastern Europe, of course, but, all things being equal, the golden rule applies to Africa today too. It is now clear that Africa has to have a new political, economic, social and institutional framework to manage its development process, but how should it go about obtaining it? Practical indications as to how to create a new institutional framework that will be efficient in the context of Africa are seriously wanting, although the pitfall of transplanting the principles and institutions of western democracy has always to be avoided. The past provides ample proof that grafts of this sort are not terribly efficient and more likely to be actively rejected as foreign bodies. But it is frightening to see just how little resistance the Africans put up to the idea of importing western models of democracy, constitutions and electoral procedures. So the present process of democratisation must be put back into the context of everything the African heritage has to offer with an attempt to strike a proper balance of tradition and modernity and native culture and foreign experience to shape genuinely African systems in which the people can influence the political life of the nation and the region.

It is as well to beware of the current tendency to assimilate multi-party systems and democracy found among many of Africa's opposition parties and in the foreign agencies which are pressing the countries for reforms. Multiparty systems and competitive elections are neither a democratic panacea nor adequate guarantee of public affairs being run properly. An instrument as limited as the multiparty system is not enough to ensure a healthy political and democratic life. It is worth remembering that 'the single party system is not dead. It has merely multiplied', as one African commentator said recently. Rivalry and even violence between the members of different parties are already a feature of the new African 'democracies'. It is difficult to see how this can contribute to the vital development of the majority of a population which is now more concerned with having less repression, less arbitrariness and better basic services such as education, health and access to credit than with knowing that party X, Y or Z is in power in the capital.

Rearguard fighting is common, as are attempts by the elite (and their potential successors, who are not necessarily a new generation of politicians) to impose the whole process of democratisation and reform or at least control it from above. This of course does nothing to help arouse or increase the interest of a large part of the population in public affairs and there is a risk of seeing democracy operate under a flag of convenience, with the African governments going through the motions of bowing to pro-democratic pressure at home and abroad, but failing to make the fundamental change to the rules of the game which is vital if they are to achieve a democratisation of conviction.

This, given the complications of managing the process of transition, will take time to achieve. Three decades of authoritarian regimes have created a gulf between State and society and there is no point in thinking that a great national conference or the legalisation of opposition parties will close it overnight. Developing what Olusegun Obasanjo calls a culture of democracy means? first and foremost, changing the outlook of both governments and governed and ensuring that everyone fully accepts the new rules of the game.

So when an author such as Etounga-Manguelle defends the idea that what Africa needs most for lasting democratisation is cultural adjustment, he is serious. The proof that the new institutional structures are efficient will only come when the people involved-and that includes women, young people, the rural population and the armed forces - manage to agree on the new roles of State and society and each is in a position to perform the new functions to the full, which means putting priority on literacy schemes and education at all levels. It means teaching the new political leaders to perceive the State's and their own jobs differently. It means teaching civil servants to relearn the basic principles of State management and having a civil service that actually serves the people. And it means teaching the non-governmental operators to organise themselves better, to stop looking upon the State as an enemy and to see it as a partner in the common war on want and the common campaign for fair and lasting development. What Samir Amin calls today's canonisation of non-governmental organisations, as the only worthwhile agents of development, will not bring the partners in the development process any closer together. It is foolhardy to imagine that a host of NGOs operating outside a national political framework would be in a better position to solve Africa's present development problems.

That leaves two basic questions rarely raised in discussions of democratisation of Africa:

1) How viable a form of governance is democracy in a situation of economic and social decline with scant prospects of improvement in the short term? How conceivable is it to promote both structural adjustment with a high social cost and greater involvement of civil society in the formulation and implementation of development policies? The situation in some European countries suggests that a return to autarky can never be ruled out in conditions of this sort and that it does not take long for a population to stop believing in democracy. It can only be hoped that the poor African peasant, who used to wonder: 'when will all this independence come to an end?' does not soon start asking: 'what is all this democratisation for?'
2) What part should the international community, never a neutral partner in the African development process, play? The international community facilitated, promoted even, the import of foreign structures and institutions for all the world as if precolonial Africa had no political, economic and social structures of its own. It propped up authoritarian regimes, considered to be strategic allies, for years, and then suddenly swerved to the defence of the democratic cause. If this is what it really wants, it must also set about creating the conditions that are vital if Africa is to develop in an ever more interdependent world. This does not just mean adapting and increasing aid. It also means taking a hard look at its relations with Africa in terms of trade, debt and the transfer of knowledge and technolgy. It is of course up to the Africans, above all, to define and set up their own democratic systems and structures, as indeed it is to get the process of development off the ground again.

But the international community can no longer be content to be the onlooker it was, well-intentioned of course, but also ready to impose conditions which rode roughshod over the realities of Africa and ignored all the time and money involved in this structural change to the continent. F V H