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close this bookThe Courier N 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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View the documentDemocracy and development in Africa:

Democracy and development in Africa:

Members of the European Parliament host an international conference

'The Committee on Development and Cooperation (...) considers that democratisation in the African countries is a long-term process taking many forms and that it is not for the (European) Community to impose its own model of democracy; at the same time (it) hopes that certain fundamental democratic and human rights will be universally applied and therefore not be violated with impunity.'

This sentence from an official opinion of the European Parliament's Development Committee, drafted by Belgian member Brigitte Ernst de la Graete, puts in a nutshell the gist of a two-day conference on democracy and development in Africa recently held in Brussels. The occasion was organised on 10 and 11 May by Parliament's Green Group, the ecologists, for academics, politicians, civil servants and development workers from many European and African countries. The brief was a wide one-to look at the transition to democratic forms of government now taking place in many parts of Africa, to consider whether outsiders, particularly the European countries, were entitled to interfere and set political conditions on the granting of aid, and in the final analysis to discuss what democracy actually was.

Forms of democracy and democratic transition

The opening speaker in a well-organised programme was Achille Mbembe, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and contributor to the French current affairs weekly, Le Monde Diplomatique. Developments in sub Saharan Africa, he said, were not necessarily signs of a transition to democracy. Extremely complex social struggles were under way, and a number of structural factors had to be borne in mind.

First, Africa had been ousted from regular world markets, and its place in the international parallel economy was still not clear. There were historical precedents for the situation. The transition from slaving to legitimate trade in the 19th century had left African states with enormous debts to their trading partners; they were still in that position. Violence and the risk of political communities collapsing had led to a militarisation of trade, destroying the balance between public authority and the pursuit of private gain. People's notions of their religious, social and political identity had fallen apart. Achille Mbembe would not say Africa was on its way back to the 19th century, but he could see similarities.

Secondly - and this was a controversial issue - most economists agreed that structural adjustment programmes in Africa had failed. For the last 15 years the economic independence of African countries had been eroded by the demands of their international creditors. In some countries, by the end of the 1980s the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were running what Achille Mbembe called governments by proxy; and in the last four years they had been intervening directly in areas such as privatisation and public spending reduction, or even running public finances completely through their nominees.

This was not recolonisation, nor was it confined to Africa. What made Africa special was that the economic policy being applied was the same as that usually imposed on countries defeated in war. However, ending interference in State control of a country's economy was not the answer either if that control was not made more effective first.

The notion of the State in Africa was in crisis. The old model of the territorial State was beginning to look life-expired. Separatism had emerged as a force in Cameroon and Eritrea. Many peoples were searching for a new identity and there was extensive migration. The social and economic importance of political frontiers was fading, as the de facto seizure of autonomy by parts of Zaire showed. As the old forms crumbled, new structures of violence were emerging- witness the ravaging of Somalia, Angola and Mozambique by opposing armies and the creation of a paramilitary terror force, similar to Haiti's Tontons Macoutes, to protect the dictatorship in Togo. Forces like these arose and survived because anyone with weapons could raise money through intimidation and expropriation in territorial entities not recognised in international law. Dr Mbembe was not optimistic for the future of democracy in the present circumstances.

Taking up the theme that democratising Africa meant more than just organising elections, Claude Akpokevie, a political scientist from Ghana, reminded the conference that the post-colonial trajectories of African States had been very diverse, except that in all of them the State had sought to occupy all the potential bases for private creativity. In his view, real democracy would come with the rise of civil society, ordinary people fighting, not for power, but for the right to operate independently of whoever was in power. An important weapon of the weak was informal strategies of resistance such as spreading information by word of mouth; the fact that this was the form resistance usually took in Africa explained why there had been no big revolutions on that continent.

Liberal democracy, in Claude Akpokavie's view, was linked specifically to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the Western concept of modernity. Democracy as understood in non-Western countries like Japan and India was quite different. The Left-Right model, for example, was specific to the West. Some attempts to plant Western models in alien soil had actually favoured dictatorship: when a Westminster-style system was bequeathed to Ghana, for instance, the extensive powers of personal patronage enjoyed by the Prime Minister under that system were not offset by any of the checks and balances which also form part of the British tradition but were not present in Ghana.

The basic principles of democracy, however, were universal: the rule of law, institutionalized pluralism, one man/one vote, the possibility of alternation, accountability, and an equilibrium of power between the State and civil society and between workers and employers. Democracy was a process which never ended, not a finished state.

Mr Akpokavie offered the Ashanti empire of 17th to 19th-century Ghana as evidence that African societies had always been dynamic in their search for ways of involving all their members in the conduct of public affairs. It was up to Africans to devise an African form of democracy on the basis of their own experiences and history, not to return to the anachronisms of the 1960s. It should involve peasants as well as an urban elite, central government power must be devolved to the regions, which would foster policies that were not based on ethnic considerations, and government should talk to the real holders of invisible power (to the market queens who controlled the whole food economy in Ghana, for example, not just to the trade unions, who represented a very small proportion of workers). People-centred development should be the watchword.

A teacher from the University of Durban, South Africa, Dennis Nkosi, was wary of the recipe for democracy (a multiparty system plus a free-market economy) which he felt the West - especially the World Bank and the IMF -had handed to Africa in return for aid and support. Local, national and continental experiences should be taken into account in designing democratic models for Africa. As to South Africa, outsiders were wrong to give F.W. de Klerk credit for democratisation; the white minority was still fighting to make sure power and privilege remained in its hands, only this time the chosen ploy was to try to impose a specific model of democracy with foreign support. The basis for real democratic participation, Mr Nkosi said, was the emergence of organs of people's power.

After these academic contributions on the history and nature of democracy, the conference turned to an actual case study.

Brigitte Ameganvi, Secretary-General of the Togolese Human Rights League in France, asked whether the process under way in her country was a transition to democracy or a move backwards. All the concessions granted by the government of President Eyadema under pressure from the national conference of democrats were now, she said, being clawed back by an ongoing coup d'etat. The regime had realised, from observing the example of Zaire, that popular movements could be resisted, and there was no chance whatever of the elections in July being free and democratic.

Justine Kasavubu spoke on behalf of UDPS, the opposition political movement of Etienne Tshisekedi, who had set up a government in Zaire in defiance of that appointed by President Mobutu. There was, she confirmed, a 'Dictators' International' in Africa centred on Zaire, Togo and Rwanda, with whom the West connived because it supported institutions, not people. The West's contribution to democracy in Africa was to offer scraps from its own systems which had not worked, as when France suggested that Zaire's opposition 'cohabit' -i.e. collaborate in power-with the

President, a system that had produced miserable, results in France itself. Ms Kasavubu stressed the role of women in democratization, particularly as educators and as experienced operators in the parallel economy. They must help countries like Zaire recover their lost dignity by restoring values other than the power of money and rehabilitating respect for the notion of honest work. Men in Africa must be prepared to act as democrats in their relations with women, so as to release the potential of that still unexploited human resource.

Interference and 'conditionality'

In the interests of fostering democracy, have donors of aid to African countries a right or indeed a duty to interfere in the way they are run? This was the question addressed by a lawyer from the Association for the Rights of Peoples, Olivier Corten. International law forbade resort to force in relations between countries except in self-defence or when authorised by the Security Council. Obviously, enforcing democratisation in other countries met neither of these conditions. However, international law did allow one country to put economic pressure on another to secure, for example, the repayment of a debt. As to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country, it applied to action to force a country to do something it was entitled not to do; merely to voice an opinion or issue a recommendation (on respect for human rights, say) was not interference or a violation of sovereignty.

As regards setting conditions for the granting of aid, international law left wide margins for manoeuvre. If an intending donor-for instance, the IMF -insisted on the appointment of certain of its nominees to political posts as a condition of aid, that would be regarded as constraint. But to respond to a request for aid by insisting that certain policies be followed in exchange did not legally constitute constraint. Any entity providing resources on request was entitled to seek assurances that they would be used in what it regarded as a proper manner.

The right of peoples to self-determination had ordinally conceived as applying to countries under colonial or racist domination, but the concept had now evolved, Mr Corten said, to include the peoples of countries such as Haiti or Zaire who had been deprived of the government of their choice by an internal force, even if that force was actually in control of the country. And, in his view, there would be no legal obstacle to military interference by the United Nations in, say, Zaire if the Security Council regarded the situation there as a threat to international peace and security. No actual breach of international peace would need to have taken place first.

In conclusion, the speaker believed that Article 5 of the Lome IV Convention, which says, among other things, that 'development policy and cooperation are closely linked with the respect for and enjoyment of fundamental human rights', did entitle the EC to put pressure for human rights improvements on recipient countries as a condition of aid.

Ways of helping democratisation

The conference then considered some of the ways in which aid for democratisation is provided. Bernard Ryelandt of the EC Cormnission's Directorate-General for Development reported that aid from the European Development Fund and the EC budget went towards supporting the holding of elections, strengthening the rule of law (through funding for an independent judiciary and police forces), aiding the press (on a non-partisan basis) and grassroots promotion of nongovernmental organisations representing civil society. This year there was ECU 16 million in the budget for promoting human rights and democracy in the ACP countries, as well as an appropriation for Latin America.

Marc Deneer, attache at the Belgian Secretariat for Development Cooperation, said that the principle his country applied in giving aid for democratisation was that the policies concerned must be coherent, transparent, predictable and credible. Measures on the European side would only succeed if all the Member States and the Commission acted together. Belgium assessed the degree of democracy in a country by five criteria: the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression and association, the rule of law, regular elections and accountability of the government. Individual projects were examined to see how far they enshrined democratic precepts (for example, protection for workers' rights).

A further European contribution was made by Charles Condamines, director of the Panos Institute in Paris, an NGO which works to promote freedom of the press, especially in West Africa. In Africa, he said, critical news sheets and radio were burgeoning. But no more than 2% of development finance ever went to promoting information, and such funds always went from government to government. Governments tended to say it was not their function to help the opposition publicise its views, or that governments should not interfere in commercial competition by putting money into the media market, or that they would not support small undertakings which did not look viable-in other words, precisely the types of independent outfits which were struggling to keep going.

European press action

Does suspending aid to dictatorial regimes help to bring them down? Francois Misser, a correspondent on development issues for the BBC and La Cite, said that as long as rulers had managed to salt away enough funds to pay the army, as some had, they could stay in power indefinitely. And did elections spell an end to violence and oppression? Not if the losers rejected the result. In that event, were outsiders prepared and equipped to enforce compliance? Even the Organisation of African Unity, Mr Misser said, had shown it was not enthusiastic about international action. Democracy came from within; perhaps Europe should concentrate on encouraging governments to talk more to their trade unions, peasant groups and employers' associations. The press should also be asking whether real democracy was being installed in some African countries, or if it was just a redistribution of privilege.

Colette Braeckman, a journalist on the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, said that, as far as Africa was concerned, the Western media were only interested in its problems and in what the West was doing to help solve them. NGOs and pressure groups should do more to publicise their grassroots initiatives and the local input into them. Both Africa and Europe would gain from the increase in the flow of information if the developed world helped small rural radio stations and newspapers buy equipment and supplies; in many countries the government held a monopoly of these and effectively censored critical opinion by deciding who could use them. The courage of activists in Africa could teach Europeans a great deal about human rights.

A French member of the Green Group, Marie Christine Aulas, said human rights activists in Madagascar had told her during a visit there that, whatever the regime in power, it was always the same people who owned everything. As long as this basic economic issue was not tackled in Africa, democratisation was likely to be just a facade.

Speakers from the floor contributed to a lively discussion which then followed, calling among other things for a lightening of the African countries' debt burden as an encouragement to reform, though Europe and other outsiders, they said, must not use their economic muscle to try to dictate the course democracy should take in Africa, which had its own traditions. The Development Committee's attitude to linking democracy with development aid was set out in its Opinion, which says, firstly, that it may achieve nothing: 'There is no necessary link between economic success and the nature of the political regime,' and, on the basic principle, that: 'While it may seem selfevident that the Community should require its partners to respect fundamental human rights and freedom of expression, in politics as in other fields it remains the case that this requirement should be made out of human solidarity and not with a view to selecting the beneficiaries of a parsimonious aid system.' In conclusion, it was generally regretted that the conference was not being held in Africa-Mrs Ernst, from the chair, explained that the Green Group simply did not have the funds to hold such a meeting outside Europe.