Sabri Elmhedwi/European Pressphoto Agency
On Christmas Eve in 1951, the Kingdom of Libya gained its independence from
Britain and France, forming a new monarchy under King Idris. Libya’s independence
marked the beginning of one of the largest movements of the 20th century: the
decolonization of Africa. In the course of three decades, 50 African nations
gained political autonomy from the colonial powers of Western Europe. After
Rhodesia became independent in 1980, European authority in Africa was essentially non-existent.
However, independence did not exactly spell prosperity for Africa. The well-organized
bureaucracies lead by European administrators were initially replaced by corrupt, incapable
dictators who struggled to avoid civil conflict. Back in Libya, King Idris was overthrown in
1969 by military commander Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime lasted for 42 years,
until he too was overthrown in the 2011 Libyan Revolution. As of 2014, the nation is still engaged
in a three-way civil war. However, they have also been through two popular elections since Gaddafi's
ousting: a sign of a burgeoning democracy.
A similar chain of events have taken other countries across the continent. Nearly all African nations
now have some sort of democracy or republic as their governmental structure. Yet at the same time, the
Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index
ranks African governments among the weakest and least democratic in the world. The only “full democracy” on the continent, Mauritius,
is an island located over
1000 miles away from the African landmass.
So why are these African democracies so ineffective? What is causing this political futility?
Government efficacy is an incredibly complex issue, but there are three main reasons as to why
democracies tend to fail in Africa, or any other developing region in the world.
1. Lack of political participation and involvement
The base of any democracy is the ability of citizens to participate in government,
whether it be through voting, lobbying or running for office. Unfortunately, this base
does not stand strong in most developing democracies. The numbers don’t lie: the people
of emerging countries tend to be disconnected and uninvolved with their nation’s politics.
Although citizens may participate through protests or other unconventional methods, voter
turnout is often lower than in developed countries. This is due to a number of reasons. First,
developing countries have poorer education systems, leading to a less educated electorate. History
has shown that countries with lower literacy rates tend to have lesser voter turnouts. Without being
able to read or write, or without being properly informed on an election, it is nearly impossible to
cast a ballot. Secondly, many citizens in developing countries have low political efficacy. They may
believe their government is corrupt and/or incapable in solving the nation’s issues. When these citizens
feel as if their vote doesn’t matter, political involvement plummets. Third, many people in developing
nations simply do not have access to a polling station. Areas plagued with violence and instability,
along with isolated rural areas, can be essentially forgotten during an election. During this summer’s
Libyan elections, many polling stations in cities remained closed for “security reasons.” At the end of the
day, political participation is weak in emerging countries, which undermines a key idea behind democracy.
2. Disproportionate representation of demographic groups
Another main principle of democracy is that the entire population is evenly represented in the government.
Once again, this is a principle that is not upheld very well in developing countries. Africa is known to be
extremely diverse, with thousands of ethnic groups with unique cultures spanning the continent. The implementation
of democracy was intended to end ethnic conflict and provide a forum where all ethnic groups could sort out their
differences. In reality, democracy has marginalized millions of citizens across Africa, leaving them without political
power. The problem is that the governments of developing nations are not proportionate reflections of their country’s
population. Granted, misrepresentation is an issue even in the strongest democracies. However, unlike the two-party
system in many first-world countries, African nations are home to dozens of political parties. These parties are
usually created by geographic or ethnic divides. Unfortunately, these smaller political organizations
are often drowned out by larger political groups. In many African democracies, there has been a single party that
has dominated the government for decades, such as Angola’s MPLA. Minority parties never yield the president or other
important authorities, and only have limited power within the national legislature or assembly. This dominance of a
single party sidelines the interests of smaller demographic and ethnic groups. As a result, the strength of the
nation’s democracy is diminished, since the populace is not equally represented in government.
3. Prevalence of corruption
Abraham Lincoln provided an excellent definition for what a democracy should be in his Gettysburg Address in
1863: “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The last part of that definition is almost
nonexistent in many developing nations. Its true that African countries have a governmental structure which puts
power in the hands of the people. However, the governments of Africa struggle to truly serve their population and
give back to those who elected them. All thanks to corruption. The 2014 Corruptions Perceptions Index from
Transparency International notes that Africa competes closely with Asia for being the most politically corrupt
region on the globe. Yet, there is a difference between corruption in Africa and corruption in other parts of the
world. Governmental corruption in developing countries has a direct impact on the daily lives of citizens. Money
that is meant to go towards sustainable development and economic growth often disappears in the hands of dishonest
politicians and officials. These “illicit financial flows” cost emerging nations over a total of $1 trillion dollars
each year. When those funds vanish from the already-impoverished countries, it becomes harder for those governments
to provide their citizens with the aid they desperately need. It’s a completely undemocratic system where the electors
struggle while the electors prosper. African countries have taken some large steps to tone down corruption in recent
years. However, the issue still plagues the continent today. Just this week, a high-ranking minister in Tanzania was
sacked for a financial scandal which sent devastating waves through their government. Until developing nations can win
their battle against corruption, they cannot claim they have a government “by the people, for the people.”
So democracy doesn’t work all that great in developing countries. What’s the solution?
As with many other policy issues, the best medicine is patience and perseverance. Countries in
Africa and around the world must strive to build fair, transparent systems in which all citizens has equal
rights and abilities. Strengthening relations with the international community for foreign aid could be a smart first step.
It took only a few decades for the countries of Africa to achieve full independence from Europe. Hopefully, their journey of achieving true democracy will be just as successful.