Democracy in Africa

Why are representative governments so ineffective in developing nations?

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.

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