Democracy and its (dis)contents

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On 5 October 2015, a public discussion was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to debate the recent book by Nic Cheeseman, Democracy in Africa. Dominic Burbidge, departmental lecturer in African studies at the University of Oxford, summarises.

What explains trends of democratization in Africa and is the continent headed in a positive direction? Should we be optimistic that democracy is gaining an ever-stronger foothold or pessimistic at the trends such as the growing influence of China or moves towards illiberal state-building?

Tackling these questions head-on, Nic Cheeseman presented findings from his recent book Democracy in Africa, using historical studies and comparative political analysis to understand the forces in play. Cheeseman introduced discussion by analysing the 2015 findings of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. Whilst poverty rates have reduced, democracy ratings are on the slide, reflecting a ‘gradual erosion of civil liberties’ across the continent.

But this does not tell the full story. As Cheeseman explained, too many studies of democracy in Africa look at continent-wide trends and fail to contextualise or explore the individual decisions African leaders make. ‘Too many analyses of democracy in Africa start in 1989’, remarked Cheeseman, referring to the way in which democracy in Africa is often seen as a by-product of the end of the Cold War and little to do with popular movements and debates within the countries concerned. The same tendency to over-generalise, he explained, present in analysis that simply present China as ‘the anti-democratic force in Africa’, which ‘undermines the subtleties going on’.

Instead, Cheeseman demanded greater evaluation of ‘the way African leaders make decisions’, submitting that the book offers ‘a framework for understanding those decisions: when a leader is more likely to use repression and when a leader is more likely to reform.’ Contrary to the common views that little changes at election time in Africa, if there is no incumbent head of state standing for re-election, the likelihood of the ruling party winning the election drops to around 50 percent. This makes presidential term limits ‘major moments of political crisis’ and that are ‘fundamental for political change in Africa.’

Responding to these points, Stephen Chan, professor of SOAS and seasoned election observer, described his recent role monitoring elections in Sudan and explained that he was ‘horrified that the methodology being used had made no progress from what we had used in 1980.’ The book, he felt, offered a way forward for adding rigour to discussions of democratization in Africa, especially bearing in mind the increasing number of African states that stress economic growth over civil liberties. As Chan explained, the aspiration towards development along the lines of Malaysia and Singapore in some African countries takes the form of a theory of ‘controlled democracy’, which involves very little in terms of real freedoms. As Chan quipped, ‘the perfect Singaporeans in Africa are in Zimbabwe.’

Alex Magaisa, a technical advisor during the constitution-making process in Zimbabwe and a senior advisor to Morgan Tsvangirai, cautioned that our very conception of what is legal and democratic may be too formalistic across the continent. This means that when we are describing a country or institution as having acted well or badly, we are often discussing where they are in terms of formal rules, rather than substantive justice. Giving the example of President Robert Mugabe, Magaisa explained that ‘he will not do anything outside the law’ in the sense that he uses and invents legal justifications for all his political actions. For study of democracy in Africa, our optimism or pessimism should not, therefore, be a product of the formal rules that are in place, but a response to the deeper impact of politics on human rights.

As third discussant, Phil Clark, expert in conflict and post-conflict situations in Africa, surprised the audience by noting that a Rwandan general he knows – currently placed in solitary confinement – requested from him a copy of Cheeseman’s book. The book, Clark believed, had strong ramifications for understanding the strained democratic processes in Rwanda. In this country, democratisation will be placed under increasing pressure as Kagame approaches his two-term limit and by moves to decentralise, which have provided a platform for local political expression.

Clark praised the book’s closing chapters for demonstrating how the language of democracy has sometimes been abused in Africa. This led him to comment: ‘Given that you do give such a comprehensive critique of the various ways in which democracy has been abused, I’m not sure why you are so optimistic.’

Closing what was an eventful night of to-and-fro on the latest developments in democracy across the continent, Cheeseman explained that the final chapter of the book accepts that we have to see how democracy can best fit locally, but that this should not be a reason for inaction. Indeed, every opinion poll shows that people in Africa want to vote and do not want to be denied a say in their government. ‘Let’s get away from the idea that democracy is not African.’

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