‘Your own kind of democracy?’: Negotiated understandings of democracy and development

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Jonathan Fisher
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In this blog, Jonathan Fisher explores how African governments have fundamentally challenged and reworked the central concepts through which western donors and governments have tried to understand them. Jonathan is a lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.

The expansion and contraction of political pluralism across North Africa and the Middle East since 2011 has led some commentators to once again pose Larry Diamond’s famous question – is democracy for everyone? Diamond, an expert on democratization and political transition, has long been particularly sanguine on the prospects for democracy in the Arab world although has refrained from suggesting that Islamic political culture is fundamentally antagonistic towards democratic sentiment a la Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. The return of a general to Egypt’s presidential palaces last July and the breakdown of Libya’s delicately-balanced post-Gadaffi polity do not validate either perspective per se but do, at least, demonstrate the challenges of building democratic norms and processes into states and institutions constructed by autocrats.

Perspectives on the Arab Spring’s inglorious reversals also highlight, however, our (that is, Western scholars and policymakers’) tendency to understand political and social changes in the developing world in binary terms as adoptions or rejections of Western norms, framings, and concepts. Political and intellectual elites in Africa and elsewhere are often guilty of this themselves, of course, as discussions on the ‘(un) African-ness’ of homosexuality in eastern Africa in recent months show. Nevertheless, particularly when it comes to democracy and conflict in Africa, the Western commentariat is especially guilty of characterizing developments on the continent – however inadvertently – as a subscription to, or move away from, concrete categories or states of being pre-defined and parsed in the Global North.

Such stances overlook the myriad ways in which African states, organizations, and peoples mould, challenge, and reframe our understandings of change across the continent and, indeed, of the very concepts we use to describe and explain these changes themselves. Jean-Francois Bayart, in his influential discussion of ‘extraversion’ in African states’ international relations, has explored the ways in which tyrants such as Mobutu Sese Seko of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo cynically incorporated the trappings of pluralism into their polities and employed the ‘discourse of democracy’ during the 1990s to assure the post-Cold War world of their adherence to the paradigm – while in reality using these tools to entrench authoritarianism and sideline internal opponents. This instrumentalization of the concept of democracy to strengthen dictatorship was also undertaken by Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Gnassinbe Eyadema of Togo, Paul Biya of Cameroon, and many others.

A recent article of mine in Third World Quarterly explores the ways in which the Ugandan government of Yoweri Museveni has engaged with, and subverted, another ‘Western’ concept – that of ‘fragile state’ – in managing its relationship with Western donor nations since coming to power in 1986. As part of a broader Special Issue, which also explores similar cases in Indonesia and Sudan, the article describes how the Museveni regime has simultaneously – and successfully – presented itself to its Western development partners as a fragile state wracked by devastating but distant rebellions and as a strong, post-conflict state with a robust, rebuilt economy and a monopoly of violence. This has enabled Kampala to draw upon different streams of support from donors. It has also taken advantage of the latters’ tendency to separate in their minds the ‘state they see’ as diplomats in the capital from the ‘peripheral state’ that they come to know mainly through intermediaries and the government itself.

A point I have attempted to make in this and other work – including a November 2013 piece in Conflict, Security and Development (CSD) – though, is that we should not just understand this state of affairs as African elites accessing and manipulating Western concepts but instead as them actively challenging, and re-conceptualising them in a dynamic fashion. The CSD article, for example, argues that governments in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda have contested and reformulated Western rationales for providing support, focusing especially on understandings of their value as ‘”security allies”. The same is also true of Chad’s Idris Deby regime, as on-going work being undertaken between David Anderson and myself on the securitization of development demonstrates.

This phenomenon can also be seen in the shifting perspectives on the nature of ‘African democracy’ in some Western foreign ministries, prompted by the policies and diplomacies of some of these regimes during the 1990s and 2000s. On coming to power, the contemporary regimes of Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda all sought to introduce more restrictive forms of pluralism based around ‘no-party democracy’, ethnic representation, and non-sectarianism, respectively. Though condemned as semi-authoritarian in some quarters, these governments also convinced many counterparts in Europe and North America that the decisions that they had taken were necessary for bridging past divisions and represented – in the words of former UK Africa Minister Peter Hain – ‘your own kind of democracy’. Such sentiments can still be heard among diplomats and civil servants in London, Washington, Addis Ababa, and Kigali – though no longer in Kampala, which abandoned this system in 2005.

In more recent years, some African leaders have successfully redefined how donors approach fundamental tenets of democratic theory, at least in the African context. Take, for example, the acceptance of the power-sharing paradigm as the donor-preferred solution to protracted electoral contestation or violence on the continent. This preference is the direct consequence of African politicians facing a loss of power digging in their heels, stirring-up conflict, and seeing these efforts rewarded by the international system with a mandate to continue in power – albeit with a slightly diluted authority. The notion that winners of elections should be forced to share power with the losers when the latter can unleash sufficient chaos is anathema to democratic norms but is seemingly now entrenched in many donors’ minds as the template answer to any African election that does not run smoothly.

Clearly this change in donor perceptions is not a welcome one for many African elites (not to mention the peoples they claim to represent). Since the outbreak of conflict in South Sudan last December, the embattled Salva Kiir government has struggled to deflect peace roadmaps proposed by international actors, almost all of which suggest it should share power with the insurgents. Fortunately for Kiir, his opposition to this plan has been strongly seconded by neighbouring governments – almost all of which, ironically, came to power through guerrilla rebellion. The evolving situation reveals not only how African states can play an important role in (re) negotiating the meaning of ‘Western’ political concepts but also the dangers these renegotiated conepts can pose to their leaderships in the future when contexts change.

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