Would African democracies be stronger if they developed before democratising?

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Would African democracies be stronger if they developed before democratising?

In neo-colonial Africa -and arguably all over the world as time has passed- democracy is often portrayed as the ultimate remedy to socio-economic cleavages. In societies where many are economically marginalised, the rule of the people is viewed as the best possible form of government.  Liberal rhetoric of “free markets” is used to further the idea that democratisation leads to economic development and equality. However, as many African countries have gained their independence and democratised; we have yet to see economic development and equality.

A political scientist known as Samuel Huntington wrote about the many transitions to democracy and grouped them in waves. Right now, the world is on its third wave of democracy. The first wave began in the 1820s when white American males voted for the first time. However, this reversed in 1922 when the number of democracies decreased from twenty nine to twelve. The second wave of democracy occurred after World War II and between 1962 and the mid-1970s, there were six reverse waves. Huntington contends that one of the major factors which contributed to the third wave of democracy is the fact that economies grew globally which allowed for the raise of the standard of living for many, an increase in the level of education and the expansion of the urban middle class in many countries. One of the reasons for the reversal of the first and second wave of democracy was the fact that some countries suffered economic setbacks which gave rise to the demand of a regime outside of democracy.

Right now, African countries are in a neo-colonial period where primary resources are merely extracted and exported to the developed world where they are refined and African countries then import them thereafter. Industrialisation does not seem to be a concern across the continent. This is undeniably a contributing factor to keeping African states in the periphery in the global context. If the better off countries were to invest in industrialisation, a strong and autonomous state would also foster industrialisation at a faster pace. Should the state affirm its strength and autonomy over its citizens, there is less time wasted on going back and forth and decisions are made quicker.

However, I acknowledge the holes in this argument. One of the main issues with authoritarianism in African countries is that corruption becomes more difficult to manage. There is already a great deal of African political leaders who seek to enrich themselves as soon as they have access to power. However, it is undeniable that a major contributing factor to the prevalence of corruption in Africa is the lack of economic security. I also do recognise that autocratic governments often depend on military valour to inspire fear and to police any unfavourable situations which might arise and with this, it is possible that  power could very easily be exploited by those who have it.

When a country’s level of economic development rises, it should be followed by a wider distribution of economic resources. This would mean a reduced rate of unemployment and a better chance at education. Outside of the opportunities it provides in the global world today, education creates a more rational and tolerant people which is characteristic of a theoretically good democracy. The technological shift gives access to knowledge (to the owners of capital) which will cause the authoritarian state to lose that autonomy over its citizens.

Ideally, economic development should create more opportunities and at least attempt to create a stronger working class which breeds a better quality of democracy. Where there are many citizens in the periphery because of a lack of wealth distribution, the citizens will grow disillusioned with the democracy and this is where conflict arises and citizens and those outside of the state’s leadership start to reject the democratic regime.

The developmental state is still an authoritarian regime. This means that although the intentions of the state are to help the country catch up with the global economy and to provide a wealthier state, there will still be issues which arise, particularly around civil rights. However, with the regime changes which have shown an end to democracy because of poverty or with democracies which have remained in the periphery; I believe that it is still important for the state to develop before democratising in order to ensure a stronger, more sustainable democracy where equity is too abstract to imagine.


12734169_452645344943122_4989971423662487258_nEsinako Ndabeni is an undergraduate student working towards her Bachelor of Social Sciences in International Relations and Anthropology at the University of Cape Town