Impossible? Think again, chaotic DR Congo could be more democratic than tiny Mauritius - here's how

The argument until now has always been that when it comes to democracy, small is beautiful. Then came Togo, Benin, Burundi and Rwanda.

A DAY after neighbour Togo confirmed a third term for president Faure Gnassingbe, Benin’s ruling party won parliamentary elections but failed to secure an absolute majority, suggesting a potential obstacle should Thomas Boni Yayi consider gunning for a third term in office.

Yayi’s Emerging Benin Party (FCBE) bagged 33 seats out of 83 in the April 26 elections that were seen as  a popularity test for him. The 62-year-old, in power since 2006, is accused by the opposition of planning to “tinker” with the constitution ahead of a presidential vote in 2016.

Boni Yayi has always denied planning to run again next year and last Sunday said he would no longer be “a candidate for anything” in the future.

A large majority would have allowed him a freer hand to carry out constitutional amendments he wants before the end of his term, especially with the opposition deeply fragmented.

In total 20 parties contested the elections in the west African country of 10 million, which has 4.4 million voters.

In next-door Togo, the constitutional court also confirmed that incumbent Gnassingbe won a third term as president with 58.7% of the vote in an election held on April 25, defeating opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre.

The victory, in the largely peaceful election, will extend the family’s rule to more than half a century because Gnassingbe has been president since 2005 when his father died after 38 years in charge of the west African nation of 6.8 million people. There are no limits to the number of terms a president can serve in Togo. 

In Burundi, protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s plan to seek a third term in office resumed, as the East African nation’s military said it backs a peace accord that limits leaders to two.

Protests erupted on April 26 after Burundi’s ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to run for president in elections scheduled for June in the nation of 10 million. 

Opposition groups say his candidacy violates a peace accord signed 15 years ago in Arusha, Tanzania, that stipulates a two-term presidential limit. The country’s senate has asked the Constitutional Court to study the legality of the president’s bid.

However in a dramatic twist, the vice-president of Burundi’s constitutional court fled the country Monday.  His departure comes only hours after police shot dead four protesters in violence  that has left at least 13 dead in just over a week. 

Judge Sylvere Nimpagaritse told AFP that the court’s judges had come under “enormous pressure and even death threats” from senior figures, which he refused to name, to rubberstamp the disputed candidature of the president.

Nimpagaritse claimed that a majority of the court’s seven judges believed it would be unconstitutional for Nkurunziza to stand again, but had faced “enormous pressure and even death threats” to force them to change their mind. With his departure, the court is unlikely to form to hear the case, as it wouldn’t have a full bench, to hear the case.

In addition to being in the headlines for third term debates, the three countries also have small geographical land sizes, as have Burkina Faso where Blaise Compaore’s third term was derailed by popular protest, and Rwanda where president Paul Kagame’s plans remain vague.

They would thus appear to contradict the increasingly entrenched sentiment that small is beautiful in Africa when it comes to democracy.

This has been fuelled by several governance rankings that have the usual suspects at the top—Mauritius, Seychelles, Cape Verde, which are all island countries with populations of under 1.3 million people.

Seychelles for example has a population of just under 100,000 happy inhabitants, a fifth the number in Cape Verde.

Analysts note that some of the arguments in favour have been that small polities offer greater opportunities for exit, constraining the rapacity of elites, and that in such countries community identities and consensus are easier to construct, and social order much easier to keep.

Other positions for democracy being better in smaller countries is that they pose fewer coordination and logistical problems, and require markedly less in terms of population buy-ins.

But newer voices are seeking to argue that the converse is true—that large populations instead make a better case for democracy, when all other factors such as the nature of the environment, migration and demographics are accounted for.

In a paper for the Boston University, Prof John Gerring and Dominic Zarecki of the department of Political Science argue that large populations instead increase competition among elites, and erect a variety of considerable obstacles in the way of would-be political monopolists.

This is akin to how large markets foster greater competition among firms, while placing constraints on market leaders.

Could the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with a population of 67.5 million people and five times the land area of our four third-term debate countries, actually weigh in higher on the democracy scale than Mauritius?

Burundi police face off with anti-third term protesters. (Photo/AFP)

The researchers say that in large polities, latent cleavages such as ethnicity, social class and religion provide ready vehicles for opposition groups to mobilise, providing alternative bases of support. 

The many organisations in such a large political unit, such as parties, associations, universities and civil society groups are also potential mobilisation points, while offering up a larger number of opposition groups.

Finally, they suggest that “in a large polity, it will be more difficult for state actors to monitor, co-opt, coerce or exile potential dissenters”. In small counties the elites are usually visible and easier to keep tabs on.

They then surveyed over 180 countries while controlling for key factors such as economic indicators and also the length of experience with democratic practices.

“Results indicate a robust positive relationship between population and democracy,” they found following a rigorous analysis.

The researchers admittedly confine themselves to the Schumpeterian concept of democracy where electoral competition among leadership groups and constitutional constraints on how power is exercised is what counts, as opposed to other forms such as participatory, majoritarian and egalitarian (where all are perceived equal). 

But the paper does not seek to measure democracy rather than its variations, as Prof Gerring told M&G Africa via e-mail. There is thus need for more research. “Democracy is not a single empirically and theoretically coherent concept so it stands to reason that the same causal factor might have divergent causal effects on different aspects of democracy.”

Hence the cases of countries like Ethiopia, with Africa’s second largest population but among the most tightly controlled, or Botswana with fewer people than all but 10 other African countries but among the more democratic, would need more investigation, as would others such as “tiny” Equatorial Guinea and Rwanda . 

Also, as most Africa watchers will know, the terms credible and elections don’t always follow each other.

Back to our case of the Mauritius and the DR Congo: there is only one outright winner. Most island states have innate advantages built up over time: they experienced an extensive and beneficial tuterary relationship with European powers, have fewer “resource curses”, depend on smart international relationships for survival, are less militarist and more secure within their borders and so on.

But for those who regularly despair over the extent of the disorder in the central African country, there is hope after all - in the long run, though short-term things might be bleak. Even as president Joseph Kabila plans a third term bid there.

—Additional reporting with AFP

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