Meaningful elections are the essence of democracy in Africa

Elections do not necessarily translate to democracy; instead, it is the issue of electoral governance that is important.

What do we need to consider when we look at the contribution that democracy in Africa makes to growth and human development? A recent paper by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) suggests the answer lies in the execution of regular, clean and competitive elections.

A number of indices, such as the Varieties of Democracy project, Freedom House report and the Economist Intelligence Unit, widely used in academic and policy circles point to important trends. On the whole, they suggest that the number of democracies as well as the levels of democracy in Africa have improved over time across low, low-middle and upper-middle income countries. The gap between average levels of democracy in Africa and the rest of the world, they indicate, is slowly decreasing.

That said, democracy is still not the dominant form of government in Africa. According to the most optimistic index, Polity IV, only 21 out of the 53 African countries it assessed were considered democracies in 2015. This figure, which amounts to approximately 38% of Africa’s population, was increased by almost 16% after Nigeria (with a population of 182 million) was classified as democratic for the first time that year.

Though the trends are positive, the number of people reaping the benefits of democracy is still disproportionately low. And where democracy does exist, its positive effects are not always felt in terms of human development or economic growth.

So begins a discussion, one hotly contested in recent years, on the relationship between democracy, development and growth. The interplay between these areas is affected by the complex systems that keep democracy in place, by neopatrimonialism, and by compromised governance processes.

Democracy – characterised by political equality, individual freedoms, gender parity, an independent civil society, a free press and scope for deliberation – must be supported and sustained by a sophisticated network of institutions, rules and norms. The complexity of such networks renders them particularly fragile in low-income countries, common throughout Africa, where the necessary supportive frameworks are either lacking or are insufficiently developed.

In these contexts, additional barriers to democracy are both deeply entrenched and prolific. Neopatrimonialism, which sees patrons use state resources to secure loyalty, is widespread in Africa. This limits the ways in which democracy can effect positive developmental change, and furthermore compromises constitutional and electoral governance.

The importance of clean, competitive elections was demonstrated in August when a frustrated populace in South Africa used municipal elections to flex a democratic muscle in a way that has not been seen since the advent of democracy. Around the same time, the presidents of Zambia and Gabon were re-elected in essentially rigged polls. Whereas South African polls have seen a measurable impact in efforts to improve service delivery and curb excess, the polls in Zambia and Gabon will have little or no impact in delivering upon the same.

Then there are several examples of African leaders amending their constitutions to remain in power (in Burundi, the Republic of the Congo and Rwanda most recently). The continent also hosts some of the world’s longest-serving heads of state, such as Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. ISS research has long explored the issue of third-term bids in Africa and its detrimental impact on political stability and development.

Regular elections on the continent are on an upward trend: indeed, in 2016, the continent has been set to host up to 24 elections – the highest number in several years. Yet these are often deceptive events. The governing elite may go through the motions, but their actions often deliberately ensure the re-election of the ruling party and its preferred candidate.

Countries such as Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola and Mozambique have demonstrated such interference by rigging electoral registration processes, manufacturing legal cases to inhibit opposition candidates, controlling the public media and misusing state resources to dispense patronage. These type of elections present the trappings but not the essence of an electoral democracy.

For democracy to be effective – to have a significant, long-lasting and beneficial relationship with human development and economic growth – elections must be clean and competitive. When elections are hindered by nefarious or corrupt tactics, democracy contributes little – if anything – to development or growth.

Africa (and much of the world) is now settling into a trough after the third wave of democracy – one that gained momentum in Africa between 1990 and 1994 and had largely run its course by 2005. A key question emerges: is the continent headed towards another upswell of democracy – a fourth wave – or a regression away from democracy?

The more likely medium-term scenario globally seems to be one of a democratic regression. However, in Africa – where people have been poorly served both by authoritarianism and nominal democracy – substantive democracy still retains its pull. Again, the key component, which is often frustrating to governing elites in Africa, is the holding of regular, free and competitive elections that result in an elected leadership accountable to its voters.

Only democracy offers the power to effect change, to reshape the dynamics of power, and to hold leaders accountable. Eventually, a fourth wave of democracy in Africa – the ISS forecasts in its recent paper – would offer the continent an annual average of 0.5% faster economic growth to 2070 when compared to a democratic regression. The impact of this over time is huge. By 2070, Africa could have a gross domestic product US$11 trillion larger (at US$33 trillion instead of US$22 trillion) than if it suffered democratic regression.

In this light, democracy – with the integrity of its electoral processes intact – is not only an attractive solution, it is the only solution. - ISS Today

Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures and Innovation Section, ISS Pretoria


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