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For Africa, Democracy Should Be the Only Choice

July 26, 1998|George B.N. Ayittey | George B.N. Ayittey, an associate professor of economics at American University and president of the Free Africa Foundation, is the author of "Africa Betrayed" and "Africa in Chaos."

WASHINGTON — Last week, the new Nigerian ruler, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, announced his intention to return the country to democratic, civilian rule by May 29, 1999, the ninth time a military junta has made such a promise. Toward this end, he dissolved Nigeria's electoral commission, its five political parties and all other structures erected by his predecessor, the late Gen. Sani Abacha. The formation of new political parties will be encouraged and international observers from the United Nations, Organization of African Unity and the Commonwealth Secretariat will be invited to supervise elections. He also has ordered that all remaining political detainees be freed. If Abubakar keeps his promise, the number of African countries with a democratic government will rise to 16 of 54.

For much of the postcolonial period, Africans intensely debated whether democracy is the answer to Africa's woes. Most African leaders have fiercely resisted democratic reform. In the 1960s, African nationalist leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius K. Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda dismissed the concept of democracy as Western and alien, claiming that multiparty democracy was "a luxury Africa could not afford." Nkrumah of Ghana denounced it as an "imperialist dogma." Other African leaders contended that "Africa had no democratic culture," and that "too many feuding tribes make democracy a risky venture."

In 1989, the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries, from which African leaders had imported their one-party state systems, collapsed. Yet, many found new arguments to cling to the old ways of governing. In the early 1990s, for example, Presidents Paul Biya of Cameroon and Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya vehemently denounced multiparty democracy on the ground that it would degenerate into destructive tribal politics.

More recently, African leaders have been trekking to Asia to study the model of political economy that enabled some Asian countries to leap from poverty to relative prosperity in little more than a generation. Many return home more convinced than ever that an authoritarian approach is best for their countries. Perhaps these leaders need a one-way ticket to Jupiter.

Africa's circumstances are vastly different from those in Asia. Africans do not face an external threat, as do South Koreans, who are willing to give up some personal liberty for greater security. Nor are African countries insular, as are Hong Kong, Taiwan and Indonesia. Borders are porous in Africa, and Africans unwilling to live under dictatorial rule frequently vote with their feet, becoming refugees. There are 10 million in Africa. Furthermore, the ethnic composition of most African countries is less homogenous than in Asian countries and, as a result, the spoils of authoritarian rule tend to end up in the hands of an ethnic elite minority.

These African characteristics help explain why a benevolent dictatorship or "Asian model" has failed miserably on the continent. Indeed, strongman rule has been the bane of Africa's development and the chief source of its never-ending cycles of instability, violence and political upheaval. In many African countries, political power is not viewed as a vehicle to serve but as a way to fleece the people. For example, in Nigeria, government, as it is understood in the West, has ceased to exist. In its place is a "mafia state," in which political gangsters use the state machinery to enrich themselves, their cronies and tribesmen. All others are excluded. After a mere five-year reign, Abacha is reputed to have amassed a personal fortune in the range of $5 billion to $10 billion, leaving the country's economy in tatters.

The supreme irony is that the foreign model for successful development can be found in Africa itself. Africa's most shiny economic success stories are all associated with democratic governments. Mauritius, for example, set up an export-processing zone, slashed corporate taxes and tariffs and invested heavily in infrastructure: education, telephones, roads, etc. Literacy is universal. Mauritius' income per capita--$3,690--is the second highest in Africa, after Seychelles Islands, another democratic country.

On the continent, Botswana continues to be an economic star. It exports diamonds and beef. With a population of 1 million, drawn from 13 ethnic groups, Botswana has accumulated foreign-exchange reserves of $4 billion, the highest per capita in the world. It even lends to, rather than borrows from, the International Monetary Fund. What is most extraordinary about Botswana is that its political system is rooted in an indigenous institution of participatory democracy.

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