Ref # 6.1
Dec 17, 2012
Democracy and Political Culture
Part II-Background to Africa’s Democracy
by Hiwot Wendimagegn
Liberal democracy, despite its claim of universality is historically specific. It is a child of industrial civilization, a product of a socially atomized society that has moved past the concerns of physical and economic survival to opt for “liberty”, “equality” and “the pursuit of happiness” (Ake, 1993:240). Along these lines, the principles of democracy include: widespread participation, the right of citizens to determine their form of government, citizen’s preferences being weighed relatively equally, consent of the governed and government’s accountability and responsiveness to the preference of citizens. As noble as these ideals are, upon their implementation,
Nonetheless, African nations are not the only ones in the world that had to succumb to a political system that is not inherently theirs. There are other non-western nations that espoused democracy and made it work. In his insightful research T.J Pempel (1992) proved this fact via his assessment of Japan’s remarkable success with democracy. In his research, he highlights how Japan is up to par with successful western industrialized democracies in most measurements of a good democracy. He shows how the country resembles the other advanced industrial democracies in most of its political and social institutions and behavioral traits irrespective of the fact that democracy isn’t Japanese in origin. Intriguingly, Pempel attributes this success to the Confucian cultural heritage, admirable work ethic, the egalitarian as well as the strong sense of civic mindedness embedded in the Japanese culture. Therefore, nations like Japan indubitably illustrate that an alien idea isn’t doomed to failure simply because it isn’t intrinsic to the society that adopts it.
Adversely, democracy failed miserably in Africa. Contrary to popular belief however, it didn’t fail because it was imposed by the west but because Africa did not have the culture to sustain its requirements; its requirements being the values of tolerance, efficacy, civility and civic mindedness. Albeit there could have been a meager chance for democracy to thrive in the African pre-colonial setting, (considering a lot of democratic values were infused in their fabric), the vile colonial and anticolonial legacies insured its death right after its birth.
As a result, during the time of decolonization,
“These circumstances could hardly have been less propitious for the entrenchment of liberal political cultures. Formal democratic institutions quickly collapsed under the weight of corruption and intolerance of dissent and state power was expanded, centralized personalized and corrupted. In the absence of broad political legitimacy, patterns of statism, patrimonial rule, abuse and political repression became entrenched with governments changing mainly through violence and democracy continuing to manifest itself as protest and resistance” (ibid).
Thus, democracy at best became gradual, messy, fitful and slow and at worst nonexistent. Crawford Young concluded it all in saying, “in no other world region has the third wave encountered so hostile an economic and political environment” (cited in Vicky and Svasand, 2002:31). As time passed, external presentability seemed to drive political reform rather than genuine commitment to liberalization hence the imperative, “virtual democracy” (Joseph, 1997:367).
Continuity within Change
During the euphoria of “the third wave of democratization
Palpably, despite the fact that constitutional and other reforms were undertaken, it didn’t bring about viably attestable changes. The fact of the matter is: regardless of the constitutional arrangement “throughout the region, power is highly centralized around the president. “Africa’s current presidents may be term limited but by all accounts they have not yet been tamed” (Prempeh, 2008:110). They are literally above the law, control in many cases a large proportion of state finance with little accountability and delegate remarkably little of their authority on important matters (van de Walle, 2003:310). Presidents and their clients thus use the law to their advantage. Irrespective of their abundant presence the plethora of opposition parties rarely get elected into the national legislation, let alone take over power
Strangely, constitutional design has helped to ensure presidential dominance over the legislature, presidents extending nearly all non-legislative
Judiciaries across Africa suffer from many of the same handicaps that undermine legislative effectiveness. The finance ministry’s control of the treasury, which in many African countries has been reinforced by “cash –budget” laws, places the judiciary at the financial mercy of the executive (ibid: 118, Ellett, 2008, Odhiambo, 2012, Mzikamanda, 2007, Stokke et al. 2001:13). Due to the gross underfunding of the courts, chief justices often explore informal means of building the court’s influence with the executive in order to obtain the resources necessary to keep the courts functioning turning top jurists into politicians (ibid).
Moreover, even though a lot of African nations invariably claim that they delegate authority and share power, the reality is, the influential political elite isn’t only exceptionally a narrow one but almost entirely based in the capital city (van de Walle, 2003:310).Peopl
Overall, in such an environment where the judiciary has minimal independence and where there is a dearth in the rule of law and meaningful check and balance, “presidentialis
(Editorial Note- The NEVIS editorial team would like to thank Hiwot for her initiative. The section below is a continuation of what we have presented in NEVIS Review No 5)