Monday, December 17, 2012

NEVIS REVIEW NO 6 , Section I,Ref # 6.1

Section I
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,
­ the political as well as the economic environment in Africa was not conducive for them. Owing to this, when African nations adopted these alien principles they simply became democracies without being democratic.

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,­ the grave mistake of planting democratic norms under the protest setting was committed. The byproduct of democracy that was achieved during freedom hence emphasized on unquestioned consensus as opposed to tolerance, on blind loyalty in contrast to self expression, on a myriad of group identities and not on individual rights and on political boundaries, strict dos and don’ts but hardly on procedures (Chazan, 1994: 17). This inevitably happened because democracy was instilled in an environment of resistance. As Namoi Chazan precisely expressed it, democracy in the African arena most frequently appeared as the political culture of “counter hegemony”. Such sentiments tainted its prospects in thriving right from the start. Elaborately:

“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” major measures were taken to transform African nations from single party authoritarianis­m to multiparty democracy. Evidently, satirical titles in the likes of “president for life” were abolished via constitutional term limits for presidents. Legal institutions, parliaments and periodic elections became the norm rather than the exception. However, appearances can be deceiving as the changes were more cosmetic than real. Even nations that appeared democratic at first glance were characterized by “democratic rollbacks”, “democratic recession” or “democratic reversals”. Once elites got foothold of the state, they regressed to the personalized way of ruling just like the regime that preceded them ( Lynch and Crawford, 2011:278-282, Diamond 2008: 36-48). Hence, the predatory and neopatrimonial nature of African states made the established institutions ceremonial with no apparent functionality. Yet again, attesting to the strangeness of African politics, African nation’s integrated two types of systems popularly believed to be incompatible. Therefore, the supposedly rejuvenated African nations simply became wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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 constitutional and statutory office. In addition, the power “to originate legislation including the all-important national budget is the exclusive prerogative of the executive in nearly all African constitutions; the legislature’s role is typically limited to approving or rejecting (but not amending) the executive’s budget and legislative proposals” (Prempeh, 2008:115).

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).Peopl­e are given political space, not to integrate them into the democratic polity but to separate them from meaningful participation at the national level; the granting of local authority is not a liberty but a constraint (Ibid) . Such systematic alienation underlines the confinement of local people and their disenfranchisem­ent; in reality initiatives and directives flow from the central to the local government in a strictly one-way traffic (Ake, 1991:37).
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, “presidentialis­m” (van de Walle, 2003) or in other words, “personal rule” (Jackson and Rosberg, 1984) grew to dominate post 1990 African politics. “Webs of personalized circuits of distribution reciprocated with clientelist loyalty, created a honeycomb of networks by which the ascendancy of the ruler was maintained”(You­ng, 2004:35). Genuine concern for societal well being and free and fair elections were pushed to the sideline and democracy became a mere tomfoolery. When all is said and done, it is easy to deduce, the narcissistic and predatory African elites “have generally found little incentive to initiate reform beyond those limited rule changes deemed necessary to restore democratic accountability and placate external financiers” (Prempeh, 2008:111).
(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)