African Democracy

dowdenGhana’s extraordinary election last December was not just about Ghana. Two decades after the return of multi party democracy to Africa – in some cases its arrival – first-past-the-post, winner takes all electoral democracy is in trouble in Africa. African states suffer all the usual disadvantages of electoral democracy; the sheer expense of elections, the temptation for governments to let loose the purse strings as they come up for re-election and the lack of continuity and experience among suddenly-appointed ministers.

Last year’s close-run election in Kenya took the country to the brink of disaster. At the same time in Zimbabwe the ruling party refused to accept the result and resorted to violence. In Congo in 2006, the $400 million election was a success but immediately afterwards war broke out between winner and loser on the streets of the capital Kinshasa. The leader of the opposition fled and is now facing charges at the International Criminal Court. Nigeria’s 2007 election was a crude farce. The Supreme Court recently confirmed the outcome of the presidential election but the courts are still to rule on other disputed results. This year the army stopped an electoral transition in Guinea after the death of President Lansane Conté.

Ghana’s election could not have gone the same way. Heavily financed and hard fought, the stakes could not have been higher. Neither candidate had a clear run. The ruling party fielded a candidate, a flamboyant lawyer, Nana Akufo Addo, who was not the choice of outgoing President, John Kufuor. The main opposition party fielded John Atta Mills, twice a loser and overshadowed by the charismatic former president, Jerry Rawlings.

The future of Ghana was at stake – not just in the usual way it is in elections but next year, the first of the country’s estimated 3 billion barrels of oil will come on stream. Floating on a wave of oil cash, the winner of this election could rule for a very long time.

In the first round none of the seven candidates won more than 50% of the vote and it went to a run-off between Akufo Addo and Atta Mills 21 days later. In the second round on December 28, one constituency, Tain in the Brong Ahafo region, was not able to vote because voting materials did not reach the polling stations in time. Again the result was very close – a mere 23,055 votes so the whole country had to wait a further five days while the 53,000 voters of Tain decided who would be the next president of Ghana.

All the ingredients were there for another post-electoral explosion. But although party militants clashed and armed men appeared at polling booths, the people stayed calm. The last votes were cast and Atta Mills declared the winner. Akufo Addo headed for the courts to challenge the result – but peacefully.

The success of Ghana’s election highlighted the factors that have caused election failure elsewhere in Africa. Both parties had ethnic bases but the two largest ethnic groups make up only 30% of Ghanaians. Parties have to reach out and make alliances among other groups if they are going to win.

There were no fears that the army would step in. Ghana’s army has been steadily professionalized since the days of military coups and remains firmly under civilian control.

While both parties cheated, their efforts did not swing the election. A nation wide electoral observer organization and vigilant journalism with scores of radio stations and a vibrant press, ensured that many scams were quickly exposed. And Kwadwo Afari Gyan, Chair of the Electoral Commission, was managing his fifth election. He is widely respected and cannot be bullied by anyone. Ghanaians trusted the system to work and it did.

Acknowledging the closeness of the race, Atta Mills invited leading members of the opposition to join his government and did not indulge in triumphal rhetoric. Maybe there is an example there for other African leaders.

Only two countries, Botswana and Gambia, survived as multi party democracies from independence into the 1990s, although in neither country had elections brought about a change of government. Elsewhere, African rulers set up one party states or were deposed by military rulers who ruled by decree.

No one would deny that citizens should choose their national leaders but is first-past-the-post winner-takes-all multi party democracy the most appropriate system for Africa?

The problem with the two party system in Africa is that most countries have many ethnic groups. In the United States and Britain the two party system grew out of civil war divisions but today it divides these countries along class and social divisions. Africa parties tend to be ethically based, dividing countries vertically. You can change your social status but not your ethnicity. A winner-takes-all system in Africa ensures that one group is in and can “eat” and the rest are left out. This is dangerous in young nations that contain several old societies – Nigeria has some 400 ethnic groups.

And look at traditional governance in sub Saharan Africa. With one or two exceptions they tended to have democratic checks and balances against absolute power. They were also consensual by nature, avoiding the sort of term-limited absolute power that majority rule systems grant rulers in Western democracies. Set in pre-independence Congo, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, highlights the problems many African societies have with Western democracy. “To the Congolese it seems odd that if one man gets fifty votes and the second forty-nine, the first one wins altogether and the second one plumb loses. That means almost half the people will be unhappy and… in a village that’s left halfway unhappy you haven’t heard the end of it. There is sure to be trouble somewhere down the line.”

To this day unity remains a strong theme in African politics. The more people a leader or a group gathered into itself, the stronger it was. Negotiations may be endless, wars broken off and resumed, fudges made, people bought but the aim is always unity. Permanent and critical opposition does not sit comfortably in African states. The official leader of the opposition often has no role. Many go into exile or stay quiet between elections, preferring to waiting and plot for the next election than try to win the argument in open debate or parliamentary maneuvers.

The usual response to such problems is to say democracy is a bad system but find a better one. Or, from patronizing outsiders: “these are young democracies – give them time.” No one says that about African football tactics or driving a car. Elections are not rocket science. The problem is deeper than organizing elections and it is time it was recognized – not as a failing but as an opportunity to develop an African democracy suited to its society, history and culture.

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9 thoughts on “African Democracy

  1. Very interesting analysis. What does this mean for the prospects of “replicating” western-style democracy in Sub-Saharan africa? Are we talking about hundreds of political parties representing all ethnicities? Or accepting that the game that predicates that whichever ethnicity access power will eat while in power — and the others will do so as well, but only when they manage to access power in their turn?

  2. As an African Academic in the west, this is the 1st piece of analysis that I feel begins to truly look at the problem of implementing a liberal democracy and elections in Africa. 

    Africa needs to develop its own brand of democracy that is best suited for its diverse people. The western Liberal Democratic model plays a significant role in developing this model of African democracy but it should not be taken in its entirety.

    Nice work

  3. I wonder what the author thinks of Somaliland’s seemingly successful model of melding clan politics with liberal democracy.

  4. Somaliland is indeed a very important positive example.
    That is the reason why many foreigners and virtually all African states try their utmost to ignore it, and to pretend that it not there.

  5. I’ve only been to North Africa, and never sub-saharan Africa… but I’ve travelled all over Latin America.  I know it’s not the same, but there are certain elements that would be the same… large uneducated populations, large amounts of poverty, multiple political parties and very corrupt governments.  It’s true that in many cases democracy doesn’t work well since in order for democracy to work the society has to adhere to a certain morality (a belief that lying and dishonesty are wrong and that fairness and justice matter) and the society is not tribal. 
    I respectfully disagree that the political parties in the US are aligned by class and social divisions.  Its far more likely now that the two parties are defined by philosophy… government knows best vs people know best.
    Anyway, very interesting article. Thanks.

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