African Democracy – Writing history as it unfolds
At the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, forty-two out of forty-seven Sub-Saharan African countries had authoritarian regimes without seriously competitive elections. By 1994, not one had a one-party state, and thirty-eight had held competitive elections. Historians of post-colonial Africa have inevitably been preoccupied with attempting to explain how such a rapid ‘wave’ of democratization swept across the continent in less than a decade. However, writing a ‘history’ of this recent process of democratization – a process still underway as I write – presents a set of unique challenges for the historian.
Western ideas about democracy
Both academically, and in the media, there has been a tendency to use western, liberal democracy as the yardstick by which the ‘success’ of projects of African democratisation should be judged. For example, it is often assumed that high voter-turnout in multiparty elections in Africa must be indicative of corruption, or ‘ballot-stuffing’. Yet such assessments are being made from the vantage point of ‘mature democracies’ that have been in place for hundreds of years. The voter turnout in UK general elections has not been higher than 70% since 1997, and the last time it was higher than 80% was in 1951. Voter apathy is, largely, a phenomenon of ‘mature democracies’ of the ‘west’, which are assumed to be universal models. Ballot-stuffing has been seen in elections across the African continent. Ghana, is consistently ranked as one of the most democratic countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, using international metrics of ‘free democracy’. Ghana’s elections in recent years have consistently exceeded 80% turnout; high voter-turnout is not necessarily indicative of political corruption in the Sub-Saharan African content. Comparing African democracy with the democracies in Europe can lead to distorted perceptions of ‘failure’, when processes of African democratisation take place in different spatial and temporal contexts compared to Europe. Political systems that are described as ‘not free’ according to international assessments of democracy are often overwhelmingly not Christian, and not majority white. Historians, and political scientists, commenting on the process of African democracy must therefore challenge assumptions about the universality of the Euro-American experience of democracy.
Debates about the extent of democracy in Africa have been implicated in accusations levied at China of ‘neo-colonialism’ in sub-Saharan Africa. Western commentators have accused China of using its economic interests in Sub-Saharan Africa to act as a ‘neo-colonial’ power. Yet, Stephen Chan has argued that, although China is often constructed as the enemy of democracy in Africa, offering leaders a ‘get-out-clause’ when western support is withdrawn in response to perceived illberal political practices, the west was often not doing much to actively promote democracy in the first place. However, we must ask – why should countries in Europe, or Asia, be involved in the democratization of the continent. Why can there not be African solutions to African political problems?
Dominance of political science
Studies of the process of democratization in post-colonial Africa tend to be stats-heavy.
There is a bias towards the institutions and mechanism of democracy, such as election results and continent-wide statistical comparisons, for instance, of how many political parties operate in each country. These statistics tend to tell us a lot about who is in power, but little about how democracy has developed ‘on the ground’ and is perceived by ordinary Africans voting in these elections.
Furthermore, much of the literature – aside from works such as Nic Cheeseman’s ‘Democracy in Africa’ (2015) – tends to take the form of contemporary political analysis. An article on my course reading list, written in 2003, for example, expresses a tentatively optimistic view of Kenya’s political future, as in 2002 the National Rainbow Coalition took power, displacing KANU and Daniel arap Moi, who had been president from 1978, ending decades of dominant-party rule. However, within 4 years, violence erupted after the 2007 election saw 1,133 people left dead and over 600,000 displaced. It is hard to make historical judgements on the ‘progress’ of democratization when it is a process that is both ongoing, and evidently non-linear.
It is also difficult to make conclusions about ‘African democracy’ when the impact and implementation of democratic political structures has varied considerably across the continent, and has taken place in hugley disparate contexts. Tools used to measure the ‘quality’ of democracy in Africa, such as the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, center around the comparison of political systems within Africa, rather than against western models. Whilst Seychelles topped the rankings in 2017 with a score of 73.4/100, South Sudan scored just 20.2. Even though the report concluded that at least ⅓ of countries were driving towards overall improvement in governance in 2017, there is evidently still significant variation in this progress.
Researching the history of democracy in postcolonial Africa presents unique challenges to the modern historian. How can we assess African democratization without using western metrics of ‘success’? How can we make historical conclusions when the impact and course of the process of democratisation is yet to be seen?
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