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Call for African political system as liberal democracy fails Africa

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Picture: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS – A giant screen, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China July 1, 2021, shows Chinese President Xi Jinping singing the national anthem during a flag-raising ceremony at the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China. But for its intolerance of pluralism, China’s model that rewards merit rather than popularity and has seen the country successfully eradicating poverty and building a modern economy, is perhaps better than liberal democracy, the writer says.

By David Monyae

In the last few weeks South African university students have thronged the streets in protest. Among the issues at the centre of the protests include financial inclusion, academic admission and student welfare. South Africa has grown accustomed to these protests that have become almost annual ritual.

The beginning of each academic year is marked by student uprisings over the same issues. While the spectacle playing out in the universities may seem to be relatively trivial as it affects a small section of the South African society, it is a symptom of broader political delay and a dismal failure of our political system which just never seems to be able to deliver anything. It is a system that acts only when pushed. Which is why the students have to push it every year for their issues to be attended to.

What we are witnessing in South Africa is a microcosm of what has become a continental phenomenon. Africa is beset by dysfunctional political systems that have rendered the Continent stagnant. We need to urgently rethink how we govern our societies seeing as it is that our governance mechanisms, particularly electoral democracy, bequeathed to us by the West have failed to work.

The year 1990 marked a turning point in Africa’s political trajectory pregnant with the promise of a better future. While by that year only Botswana and Mauritius held regular multi-party elections, to date multiparty elections have become a norm in about 51 countries in the region with the exception of Eritrea, South Sudan and Somalia. These countries have been the site of violent conflict for much of their existence making regular elections almost impossible.

The three decades of the post-independence era leading up to 1990 were characterised by dictatorships of different varieties including military, one-party, one-man rule and in some instances monarchies. The majority of regimes did not subject themselves to periodic elections and the few who did, organised rigged elections, which kept the incumbent in power under a veneer of legitimacy. However, these regimes came under sustained local and international pressure to liberalise the political space and institute regular multiparty elections.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 saw the West insisting on electoral reforms in their former colonies as a condition to any form of co-operation especially development assistance. It worked like a charm. In the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, 46 African countries held 184 multi-candidate presidential elections and 207 multiparty legislative elections. Liberal democracy was seen as the best form of government and a possible panacea to Africa’s development crisis.

Political scientists like Francis Fukuyama celebrated the spread of liberal democracies as signifying the ‘end of history’ beyond which there will emerge no better form of government. Political liberalisation entailed a new social contract espousing public participation and ownership of the political processes, transparency and accountability in government, protection of human rights and tackling corruption.

Africa has been at it for over the three decades now. Elections have become part of our culture. However, we are yet to see the promises of liberal democracy materialise. More than thirty years down the line since the inception of democracy, Africa’s share of the global economy stands at a mere 3 percent. The Continent is still the global capital of poverty with one third of Africans (over 460 million people) living in extreme poverty.

Democratisation has not enhanced the ability of African states in delivering critical public goods such as health, education, energy, justice, security, and economic opportunity among other things. Inequality has become worse. According to some estimates, Africa’s top three billionaires command more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the population. This means that three people have more wealth than 650 million people. Corruption is rampant.

According to the 2022 Transparency International index, which measures the scourge of corruption, African countries make up five of the world’s 10 worst affected countries. Politicians and their hangers on commit corruption with impunity. Electoral democracy has also failed to deliver a peaceful Continent. As revealed in the 2022 Global Peace Index (GPI), Africa struggles with political violence over electoral outcomes, terrorism, state repression, civil wars, and military coups.

In countries like Zimbabwe and Kenya thousands of people have been killed, injured or displaced due to election-related violence. Many have rightly attributed the vices afflicting the Continent to leadership failure. But at the root of leadership failure is the system through which leaders ascend to office. Universal suffrage elections through which people are elected by the masses to leadership positions do not always guarantee that the most qualified person takes office.

Elections constantly deliver shockingly incompetent people to office to the detriment of our countries. The imposition of foreign political systems without due consideration to Africa’s historical and cultural context is the main reason liberal democracy has failed to take root in Africa.

It is high time African countries start looking at alternative political models like China’s, which has proved effective in delivering public goods. China’s model rewards merit rather than popularity, which has seen the country successfully eradicating poverty and building a modern economy, which has become the second biggest in the world after the US.

Chief among the strengths of the Chinese system is the stability afforded by its one-party system and the ability to plan long-term without alternation of different parties in office. Other advantages of the Chinese model include efficiency, curbing corruption, responsiveness to people’s issues and training of potential leaders. The personnel training has ensured that the leaders who assume power are familiar with the dynamics of governing. Perhaps the downside of the Chinese system is the inability to tolerate pluralism.

However, Africa does not have to import political systems and apply them uncritically. While borrowing other people’s ideas is fine, those ideas must be adapted to the African context. It is important to ensure that African history, culture and socio-economic conditions inform the choice of a political system. There is no point in blindly exalting a system that has consistently refused to work. It may be time to think beyond liberal democracy.

David Monyae is Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science, and Director of the Africa-China Studies Centre at the University of Johannesburg

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