African democracy: A glass half-full

Representative government is still on the march in Africa, despite recent hiccups – Published on The Economist, March 31, 2012.

WHICH way will African politics go? The way of Senegal, where the president conceded electoral defeat on March 25th to a younger rival, extending a democratic tradition unbroken since independence in 1960? Or is nearby Mali a more troubling bellwether? A few days before Senegal’s vote, junior army officers stormed and looted the presidential palace in the Malian capital, Bamako, abruptly ending a 20-year stretch of democracy that had raised hopes for the wider region (see article) … //  

… Yet the poor, illiterate electorates of many African countries are obviously keen on handouts, and thus easy to manipulate. Election violence has also become more common. Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe saw serious clashes after their most recent polls, driven by longstanding ethnic and sectarian rifts.

All these came to a more or less swift end, unlike Africa’s civil wars of previous decades. Political progress during the next decade may be slower than in the past one. The easy post-cold-war advances have been made. Reformers must now set their sights higher. Ensuring better governance by building firm institutions is harder than putting ballots in a box.

Reformers have plenty of reasons to be hopeful, among them the growing sophistication of opposition groups. These used to be a mess—divided, undemocratic and starved of resources. One observer called them “the skunks at the democratic zoo”. Many are still hopeless, but some have learnt that discipline can put them within striking distance of power. Zambia and Senegal are recent examples.

Opposition parties also benefit from the general absence of ideological fault-lines in African politics since the demise of Marxism. More than in the West, voters there are swayed by evidence of individual competence, not party affiliation. This is useful for hungry opposition members competing with complacent governments. Africa’s high birth rates produce a pool of young voters who are more likely to take a chance on political newcomers. In many countries a president or party can win office even where all the supporters are under 30, so long as polls are fair.

At the same time, impressively high economic growth rates in many African countries have fuelled a communications explosion. Political campaigns need no longer depend on government-owned media or the ability to travel to far-flung places. They can reach voters directly and remotely via the internet and, especially, the ubiquitous mobile telephone. They can expose political skulduggery and also tabulate poll results instantaneously, making fraud easier to detect. In Nigeria’s 2011 election, tens of thousands of monitors recorded local results and fed them by text message into a central system run by volunteers. Devious governments have to invent ever more complicated and hence less effective ways of manipulating results.

The lack of voter data is a costly obstacle everywhere. Most Africans have no identity documents, so electoral rolls often need to be drafted from scratch for every poll. In Congo the government spent more than $500m on elections last year, making them the world’s most costly after America’s. High rates of illiteracy and a lack of capable institutions do not help. In Sierra Leone’s border regions, officials judge who should get a voting card by listening to people’s accents.

But setting aside the quality of African democracy, all but a few of the continent’s 1 billion people now expect to vote in regular national polls. That is something which 1.5 billion Asians, for all their impressive economic performance, cannot do. (full text).

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