A difficult moment for democracy: There is hope Part 2

According to Freedom House democracy has been in recession for the past 15 years globally. A bit concerning for many of us. Admittedly democracy is not necessarily the ideal framework of governance, but it is the best we have to date. There are concerns to do with the resurgence of coups across Africa, rising intolerance of diversity and of dissent and exclusive nationalism. In many parts of Africa election results are routinely challenged as not reflecting the will of the majority. Reports of arrests and torture of human rights defenders and governance activists has become part of daily reporting.

What shall we do? First things first- what if we are not naming the problem adequately? Yes, it is a problem of democracy- the constitutional type (see Part 1). However, the convulsions that we are seeing have to do with consumption and accumulation patterns. There are protests there and there about the failure to run elections properly. However, most of the protest that we mapped (https://africacitizenshipindex.org) have to do with poverty, jobs, corruption, policy brutality and rarely about elections or broadly democracy. Are these issues unrelated to democracy. Perhaps, instead of focusing on increasing authoritarianism- what if we asked ourselves, ‘what else is happening in these countries where democracy is failing?

Could it be that they are the same countries associated with weak to non-existent economic growth? Everyday citizens rarely come out to say we are defending democracy (except maybe in America after the threats on Capitol Hill). In many instances citizens come out in protest over the failings of the economy and specifically name the problems ranging from lack of jobs, increasing cost of living, lack of access to affordable health care, their security etc. On the face of it all these are problems of the economy and not necessarily the political system in place.

Could it be that democracy has been let down by the economic framework- especially the free market economy. Many countries that are going through various types of economic crises- have also found themselves confronting governance challenges that spring from how governments respond to citizens mobilization (protests) or realization on the part of ruling elites that they may lose an election due to the failings in the economy. What then shall we fix, democracy or the economy? Others may say both. For many of us in Africa we have been seized with the infrastructure of democracy, developing, and adopting new constitutions, ensuring separation of powers, establishing independent commissions, developing frameworks for the achievement of civil and political freedoms. Admittedly the process has been uneven, but we have made progress. At some point the continent had managed to ‘silence the guns’ in terms of eradicating or reducing incidences of armed civil conflict and to agree on a consensus against coups. There is strong democracy-oriented infrastructure within the African Union (AU).

However, challenges persist. Could it be that we have not paid sufficient attention to the attendant existing weakness within the economy. It is important to state that democracy has always been promoted together with a free market economic model. Most African countries carried out thoroughgoing economic reforms to align with free market thinking. Things got worse. Many jobs were lost in the civil service- it was argued that African governments had bloated bureaucracies- so they carried massive retrenchments and, in the process, rendering these bureaucracies ineffective. The small delicate steps towards industrialization were crashed due to the insistence for liberalization of trade and removal of tariffs. Retrenchments and company closures were the order of the day. For some reason the same period was also associated with the growth of rapacious greed and corruption on the part of the political class. They moved from one scandal to the next- literally emptying state coffers and selling off strategic assets to ‘investors’ at rock bottom prices as part of the privatisation drive. The three decades of the free market have been nothing but disastrous for many. The benefits from the cited economic growth have not been widely shared. Instead, there is a new Yacht and private planes owning elite thinly spread across the continent with properties in Dubai and offshore bank accounts. The middle class (driver of growth) has been thoroughly destroyed.

There was a brief hiatus- when China was growing at a breakneck speed. Many African countries benefited (in a limited way) due to China’s huge appetite for natural resources and agricultural products from Africa. However, China has since put brakes on its growth trajectory. Commodity prices have collapsed once again. And we are in an unprecedented economic crisis that is not only multifaceted but is taking place alongside and within the global economic crisis. The protests and civil unrests are back including military coups. Could this be an inflection point for both the economy and democracy here in Africa?

What shall we do?

Fixing democracy requires us to acknowledge its umbilical cord like relationship with the economy. It is also an egg and chicken relationship-there is no clarity on which one should happen first. Others say fix democracy and the rest will sort itself. We have tried that and yet both are in disarray. Maybe let’s focus on simultaneously fixing both. Note that I am using ‘we’ and ‘us’ because I don’t believe this a project that can be handed over to governing and connected business elites. Citizens need to be engaged in the same as we have been in the struggle for democracy.

There is an urgent need for a rethink on the characteristics of the economic model that will work. A foreign direct investment model will not work. African economies require to urgently integrate value chains. Many countries depend on the export of primary commodities with no value addition despite the various studies that have demonstrated that this has ensured our continued impoverishment. Our agitations should be for the establishment of industrialization and innovation funds that are managed transparently. In the interim governments need to come up with a more effective taxation system. Africa continues to lose over $20Billion annually through illicit financial flows. In many instances what is derogatorily referred to as the ‘informal sector’ is the equivalent of the cottage industry in other countries except that in many African countries players in this sector have never received an incentive from their governments. Yet the same sector has potential to be the largest employer countries beset by low levels of industrialization. However, we continue to shun it and keep it out of formal financial circuits. There are many other low hanging fruits and long-term suggestions for fixing the economy.

There is an urgent need for working economies that can address issues to do with increasing unemployment, inflation (erosion of incomes), weak social service delivery, and unjust patterns of economic extraction and accumulation. The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate but can summarized in one word- COLLAPSE. We cannot fix democracy when the economy is in disarray.