The Democracy and… series

There is a new consensus, democracy is on the decline and authoritarian regimes are consolidating, expanding and exercising solidarity with each other. Could this be the moment for a post-democracy compact or the reinvention of democracy?  A lot has already been written about this subject- see for instance the Pew centre report on dissatisfaction with democracy here . According to the Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the 2020 global average score for democracy fell to its lowest level since the index began in 2006. The same report cited above provides a snapshot of global patterns as follows.

…only about half (49.4%) of the world’s population live in a democracy of some sort, and even fewer (8.4%) reside in a “full democracy”; this level is up from 5.7% in 2019, as several Asian countries have been upgraded. More than one-third of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule, with a large share being in China.

In the 2020 Democracy Index, 75 of the 167 countries and territories covered by the model, or 44.9% of the total, are considered to be democracies. The number of “full democracies” increased to 23 in 2020, up from 22 in 2019. The number of “flawed democracies” fell by two, to 52. Of the remaining 92 countries in the index, 57 are “authoritarian regimes”, up from 54 in 2019, and 35 are classified as “hybrid regimes”, down from 37 in 2019.

However, many writings including the reports cited above do not adequately interrogate how we got here. There is a need for an urgent and a somber reflection in order to move forward. There is an ongoing project of examining present day challenges of democracy across the world, see for instance the work of Freedom House, Kettering Foundation, and many others. The overall concern in most of these platforms is based on the real decline in the number of countries that fit the tag of being called a ‘democracy’. In Africa, the concerns around the collapse of democracy are manifest in at least three ways- the return to military led coups, the entrenchment of one-party rule through manipulations or mutilations to the constitution and subtle authoritarian creep using state resources to buy off the opposition.

There is an increasing number of surveys where respondents have confirmed their dislike for the current status quo around democracy due to corruption amongst the elites and failure of the state to equitably redistribute resources. According to the PEW Centre[1] most of the respondents from 27 countries believe that elections bring little change, that politicians are corrupt and out of touch and that courts do not treat people fairly. There are many explanations behind the decade long of processes of undoing the march towards democracy.

In Africa the Economist magazine notes the return of military coups as problematic and parks the problem at incumbent regimes, most of which claim to be democratic. These have brought neither prosperity nor security. Real GDP per person in sub-Saharan Africa was lower last year than it had been ten years earlier.  The Economists proceeds to argue that more people are dying in small conflicts than at any point since at least 1989. In Nigeria, schools have been abducted. When people lose hope that their lives will improve, they become impatient for change and the risk of coups and civil wars increases sharply.

Maybe the spectacular return of coups has not been adequately understood. There are two sides (nothing new right).  What is apparent to all of us is that civilian governments subjected to coups will have failed their citizens somewhat. In this instance these coups are a response to leaders who have personalized government and violated the constitution and made it seem impossible to remove them from office. The coups in this instance are seen as a popular response to authoritarianism. However, the post-coup arrangements do not necessarily point towards the deepening of democracy.  In countries such Niger and Burkina the post-coup regimes have reversed trade relations with France especially around natural resources. It is reported for instance that the coup in Niger may have a positive influence on economic development based on new terms of exploiting natural resources.

However, others such as Brian Kagoro, [2]Everisto Benyera and Sable Gatsheni, make the connection between the coups of the 1970s into the 1980s with those happening in present day Africa. They argue that the cessation of coups in the later 1990s into the 2000s was not necessarily due to improved conditions of democracy but rather the period coincided with the peak of the unipolar world- dominated by the United States. In this regard the contestations for spheres/territories of influence had dissipated. The resurgence suggests a renewed and frenetic for territorial influence and natural resources. However, it is also true that these coups are not being manufactured and led by foreign intelligence services like in the past.

Another point to be made about this moment is the fact that Africa as a continent has all along been engaged in what has been referred to by others as ‘isophormic mimicry’. This has been explained as a technique in which governments create the outward appearance of highly functioning development institutions to conceal their dysfunction. It has at times been limited to development but there is a growing realization that the institutions to support/enhance democracy face similar challenges. Institutions such as the courts and elections commissions either do not have necessary autonomy or sufficient capacity to enhance democracy. Most of the so-called democracies in Africa are cheap imitations. The main challenge has to do with limited constraints not the Executive branch of government. Usually, an effective judicial system and a strong civil society provide balance to powerful executive branches. But these have been severely eroded over the years. In many African countries, though, rulers allow the opposition to participate in elections but take a thousand precautions to ensure they cannot win, from tampering with the voters’ roll to throttling the media. No fewer than nine African leaders have been in power for more than 20 years. It is hard to expect people to support democracy if all they have experienced is a masquerade of it. In some instances, the preferred term is backsliding of democracy. The causes are usually the same, increasing inequality, an insensitive political elite, populist politics without delivery of public goods and collapse of the development project.

There is an urgent need for conversations and broader mobilization to reset the movement towards inclusive democracy. As noted, the version of democracy that was brought into Africa has been inadequate. Perhaps its biggest weakness is the failure to create a strong connection with the economy beyond the assumptions of market led laissez- faire type of growth, it remains captured by the dominant elite and is subject to manipulation. Furthermore, it has, without intent, led to demobilization of citizens- in many instances the achievement of universal suffrage was viewed as the sine qua none of democracy-yet it should have been as only the beginning. What must we do? In this ten-part blog series I explore ways towards recovery of the democracy project. The main argument is that legislating for multi-party politics and holding regular elections is not enough but probably just the first step. Democracy is a way of public life and not an event. Measuring whether an election is free and fair whilst necessary it also not an adequate measure of democracy. It is a measure of elections. The two are not synonymous.  How then do we measure democracy? I make the proposal to apply three related measures to determine the extent to which a country is democratic; (i) the freedoms in the public space (AGORA), (ii) the intensity of citizen-to-citizen engagement in solving public problems and finally the extent to which elections are judged to be free and fair.

Bibliography

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/04/29/many-across-the-globe-are-dissatisfied-with-how-democracy-is-working/

[2] Africa Is Not Broke, Africa Is Broken | Brian Kagoro – YouTube

 
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