on the spot and compete over who has come up with the most humorous skit. Democracy in many African countries looks like improvisational theatre, where various political actors are scrambling and
scampering to see whose performance of the borrowed democracy is more comic. The problem is that
the actions and non-actions of these figures grossly affect these countries’ citizens.
The end of apartheid and emergence of democracy in South Africa coincided with a new wave of
democracy in many African countries. After two decades, these African countries are still
struggling to stabilize their democratic institutions, while citizens are yet to gain any
democratic dividends. The 2016 Afrobarometer survey from 36 countries showed that the majority of
African citizens have low trust in their democratic process. This is because democracy has been
reduced to merely an election competition.
In 2016, 18 African countries held a general election, while in 2017 there are at least 9 major
elections. Among these are Rwanda, Kenya, Angola, Liberia and Democratic Republic of Congo. The
dynamics of democracy in Africa make one question the type of democracy Africans are implementing.
Whose democracy is it? How is the democratic process that is introduced to a country compatible
with and adaptable to the needs of the people? Simply put, where is the social contract in African
democracy? Let’s examine the some key countries scheduled for major elections in 2017.
On August 7th, Rwanda’s sitting president, Paul Kegame, won election for a third seven-year term by
98.63 percent, in what he called a “formality.” There was no serious opposition as any potential
opponent is disqualified. Shall we call this democracy? Kagame has transformed the war-devastated
country, bringing in the much-needed stability and socioeconomic progress that has made Rwanda one of the success stories of Africa. But Kegame rules as an authoritarian through a controlled
election process. He has promised gradual relaxation of law and a restriction of opponents from
political participation going forward. We will have to wait and see whether he will follow through
with this promise. The bottom line is that the majority of Rwandans are happy with their leaders.
Compare Rwanda, an authoritarian democratic country with a developmental approach, to countries
After completing her full two terms as president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is expected to hand over
power to whomever wins the election in October 2017.
Currently there are four major contenders, led by former international footballer George Weah.
After two civil wars that devastated the country, Liberia’s return to democracy has enjoyed
relative political stability. Ellen Johnson has garnered a lot of international praise and
accolades, including a Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011 for her non-violent activities for women’s
rights and for navigating Liberia from civil war and the Ebola epidemic. Despite this recognition
and a high growth rate, the country’s poverty, literacy and access to healthcare remain as major
challenges. Even though Liberia scores higher in democratic ratings, its socioeconomic index is
very low. This does not mean that the low socioeconomic performance is because of democracy, but it
persists despite democracy. The few remaining authoritarian countries in Africa – Zimbabwe,
Eritrea, Uganda, Cameroon - are not doing well either.
Since humans are not angels and Plato’s proposed system of philosopher-kings is an out-of-reach
Utopia, democracy is viewed as the best political system for us flawed humans. Evidence from the US
and countries of Western Europe has shown that democracy can work. But it remains a big challenge
in some countries. There are many factors that could explain the problems facing the new wave of
democracies since the 1990s. I attribute the challenges of the democratic process in Africa to the
way it was exported or imported in these countries. On the one hand, the West, led by the EU and
the US, exports democracy in many countries just as structural adjustment program were exported – a
one-size-fits-all method that does not recognize local characteristics. On the other hand, African
authoritarians also tend to import one aspect of democracy – election processes - to gain favor and
legitimize their perpetual hold on power. This behavior is drawn from an erroneous assumption that
has been institutionalized as truth - that African traditional institutions and values are not
compatible with democracy. Hence, the perceived need to eliminate or ignore local
institutions and the social contract when introducing democracy has continued to sustain
neo-patrimonialism. The consequence is a political system that breeds more chaos, suppresses its citizens, lacks accountability and thrives on mismanagement of public goods.
We forgot that the modern Western democracies do not all operate in the same way. Each country
adapted organically to its own local structure. For example, the US became a presidential republic,
which was seen as most suitable for its context. The UK operates under parliamentary monarchism
that allows it to retain its old and cherished traditions. On the other hand, Switzerland is a
direct democracy that allows autonomy to municipalities and cantons. Until countries began
promoting a type of democracy that emphasizes local context and structures within a social
contract, as has been done in the EU and elsewhere, democracy will continue to erode many
developing countries, especially in Africa.