By Chambers Umezulike
For the proponents of dictatorship as the best fashion of governance for Africa, most African countries are not yet matured for democracy. To them, democratic governance is expensive and economic development is a proviso for political freedom. They fortify their argument through mentioning the governance models and tantivy developmental progress of the United Arab Emirates and China (pseudo dictatorship). For the detractors of dictatorship, development that is not inclusive and a product of repression can never be sustainable.
Africa’s persistent developmental and leadership challenges have continued to accentuate a raging debate, over the best form of governance, for the continent’s political and socio-economic development. Regardless of the low economic development indicators, the continent has continued its predominant dependence on primary exports. In addition, most African leaders have been linked with acute prebendalism, corruption, human rights abuse, developmental-strategies-deficit, and exiguous political will to develop their countries. Most of them have assumed their leadership roles with limited training in the art and science of directing and effectively instituting policies of economic development, despite their resource-base muscle. As such, Africa’s poor development indicators have been primarily attributed to leadership crisis.
The democracy versus dictatorship debate is rooted on several paradoxical factors, both for their proponents and detractors. First is the actuality that some East Asian countries and a considerable number of countries in other regions, that were once considered Africa’s economic comparators in the 1960s and 1970s, were developed by leaders that used the elements of benevolent dictatorship. These leaders were in office between 1960 and 2000; and encompass Yew, Suharto, Mahathir and Park, amongst others. They stayed for few decades in office which ensured policy consistency and an elongated time for them to operationalize their development ideologies, tactics, and strategies. They also made use of strict maximalist strategies to enclose trade unions in a container to ensure predictable labor practices; ensure political stability; and institute birth control regimes to ensure that population explosion didn’t overburden development. For the latter, China and Singapore are shining examples. These leaders played significant roles in the socio-economic development and political emancipation of their countries through harnessing resources and ingenuity of their people for national development.
However, a counter argument to this is that, whereas East Asian countries made use of such governance fashion to develop or become industrialising/industrialised economies, Africa had an assortment of dictators/military rulers at the same time who failed to use arbitrary power to develop their countries. Examples encompass Obote, Sese Seko, Banda, Bokassa, etc. Similarly, for the proponents of dictatorship as a vehicle for the continent’s development, contemporary counter case studies include Mugabe, Museveni, and Nguema, amongst others. These leaders, under pseudo democracies, can be classified as dictators but have not used their peremptory powers to develop their countries while scoring high in several branches of bad leadership.
Secondly is the actuality that while democracy ensures political freedom, inclusion, equality, respect for the rule of law, and protection of human rights, it has been abused by most African leaders. Most of these leaders, such as Deby, Dos Santos, under pseudo democracies, have been amending constitutions to stay longer in power. As such, political power has become concentrated in one political party and finally in the hand of one leader, leading to power personalisation and repression of all forms of opposition. Africa’s democracy is also being characterized by weak electoral institutions, voting along ethnic lines, post-election crisis, rigging, thuggery, god fatherism, as well as other extremely reprehensible practices such as distributing moneys at polling booths during elections.
Furthermore, campaigns have been heavily monetized as politicians share all manner of food items and transport/domestic equipment to lure voters. As a result of this, politicians enter office to embezzle in order to prepare for subsequent electoral cycles. There is still a lack of mechanisms available for citizens to ensure accountability and transparency in the practices of political office holders or even hold them to account, with respect to their campaign promises.
By weighing the arguments and counter arguments for and against the both models of governance, one gets tired of the one that can actually work for the continent. Most African countries have highlighted that democracy finds it difficult to thrive where illiteracy level is high, institutions are weak, civil society is not organized, and in underdeveloped/developing countries. East Asian leaders used benevolent dictatorial power to put these elements in order before they transitioned to democracies. This was during the Cold War era, when the West was busy courting allies as against being a global watchdog for human rights and respect for the rule of law. Africa has lost such a window. At the same time, the world has changed and there is little space for absolute national dictatorships in the current world order.
Africa has the only option of democracy in today’s world. In this respect, it is imperative that the continent strengthens electoral institutions and demonetize politics through gross reduction of campaign costs and monetary benefits of political office holders. The latter will usher in disincentives for the wrong people to go into politics. The civil society has to be strengthened so as to expose governmental corruption, hold leaders accountable on their promises, conduct civic education to enlighten the populace, campaign for the respect of rule of law, and monitor the government on the execution of public policies.
Ultimately, to reduce the cost of governance on the continent, African countries should consider collapsing bicameral legislatures. Then, for improved political inclusion following societal fractionalisation, it is imperative that inexpensive devolution systems are established.
Chambers Umezulike is a Development Expert, Researcher, and Writer. He is currently a programme manager and lead researcher at Connected Development. He has a Masters in International Studies, Economic Governance, and Development from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. He has written 3 books including "Leadership, Policy and Economic Development in Nigeria and Singapore; a Comparative (1960 - 1990).” He also has 2 papers on learned academic journals, with a considerable number of articles on an avalanche of Africa’s political and socio-economic issues on several online platforms and offline newspapers.